‘There’s not a course in the world I wouldn’t take him to’: Harry Meade on returning from a serious brain injury to competing at Kentucky *H&H Plus*

  • Six months after a serious brain injury, the British rider finished fifth at Kentucky five-star. Pippa Roome finds out how he did it

    THEY say performing at your best in the face of adversity is a mark of greatness. They also say lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place. If the first is true, Harry Meade is the greatest. He is also, surely, living proof that the second is absolute rubbish.

    In August 2013, Harry had a rotational fall, shattering both his elbows and requiring seven elbow operations. He started riding again in late January 2014, with both his arms in braces and three degrees of flexion, and just over three months later, achieved his best top-level result, finishing third at Badminton riding Wild Lone.

    Last October, Harry was dragged by the stirrup in a cross-country accident at the British Young Horse Championships. He suffered a serious brain injury, didn’t start riding again consistently until early March and is still living with the effects. But last month, he scored his best five-star placing since that 2014 Badminton when he claimed fifth at Kentucky on Superstition (pictured).

    The main symptom of Harry’s injury has been an overwhelming “neuro-tiredness”, which puts the brain into “complete shutdown” if he does too much. Returning to competing has been all about minimising his activities aside from riding.

    “I started riding before I would have done if I hadn’t been aiming to go to something big,” Harry says, sitting in his kitchen the week after Kentucky, in front of congratulatory bunting made by his children, Lily and Charlie. “Either there wasn’t much point in starting at all or I was going to aim for Badminton – or, once that was cancelled, Kentucky.”

    harry meade

    Harry admits that he struggled at his first events back. Riding in the collecting ring was challenging because it was difficult to process multiple moving objects, and having several conversations in one day was enough to tire him out.

    Stripping down to the “bare essentials” involved sending some of his younger horses away so he could start with a smaller string. Wife Rosie, whose selfless support has been instrumental in both his comebacks, tried to keep people away from him at events – no mean feat because Harry’s outgoing, curious personality means he wants to talk to everyone.

    “Each competition was easier and the last event before Kentucky, Weston Park, was the first time I enjoyed it and didn’t suffer a temporary crash afterwards,” he says. “We had a good system in place so I wasn’t wearing out my brain. We’d driven up the night before and walked the course, then stayed locally so I wasn’t driving or walking the same day as competing. I had times close together, which is easier than when they are spread out.”

    Fellow brain injury survivor William Fox-Pitt asked why he was competing five horses in a day.

    “That was all part of the test – if I could do that, there was no reason why I couldn’t go to a five-star with one horse,” says Harry. “I was quite prepared I might not get to Kentucky, but in my mind I was always going until I couldn’t.”

    Rosie, however, had seen the effects of his symptoms up close, and was less optimistic about his chances of getting there.

    Harry travelled to the USA 48 hours before most of the European-based riders and throughout the week, he and his team protected his stamina.

    “The things that take mental energy, which don’t strictly have to be done by you, I tried not to do,” he says. “The logistics of planning timings, who’s going in what car, what you are eating – we tried to be organised so I didn’t have to be part of that. And anything I did have to be part of was planned further in advance than normal, so that I wasn’t wiped out before riding.”

    SUPERSTITION joined Harry in September 2019 when the rider’s long-term owner Mandy Gray bought the horse after Lucy Jackson won the 2019 Event Rider Masters at Millstreet on him. Harry headed off almost immediately to Strzegom CCI4*-L, which the pair duly won.

    “It was brilliant we did that, as little did we know it would be the last opportunity to do a three-day event in 18 months,” says Harry. “Without that, getting to know each other would have been more drawn out.

    “Then it was no bad thing to spend a year together with few competitions. Horses mould riders and riders mould horses; going into this season, it felt like an established partnership.”

    Harry describes Superstition as “an internaliser, a very sensitive, sharp, intelligent little horse”. He devised an unusual dressage preparation for him at Kentucky.

    “The biggest challenge is getting him to breathe – physically, you can feel his breathing goes very shallow,” he says.

    Through trial and error, Harry discovered that Superstition produced his best flatwork if he rode him in the afternoon after galloping him in the morning.

    “So on the morning of his Kentucky test, I took him for a gallop. It wasn’t about making him tired, but physically releasing his diaphragm and getting him to blow,” he says.

    “I then got on three hours later in full dressage kit, but with a jumping saddle. I gave him a jump then swapped the saddle and went to the final warm-up area, where we ran through a three-star test – that was the test, as far as he was concerned. I gave him a pat, left the arena and got off. I stayed off for eight minutes, gave him some Polos, then got on him again two minutes before the actual test.”

