A rider whose glittering showjumping career was cut short by a car crash in which her fiancé died is back in the sport she loves and looking to a bright future.
Having started showjumping aged 12, Sammy Backstrom (née Pharo) had huge success; winning two European gold medals and one silver on ponies. She was selected for the British elite training squad every year between the ages of 16 and 21, represented Britain on young rider teams and jumped in the World Cup aged 18, coming sixth on a horse who “six months before had jumped nothing over a metre”.
“I was based with Andrew Saywell, I’d met someone, fallen madly in love and got engaged,” Sammy told H&H. “My mum was living in South Africa at the time, and I’d never had a break from horses so we thought we’d go out there for a few months.”
In South Africa, the couple were involved in a horrific car accident. Sammy was driving when a car appeared from behind another waiting to turn right. She swerved to avoid the oncoming vehicle, and another car drove into them on one side.
“I was very lucky,” Sammy said. “Matt covered me; he took the impact, or I wouldn’t be here today. There are so many coincidences that meant I’m still here; one was that the doctor who saved my life was driving up to see his mum, and stopped to see if he could help.
“My lung had collapsed and I’d stopped breathing so he did a tracheotomy on the side of the road.”
Sammy had dislocated her neck, and her jaw was “smashed into about 80 pieces”. She had broken most of her ribs on one side, and some on the other, which had led to her collapsed lung. She spent four days in a coma.
“I remember bits of it,” she said. “I remember coming round and being told again and again that Matt had died, and just not believing it.”
Sammy spent two weeks in hospital, and six weeks with her mouth wired shut to allow her jaw to heal. People around her were given wire cutters, to use if she were to choke.
“They said I’d never be able to ride again because of the injuries to my ribs and the nerve damage,” she said. “I’d lost my fiancé and riding, and thought ‘Where do I go from here?’ I’d left school at 14 and it had never occurred to me to do anything else.
“But when you have a bad round, you have to put it in the back of your mind and move on; you can’t dwell on it. I thought ‘I’m here, and I need to keep moving forward and figure out what to do in life’.”
Sammy worked in different retail jobs, then took time out to travel. She worked in Australia for a while, but moved back to be near her family. In 2008, she went to Cape Town, where she met Brett, the man she would eventually marry.
“I felt like I’d found myself again, and wanted to try to get to the bottom of the nerve pain I had,” she said. “That pain is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy; it’s horrendous. I’d ride, and think ‘I can do this’, then two days later, I’d be in agony. It’s the sharpest, most debilitating pain, and there’s nothing you can take for it.”
In Cape Town, she saw a physio recommended by her mother, and the treatment helped, but did not solve the problem. Then the physio recommended a surgeon carrying out experimental rib removal surgery that might help, if the pain was caused by the rib compressing a nerve.
“My rib had healed over the nerve,” she explained. “I saw the doctor and he said I was a great candidate. I had the surgery and it turned out the rib had also healed over the main artery to my arm, so I was very lucky not to have had a blood clot.”
The doctor removed the first rib on Sammy’s left side.
“People had told me I’d wake up in so much pain, but when I came round, it was like the weight of the world had lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “It felt incredible; that gnawing pain I hadn’t really realised was there had just gone. Waking up was the most amazing feeling in the world.”
Sammy rode some young horses in South Africa, and was “absolutely loving it”. She and her husband moved back to the UK in 2011, and she started working in equestrian media.
Last year, she lost her job as a result of the pandemic, which prodded her back into working directly with horses.
“I would never have left as I loved it, but being made redundant made me realise the one thing I didn’t enjoy was working in an office,” she said. “So I thought ‘Ok, here’s my opportunity.”
Sammy has set up her business Equestrian Choice, offering riding, coaching, sales and schooling livery as well as producing horses — and is aiming high again.
“It would be absolutely incredible to get back up there again,” she said. “It would be a dream come true; jumping for Britain, at that level and taking that responsibility.
‘If something does happen, I know I’ve had a fulfilling life; that’s all anyone can ask for’
The rider lost her finger when her ring was caught in the rug strap of a horse who panicked and
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“When they told me I wouldn’t ride again, I look back and think ‘Why didn’t I fight it?’ and I think it’s because the emotional trauma of losing my fiancé was just so huge. I couldn’t compute everything else, and just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other; I had no fight left in me.
“Now, I feel I’m ready to fight. I’m ready to say ‘I can do this’, and I’m going to find a way to do it.”
Sammy now has young horses to produce, and also the ride on a nine-year-old mare Connie, pictured above, who is to be owned by an innovative syndicate organised by Sammy’s mother Sarah Peacocke.
“I’m very lucky,” she said. “I wake up every morning and am excited about going to the yard and working with these horses. I’ll never take it for granted.”
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