From A Near-Death Injury to a Winning International Debut: An Equine Lesson In Perseverance

by Sophie Harris /

Published on

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f you have been around horses for long enough the likelihood is that you have experienced the devastation of having an injured horse, and the resulting news can be difficult to comprehend. But how do you move forward? Persevere, retire the horse, or succumb to the unthinkable? Whichever you choose you will almost certainly think you have made the wrong decision at some point.

When British eventing horse, First Lancer, walked off the lorry to begin his rehab following a near fatal out-of-the-blue field accident, there was a moment of disbelief for the Craggs family, the owners of the promising gelding. Following a three-month stay in two of the best equine hospitals in the U.K. “Tokyo,” was still dramatically lame. For the Craggs, this was the moment when they questioned his future in the sport. Could he make it back? Their answer: persevere and keep trying.

Discovering a Future Champion 

At the end of 2015, Marcus Craggs came across Tokyo while on the hunt for his daughter’s next horse. After a quick trip to Julia Schmid in Germany, Tokyo was purchased on the spot and transported to the U.K. to begin his eventing career. From day one, Tokyo was a very special horse. Apart from his striking looks, enviable temperament, and undeniable talent, he holds a special place in the hearts of the Craggs family. As his show name suggests, Tokyo was the first horse to take on the Lancer suffix. He was just the beginning for what would be a successful string of competition horses and breeding program based at Lancer Stud. 

In his first full season eventing in the U.K., Tokyo proved he had a bright future in the sport. He incurred zero cross-country jumping penalties, only had two rails down in show jumping, and finished in the top five in eight out of 12 competitions. After a very successful season Tokyo was scheduled to make his international debut in the CIC1* (now CCI2*-S) at the end of 2016. Unfortunately, his rider was injured by another horse and the pair were withdrawn. The Craggs sent Tokyo on his winter holiday with high hopes for 2017.

But fate had other plans in store. In February 2017, Tokyo came in from the field hopping lame, his foot was poulticed with the hope that it was just an abscess but it was soon clear with his worsening lameness that was not the case. “After a week or so the gravity of the injury became clear; this was absolutely heartbreaking.” commented Marcus “Neil (Spratt, Tokyo’s rider) had mentioned that horses like this come along into a yard once in a lifetime...and this was our first one!”. Tokyo was admitted to Donnington Grove Veterinary Group for X-rays and testing. The results showed a sharp, nail-like object had entered his hoof, penetrated through the deep flexor tendon, and into the navicular bursa. The injury was likely to prove fatal, and if not, the chances of Tokyo recovering to his former self were extremely slim. “I had no idea as to the chance of recovery but prior to the operation it was made very clear that the percentage of success was low...but the expense high!”

This Blind Horse Went from Show Horse to Therapy Horse 

Later that day, the gelding went into surgery in the very capable hands of surgeon, Dr. Henry O’Neill. There were no guarantees for success, but for the horse who had already given so much, he was given the opportunity to fight. The minimally invasive surgery went well, but the main challenge still lay ahead — would he be sound again? After recovering from the initial surgery, Tokyo transferred to Rossdales Equine Hospital, Newmarket, for stall rest, with the aim for him to come home once he gained enough strength. “Week after week it was soul destroying to see the horse cooped up ‘in a prison,’” Marcus recalls.

After two months of stall rest at Rossdales Equine Hospital having only been allowed out for lameness assessments and scans, Tokyo arrived back to Lancer Stud. He was still lame but ready to begin the long road back to eventing. Due to the nature of his injury, it was imperative that exercise began as soon as it was safe to keep the healing deep flexor tendon supple. At this time I was a groom at Lancer stud, I did not know much about Tokyo when he arrived - just that he would need to be walked… a lot. His exercise routine began with daily walks - a half lap around the yard (approx. 150m). Over the weeks we became great friends (or at least I would like to think so). His incredible temperament made our daily walks a blissful moment of calm in my often stressful day. He was so calm, in fact, that I was asked several times if he had been sedated, as he would just follow me around the yard in  a head collar with a slack lead rope. 