    The pair were rewarded with a competitive 29.6 in the horse’s first five-star.

    LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY - APRIL 23: Harry Meade of Great Britain atop Superstition competes in the Dressage Phase during the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event at Kentucky Horse Park on April 23, 2021 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

    Superstition’s dressage warm-up included a gallop and a run through a three-star test

    HARRY is steeped in Badminton’s history – he lives 10 minutes away and his father Richard won there twice. He hadn’t planned on going to Kentucky but when Badminton cancelled, he switched his sights and loved the experience.

    This was his first time riding a Derek di Grazia course and, analytical as ever, he says: “There was a theme of combinations made up of three elements, with the first two arranged on an open distance followed by a shorter turning question. If you weren’t attacking on the way into the first fence, then horses were off the middle element and landed too fast to make the turn to the final fence. You could misinterpret that as an accuracy question that goes hand in hand with being steady and controlled, but in fact you needed attacking accuracy, making up ground on the way in to be able to decelerate on the way out.”

    The only question over Superstition’s preparation was that all the water jumps he’d tackled this spring, he had “jumped pretty moderately and slightly poked into the water”.

    “And when we got there, the waters were the five most difficult fences,” smiles Harry. “It made any decision of how to tackle it simple – just crack on and attack, and that suited him. He wouldn’t have previously experienced the mental fatigue created by the greater intensity of questions at five-star, but he grew and grew the whole way round.

    “Another difference between four- and five-star is being able to cope with things in a gut-instinct way. At four-star, the combinations are a bit more like jumping a showjumping grid – you jump in correctly and the rest happens.

    “At five-star you might jump in over a massive drop, the horse bobs his head, and there’s an almost unjumpable fence on a half distance in front of them. They have to be able to cope, to decision-make in a split second and want to do the job. It felt like a complete coming of age for him, the fact he coped so well with those knee-jerk reaction questions.

    “I knew he was fit, but he doesn’t have the hugest gallop and I didn’t know how he’d handle the distance. But we were up on our minute markers and he stayed on the bridle throughout and was never flat to the boards.”

    Harry Meade riding CAVALIER CRYSTAL in A Section A, during the Aston-le-Walls Elite competition held at Washbrook Farm near Daventry in Northamptonshire in the UK on 31st March 2021

    Harry rides Cavalier Crystal at Aston-le-Walls at the end of March – competing several horses in one day at early events was “part of the test” to ensure he was ready for Kentucky five-star

    Harry is the epitome of an old-fashioned horseman and the journey matters as much as, if not more than, the result.

    He says: “You go to a big event with big aims and you want to fulfil those aims, but you also want to leave thinking you have a better horse in terms of how they feel. I felt Superstition had a really positive experience in all three phases at Kentucky. The cross-country wasn’t physically tough for him – any endurance athlete knows that feeling when it starts to hurt and they start to want to give up, but he never got close to that.”

    Harry’s clear inside the time across country, the first of the day, elevated him to fourth. Sitting within a showjump of leader Oliver Townend and with many incurring a time-fault, he decided to aim to be inside the time, with the risk of four faults, rather than banking a safe but slower clear.

    “I had more to gain than lose,” he says. “If you finish on two time-faults, you probably won’t win. I’d rather risk dropping down a few places, but have a chance of winning, than play safe and have no chance of winning.”

    A fence down dropped the pair one spot to fifth; a clear would have put them third. Harry came away with no regrets – unusual for any rider travelling home from a three-day event.

    Harry Meade (GBR) riding Wild Lone during the Final Horse Inspection at the Badminton Horse Trials Gloucestershire, UK, 7-11th May, 2014

    Harry achieves his best top-level result with a third at Badminton in 2014 on Wild Lone, less than a year after a serious rotational fall

    LOOKING ahead, Harry won’t be drawn on selection prospects for the Olympics or the European Championships.

    “When I concentrated on going to Kentucky, everybody said that for selection this or that route might have pros or cons. But my feeling was that a five-star is a big aim in its own right, so I shortened my sights and made that an end goal in itself, rather than a stepping-stone,” he says. “I didn’t see this as a bridge to something, I saw it as a thing I love doing. I had a horse well prepared to go to his first five-star and that’s what makes me want to do the sport.”

    Before Kentucky, Harry might have been cautious about courses with tougher terrain for the 40% thoroughbred Superstition.

    But now he says: “There’s not a course in the world I wouldn’t take him to and Burghley was the plan, but we’ll now have a rethink. If there’s an invitation to go somewhere else it would be amazing, but we’ll cross that bridge should it arise – either way, we’re going to have a fun autumn.”

    You can also read this feature in the 20 May issue of Horse & Hound magazine.

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