‘I saw my life disappearing in front of me’: how one rider got back in the saddle after a crushing fall

  • Dressage rider Fenella Ross shares her story of how she came back from a fall that broke her back to compete at the National Dressage Championships this September

    At the National Dressage Championships at Stoneleigh on 14 September 2017 Aberdeenshire-based dressage rider, 23-year-old Fenella Ross, achieved her dream and secured a top 10 placing in the advanced medium silver class aboard her horse Creatzo (Johnny). This achievement was Fenella’s first taste of national success which just 18 months before seemed an impossible feat after a life-changing riding accident.

    The fall

    On Tuesday 17 February 2015, just eight weeks before Fenella’s 21st birthday, disaster struck.

    “I was riding my four-year-old horse BB. We had imported him from Germany where he was backed and I had been riding him for two weeks before the accident,” she says. “That day I got on BB and we walked off and he just lost his mind. He turned himself totally inside out — he bucked and began to spin and I knew it was coming, I fell off landing on my back. I was awake the whole time, I just knew something was seriously wrong — I’ve had falls before, but this was unlike anything I had experienced.”

    Fenella was quickly taken to hospital and sent for x-rays — she had broken two vertebrae in her back.

    “I cried a lot. I was in shock and couldn’t believe it had happened. I was getting and losing sensation in my legs,” she says. “You hear you’ve broken your back and you just think, ‘that’s it over’.”

    The surgery

    “The neuro-surgeons wanted to operate because they were concerned if we didn’t there was a chance that the wedge could push into my spinal cord and sever it, leaving me paralysed,” she says.

    “The orthopaedic surgeons didn’t want to operate because of the risk of the wedge being so fragile so one wrong move in surgery would leave me paralysed anyway. They told me that I had to make the decision. My mum, dad and I talked for hours. I was told that no matter what happened I would be left with weakness and I would never fully recover, but that there was probably a higher chance that I would be left with a permanent disability if I didn’t have surgery.

    “Living an active life, riding horses, I wanted the best chance to get everything back. After a lot of stress, I decided to go ahead with the surgery.”

    Fenella underwent six hours of specialised surgery inserting two metal rods and four screws into her back.

    After release from hospital Fenella had to move back home with her parents and begin her long road to recovery.

    “They had to care for me; I couldn’t dress myself or shower myself. My mum had to do everything. For the next month or so I gradually upped from having two five minute walks a day to walking for half an hour in short bursts. I couldn’t put my own socks on which was so infuriating,” she says.

    Back to the yard

    The day after being released from hospital Fenella went to the yard.

    “I couldn’t wait — I just missed my horses so much,” she says. “My dad and boyfriend took me one evening and I walked round the barn and stroked them and went home again. I couldn’t risk them nudging or knocking me but I just needed to see them.”

    Naturally, Fenella had reservations on getting back on board.

    “From the minute I had my accident I said I wanted to ride, but maybe three or four months in I thought about quitting. Mentally it was very hard. My mum said it’s ok if you never want to ride again, but we would need to sell the horses. We have great horses and it wasn’t fair to have them standing there not doing anything and that quickly turned me around. I couldn’t sell them or not have them in my life. My dad found it a lot harder — he probably would have rather I never rode again.”

    Fenella made the biggest step in September 2015 getting back on board her trusted old 14.2hh pony Comet (pictured above), but moving forwards it wasn’t a smooth journey.

    “There was one day I was having a lesson on my horse Dondersteen. When I first started back riding I was confident, but then it seemed to go downhill quite quickly. He did nothing, he just jumped at something and I had a panic attack. At that point I thought I didn’t know whether I could carry on riding, I was so scared.”

    Fenella sought help from a hypnotherapist to try and regain her confidence.

    “I was sceptical, but at this point I was desperate. I couldn’t carry on as I was, I was petrified. It helped a lot and got me over the panic reaction.”

    Continued below…

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    In 2016 a further operation was required to remove the metal work that had been placed in her back when it became apparent something wasn’t right.

    “Not everything healed as it should have. It caused me so much pain despite the strong pain killers every day. I would go to bed crying in pain. The operation was another huge risk in case they re-broke the bones, or they could break the metal work. They tried to put me off, but I couldn’t go on any longer,” she says.  “Thankfully it was successful but it meant another eight weeks off riding. I then got back on and had to rebuild my fitness again.

    “The hardest test was getting back on BB. He was a young horse, not nasty – we don’t know what got to him that day, but these things happen.

    “For a very long time I didn’t want to ride BB again. I know the accident wasn’t intentional, but I just didn’t want to get on him. He was sent to a local eventer’s yard to get him going again while we decided what to do with him. We went to visit him and I fell in love with him again. He was like a different horse, he was happy and sweet.”

    Moving forwards

    “I got back on him the end of August 2017,” says Fenella. “He is now six and we did our first competition together about two weeks ago and won both our novice classes. There’s definitely a part of me that finds it quite tricky, but I’m going to trust him more,” she says.

    “I saw my life disappearing in front of me. I spent three days lying in hospital wondering if I was going to walk again, let alone ride. I look back on it now and my family and boyfriend were so incredible — I couldn’t have done it without them. It makes everything I do now that little bit better because I know how hard I’ve worked to get here.”

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