‘You pick up the pieces and get on with your life’: rider paralysed in fall and saved by ‘flying angels’ is back in the saddle

  • A rider who was paralysed in a cross-country accident has become a fundraiser for the air ambulance that saved her life – and has returned to the saddle.

    Sallyanne Haigh suffered a spinal-cord injury when her horse reared and fell on her in October 2015 and now has no movement below her first lumbar vertebrae.

    “It was a horrific accident, and a long road to recovery, but I’m getting my life back together,” Sallyanne told H&H.

    Sally was at a local rally in 2015, and cross-country schooling, when she had her fall.

    “There was a bit of a hill up to the jump and my horse refused the first time,” she said. “I came again and she went up, and because it was uphill, she went straight back on top of me.

    “She crushed me, and I knew things weren’t great.”

    As a nurse, Sallyanne said it was “a bit surreal to be on the other side”.

    “I wasn’t knocked out but the pain – I’ve never known anything like it,” she said. “The ambulance was called but they couldn’t access me in the field so the crew carried all their stuff to assess me and by then it was clear there was a complication as I couldn’t feel or move my legs. Then they called the air ambulance.”

    It was the Great Western Air Ambulance that went to Sallyanne’s aid and saved her life.

    “When they arrived, it sort of calmed the situation,” she said. “There were two doctors; Ed Valentine and Greg Crastone. Greg was training to be an air ambulance doctor so I was very lucky to have an extra pair of hands.”

    Sallyanne was transferred to Southmead Hospital, Bristol, where her injuries were confirmed.

    “I had a 10-hour operation to fix the vertebrae but with the spinal-cord damage, there’s nothing you can do,” she said.

    “But how the air ambulance was – I was completely conscious and as a nurse, was telling them what I needed and they were probably thinking ‘Shut up’! But as a rider, it was very much appreciated that they were able to attend; I was very lucky they could get to me.”

    Sallyanne spent seven months in hospital; in Southmead then a rehab unit in Salisbury.

    “Then you go home and pick up the pieces and get on with your life, which is really difficult when you’re completely paralysed from the waist down and living your life in a wheelchair,” she said. “But us equestrians are pretty mad, aren’t we – after 18 months, I was back on a horse.”

    Sallyanne said she approached her local Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) branch but as her consultant had said riding would be a risk, the group was limited in what it could do for her.

    “I’ve always had horses; my daughter has too, and that’s what you do, the majority of your life,” she said. “I was missing it, so I took it upon myself to improve my physical health.”

    Sallyanne started going to the gym, then her friend and instructor Beth Hobbs said her horse Flynn would be suitable. Fundraising meant they could buy a hoist, with which Flynn was trained.

    “That took a while but by that time, I’d seen a private consultant who wrote me a letter saying equestrian exercise is beneficial, and when the RDA had that, I started to be able to ride there too,” Sallyanne said, adding that she has since been classified by British Dressage as a grade II para rider.

    “I did a couple of little competitions, for me and my self-esteem, I think it was something I wanted to prove,” she said. “Everyone says ‘I hope you’re not going to ride again’, and being told not to do something makes me think ‘I’m not going to listen to that’! It was a long road but I love being back in the saddle.”

    The Covid lockdowns put a spanner in the works, and Flynn developed a back issue that meant Sallyanne could not ride him but she found Ride 2 Achieve RDA in Hereford, where she has since been riding.

    “I won’t be at the Paralympics; it’s not about that,” she said. “It’s being able to enjoy the therapy, and what it does for my mental health, being in the saddle. It’s something I’m enjoying, and who knows where it might lead. It’s just lovely to be supported back into the saddle in such a supportive environment.”

    Sallyanne also works four days a week, and for the past few years has also been involved with and fundraising for the air ambulance. She was invited to the base to meet the doctors who had saved her, which she described as an emotional experience but also one that the doctors said was helpful as she was conscious throughout her rescue.

    “They wanted to know if I was comfortable; how they could improve, which is phenomenal,” Sallyanne said. “At the time of my accident, they were volunteers, although now they’re on the payroll, and as far as I was concerned, they were flying angels.

    “I think they said every time the air ambulance takes off, it costs £2,000 before they’ve done anything. I’m happy to help them out because they’re so important, especially for equestrians.

    “Things happen and we take risks and having them attend to me was life-changing. I can’t thank them enough.”
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