Paul Kimmage meets Jonty Evans: Champion rider coming to terms with future away from the saddle after near-death fall
Following his near-death fall, Jonty Evans is slowly coming to terms with a future away from the saddle
On the night before the flight to Bristol, and the drive to the Cotswolds, and the search for his cottage in the quaint but curious village of Notgrove, Jonty Evans sends a text message that triggers an inner voice and leaves you scratching your head:
"That was the message?"
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"That's what he said?"
"Do you need to see the horse tomorrow?"
"Why would you need to see the horse?"
"What's the horse going to say? Don't blame Jonty? It was all my fault?"
"He's obviously confusing you with Monty Roberts."
"He thinks you work for Horse&Hound?"
"How long was he in a coma for?"
"Are you sure he's okay?"
Irish Olympic rider Jonty Evans remains in the neuro intensive care unit of Beaumont Hospital following a heavy fall on the final day of the Tattersalls International Horse Trials. The 46-year-old was rushed to hospital after he fell from his Rio Olympic ride, Cooley Rorkes Drift, in Ratoath, Co Meath, On Sunday.
The British-based eventer was second going into the deciding cross-country phase of the George Mernagh Memorial CIC 3-Star competition, and was just five fences from home when the accident occurred at the second element of the final water complex. The incident occurred when the horse hit the flagpole coming out of the narrow bush element and the pair jolted sideways on landing.
Evans, who was hanging sideways on the near side, hung on but fell off the horse just as they reached the top of the ascent mound. It's understood the event rider landed on the right side of his head and shoulder and nearby medics raced to his aid. The athlete was quickly attended and assessed and within minutes, both a helicopter and an ambulance were called to the scene.
Irish Independent, June 5, 2018
In his book, The Horsey Life, Simon Barnes paints a fascinating portrait of people who love horses. What it boils down to is a kind of gene, he suggests, that some people have and some don't. It runs in families. It's a gene for horsiness.
"No doubt people with an affinity for these big and dangerous animals were pretty useful at most periods of human history, while an exceptional performer in that sphere would be cherished. That goes back to the dawn of civilisation, and the domestication of animals," he writes.
"I suspect that the horseman was an early specialist in the history of human evolution. At the same time, horses that lacked the reverse affinity, horses that failed to respond to domestication, would simply be discouraged: killed, eaten, not bred from.
"Only those horses who had an equal and opposite affinity for humans would have been cherished in their turn. It is a symbiosis that has lasted from prehistory through to modern times: horses can't do without humans, but then humans - some humans - really can't do without horses."
Jonty is one of them.
We're in the cottage drinking tea and talking about the horse. I don't want to talk about the horse. I am not a horsey person. I do not have a horsiness gene. I want to talk about his fall and the fear and the things that make his sport the most dangerous in the world. But he's insisting. And I'm confused.
"Art is an amazing horse," he says. "You would nearly say he was human."
"I thought he was Cooley Rorkes Drift?"
"Most horses have a posh name and a normal name," he smiles. "Art is what we call him at home."
"It was Rorkes Drift because the owners liked the wine, and the husband was a military man and liked the battle of Rorke's Drift. And Cooley because he came from Ireland."
An awkward pause ensues.
"You love horses?" I suggest.
"How did it start?"
"My mam had a love and an understanding for the creature which she obviously passed on, but it's not really a love for me - it's more than that. Of course I love horses, and I love doing what I do - what I did - but it's my identity. It's what makes me. And that was formed from a very young age."
"From being around them?"
"Yeah, and the whole lifestyle. I had a fantastic mentor - a big farrier called David Randall - and his motto was 'You always put the horse first.' So you didn't eat until it had eaten. And you didn't go to bed until it had gone to bed and was comfortable and stuff like that."
"What did you get from them?"
"They were probably . . . the horses were my friends."
He was born in Burton-on-Trent, spent some time as an infant with his grandparents in County Down and was four-years-old when his mother, Maggie, met his stepdad, Arthur, and moved to the Crafnant valley near Trefriw in North Wales. It was, he says, an idyllic childhood. He learnt Welsh in school and enjoyed most sports but the joy in his world was horses.
"We lived in the mountains of Snowdonia and would ride our hairy ponies into the Forest Commission land and over the valley to this town/village called Betws-y-Coed, and if you wanted to get home that night, the horse had to take you. That's where it started really - you became at one with the horse and learned to read what it liked and disliked. And that ended up with me being able to ride them and train them and do what I did."
The spark was a boyhood trip to the Badminton Horse Trials, the world's premier three-day event, where he was smitten by the adrenaline and excitement of the cross-country. "I grew-up in the era of David Foster and Ian Stark and Ginny Leng and watching them at Badminton was something I aspired to. But you aspire to it without realising the work it takes to get there or what it's all about."
