‘I couldn’t have done it without him’: rider who suffered stroke back on her feet with her horse’s help

  • A 49-year-old rider who suffered a stroke has described how her incredible bond with her coloured cob has been instrumental to her recovery.

    Leanne Williams bought 11-year-old Rio five years ago, and was his “first real home” after he was passed round sales and dealers’ yards.

    Initially nervous to handle — Leanne had to spend six weeks getting him used to having his feet picked up — he has been able to pay back her care by being central to her rehabilitation since she suffered the debilitating blood clot three months ago.

    Leanne was forced to relearn her balance after the stroke meant she was initially unable to walk but both riding and handling Rio and yard duties, supervised by her physio James Hinder, have helped her make an impressive recovery.

    “The physio asked me what my goal was and I said ‘to ride again’,” Leanne said. “He said ‘OK, we’ll bring Rio into the rehab’.

    “They’ve never used a horse in stroke rehabilitation before but I’ve come so far in three months that they’ve said they want to use us as a case study.”

    Leanne, who works in the finance department at Cardiff University, had been for a gallop on the beach with Rio the morning of her stroke, and was driving home from the yard when she suddenly felt ill.

    She pulled over on to a grass verge and called her sister Kelly Keating, telling her “something’s not right”.

    “Kelly and I had both been to the beach with our horses and we’d had a lovely morning. We got back to the stables, I untacked my horse, washed him down, cleaned my tack and said ‘I’ll be back later to sort the horses out’ and within five mins of leaving it was like I’d been hit in the back of the head with a hammer,” Leanne told H&H.

    “I lost my vision straight away and then had a feeling like I’d been to the dentist and had an injection, my mouth and tongue were numb, and then I started getting pins and needles in my arms and legs. I thought I was having a heart attack at first, my headache got worse and I was getting nauseous, with an overwhelming feeling of burning up.”

    Leanne quickly called her sister, who was with her within minutes. They called an ambulance but were warned it would be a long wait, so Kelly drove Leanne to the Heath Hospital in Cardiff.

    “She was so calm, she could see my face had dropped. Then when we got there and I got out of the car, my balance went and I couldn’t walk,” Leanne said.

    “I couldn’t believe I’d gone from galloping a horse to being like that an hour and a half later. It was such a shock, at 49 you just don’t expect it. I’ve always eaten healthily and been very active, running and going to the gym.”

    Leanne before the stroke with her horse Rio wearing Christmas fancy dress

    Leanne said that while in hospital, she accepted the stroke as “there were so many people around in the same situation” but the situation hit her when she returned home to start her recovery at her mother’s bungalow.

    “I was used to doing everything at 100mph. I had to go to my mum’s — as her house was on one level and I couldn’t manage stairs — and I remember trying to stand up and I fell on the bed. I thought ‘I can’t live like this’ and burst into tears.”

    But Leanne was interrupted by a message from her sister, who had been sent a picture of Leanne galloping on the beach the morning of her stroke — it had been taken by a stranger who was out photographing the shore.

    “She said ‘Look what I have just been sent of you on Rio’. That photo, as hard as it was to look at, inspired me and she got it blown up and put in a frame. From then on getting back on was my mission.”

    Rio had already been an emotional crutch for Leanne as she went through a tough time, losing her father to cancer followed by the death of her sister-in-law last year. But the traditional cob stepped up again to be a shoulder to lean on in her recovery.

    “My husband appreciates Rio so much, he can’t believe how gentle he has been with me,” Leanne said. “The physio had me going up and down on Rio’s leg from crouch position and he would lean away as I pulled up his leg to keep me more steady.”

    While Leanne was recovering, Rio had been looked after by Kelly and also his 65-year-old sharer Glenna Hillbourne.

    “When they first took me in to see him in his stable I was still in a wheelchair and he was nudging my knees trying to get me up. Then he put his head into my lap and he wouldn’t move,” Leanne said.

    Leanne progressed to turning 14.2hh Rio out while still walking with a frame and also spent hours walking round the school with him on foot, building her strength.

    “Even when he’d been in his stable for seven hours and was heading out to a field full of grass, he’d be so patient. He’d take two strides and then stop and wait for me,” she said.

    Although she is back in the saddle, Leanne is still struggling with both fatigue and balance issues but Rio is doing his best to compensate.

    “He is so out of balance because of me and canters like a banana trying to keep me up. He’s always been a sensitive soul like that, although a bomb could go off and he wouldn’t react.

    “I just can’t thank that horse enough. I couldn’t have done it without him.”

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