A rider who was told she would never walk again, let alone ride, has overcome huge odds to return to the showjumping ring.
Aislng Byrne broke both hips, smashed her pelvis to pieces and suffered internal injuries, as well as breaking vertebrae, and a host of other injuries, when a friend’s horse fell on top of her in February 2018.
Two and a half years later, on 12 September, Aisling jumped her horse Wellview Lucy at her local equestrian centre.
“It felt so amazing,” Aisling told H&H. “I hadn’t really jumped anything [since the accident] but picked up the canter, saw a good shot to the first fence and thought, ‘This is it; I’m back.’ I loved it.”
It was emotional for all Aisling’s family and friends, not to mention herself, as the prognosis had not been positive.
She remembers everything about the accident; riding the horse back to the stable on the Sunshine Tour, and its being spooked by a tractor that went past.
“The horse reared, went too high and lost its footing,” she said. “I fell, opened my eyes and saw him coming towards me; I thought, ‘This is going to hurt.’
“I was lying there thinking, ‘Maybe it’s only bad bruising,’ but then I tried to move.”
Aisling spent nine days in intensive care, and did not realise the true extent of her injuries for some time.
“I remember one surgeon putting his head in his hands and saying, ‘So many fractures, what are we going to do?’ and me saying, ‘I’ve got faith in you; you can put me back together’, but thinking, ‘I’m having to give the surgeon a pep talk, that’s not good’,” Aisling said.
Doctors were concerned that Aisling’s foot had “dropped”, and she found out months later that she had also broken her S2 to S5 vertebrae, which explained the pain she felt on sitting down. She also suffered nerve damage.
“Of course my first question, like any horse person, was, ‘When can I ride?’ They said in no uncertain terms that I wouldn’t get back on a horse,” she said.
“That’s the loneliest feeling in the world, because you’re the only person who understands. If you’re used to going 100mph and you’re suddenly can’t get out of bed, it’s a bit surreal. I was a model too so everything was being taken away.
“But I figured that no one, not even the doctors, really knew what I would be able to do, as they had nothing to compare it with.”
Aisling said that the middle bit of her rehab, the long slog after her months in hospital, was probably the hardest, as she struggled with the most everyday tasks, such as getting into cars or crouching down to pet her dog; things she says she will never take for granted again. There were setbacks, such as infections, and she says she never knew how far to push herself, or whether she was making progress or not.
“People keep saying the time has gone so fast but it didn’t for me, it feels like a lifetime,” she said.
But she credits the “amazing” support of her family, friends, and all those who sent supportive messages, for keeping her going through hard times.
“So many people went on praying pilgrimages for me, and had Masses said; I was getting cards and flowers, and it meant so much. I can never repay everyone for their unbelievable support,” she said, adding that if she had had a bad physio session, for example, a card waiting for her afterwards helped keep her spirits up.
Having gone through the agony of not knowing whether she would be able to ride again, Aisling had recovered enough to get on her first pony some 18 months after the accident.
“It was amazing,” she said. “To be able to see out between her ears; I’d thought I’d never see that view again, I am so lucky. They had to use a forklift to get me on!”
Aisling was still in pain though, so she underwent a hip replacement in March, just before lockdown.
“It’s so much better; I hadn’t realised how much pain I’d been in,” she said. “They’ve done the hip and also tweaked my pelvis so I can sit straight.
“I’d first got on a horse after that about a week before the show, then the night before, jumped a few cross-poles. They were going to take a couple of horses to the show the next morning, and I said, ‘I think I’ll go’.
“It was at Mullingar, my local centre, with people I hadn’t seen for a couple of years, and everyone was so emotional.
“My lower leg doesn’t work as much as it used to yet but it was fab to jump clear; I was thrilled.”
Aisling now hopes to return, gradually, to the level she was at before the accident; she has jumped up to 1.40m level internationally. Although she knows there may be issues as the jump height increases, and she has to build up her strength again, “it’s all doable”.
She hopes her story may serve to inspire others who are in similar situations.
“I’m so thankful and blessed to be walking again, let alone riding,” she said. “I still get sciatic pain, and tired if I walk long distances, but compared to where I was, it’s nothing.
“I had one doctor who said ‘do what you can do’ but all the others were ‘no’. I think doctors don’t want to raise your hopes too high but I don’t think they should take them away completely.
The rider spent more than a week in intensive care after a horse reared and fell on her
‘I had to just watch everything burn to the ground’
“I used to say I didn’t want to hear what I couldn’t do, and if everyone listened to the prognosis all the time, there wouldn’t be any miracle cures.
“Horses are a great motivator to get back going. There’s no point sitting still and accepting you can’t do stuff; people need goals and they need dreams. Even if you don’t reach them, you’ll still have done better than if you did nothing at all.
“I don’t listen any more when people tell me I won’t be able to do things; the message I want to get out is that the human body is amazing. Keep believing, no matter what you’re told.”
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