If you’re relatively new to the dressage world, the name Sonnar Murray-Brown may not be all that familiar.
But seven years ago, in January 2009, Sonnar was poised for the young rider team, had a national title already under his belt, and the world at his feet.
The day after he won the young rider team test at Addington High Profile Show, Sonnar was a passenger in a car accident that left him with multiple crush injuries to both legs. Four years and 14 operations later, Sonnar was back in the game.
“There wasn’t really a plan B,” he tells me. “Every day was about getting better; we would have tried anything.”
Two years after his accident, his leg was still broken, with a painful external brace attached.
“The doctors had said I would never be riding again — my leg was locked straight.”
Sonnar and his father credit his recovery to Prof. Michael Saleh, who “changed everything” after a referral from a family friend.
After undergoing a rare and complex operation, and re-growing two inches of bone, Sonnar now has 90 degrees of movement in his right knee, which he describes as “more than enough to sit in a dressage saddle”.
He is almost metal-free, with just a few screws remaining to hold him together.
During his time off, his top horse, Tornado, with whom he won the 2008 elementary restricted title, was based with Sorrell Klatzko, until an injury brought ‘Finn’ back home. “We came back together,” says Sonnar, “starting with just a bit of hacking and then a little bit in the school.”
Making a comeback
He returned to competing with a bang in 2015 with his own Erlentanz, whom he found through a friend in Germany.
Together, they landed the advanced medium restricted title at this year’s winter championships, and picked up second to Charlotte Dujardin in the young horse prix st georges at Hartpury CDI in July.
Seven years after his accident, I catch up with Sonnar at the national championships – his first time competing at Stoneleigh since 2008.
“Every day when I wake up, even if I want a lie in, I tell myself, ‘Get your arse out of bed, because you can’,” he tells me. “I know what it’s like to physically not be able to get up.”
Training with the best
Sonnar has been training with Carl Hester since the latter part of 2015, and says he owes his success to the double Olympic team medallist.
“I could never have done it without Carl. He made me believe in myself and in my horse. I think most dressage riders feel the same way; nothing is ever good enough. When you trust someone, you believe them when they tell you it’s ok. I trust him 100%, so I can relax and listen. Carl calls Erlantanz a big show pony. If I can ride like him one day, I’ll be happy!” he jokes.
This evening, Sonnar will be last to go in the intermediate I music championship. With a cheeky glint in his eye, he admits he’s never ridden a kur before.
“I didn’t want to over-compete ‘Early’ — he’s a horse for the future, so I didn’t want to add mileage. I’d rather concentrate on training, and I just never took the time to do a freestyle,” he says. “We put this music together for the prix st georges at Somerford Premier League, but I didn’t end up doing it. Then I looked at the schedule for the nationals and thought, ‘Oh my god!’”
Having recently moved to a new yard in Newent, Glos, just a few miles from Carl, access to the yard and training is easier than before.
“If you want to be the best, you’ve got to be with the best. Everyone has been so lovely and welcoming,” he says. “It was a two-hour drive from my old yard, so it would be six hours in total for a one-hour lesson. But I’m not complaining!”
Complaining is not a word you associate with Sonny. He is bright, warm and perpetually cheerful.
This is star firmly back on the rise, and it couldn’t happen to a more humble and deserving rider.