Rider who hit ‘rock bottom’ and was ready to give up found life and love thanks to her horse

  • “The best way to describe it is that I hit rock bottom — and then found out rock bottom had a basement. Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they did.

    “I remember looking at Monty, heaving a massive sigh and saying ‘I can’t keep going for me; I can’t do this. But maybe I can try for you’.

    “If it wasn’t for this horse, I wouldn’t be here. I know that with every fibre of my being.”

    Jess Day had planned for that evening to be her last. Having suffered frequent falls and pain, she was diagnosed with connective tissue disorder Ehlers Danlos syndrome (EDS) as a teenager.

    “I was always dislocating things; I assumed all children felt that pain, and it was normal,” Jess told H&H.

    “I was referred to a specialist, who said it was a really severe case of EDS type three. She said. ‘I’m really sorry but this is one of the worst cases I’ve seen in 20 years in such a young person’.

    “She asked what I wanted to do and I explained about the horses. She said: ‘Stop now. You’ll really hurt yourself and make it worse; give up’.

    “It was such a harsh way of saying it. She said I’d be in a wheelchair at the age of 25.”

    Jess “followed her dream” by studying equestrian behaviour and management at Myerscough College but her condition deteriorated rapidly and by the age of 19, she was a full-time wheelchair user.

    Before this point, she had suffered serious injuries when a horse she was riding fell backwards on to a fence so she lost confidence, and “as soon as I stopped riding, I deteriorated like you wouldn’t believe”.

    She bought Monty, a four-year-old part-bred Irish draught, in an attempt to regain her confidence.

    Picture by Samy Hillery

    “I had to explain to sellers that I was getting weaker and needed something steady,” she said. “I never expected to buy a four-year-old but saw his photo and something said ‘You need to look at him’.

    “The seller, Emily, was lovely, and it was the strangest thing; when I looked at him, it was like I knew him. I was so nervous after the accident but he stood by the mounting block for 20 minutes as I was crying and shaking. I walked him round and something said ‘This what you’re looking for’. I took him home and the rest is history.”

    Jess turned Monty away for six weeks, as she felt his multiple changes of home had worried him, and he came back better. But by this time mainly in her chair, she had to work with him sitting down.

    “I was planning to take my life at this time; I didn’t see a future for me without horses,” she said. “Being in that chair took everything away. One night, I’d planned it to be my last but I was looking at him, and thought ‘What happens to you, if something happens to me?’ He’s a bit strong and full of character, and in the wrong hands, he could have become dangerous. I hung on for him.”

    So Jess decided to live. She took steps to lose the weight she had gained, and started groundwork with Monty. She could take a few steps, but suffered constant dislocations, and when she was helped on to Monty for the first time, three years ago this week, “it was the most painful thing I’ve ever done in my lifetime”.

    “Everything in my body started to spasm,” Jess said. “My legs were shaking, and I was frightened, but he was like a rock, it was like he was saying ‘I’ve got you, what are you worried about?’ I cried and cried.

    “I got off him and into my chair and thought ‘I’ve got to keep doing this’. It was excruciating for months but I thought ‘I’m going to do this for you, because I can’t let you go, and I can’t let me go’.”

    Over the next months and years, Jess doggedly built back her strength — her condition means she builds muscle far more slowly than normal, and loses it more quickly — and her confidence.

    She now rides five times a week, for 45 minutes, which she says is her mental and physical therapy.

    “There’s no better healer than an animal,” she said. “I truly believe I was given Monty for this purpose. The pain is still there; I’ve got back the strength to walk but suffer with chronic pain daily. But even if I’m having a bad day, riding takes my mind off it, and on to what I’m doing.

    “This condition has no cure, no fix, but I hope that as long as I keep riding, I’ll be ok.

    “The wheelchair is always looming over me, like a black cloud, saying ‘Eventually, I’ll come back to you’. It’s a big anxiety but anxiety wants you to be afraid and isolate yourself. I just sit up a bit straighter and say to it: ‘Just watch me. I can do this’.

    “That’s the mindset I got on this journey and it’s what’s kept me going.”

    Jess started a Facebook page, Here Comes Monty, on which she hopes to help other people by sharing her experiences.

    “I get incredible messages and stories; people saying they’ve started riding again because they saw me and Monty, or their horses have got them through; it’s overwhelming, and it lifts me like nothing else.

    “The love of our horses is like a silver thread that connects us all. These people support me, and I can say: ‘Look at this. This is how bad things were, but this is where we are, and where we’re happy, and we keep going’.

    “I’ve got things so many people can relate to; I’m a novice rider, a nervous rider, a disabled rider, my mental health, and I’m a mad equestrian who loves everything to do with horses. I’m passionate about trying to take away different stigmas.

    “I’m writing a book too, and I hope the light I try to shine for other people in the dark can broaden the beam, to say to people: you can get through this.”

    Picture by Samy Hillery

    Jess thanked her “amazing” friends; instructor Cheryl Addison and her daughter Becky Walsh, as well as her “Cockney farmer” boyfriend Martin.

    But most of all, she is grateful to Monty.

    “That horse gave me life when nothing else could,” she said. “I owe him everything, and more. I’m convinced he knows that too; he’s so cocky.

    “He came out of nowhere and saved my life; I knew exactly what I was going to do that night; I’d even written to my mum and friends. But I believe this journey was given to me because I could handle it, and I feel I was given it to help others, and that’s all I want to do.”

    Jess, who has already won a dressage competition on Monty, intends to compete more, in dressage and showing, and also continue proving her doctor wrong.

    “I went back to the specialist last January and her jaw dropped when she saw me walk in.” she said. “She prodded and poked and asked what I’d been doing. I said riding, and she said she’d never seen a recovery like it.

    “But then she said ‘You know this will catch up with you’. I said ‘Just let it try’.

    Continues below…

    “I’m here now and I’m not going back; I’m living days I never thought I’d see, and I’m going to hang on with everything I’ve got for as long as I can. I’m not going back without a fight.

    “It would be an easy way out; when you’re having a bad day, it would be easy to give up, but somehow, that gives me more strength. I’m not a quitter, and I won’t give up.

    “Every day, I love and laugh as much as I can. When you look back on memories, you remember the sun on your back and the smile on your face, the people you were with and how happy you were. You won’t remember the pain.

    “I remember how loved I felt and how happy, and how amazing the day was. When I’m having a bad day, and things are really dark, I look back through my photos and think ‘this shall pass, and there will be days like this again’.”

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