A rider who has taken up eventing almost 30 years after losing her leg in a motorbike accident is hoping to inspire others to push through adversity.
Louisa Button first forged a bond with horses during a troubled childhood, when long days spent at her local riding school “saved her in every way”. Although by her teens she was a skilled rider, her hopes of horse ownership were repeatedly snatched away until she was able to buy part-bred Connemara Gabriel four years ago — and is finally having the chance to “love life” hunting and competing aged 51.
“I hope I might inspire other riders, who think they can’t, that they can,” she said. “Horses are just amazing.”
Louisa, a trained artist, was taken into foster care at an early age as her mother was suffering from mental health problems. She credits “art and horses” with getting her through some difficult years.
“Horses were my life and I would be at the local riding school every day from dawn till dusk. I would be put on the freshly backed youngstock and the difficult ponies that needed bringing on,” she said. “I would sweep, muck out, groom, lead, clean tack, water and rug up until I was utterly exhausted, just to ride.
“That these huge half-ton animals trusted me was so significant and powerful, it gave me my self-esteem.”
More than anything, Louisa wanted a horse of her own and her biological father, who lived in Canada, offered to buy her one when she was 12 — but she was devastated when her foster mother denied her the opportunity.
“My world fell apart,” she said. “In my teens I grew even more troubled and my relations with my foster family totally broke down. I moved to Canada to be with my biological father, my riding and art flourished, I was enrolled into art school and I would be able to get my horse at last — but then my beautiful dad passed away suddenly from a heart attack and I had to go back to England.”
At the age of 19, Louisa was finally able to buy her own horse with a friend, a 16.3hh warmblood whose advert she spotted in Horse & Hound. The pair showjumped and received interest from a number of trainers, but when Louise was 20 she was involved in a bike accident that altered the course of her life again.
“One fateful day I hopped on the back of my housemate’s H100 motorbike, we slowed down approaching a crossing and I got clipped,” she said. “I remember being hurled into the air and landing the opposite way. I knew it wasn’t good. I was tended to by some of my friends on the street, a tourniquet was applied to my leg and I could feel I was losing a lot of blood.
“I woke up in intensive care and I was told I had lost my leg 3.5 inches above the knee. I was in shock, but I was determined it wouldn’t beat me — I spent three weeks in hospital and had physio to learn to walk with a prosthetic leg. I had PTSD and suffered severe panic attacks, but I got through.”
The accident meant Louise had to sell her horse but she used the money to fund her way through university. She did get back on board as soon as she could, however, riding friends’ horses.
“All the horses I rode with my prosthetic didn’t bat an eyelid,” she said. “They are incredible creatures.”
Louise continued to hack occasionally for the next 25 years, while working and raising her three children, until four years ago when a friend encouraged her to buy her own horse again. She found four-year-old gelding Gabriel, who was just backed and recently imported from Ireland.
“I thought about it for a while and went for it,” she said. “I have three children and three businesses to run, so it wasn’t something I took lightly.
“It was a bit of a leap of faith buying a youngster but when I tried him he was just so honest and calm.”
The pair have competed in British Dressage, and spent three seasons hunting with the West Norfolk, and this season they started unaffiliated eventing.
“I never thought we would get this far but now I don’t really know what our limit is,” she said. “I have worked a lot on his prep, teaching him to be brave and he really looks out for me.”
Louisa admitted to having some fear when they started their hunting career, although she had built up his experience through pleasure rides and hound rides first.
“Initially I struggled to get my gallop seat and stand in my stirrups,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a bit hit and miss but once he’s settled we go with the flow.
“I’ve had some great instructors but I think we’ve learned more out hunting than I ever have at any clinic,” she added.
Louisa has also had to make some adaptations to her prosthesis to cope with riding across country.
“I have to stuff the socket with incontinence pants as it takes all the moisture from sweat away and locks it — otherwise the leg would just fall off,” she said.
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“I had always thought you have a stroke and that’s a one-off and you’re back to normal”
“Because I’d been ill, I started to think differently about things, and thought you only live once”
“We have had some laughs with it. If air comes out of it, it makes a farting noise and I had one prosthetic leg which wasn’t a very good fit when I was in the saddle. I went into trot and as I was rising and sitting, it was farting on each diagonal. Gabriel’s left ear was moving in time to the fart noise and I was in hysterics. It also fell off at my first ever opening meet!”
Louisa said she had already gone “well beyond my expectations” with 15hh Gabriel but now she is firmly back in the saddle, it has fuelled her ambitions.
“I am going to see how far I can get on him but I have got a goal to get myself a proper eventer,” she said. “My little Gabriel has given me everything, but I haven’t sat on anything professional since I lost my leg and that is in my mind now. I would keep Gabiel to hunt whatever I did — I think he has ditch water in his veins!”
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