‘Never, ever give up’: rider overcomes cancer, broken back and missing finger

  • A para rider who has overcome two spinal fractures, a missing finger and cancer to compete successfully in able-bodied as well as para showjumping has urged others to “never, ever give up”.

    Sarah Wicks lost a finger on her left hand and broke a vertebra in a horse-related accident five years ago, having already fractured her back in a fall when she was a teenager. While she was recovering, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

    The 40-year-old is now a successful grade III para showjumper, who was selected with her mare Avalon Mill to represent Britain at Pferd International München on 12-13 May.

    Having been placed in her para class on the first day, she was then invited to compete in the able-bodied classes, in which she was placed every day, then came second in the able-bodied final.

    “Everyone has down days but you just have to pick yourself up and get on with it,” Sarah, told H&H.

    “For a while, it felt like I was cursed; everything was going wrong, but the past two years, I’ve been having a whale of a time.”

    Sarah has been riding since she was two, but suffered her freak accident when she noticed the back leg strap of her then horse’s rug was undone.

    “It was banging on her hock and I thought I couldn’t leave it so I went to do it – and the strap got caught in the ring I was wearing,” she said.

    “The horse panicked and I was dragged across three acres, until it pulled my finger off.

    “I fractured my back, which put my pelvis out, dislocated my shoulder and was black and blue from head to toe – a bit of a mess really.

    “It was quite horrific at the time, but I’m just in denial about it and I carry on as normal!”

    Sarah was then diagnosed with cancer, for which treatment was successful although she still has to take medication and have annual check-ups, and her grandmother passed away.

    Last September, she had to have a hysterectomy when a tumour was discovered in her womb.

    “Without the horses, I don’t think I’d have got through it all,” she said. “I know people could say a horse caused the accident, but the rest; the cancer, losing my grandma who was like a mum to me; the horses got me through.

    “The doctors wanted me to have a year out, but I thought ‘no chance’! I was back on eight months later.

    “I have to take a lot of painkillers and treatments for all the nerve damage and pain, plus my shoulder sometimes dislocates while I’m jumping.

    “A big problem is that people don’t realise how much of an effect this has had on me, I think because I don’t look like there’s anything wrong and because my coping mechanism is to dismiss that I’ve got a problem and carry on without whingeing or feeling sorry for myself.

    “Those people who think ‘what’s wrong with her’ don’t see me in pain and struggling to even walk sometimes in the morning when my back has seized up. Sometimes I can’t even sleep. But I couldn’t cope without my horses.”

    Sarah said she was unable to recapture the bond she had had with the mare involved in the accident, but she has since found her “horse of a lifetime” Avalon Mill (Betty).

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    “She owes me nothing,” Sarah said. “I wouldn’t sell her if I was offered a million pounds.

    “She’s won more than I paid for her and we’ve been picked to ride for Britain three times. In Germany, she was jumping the one-star 1.15m class every day, and then we were leading the final till the last horse beat me!”

    Asked what she might say to any rider in any similar situation, Sarah added: “Just never, ever give up. Evie [Toombes, a fellow para showjumper] has a motto which is ‘Find a way, not an excuse’, and that’s absolutely perfect.”

    For all the latest news analysis, competition reports, interviews, features and much more, don’t miss Horse & Hound magazine, on sale every Thursday.

     This week’s edition (17 May) features a full report from Royal Windsor Horse Show, including all the showing, showjumping and dressage action. We go behind the scenes with the Household Cavalry as they prepare for the royal wedding, plus check out our interview with Irish eventer Padraig McCarthy.

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