His apprenticeship started during holidays from school with Tuffy Tilley, a wily teacher and specialist of the craft. He moved from Tilley's to the Hallam's in Merseyside and the Clegg's in Yorkshire, but learned most from his time with Andrew Nicholson, the eventing superstar from New Zealand, who inspired him to go it alone.
What he didn't have was money.
He found a yard in the Cotswolds, got his hands on an ex-racehorse and started teaching to pay the bills. "How do you make a living? Not easy," he says. "People send you a horse and you charge money to produce the horse and take it to events. But you don't 'own' anything from that. Some riders buy and sell horses in order to supplement their income; other riders, and I did much more of this, teach as well."
His march on the summit was a slow and painful grind. In September 2003, five years after declaring for Ireland, he was selected for the European Championships at Punchestown on a team that included Sherelle Duke and Austin O'Connor and started with a fine dressage and praise from The Irish Times:
"Jonty Evans is riding at his first championships and was totally overcome when he took the early lead yesterday morning after a classy test from the 10-year-old Cregwarrior. Evans, who is based in Gloucestershire but claims his place on the Irish squad through his paternal grandfather, scored a personal best 41.6 and was unashamedly emotional when the commentator announced him in first place."
He faded at Punchestown and didn't finish, but was 40th at the Europeans - his second major championship - two years later and 29th on his first appearance at Badminton in 2007. "It was a middle-of the-road career," he smiles.
"I had one or two horses longlisted for the Olympics in Athens and Sydney, but was never in the hunt, as it were, of getting a place."
It was a long time before he would compete for Ireland again. Eventing is like motorsport - show me a great driver and I'll show you a great car. Jonty had never had one. And then, out of nowhere, he was gifted the horse of a lifetime.
It is July 2011. He's driving home from Marlborough with a horse called The Rocket Man and happens upon a broken-down horsebox on the Fosse Way in Gloucestershire. It's been a middling day at the Barbury Horse Trials and Jonty's not inclined to stop but he is, by nature, a good man and his kindness gets the better of him.
The truck is goosed. The driver is stranded. Could he possibly help them out? He loads the horse - a young bay gelding - into the box.
Its name is Cooley Rorkes Drift.
The owner, Fiona Elliott, is a local veterinary surgeon. A good deed begets another and she asks Jonty if he would like to take the horse for a while. It's obvious, pretty quickly, that Art has potential. "He had a hell of a walk, and a hell of a canter and consequently a hell of a jump," Jonty says. "But the thing that really stood out was his brain. I had to teach him but it wasn't difficult. His brain was amazing."
The horse is five and has plenty to learn so it's softly, softly at first - three years of learning the ropes at shows like Somerton and Gatcombe and Osberton. Then the summer of 2015 arrives and Art starts to shine: eighth in his first three-star event at Tattersalls, a brilliant third at Blenheim, and a great performance in front of 60,000 people at Boekolo in Holland, where he qualifies for the Rio Olympics.
Jonty had to pinch himself.
"I was 44-years-old and going to my first Olympic Games," he says. "I felt so grateful to all the people who had helped us to get there because the whole thing was mesmerising. I was on my own one morning in the athlete's village having breakfast, and this big American girl taps me on the shoulder and asks to swap a pin. It was Serena Williams!
"Then we went out (to Deodoro) on a familiarisation to the main arena where the sides were so steep and the seats went up and up and I thought: 'Oh my God! I love this place.' And I knew Art would love it because he's not flighty and reactionary like some top-level horses. He has always loved crowds."
They made some headlines in Rio ("Superb Evans and Cooley Rorkes Drift lift Irish to fifth") before eventually finishing ninth, and confirmed their arrival at the summit of the game with an outstanding performance at Badminton a year later. The European Championships in Gothenburg were on the horizon and for the first time in his life Jonty was dreaming of medals.
The dreams didn't last.
A month before the championship, in July 2017, a wealthy American offered £1m for the horse. "It was like somebody had ripped the bottom out of the world," Jonty says. "Fiona had said they would never sell him but she had a young family, and when you're offered that kind of money you don't really have a choice. You have to take it. But it was absolutely wrenching. Awful. I couldn't cope."
There was one chance - he could keep the horse for a cut-price deal of £550k.
"I tried a load of things . . . sponsorship . . . a private buyer . . . to raise the money," he says. "A friend of mine called Andrew Kojima had come second on MasterChef and raised money for a restaurant in Cheltenham by crowdfunding. I talked to him and decided to give it a go. We made a video and set up a website and I couldn't believe it. The fund started to build."
