The international dressage rider tells Polly Bryan how he has rebuilt his career following catastrophic injury
On 25 January 2009, Sonnar Murray-Brown had the world at his feet. He was 20 years old and had just won the young rider team test at the Addington High Profile show riding Catherston Liberator, almost two years into a successful apprenticeship with Jennie Loriston-Clarke. But the next day, his life changed forever when he was involved in a devastating car crash.
“We were on our way to buy ice cream, can you believe it,” Sonnar, now 32, tells me, smiling ruefully as he thinks back to that day. “I was the front passenger, my boyfriend at the time was driving and he lost control on a country road at 60mph. The car spun and we hit another car coming the other way head on. I remember waking up on the grass verge and wondering why my hair was wet and why someone was cutting off my trousers. I didn’t realise I had broken both my legs.”
That night, Sonnar underwent nine hours of surgery as surgeons battled to save his right leg, which had smashed into numerous pieces. Doctors told Sonnar’s parents he’d never ride again, that the best they could hope for was that he might one day walk again.
Two years later, despite multiple operations, bone grafts and platings, Sonnar’s right knee was bent 45 degrees in the wrong direction and his right femur was 2.5cm shorter than his left.
“I’d lost everything,” he says, frankly. “I was 22 and being cared for at home like a child. I had to be lifted out of bed, I weighed seven stone and was emaciated. I struggled a lot mentally – my career was gone, life as I knew it was over. I kept thinking, ‘Why me?’ I was meant to fulfil my dreams, I had things to do, places to go. But I was lucky to have amazing friends and family; my 80-year-old nanny used to wheel me down the road in my chair.”
The turning point came when Sonnar met Professor Michael Saleh, a lower-limb trauma specialist, who thought that, with time, he might be able to do for Sonnar’s leg what others had not.
“He removed all the internal metalwork, rebroke my femur and put an external frame on my leg, which had to be locked straight for a year,” explains Sonnar. “I had to turn an Allen key three times a day, to pull the femur apart and lengthen my leg.”
Prof Saleh’s approach worked. To help his leg heal, Sonnar visited the Solent Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Therapy Centre in Portsmouth every day to use a hyperbaric chamber. It was this experience that helped him find some peace with his injuries.
“I would sit with all these lovely people who had MS, for which there is no cure, and it helped me put things in perspective. It made me realise how lucky I was.”
Throughout his ordeal, horses were barely on Sonnar’s mind, his dream career replaced by a fight to regain the most basic aspects of his life.
Dressage wasn’t always the dream. His family were not horsey – his father ran an outdoor education centre near Chichester and his family loved sailing – but as a child, Sonnar always wanted to be near horses.
“I started at a riding school, and then my mum and dad bought a pony called Polo for £250. We had no transport and had to lead him home along the main road,” Sonnar recalls, chuckling. “He wasn’t even broken in, but my parents and I managed to back him together. We had some real Thelwell moments.
“We met a local instructor, Claire Easton, who gave me lessons in a muddy field. She taught me in a classical way, and was strict about position and developing an independent seat. I didn’t realise the importance of all of that then, but I wanted to be a good rider.”
“I was a bit scared of dressage. I didn’t realise that prelim was just trotting and cantering circles. I thought I had to do flying changes right away. But after I left school at 16, I worked for a show producer and there was a dressage rider who rented stables at the yard. I watched him ride and thought it looked amazing, especially the horse going sideways. I wanted to learn how to do it and to represent my country one day.”
Securing a job at Catherston stud aged 19 set Sonnar’s dreams in motion. He got involved with everything, from backing and clipping to foaling. In his first-ever dressage test, he was eliminated for going wrong so much – “even though I was having it called!” – but despite the inauspicious start, he was riding at prix st georges (PSG) less than two years later.