“Week after week it was soul destroying to see the horse cooped up in a 'prison.'"

Marcus recalls, “One day, watching from the house, I thought there was some improvement; sometime in July, I think. From then on I would ask Sophie every day whether she thought that there was any progress. Amazingly, he started to walk with relative ease after a few paces from the stable. Was this the start of a recovery? We then began building up over months, to twice a day for 40 minutes on the hard ground.” Through the wind and rain and snow of the English winter, we built up his fitness.

Following MRIs and endless trot-ups, Tokyo was approved by the Rossdales vet to begin undersaddle in April 2018. “The recovery journey became part of the Stud’s ‘raison d’etre’. We were going to succeed and he was going to event again. The vets would say do this or that for three months, and we would double it to six!” Marcus says. 

The team took it slow, patiently increasing his strength on the flat, and by the fall, he was ready to begin his eventing training. There was a small caveat though — with Tokyo’s previous rider Neil Spratt retired, the black gelding went to FEI World Equestrian Games gold medalist, Piggy French. “I didn’t know Tokyo before or through his injury and we basically treated him like a normal horse coming back into work having had so much time off. We obviously respected the situation and just gave him the time required to bring him back to full fitness. To be honest he is still building muscle even now. His potential is high, he clearly has ability but he also really enjoys his work and loves the job so fingers crossed!”

The Comeback King

On March 10th, 2019, two years after that fateful day in the field, Tokyo completed his comeback. In typical U.K. fashion, the weather conditions weren’t ideal, but the almost-freezing temperatures, gale-force winds, and horizontal rain did not sway the Craggs’ team from the elation we felt watching Tokyo once again compete. The result wasn’t important but the fact that he was back galloping round cross-country was a miracle in itself. He produced a fault-free round. Tears were shed as he crossed the finish line — the last two years of hard work, determination, and never giving up had paid off.

After four novice runs, Tokyo and Piggy headed to FAIRFAX & FAVOR Rockingham International for his first CCI2*-S. Starting the day off with a bang, the duo scored 20.6 in dressage - his best ever dressage score. They cruised through show jumping with a clear, and set out on cross-country, ears pricked and raring to go. Despite the incredibly hilly course nothing would get in the way of Tokyo taking home the win. Coming home with just two time penalties, there was a sparkle in Tokyo’s eye - it was clear how much he loved the sport and was happy to be back in the winner’s circle. 

The following week, Tokyo faced his biggest challenge since injury — his first long-format three-day event: the Saracen Horse Feeds Houghton International CCI2*-L. With cross country (the most strenuous on Tokyo’s legs) on the middle day the question on the forefront of everyone’s mind: would he stay sound for the last day of showjumping?

Producing an unrivalled dressage score in front of Houghton Hall and storming across the cross-country within the time to hold his lead, Tokyo came out of his stable the next day as sprightly as ever, passing the final trot-up with flying colours. The whole team watched the show jumping, not daring to breathe, bracing with every fence he jumped. Having cleared the last, tears and smiles spread across the faces of the Craggs family and all involved with Tokyo’s comeback journey. “His win at Houghton and the prize giving with my wife Emma, who has been undergoing chemotherapy, was an astonishing sight to behold.” Marcus says.

And just like that, Tokyo had done it, back to back international wins from the horse who was told he had a likely fatal injury. I learned a huge amount from my time with Tokyo - but most importantly, at a very difficult time in my life, he taught me that if we just kept placing one foot in front of the other, we would be ok.

Every single thing this horse has done since his injury has been viewed as a huge achievement, coming home from the hospital, being allowed to trot up, walking a sound lap of the yard, being ridden again, and winning his first international events back to back. Nobody knows what the future holds. As Marcus says, “He may not make the Olympics, but he will always be our Tokyo”. 

No mountain is endless, some are just steeper than others. Keep walking, you'll get there.

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Photography by SEH Photography

Written by Sophie Harris

Based in the UK, Sophie can normally be found somewhere near a horse with a camera in hand. Having previously worked as a professional groom she has now turned her attention to capturing the equestrian world through her lens and occasionally writing about it usually with her loyal black lab, Cleo in tow.