Murderous threats, near-lethal accidents, heart-breaking fatalities and – at the end of it all – a good, old-fashioned redemption. Laura Collett’s life might sound like the plot for a particularly lurid Dick Francis novel, but there is no need to sensationalise the details: every twist and turn has had the hallmarks of a thriller.
Collett was taking it easy on Monday, reflecting on the biggest success of her eventing career, her first five-star Three Day Event title in Pau on Sunday night on board London 52. If anyone deserves a moment of calm it is the 31-year-old Gloucestershire rider. “I still can’t believe this is all really happening,” she told Telegraph Sport.
Rewind seven years, and the notion that Collett would ever climb on a horse again – let alone win one of the sport’s blue riband events – would have been fanciful. In 2013, when competing in the cross-country phase of an event, a momentary lapse in her horse’s focus resulted in a terrifying rotational fall.
Collett was flung to the ground before her horse – all 110st of it – fell at full force directly on top of her. In the ambulance, paramedics had to resuscitate her five times before the full extent of her injuries was revealed: a fractured shoulder, broken ribs, a punctured lung, a lacerated liver and damage to her kidneys.
She was placed in an induced coma for six days and it later transpired that a fragment of her shoulder bone had travelled to her right eye through her blood stream.
“When I closed my left eye I couldn’t see anything out of my right but originally they weren’t worried about my sight coming back,” she said. “Then they realised it had damaged the optic nerve and the sight was never going to come back. That was the hardest thing to deal with. But I adapted relatively quickly – in this game, you learn to cope with what you get dealt.”
Not that it was an easy transition. “I would walk into things and when I first started jumping, it seemed like the jumps would move and as eventing takes place in all weather conditions, I wear goggles to protect my eyes from sun, wind and rain. If I get a fly or anything in my left eye when I am riding, I am a bit stuffed.”
Eventing may have a rarefied reputation, but the truth is rather more visceral. Brain injuries, paralysis and rider fatality is not unusual, even at the top of the sport, yet Collett – like so many of her peers – refused to countenance stepping back. Quite the opposite: while her recovery at the Injured Jockey Fund rehabilitation centre, Oaksey House, lasted months, she was back in the saddle within six weeks.
“I was lucky not to have any brain injuries but all I wanted to do was get back to competing,” she said. “In hindsight it may have been too early but I was so determined to get back in the saddle”.
Guts and grit are part of Collett’s DNA. Her father left when she was young, leaving her brother and her to be brought up by a single working mother. They could not afford a house so as soon as Collett showed enthusiasm for ponies and riding, her mother Tracey rented properties in Gloucestershire with stables.
She was smitten from the first time she sat on a pony at the age of two and started out in the beauty pageant world of showing but always aspired to be a great event rider or showjumper. From early childhood she learned that in order to survive in this costly pursuit, ponies she cherished had to be sold to keep the wheels turning.