A rider whose life changed in an instant when her vertebrae “exploded” wants to raise awareness of hidden disabilities, inspire others — and make people realise the impact their unkind words can have.
Jennie Sharpe was a 28-year-old prison officer and amateur eventer in December 2018, when she bent down to pick up a puppy. She went to hospital in agony and later found that she had cauda equina syndrome; certain nerves had become so compressed, they no longer function.
“I now can’t feel down the back of my right leg, my feet or my genitals, and my bladder and bowels don’t work,” Jennie told H&H. “My surgeon told me I probably wouldn’t walk again without a chair, and on Christmas Day, they told me I wouldn’t ride again.
“I told them, politely, to shut up and that I didn’t want their chair.”
Over the past three years, Jennie has undergone repeated surgery, and she is waiting for a colostomy bag, which will mean she no longer has to irrigate to make up for her non-functioning bowels.
She also suffers from chronic fatigue — “some days I struggle to get out of bed” — and had to give up her job, but was back riding within six months, and now showjumps and coaches others.
“Some days are harder than others; the tiredness is really bad and my body just flops so I don’t have much control over it, and my bladder and bowels mean I have accidents,” she said. “Without my mum, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it. I was brought up to just get on with things, and there’s always someone worse off.
“And also, 100% it’s down to the horses. It’s really hard work but it’s just that feeling, the thrill when you do it even when you think you can’t. I like to prove people wrong, as well as myself.”
Jennie has three horses; Extreem Forest, Hooligan van Vligenhof Z and Kanani TCS, the latter a promising seven-year-old with whom she has started jumping Foxhunters. She jumped her first international last year and hopes to jump at Horse of the Year Show — but she also wants to spread an important message.
“I had someone say ‘Let’s watch this fat t**t ruin another horse’ and someone else said ‘Look at the state of that’ when I rode in,” Jennie said. “I have a very good support system of friends and family but I did cry when I came out. It’s hard and it messes with your head when you’re just about to go in the ring. I just want people to stop and think.
“You don’t know what people have gone through at home, or to get to that show. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything.”
Jennie has also become an ambassador for the Cauda Equina Champions Charity, which means she will help spread the word, including by giving talks at schools.
“When I was first diagnosed, I felt alone and as if my life was over but it’s not, you just have to adapt and learn to do things differently,” she said. “It’s a daunting feeling, thinking you’re on your own. Even if someone’s reaching out on Facebook, make those connections.
“I don’t tell my story for sympathy, I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.
“I tell it because I’m proud. I’m proud of the person I am becoming. I am proud of overcoming the darkest days. I am proud of my resilience and strength, and if my one of my statuses helps one person that means the world to me.
“Sometimes the bad things that happen in our lives put us directly on the path to the best things that will ever happen to us.”
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