'It's the Million Dollar Question': Following a Traumatic Fall and Coma, Jonty Evans On His Recovery and the Hope of Riding Again

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Published on November 5, 2018

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f the last few years are any indication, eventer Jonty Evans is not a man who shies away from a challenge.

It was a challenge to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, finishing ninth individually for Ireland with his partner, Cooley Rorkes Drift. It was a challenge to launch a major international crowdfunding campaign to keep that same partner – a horse he’d produced up the ranks himself – in his yard after his owner decided to sell him. And it will be a challenge to get back to baseline after a serious fall on cross-country this summer that left Jonty in a coma for more than a month.

Like so many that have come before it, this latest obstacle is one that Jonty is bravely walking toward. In fact, he’s running.

“I’m walking on my own and I’ve [actually] just run today for the first time, so I’m quite pleased with that,” Jonty says by phone from his temporary flat in Liverpool, U.K. He is stationed near the Sid Watkins Building at Liverpool’s well-known Walton Centre, a hospital specializing in comprehensive neurology, neurosurgery, spinal, and pain management services. It’s here that Jonty has been receiving a series of intensive training and occupational therapy sessions, typically three to four times a day.

Related reading: what four key things helped Zara Tindall climb the ranks to eventing success? Find out here.

“I’m very lucky because [the Sid Watkins Building] is renowned – all of us are here for either brain or spinal injuries,” Jonty explains. “I’m doing a lot of physiotherapy, and also hydrotherapy in the swimming pool. That’s brilliant, actually, because it doesn’t matter if you’re going to fall really badly, the water will catch you.

“[In general], I’m feeling okay. It’s hard, I suppose, because the bad shot is that no one knows how it will end up, and how good it will get. The doctors and everybody say I might ride again, but they don’t know how well I’ll ride, so that’s the 64 million dollar question.”

It’s been more than four months since Jonty was injured while riding Cooley Rorkes Drift – known to fans around the globe simply as “Art” – at the second element of a water complex at the Tattersalls CIC3* in Ireland. Art was uninjured, but Jonty suffered a serious head injury and was quickly transferred to a local hospital and then on to Beaumont Hospital in Dublin.

By all accounts, Jonty’s team at Sid Watkins is pleased and optimistic about his progress since returning to the U.K., which continues to surpass expectations. “In terms of the therapists, I don’t find it hard for them to be pleased with me, because I work quite hard,” Jonty says. “I find that part very easy, as probably most horsey people do. The determination runs through us quite [strongly].”

Wryly, the eventer admits that he is “regularly” reminded by hospital staff to take it easy, and not to push himself too hard. It’s advice Jonty has also heard from a number of fellow riders who have reached out after finding themselves in similar positions, including Olympic eventer William Fox-Pitt and British National Hunt jockey Dominic Elsworth. Dominic suffered a serious traumatic brain injury in 2009 and went on to race again – and win – at the highest level of the sport.

“Dominic said, ‘Listen to your body and rest when it needs rest, and don’t rest when it doesn’t,’” Jonty recounts, noting that, while essential to his rehabilitation, he has found that particular aspect to be difficult. “You have to learn to lie down during the day, which is something quite against what we would [normally] do,” he says.  

A second challenge, perhaps unexpected: being away from his horses. Fortunately, that’s one part of recovery that Jonty is currently working to rectify. “I went to see Art. He’s with a guy called Andrew Downes [in Staffordshire], who is only an hour away from here. [Art] was either pleased to see me, or he was pleased to see the Polos [mints], I couldn’t really work it out,” Jonty jokes. The Irish rider says he is also excited about the opportunity to get back in the saddle in the coming weeks – first at Hartpury College, in Gloucester, and eventually the Oaksey House in Berkshire, a rehabilitation center specially created for injured jockeys. Jonty is looking forward to being in the company of other riders, even if the “horses” are a bit tamer than what he’s used to.

“I’ve booked to go get on a horse [at the end of October], but it’s a mechanical horse, since I probably wouldn’t be safe on anything else,” Jonty says. “[I’ll be under] the guidance of a couple physios. I really can’t wait, because I think, even if all it does is walk, it will be the kind of movement that my body is used to, and that I’ve been deprived of for so long.”

While Jonty works hard in therapy and Art remains in training at Andrew’s yard, the rest of his string is back in the Cotswalds, in Gloucestershire, under the care of Jonty’s head girl, Jane Felton. “[Jane] has been absolutely amazing. She drove the lorry home from Ireland and she’s looked after Art and all the other horses through everything,” Jonty says. “What she’s done for me, words can’t explain.”

Since June, Jane, who’s worked for Jonty for five years, has seen her role expand in a number of ways, from working one-on-one with owners to coordinate the care and transport of their horses, to maintaining the stable orders and facilities, to keeping Jonty’s string in work. “I’ve always ridden the horses, but I’ve obviously taken on the main role to keep them ticking along and to maintain their level of fitness,” says Jane, who even brought a client horse to a local dressage show on her own.

“Yeah, I do dressage now!” Jane jokes. “I’ve always worked the horses and ridden through movements and that [in schooling], but I’ve never competed strictly in dressage before.

“It’s been really good fun, actually, and it’s been really kind of the owners to let me do that.”

“The support I’ve had has been off the scale, and if anyone ever doubts how much it means to someone [...] It really, really does. Every message, every letter, every card has been so gratefully received."

Gratitude has a top-down mentality at Jonty Evans Eventing, and like her boss, Jane is quick to credit those around her who have also stepped up to keep the yard running. That includes Sarah Moffat, who not only owns horses on Jonty’s string, but has also assisted with the accounting and other aspects of stable management in recent months. “I wouldn’t be able to do it without her,” Jane notes. “It’s really been a team effort between the two of us.”

Thanks to the widespread publicity resulting from the ‘Jonty and Art’ crowdfunding campaign in 2017 and the social media presence that’s followed, Jonty has achieved a kind of global and cross-discipline celebrity that’s rare in equestrian sports. Yet the outpouring of support he’s received in the months after his injury – including not only the standard cards, texts, and emails, but also a far-reaching #WearGreenForJonty campaign, launched this summer – surprised even him.  

“I was unaware of what was going on when I was in a coma, obviously, but as soon as I was aware enough, I was absolutely bowled over. I didn’t believe my parents when they said there was this kind of support,” Jonty recalls, emotionally. “The Irish Team was unbelievable in the effort they put in to come out of team training and come to the hospital where I was in Ireland; the great public everywhere was absolutely fantastic.

See how the equestrian community as a whole rallied behind Jonty during his recovery.

“The support I’ve had has been off the scale, and if anyone ever doubts how much it means to someone, I will personally fly wherever and put them in a coma for six weeks and they can see if it makes a difference [laughs]. It really, really does. Every message, every letter, every card has been so gratefully received. They haven’t all been replied to yet, but if I can, I will reply to them all.”

 

Responding personally to hundreds of well wishes might sound like a tall order, but it pales in comparison to the obstacles Jonty has already faced down and overcome. Those that know him best are squarely in his corner.

“I think his determination, work ethic, and his personality, beyond anything else, [will make the difference in his recovery],” says Jane. “If anyone can do it, he’ll get on and do it.”

Feature photo by Ben Clark.

Written by Nina Fedrizzi

Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.