Horseriding accident in Brittany left me with a broken neck

Alex Nicholls, 62, broke her neck in an equestrian accident and spent months immobilised from the waist up

Alex Nicholls in hospital after her riding accident
After her fall, Alex had to rebuild her confidence to walk and ride again

I learned to ride when I was about 12, and I competed in endurance competitions at quite a high level in England, Wales and Ireland, winning the 60-mile endurance race in Cirencester Park, and the two-day 40km at the Golden Horseshoe event.

My husband Ed and I moved to Brittany in 2015, but I cannot remember details.

Soon afterwards, I bought a black-and-white gelding against my better judgement. I cannot even remember his name now because he bucked me off just a few weeks later.

He had already made a fuss in the trailer, and bolted, so we were only working gently in the round pen, but he just went mad bucking and I flew through the air and crashed onto the ground.

I was wearing a body protector and a hard hat, and I knew I should not move, so I just lay still yelling for help. Ed came running and called an ambulance, which arrived really fast.

Strangely, I do not remember it hurting, but then they did give me morphine. 

Smiling through the pain

They stabilised me and put a collar on, before taking me to hospital in an ambulance.

I had a lot of scans and tests at the hospital and I managed to keep smiling and making jokes, even when they told me I had broken my neck.

However, when I heard the word 'paralysée' I just burst into tears. I cried and cried, even though they kept saying "Non, Madame, pas vous!" I was so scared. 

 They made a plaster cast of my entire ribcage and shoulders and neck so that they could make a medical corset for me. 

Once it was fitted and held in place with velcro straps, I was allowed to go home. 

I could walk, but I was not allowed to do anything in case I moved my neck, not even walk upstairs. Ed was amazing. He did everything – helping me shower, dress, everything.

I had to wear the corset for nearly four months with frequent trips to the hospital for scans, x-rays and tests. 

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Confidence knock

The day the doctors said I could throw it away was brilliant, but it was not the end. I had completely lost my confidence walking up stairs and driving, let alone riding.

Ed had taken the black-and-white horse to its old owner, who took it back reluctantly but refused to reimburse us. (He was transferred back to the UK where he killed himself jumping out of a field and falling down a steep ravine.)

We sold the house in Brittany in 2021 because it had too much land and taking care of it was too much for Ed. 

We moved south to a smaller house with less land near Confolens (Charente) and, eventually, I started exploring the local riding centres, explaining about the accident and asking for a very reliable horse and an instructor who would understand.

Gradually finding my feet

I found Laetitia and a 20-year-old Lusitano gelding called Coelheo, who is just the sweetest horse on the earth.

In the beginning I just walked, but gradually my trust came back and we trotted, and finally worked up to a canter.

I would love to get back into endurance events, but we shall see what happens. I am still very nervous about uneven surfaces, steps, ice, or slippery surfaces.

However, I have come a long way since the day I broke my neck. I am fit, healthy, positive in my mind, and I feel there is so much ahead of me.

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Falls can be fatal, but are extremely rare

Horse riding accidents, though rare, can have devastating consequences. 

In 2001, the French Equestrian Federation estimated there were 10 fatal accidents per year out of around 800,000 people using organised riding centres.

Last year France was rocked by two high-profile accidents, although neither proved fatal. At the end of May, Zazie Gardeau, 22, was rushed to intensive care in Plymouth, England, and her horse euthanised following a fall at the Bicton Horse Trials in Devon. 

The rider, from Toulouse, had been crowned European eventing young rider champion in 2022.

The same weekend, Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper, Sergio Rico, was also seriously injured in a riding accident in Spain. 

His medical report reportedly stated he had been "half a centimetre" from death. 

During PSG's final league match of the season in June, players sported his name on the back of their shirts. He was discharged from hospital in August.

On the flip-side, horses have long been singled out for their beneficial role in rehabilitation. 

In 1875, the first official study into so-called equine-assisted therapy was undertaken by French physician Cassaign. 

He used it to treat patients with various neurological conditions and concluded it was a successful therapy for improving joint movement, posture and balance, as well as having a positive impact emotionally.

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