Stoneleigh stories: ‘The hardest part was admitting I had lost my confidence’

  • A rider who battled back from loss of confidence after breaking bones in two falls was “chuffed to bits” to compete in the Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) bronze league final at the British Showjumping national championships this week (3-10 August).

    Sarah Ashley bought her ex-racehorse Thomas (Fair Chance) straight out of training nearly five years ago, and it was the first time she has qualified for the final at Stoneleigh.

    The pair’s journey hasn’t been smooth as Sarah had two bad falls from the 17.1hh grey gelding, breaking her hip on one occasion and breaking ribs and puncturing a lung on another.

    “I’ve always retrained racehorses straight from the track and I have them for life — I love their enthusiasm, their energy,” Sarah said. “I got him from a very good friend of my dad’s, who trained him as a point-to-pointer. I was looking for a horse and they said they might have one that would suit me as he wasn’t going to make it as a racehorse.

    “He had legs as long as a model and a head carriage like a giraffe,” she added. “I had him on a three week trial, and after taking him clear round jumping locally, he might have knocked a few down, and it was all a bit untidy, but he was so keen, honest and loved it, that was it, he was paid for and mine.”

    Sarah said that to start off with, Thomas didn’t know how to trot properly and wasn’t the best of travellers, but his schooling and jumping was improving. Then, despite not “really being a bucker”, on one day he unexpectedly sent her flying and broke her hip, and she head to spent five months not riding while she recovered.

    “I took off, Easyjet would’ve had a job to keep up,” said Sarah. “I’d put up some exercises for him in the school to encourage him to jump properly and I had just gone into trot when he saw something and put in the most enormous buck — I was on the deck while he went round jumping the fences for 10mins without me!

    “Fortunately the neighbour could see from their kitchen window him going round and me not on him, and they realised there was a problem when I didn’t get back on.”

    A year after breaking her hip, Sarah then had another unlucky accident out hacking, when Thomas spooked at something flying out of the hedge and “did a 360” and she landed on a tractor rut, breaking her ribs.

    “When you’re younger you bounce better and you get up and get on with it, but this was the first time I ever started to worry about falling off,” she said. “He still had quite a way to go in his education at the time and you start to have doubts and feel a bit useless.

    “After the second fall I thought ‘do you know what, I’d have been OK if I’d have worn a body protector’, so I bought a comfortable one which I always wear now.”

    Sarah said that after her injuries, she would get nervous about jumping and sometimes on the way to shows would feel “physically sick”.

    “Everything suddenly seemed so much bigger,” she said. “I’d think ‘you used to really enjoy this’, but over time the nerves got less and less.

    “I think the hardest part was admitting I had lost my confidence — I joined a really good Riding Club and started doing all the clinics and found a really nice instructor. I think it helps if you have got positive people around you as well.

    “Now I don’t worry about anything, I don’t feel as though I have got to be out jumping 1.10m or 1.20m, we just have fun.”

    Sarah said that Thomas, who is now 13, had become a brilliant all-rounder who every one at the yard wanted to hack out alongside.

    “He’s such a good lead horse,” she said. “We do a bit of everything together — team chasing, eventing fun rides, dressage and show jumping.”

    The pair had one down in the RoR bronze league final, when Sarah “messed up on the way in to the double”.

    “I was really pleased with him, I had a great day and I’ll have to qualify him again next year now,” she said.

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