‘I felt like me again’: paralysed rider turned to driving home-bred Friesian after life-changing car crash

  • A rider who was paralysed in a car crash as a teenager wants to show others what is possible, as she competes in carriage driving with her home-bred Friesian.

    Faye O’Hara was 15 when she severed the nerves in her right arm and broke her ribs, pelvis, femur and collarbone when she was thrown out of the car in the accident. She also severed her spinal cord at T6/T7.

    “Life as I knew it was over,” she said. “But I want to share my story to show people what’s still possible.”

    Faye told H&H she had always loved everything about horses; her mother rides, and Faye was given her first pony aged five.

    “I absolutely loved it,” she said. “I started jumping and was very competitive, then I started helping with youngsters. I was brave and loved challenging horses. When I was 13, I got my own youngster to back, and when I was 14 or 15, I started going out with friends.”

    All Faye remembers of the immediate aftermath of the accident is seeing blue lights and hearing emergency service workers on walkie-talkies.

    “Then I woke up three weeks later in hospital,” she said. “They’d had my family there three or four times to say goodbye.

    “I remember waking up and seeing the squares in the ceiling, and couldn’t move my arm or legs. They came down and said more or less that I wouldn’t walk again.”

    After three months in intensive care, eight months in hospital and rehabilitation in total including multiple operations, Faye “entered a new life as a wheelchair user with just the use of my left arm”.

    “It was a horrific time,” she said. “For the first four months, I was so poorly and delusional – I was on ketamine and morphine – that I didn’t really process what the hell was happening. I was in so much pain; it was like it wasn’t my life.

    “But when I got to the spinal rehabilitation unit, and saw lots of people in wheelchairs, I realised what life was about. I needed helping in and out of bed. When I got home, I realised ‘This is my life now and it won’t get better’.”

    Faye said she “went off the rails” a bit. Crushed by the realisation she would not ride again, she blocked horses from her life entirely.

    “Being told I would never ride a horse again crushed my heart,” she said. “Savannah, who I’d backed , was sold. I never got to see her again and that broke my heart. I’d jumped her the day of the accident. Everything had been normal and I was so proud of her, and then they had to sell her.

    “So I didn’t acknowledge horses at all. I totally blocked that world out as I couldn’t handle it – I didn’t want to handle it. I wasn’t going to be able to do it again and my best way of dealing with that was to pretend it wasn’t there.”

    During the next couple of years, Faye said, it was as if “something was always missing”. She had been encouraged to look into carriage driving by others, but “I thought it was just driving cobs down the road”.

    She tried a mounted session with the Riding for the Disabled Association, a charity she says is “brilliant”, but found that having enjoyed jumping, walking round without being able to use her legs or hold the reins was frustrating.

    “It wasn’t me,” she said. “It made me feel more disabled, if anything.”

    Then lifelong friend Janet Sykes recommended Faye try driving a little cob she had for sale. Faye found somewhere to adapt a cart so that she could get her chair up a ramp and into it, and she learned how to drive Isaac, the pony, while her mother and friends rode with her.

    She drove Isaac for a few years and enjoyed it, but wondered what else there could be.

    At about that time, Janet offered Faye the Frisian mare they had bought in the Netherlands, and asked if Faye would like her put in foal to her stallion Hessel.

    “Not knowing much about driving competitions, I wasn’t at all sure if I was going to be capable of driving such a big horse but I just loved the beauty of them,” she said.

    “When I started going to the para groups and said I had a Friesian foal, they looked at me like I was daft!” she said.

    After Majestic was born, Faye spent “the first month of his life playing with him in the field”, and building their bond.

    She also went to Escrick Driving Trials and met Pat Cooper, of North Eastern Driving Trials, and found Cumbria Carriages, as she searched for a vehicle.

    “I rang and said ‘I’ve got one arm and I’m paralysed and I need you to adapt a carriage for me’,” Faye said. “He said: ‘What?’!

    “But he made me a car winch and a frame that went over the carriage to pick me up and put me in. And Pat said ‘Let’s do this’.”

    Faye started competing with Isaac, at driving trials at Askham Bryan College.

    “Being back in the arena was absolutely amazing,” she said.

    And Pat also helped Faye use her bad arm; an initial operation had given her “a little twinge” in it, but otherwise Faye had not used it for 14 years. But Pat helped Faye put a sock over her hand, with a bungee on her wrist to use the rein on that side.

    “My first competition was November, four years ago, and I was crap!” Faye said. “I didn’t know where I was going and there was so much to get your head round, but it gave me something to work towards and I loved it.”

    By that time, Majestic had been broken to drive, after Faye had put in all the groundwork.

    “He’s like a dog; I can put the headcollar on him, I can do anything with him,” she said.

    “Everyone said ‘Don’t start driving him yet, he’s bad in traffic’ but after my mum and aunt had taken him a few times, I took him. We’ve had a few moments but he listens to me and I trust him.

    “Then everyone said I shouldn’t take him to his first competition. But I said ‘I’m taking him’, and I did, and it was fantastic. I’ve competed him ever since.

    “I sold the pony to an RDA group and carried on with Majestic. It’s very hard but he makes me feel like me again. He’s forward, young, a big horse – but he made me feel able-bodied again.”

    Faye and Majestic’s competition pathway has not been the smoothest; not only interruptions owing to Covid but last year she came off the carriage and broke her leg in two places. Then Majestic was found to have injured a ligament.

    She has since been driving a pony called Frankie, and hopes to drive both him and Majestic in competitions this year.

    “I have lots of plans and I think that’s how I deal with what’s happened to me, keeping focused and keeping doing things,” she said.

    “Horses are in your blood; they’re there, and it felt like I’d lost myself when I lost them. I used to do school and horses; it was everything about it and then I had my accident, and it was like I’d lost that as well as my legs. It was horrific.”

    Faye said one major thing she has found is that she had to do the pushing herself.

    “A lot of people are wary in a situation like mine but I say ‘I rode horses every day, I rode the dangerous ones and did dangerous things, but I broke my back in a car accident,” she said. “I won’t stop doing what I do because something might happen; everyone still gets in cars.”

    Faye says it has been a long road, but credits the “fantastic group of people” around her. She hopes to secure sponsorship and also become a motivational speaker.

    “Not just for people in my situation but able-bodied people too, who struggle with horses, or other things.” she said.

    “If you want something, not matter what, you can do it. It might be hard but it’s about problem-solving, and don’t let anyone tell you you can’t. Work towards something and make it possible; it’s only you who can make it happen. That’s my biggest message.”

    Faye shares videos of herself and Majestic, the “big dog who I love more than anything”.

    “I firmly believe you get from a horse what you put in and you need to build trust and understanding both ways, which takes time and patience,” she said. “This I have given him and no one will take that away from us. I now own six horses, but I do believe the love of a Friesian is totally like no other.

    “Friesians aren’t known for doing what I do but I’ll take him as far as I can. He will always be special – he dragged me out of a hole and made me feel like me again.”

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