Unlike most people Bubby Upton had broken her back once before, but not while preparing for the biggest tournament of her career.
Ten days before leaving for the Burghley 5* Horse Trials, where she was set to ride two horses, she suffered an accident in training that left her with an unstable spine fracture, moving her vertebrae out of position. As soon as she heard the diagnosis her heart sank: she was told she may never walk again. She knew her Burghley chances were over and that, if achievable, returning to her earliest love of horse riding was a long way in the distance.
But Bubby’s surgery went well, and her rehab even better. Within less than 12 weeks she was cleared to resume riding – gently at first – and is now targeting a return to competition in March.
“It was pretty terrifying, not knowing whether I’d be able to walk again, if I’d have permanent damage to my right leg, or if I’d be fortunate enough to have the road to recovery that I’m on,” she tells the BEAA after being named Athletes’ Athlete of the Month. “I am deeply and eternally grateful to my surgeon for genuinely working miracles on me.”
Bubby was in fine form before her accident. She’d placed in the top 10 at Badminton 5* and won the under-25s championships for the second time. She swung from despair to hope as her painkillers sunk in and masked reality, but the severity of her situation became clear once she reached hospital. So she set her mind to returning, and how to work her way through an intense rehabilitation period.
“I remember walking in to the gym and all my old workouts were still on the board and I could hardly walk, couldn’t sit on the floor, get up or do anything, so that was probably the lowest I felt throughout my rehab. Normality felt so far away and so unachievable.
“We literally did nothing compared to what one had done before; it was really, really minimal stuff… [After] that tiny load, my body went into complete spasm and I couldn’t walk for a few days after. It then felt like: ‘Will I ever get better?’ Gradually my body took the load and with that came tiny little progress.
“I didn’t think about riding again or getting back to lifting huge weights because that was too far away to have as an option and would be too demoralising. To really focus on the small little gains and wins each week kept me going.
“My surgeon never masked the reality of what should have been. He was very honest and never sugar-coated anything. I always had the reality of what should have been in the back of my head and his words ringing in my ears, so whenever it felt like ‘why me?’ or ‘what bad timing’ or ‘everything feels so far away,’ I instantly snapped into: ‘Well, this is what should have been, so, god, I need to make the most of how lucky I’ve been.’ That will forever be the greatest fuel for my fire.”
After 11-and-a-half weeks of rehab Bubby went for a scan, the result of which would determine whether she could return to horseback. Although she’d progressed remarkably fast she expected a disappointing answer, so, when her surgeon said she could ride again, she “honestly couldn’t believe it”.
“I’d only planned to ride one [horse], but after the first I was like: ‘I feel all right, so I’ll ride another. I still feel okay, I’ll ride another one!’ It was all very gentle, only walking, but so special to get back on. I had a new focus and a new drive. It was magical to get back on and do what I love again.”