“Now I employ people myself, I appreciate what a proper apprenticeship I had there,” he says. “Jennie’s such an inspirational person, not just as a rider but as an all-round horsewoman. She was on the yard every day, too, mucking out with us, and I trusted her 100%. I loved the training, the horses, the attention to detail in producing them. Dressage felt so right.”
Four years after his accident, it was Sonnar’s childhood instructor Claire who helped him get back on board, starting with sitting on his old pony Polo, then hacking out his former PSG horse, Tornado. Riding was, however, far from straightforward.
“When the frame came off my leg, I could only bend it five degrees. I had to sleep with my leg strapped into a machine that bent my knee over and over again all night. It was agony, but eventually I got 90 degrees of movement back,” says Sonnar, acknowledging it’s lucky he chose to be a dressage rider, not a jockey.
“Even when I started riding again, I only planned to do a tiny bit. I decided that if I couldn’t ride the way I wanted to, I would rather close the door on it and accept that chapter of my life had ended. But, slowly, I started getting stronger.
“When I was 24, there was one more operation Prof Saleh suggested to increase the bend in my knee, but I said no. I needed to get on with my life,” says Sonnar, who has never recovered full range of movement. “I had some money from the personal injury case, so I went to Germany and bought myself a nice six-year-old gelding. I wanted to start my new journey and try to catch up on the last six years.”
That horse was the Latimer son Erlentanz (pictured top) and it was with him that Sonnar’s rekindled dressage career took shape. Having returned to the arena in 2015, he and “Erly” racked up numerous wins and titles in the ensuing years.
“I knew I had a talented horse and I wanted to train with Carl Hester, to get to grand prix. Peter Storr helped me get my first lesson with him. After that, I was there at every opportunity; I jumped at every cancellation, even though it meant travelling from Hampshire to Gloucestershire.”
Eventually Sonnar moved to base himself near Carl’s, renting some stables around the corner initially, then moving to a nearby yard to set up with his partner, fellow dressage rider Rob Barker.
He and Erly made their grand prix debut in 2018, busting out some chunky plus-70% scores during their first year at top level. Then, in February 2019, disaster struck – again.
“I was riding a young horse at home who spooked and fell over, breaking my right leg again. Luckily, this time it was the tibia, the only bone in it I didn’t break last time.”
While Sonnar was out of action for the summer that followed, Erly most certainly wasn’t, with none other than Charlotte Dujardin taking over the ride. The pair had huge success, winning at Windsor and Bolesworth before finishing third at Aachen CHIO, and Erlentanz became the horse the whole dressage world was talking about.
“I was so proud Charlotte was competing my horse and I learnt so much,” says Sonnar. “I did feel some pressure when I started competing him again in the autumn, but I had to remind myself that I’m on my own journey.”
Nonetheless, Sonnar was quick to prove that he was also capable of great things, with a string of super international results putting him firmly in the eyeline of team selectors before the Covid-19 pandemic brought everything to a halt. He admits he lost a bit of confidence while off games during lockdown, but with Carl’s help he is now back on his upward trajectory, scoring a grand prix personal best of 75.5% at the Keysoe CDI in October, and appreciating the extra year of training 2020 has brought him.
“I want to be the best rider I can possibly be,” he says, simply, when I ask about his goals. “But I also know I have a horse capable of a place on a championship team and I will train as hard as I can to make that a reality.”
Sonnar has dealt with setbacks most can’t even imagine, but has come out the other side mentally and physically stronger. He is also incredibly humble. I tell him I’m in awe of what he has achieved despite the odds and he laughs a little with embarrassment. He speaks at length about his gratitude to the many people who have supported him over the years, especially his family, friends and rehab teams: “I wasn’t easy to be around at times,” he admits.
But it’s testament to his talent and tenacity that he has overcome what he has. He tells me that while these challenges help him fully appreciate his life now as a grand prix rider, he prefers not to dwell too much on the past, but to stay focused on everything that now lies ahead of him. And Sonnar is undoubtedly a rider who has great things to come.
Ref: Horse & Hound; 10 December 2020
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