Meet the equestrians working on the NHS front line *H&H Plus*

  • Simple yard chores are among the few things keeping NHS staff sane during the pandemic. Lucy Elder tracks down healthcare workers to find out how they are coping

    Our NHS heroes are all around us in the equestrian world – and right now they are facing an unprecedented situation. They are the riders we pass in the collecting ring, the medics who sit for hours in freezing fields so we can enjoy our sport. They are stabled next to you on your livery yard, the people we see when we are injured, and they are the ones who fix us to get back on board.

    H&H spoke to a tiny snapshot of thousands connected to both the equestrian and healthcare worlds to find out more about their roles and say thank you, on behalf of the horse world.

    “No matter what else is going on, you need to get up and muck out,” says Karla Parsons, a radiographer at West Suffolk Hospital and amateur event rider. “As Covid-19 is a respiratory illness, we X-ray patients with symptoms, so our workload is really ramping up.

    “Normally my life involves balancing my shifts around the horses and my two children; it’s always been a bit of a balancing act. The horses are usually – I’d say about 80% of the time – really good for my mental health. I’m noticing they are more important than ever at the moment. They give you that routine to your life, that stability.”

    Karla, whom many will recognise from her Muddy Mayhem blogs and cartoons, events at novice level with her Irish Sport Horse, Marnums Rough Diamond.

    “At the moment from one day to the next, we don’t know what we are coming into. That uncertainty mentally drains you,” she says.

    “So I get up in the morning, I don’t check social media, I go and do my horses and there’s that lovely familiarity – even in telling them off for being a pain in the arse – in mucking out and doing all the things that go with having horses. Then I go into work and I’m finding myself a little bit more relaxed because I’ve had that bit of time out before I get into my shift.

    “A lot of things are up in the air, but at the end of the day I’ve got to come home and poo pick – and those things are never going to go away. Even without competing or riding, just caring for the horses gives that grounding.

    “There’s something reassuring about regular, monotonous tasks, so mucking out and grooming is quite soothing after a stressful day.”

    Karla adds the team she works with are “amazing”, and the support and messages she’s had, particularly from the horse community, “mean the world”.

    “I don’t actually consider what I’m doing to be special, it’s just my job – that’s the sort of support that’s so nice,” she says. “It is really crap at the moment with everything cancelled, but those cancellations are more likely to stop sooner the more seriously we take it now. Human nature astounds me as to what we can overcome. Hopefully we will be able to look back and think, ‘We did all right.’ I’d like that to be the case anyway.”

    Weeks spent preparing

    Trauma doctor Diane Adamson was preparing for her para dressage grading when the lockdown began.

    She balances her career as a trauma consultant, attached to Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust as well as Royal Stoke University Hospital, with her family and caring for her three dressage horses, Bamber, Sydd and Winnie, and a Connemara pony, Casper, at home.

    “I think we are ready – we’ve spent weeks preparing the department,” she says.

    “We were pro-active and the people I work with are all quite driven. I think that’s why there are so many horsey and practical people involved in healthcare. They don’t tend to be a ‘no’ group, they come from the mindset of ‘we can, we’re just going to work out how’.

    “The biggest thing we are going to have, aside from the volume of patients, is staff becoming ill. We are taking it incredibly seriously and it is a worry.”

    Horse-related injuries are fairly common among her workload and so Diane started a vlog encouraging riders to explain their accidents better in A&E. She is now using the vlog to explain more about what is happening in terms of the pandemic.

    “I deal with a lot of life and unexpected death in my trauma job, and my horses do keep me very level. Grooming and spending a couple of hours with them every night, for me, is my wind-down time,” she says. “One of my fears is that we become resident at the hospital and I won’t be able to come home.”

    Diane thanks Pammy Hutton for suggesting she may be eligible for grading. A non-riding accident, falling 15ft off a wall, resulted in 14 major joint operations and a bone transplant. Her recovery has been amazing, but she has no feeling in her left leg.

