From the saddle to standing - this paralysed young jockey is fighting to walk
Jonjo Bright was a promising jockey until a fall left him paralysed from the waist down. He talks to Siobhán English about rebuilding his life and a new career in farming
Next week thousands of athletes from around the world will take part in 'Run in the Dark' in aid of research into a possible cure for paralysis.
It is something very close to the heart of former amateur jockey, turned full-time farmer Jonjo Bright who suffered catastrophic injuries in a fall during a point-to-point race in 2013.
From Dublin to Belfast, and New York to Sydney, it is hoped that €500,000 can be raised for the Mark Pollack Trust which works tirelessly to find a cure for young men such as Jonjo who, with the help of technology, may walk again unaided.
In March 2013, the Co Antrim native was forging a career as a jockey when a horrific fall at Tyrella Point to Point left him with permanent spinal damage, and wheelchair bound.
His days in the saddle were over, but right from the start Jonjo showed incredible strength and willpower which would stand to him as the years went by.
Initially paralysed from the waist down, with sheer determination he now has regained movement in his arms which allows him to take an active role in the day-to-day running of the family farm.
He has also regained limited use in his legs.
"I still believe that a cure might be available in the future, so I have to continue to work towards that and keep my body in good condition," he said.
As well as attending intense physiotherapy sessions several times a week, Jonjo also has regular access to the exoskeleton suit which has been helping him to get back on his feet since it was introduced into Ireland in 2015.
Designed to help people with mobility disorders to be upright and mobile, it enables him to use his own body weight to walk in the machine.
"At the start there was only one suit in Ireland. That was brought in by the Irish Injured Jockeys. Now there are three suits here and so many people are benefiting from them," he said.
"The thing is, the body was not designed to sit down all day and so the suit allows me to walk for up to an hour at a time. I can usually walk 700 or 800 steps at a time, and each time it gets easier and more like a natural walk."
Since its establishment in 2014, the Irish Injured Jockeys has been offering both financial and emotional support to jockeys who have suffered both temporary set-backs and career-ending injuries on the track.
"They have been incredible and have put me in the best position to make as good a recovery as possible," he said.
"In no other sport I believe would you find an organisation who would look after you so well."
Jonjo also credits Dr Adrian McGoldrick with giving him immense support through the bad times.
As the Turf Club's Senior Medical Officer, he has seen his fair share of race-riding injuries over the years and knows the emotional impact it can have on jockeys whose careers have been cut short. By looking forward, and not back at those dark days, Jonjo is now concentrating on developing the family farm with his father John, as well as continuing to enjoy his love of horses by doing some buying and selling from time to time. "My family always had the farm and I knew it was something I could get involved with again after the accident," he said.
In addition to a herd of 40 Stabilizer cows, they also keep some 75 breeding ewes on their 140-acres of grassland.
"We got the Stabilizers because we were told they were easy calvers, and we have reduced our ewe numbers to save the ground but hope to get back up to 100 or so again in a few years."
Jonjo and his father recently introduced Romneys, with the intention of lambing outdoors from next year. "We are slowly making changes to make the farm as easy to run as possible. We may not be able to control beef and lamb prices but we can control management and the way we run the farm."
Having been involved in horses from a young age, Jonjo will always have that special bond with them. Last year he purchased a few thoroughbred yearlings with the hope of selling them on as three-year-old stores.
"My girlfriend Reah also keeps a few show hunters, so it's nice to stay involved in horses in any which way I can."
Jockeys rally around their injured comrades
Jonjo Bright attended the Downroyal Racing Festival to present a cheque for €10,500 to the Irish Injured Jockeys. It was raised during an annual barbeque held by Jonjo and members of the East Antrim Hunt.
“The Irish Injured Jockeys has been a fantastic support to me throughout so it’s nice to give something back,” he said.
Led by chairman Ruby Walsh, Irish Injured Jockeys’ vision is to provide long-term care and guidance, not only when jockeys have suffered injury through race-riding, but when they will need help in their secondary careers and in their lives after they have finished riding.
They work with individual cases and also support The Jockeys Emergency Fund, The Drogheda Memorial Fund and The Irish Jockeys Trust.
Each year various fund-raising events take place throughout the country. One of the most recent, the Corinthian Challenge for amateur jockeys, saw participants each raise €10,000 for this worthwhile cause.
Held at three racecourses, The Curragh, Gowran and Leopardstown, the series attracted participants from all walks of life, from Cork school teacher Jessica O’Gara to British show jumper Tim Gredley.
After a thrilling finish the series was won by Lynne McLoughlin from Baltinglass.
Michael Higgins, General Manager of Irish Injured Jockeys, said: “Fair play to Lynne on a fine achievement of winning the Corinthian Challenge. She put in a lot of work and was a deserving winner. Great credit also goes to the rest of the riders, it’s a huge commitment and we are really appreciative of their efforts.“
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