Rider who broke six vertebrae wins comeback run: ‘I couldn’t even lift a bottle of water’

  • A rider who broke six vertebrae last year scored a win on her comeback run at Aston-le-Walls (11 May). Alexa Palmer was out of the saddle for three months and has had a long recovery after her injury, but is now back on track with her competition career and business aspirations.

    Alexa, who runs her family’s Greenhays Stud at home in Dorset, was riding a young horse for someone else in the arena at home when the accident happened.

    “This horse decided he didn’t want me on board any more and I wasn’t going to stand a chance,” the 24-year-old told H&H. “It hit me hard, but I was really shocked so I jumped to my feet and walked away from the fall.

    “I got to the house and thought, ‘I’m just going to ice this’, like us equestrian people do. Then I started not to be able to keep my back straight, so I went to minor injuries and they sent me to hospital, at which point the pain had really kicked in and I was on morphine and lots of drugs. It was then confirmed that I’d fractured six vertebrae, cracked two ribs and damaged the ligament from my neck to the middle of my back.

    “I was lying in hospital for three days, flat, not able to eat because they might operate on my back. I was lucky on the third day they decided it was stable enough not to operate and I was sent home in a neck brace.”

    Initially, Alexa could not even lift a bottle of water and would struggle to hold a plate of food because her back could not take that weight. But she could walk so she was able to carry on her coaching business while wearing her neck brace, and walk to keep her fitness up, moving on to cycling, squats, lunges and working with weights.

    She went on: “I was out of the saddle for three months so all the horses were on holiday without anyone riding them and actually, it did them the world of good. They’d all been working really hard and since I got back on after the three months, they’ve gone from strength to strength.

    “Once I was back riding, I didn’t realise after each horse that I’d have to lie on my back and rest it because it got so tired, so I was only riding one or two a day at the start and doing more coaching. Now I’m finally back to full capacity and riding seven horse a day and coaching quite a few lessons.

    “Recovery takes a lot longer than you think it will and it’s frustrating when you can see everyone else going to events and doing things and you feel like it’s never going to happen. But it does, with patience. I’ve worked really hard on my fitness.”

    This is not the first time Alexa has had to fight to return to eventing as she also suffered a traumatic brain injury in an eventing fall in 2018.

    Alexa Palmer: ‘I have a horse I could work towards five-star’

    Alexa’s top horse is the 10-year-old mare Global Super Nova, by Numero Uno.

    “I bought her as a four-year-old with the profit from selling a home-bred horse, just as I’d left school, and I thought she was going to be a summer project before I went to university,” said Alexa, who holds a degree in business economics from Exeter. “But I never sold her – I didn’t have any intention of trying to sell her, because she was really awesome.”

    Nova is only “16hh on her tippy toes” and Alexa was unsure if she would even go to intermediate level, but she won her second event at that level, at Aston-le-Walls in July 2021, and proved her capability with repeated placings at the level. The pair then finished third in their first advanced, the under-25 class at Aston in July 2022, Alexa’s last event before her injury.

    “So now I realise I’ve got a horse that I really could work towards five-star,” said Alexa, who is aiming for the four-star at Aston-le-Walls in July this year and then Gatcombe’s British open championships.

    Aston-le-Walls has proved a successful venue for Alexa Palmer and Nova and was the site of their comeback win, in open intermediate section L.

    “Even though I knew that we were both in good form and had been training well, it’s putting it all together on the same day,” said Alexa. “I set out thinking hopefully we’d put everything into practice, but not with a lot of expectations and she was just so rideable. The whole day was amazing.

    “She warmed up nicely for the dressage and was really calm in the test. I was thinking that I could get more marks if I had ridden better, which is a nice thing to think after the dressage – she’s got a lot of potential. Then she jumped two fantastic jumping rounds and to finish four marks ahead of everyone was really good. She a cross-country machine.”

    The rider has also taken an embryo from Nova and is waiting for a heartbeat scan of the recipient mare, in hope of breeding a foal by last year’s Hickstead Derby winner Can Ya Makan.

    Alexa Palmer graduated during the Covid pandemic and in building her business has benefited from not only her degree, but also being part of the British Equestrian Young Professionals Programme and the Haddon Training Advanced Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence. She also now holds a coaching qualification from British Showjumping.

    “My dream is one day to make it to five-star — to get a young horse we’ve bred to top-level competition,” she said. “I also really enjoy coaching young people and people who are learning about the sport and wanting to progress.”

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