    “They initially thought I wouldn’t be able to walk, so the fact I’m back and able to ride is the best,” she says.

    A phenomenal demand

    For Kerry Donoghue, in Scotland, her life in and outside work has changed very quickly.

    “I’m an advanced nurse practitioner in urgent and unscheduled care – I’m primary care-based so on a day-to-day basis, sore throats, coughs and colds would usually make the bulk of my workload,” she says.

    “The dynamic of what we are doing has dramatically shifted over the last couple of weeks. There’s been a phenomenal demand, on all services, to do with phone call advice. That takes up a lot of time and of course there are people still unwell from other problems.

    “A lot of what we are doing is ensuring everything is prioritised in terms of Covid-19 risk. Nobody sees a doctor or nurse practitioner without a telephone assessment first and that’s a massive change.”

    She adds the speed at which changes are happening, to adapt to the pandemic, is “phenomenal”.

    Kerry’s yard is on minimum footfall, so she is keeping in touch with her BE100 eventer Amiro H via email updates.

    “Amiro is normally my complete sanity in all these types of things,” she says. “Usually it’s wonderful to be able to go and ride. I like the goals of having events to aim for, or going somewhere new, and riding at these totally amazing venues and estates we have in eventing.

    “I enjoy having the little aims in between, things to target and the training side of things. You can always have something different to do each day and usually it’s a total relief to get out for a ride.” Kerry is urging everyone to “do their bit to help”.

    “We are all a little bit frightened,” she says. “We are coming in each day to work so those who can stay at home and be safe can do so. By assessing those who need to be seen, we hope only those who require admission are directed to secondary care (hospital) as the majority with minor symptoms can safely be managed at home.

    “If we all do our little bit, we will get there. Everyone at home can make a difference, not just the NHS.”

    The outbreak is having long-reaching impacts, with knock-on effects to those involved in all aspects of healthcare.

    “Looking after a horse is like looking after a person – you get the same kind of satisfaction in ensuring they are cared for and comfortable with both horses and humans,” says practice nurse Sarah Rea.

    “I’m part-time, but since the outbreak things are much busier. There is still essential work [that requires face-to-face contact] that doesn’t stop – but equally every patient who comes in is a possible Covid-19. Everyone is.

    “It is just so nice to come away from the surgery and immerse myself into the care of the horse. I do really appreciate being able to go out to our fields, especially now we are on lockdown. Other things are going on, but going outside to care for the horse, that is something that happens every day.”

    Community physio Kate Bennett, whose main role is supporting those coming out of hospital, shares similar sentiments.

    Kate had planned to get her New Forest pony and part-bred sport horse back into work after having a baby last year, but they are now enjoying an extended holiday.

    “The hospitals are doing a massive drive to get people home [who have been admitted for other reasons, where possible] and we will be seeing a lot more people than we would do normally,” she says.

    “The horses don’t know what’s going on and in a way that helps, as they aren’t talking to you about it. I talk about it pretty much all day at work and almost everything we do is, quite rightly, focused around it. It’s all over social media and it’s all over the news, so sometimes it feels like you don’t get a break from it.

    “It’s an absolute godsend to be able to go and see my horses. I’m very lucky in that my field is bordered by some gardens, one of which has an incredible display of bluebells. I walk round the field, partly to see how the grazing is doing and check the fences, but it’s also a bit of time to reflect and realise that the world is still turning and we will get back to normal.”

    Race to develop a vaccine

    International dressage rider Wayne Channon’s company Stabilitech is in the race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. The company have secured a £3m grant to develop its oral vaccine, OraPro Covid-19.

    Defra has asked vets to spare NHS-compatible human ventilators that are not being used for emergency animal care and many have answered the call.

    Cork Racecourse is being used as a Covid-19 testing centre in Ireland, while the NEC in Birmingham – home to Horse of the Year Show – is one of the new NHS Nightingale coronavirus hospitals, with 500 beds and capacity to expand to 2,000 if needed.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 16 April 2020