The target was reached on August 9. He left the house and walked down to the yard and Art was in the stable. His stable. "I looked at him and thought: 'You haven't got to go anywhere.' And that was enormous."
Eight months later, on April 13 2018, they won the Belton International Horse Trials. It was Jonty's first international win and it tripped a switch in his brain: "I had always thought I could only win when everybody else was not at their best but I realised (after Belton) 'Actually, I could win.'
"I had the best lot of horses in the yard that I'd ever had - Art, obviously, a fantastic horse called Gambesie and a very good horse called John the Bull - and the experience and the wherewithal to do right by them. And that mattered to me. That really mattered to me. I felt Art could go to the Tokyo Olympics, and that John the Bull or Gambesie could go to Paris."
But then he fell.
Behind all the snobberies lies the fear. Fear stalks every avenue, every passageway, every stable, every gallop, every school. It is not snobbery that is the constant of horsey life, it is fear. It is not a large thing, it is not a thing you worry about, it is not even a thing you notice very much. But it is always there. Generally, it is pretty subtle: a grain of salt in a pint of water. But even for the bravest, even for the most blasé, even for the most confident, even for the most empathetic, even for the most sensible, fear is inescapable.
'The Horsey Life'
Two years before Rio, in the summer of 2014, Jonty was bucked from a young horse and thrown to the ground. He was unconscious for 20 minutes, suffered a bleed on the brain, lost the power of his right leg, and broke three vertebrae and three ribs. Two months later he was back competing again.
"It didn't make you step back and think about it?" I ask.
"No," he replies. "It made me go forward to do what I've got to do."
What he does/did is the most dangerous sport in the world. In the 25 years since Ayrton Senna's fatal accident at Imola, there has been one death in formula one and 59 in eventing. Jonty could probably name them.
David Foster, a boyhood idol, was killed during a cross-country at Rathmoylan in 1998. He was 43. Sherelle Duke, a former teammate, was killed during a cross-country at Brockenhurst in 2006. She was 28. Andrew Nicholson, another idol, has broken his neck. William Fox-Pitt, another rival, has had a brain injury.
"I was there when Sherelle's horse had the accident at Brockenhurst," he says. "It was awful. I couldn't believe it. She was such a lovely girl. It was like being hit by a bus."
"And it could be you?" I suggest. "I've a quote here where you acknowledge it: 'I could kill myself doing this sport'."
"Yeah, and it's borne from the fact that I have seen people die. It doesn't take Einstein to work out that it's a dangerous sport. The hat companies and the body-protector companies are doing their best to minimise the risk, but there's still an inherent risk."
"And you accept that?"
"And being a father of two kids doesn't change that?"
"I've talked to my daughter a lot about it, that what we do makes us happy, or makes us who we are. I think it's important to recognise the risk, and to try really hard to manage it, but you have to do what you want to do."
"Tell me about the fall?"
"It was the final trial for the World Equestrian Games and I was told Sally Corscadden (the high performance director of the Irish team) turned around as I came to the jump and said, 'Jonty has this won. That's him on the plane for Florida.' And then I fell off. But I don't remember much."
"I could tell you how the horse jumped every fence. I could tell you the minute-markers on the whole of the course all the way up to the fence before where I was a little bit off and got a bit close. Then it all went blank and I don't remember anything."
"Is there footage? Have you looked?"
"There's a video but I haven't watched it."
"Is that for a reason?"
"Yes. I firmly believe that you forget things for a reason, and I assume that if my brain has chosen to forget then it's best left out."
"What's your first waking memory?"
"I don't remember. I was apparently in a coma for six and a half weeks."
"What's that like?"
"I don't know."
"Yeah, some people say they remember nurses' voices and things but I can't remember anything. I don't remember waking up at a particular point. It was fairly off and on.
"What about your understanding of what had happened to you?"
"My first thought was, 'Right, I'll be back on a horse in no time,' and then you realise that not everything is working. I couldn't talk or walk or get out of the bed without a sling. They had to winch me into a wheelchair, push me around and winch me back in. That's hard. That's when it hits you - your life's probably not going to be the same again."
The hardest part about falling has always been getting up. He had survived the injury and months of hospital at Connolly and Beaumont and the Walton Centre in Liverpool. He had survived the frustration and embarrassments of rehab. He was walking gingerly and talking (almost) normally and was thrilled to be home with the kids. But when he returned to the yard everything had changed.
Gambesie and John the Bull and his lot of promising horses had been returned to their owners. The staff were also gone as he could not afford their wages. His second marriage had shattered six months before the accident. And as he stood surveying the wreckage, it felt like King's Landing after the dragon had spit.
But he still had Art.
"He looked at me, I looked at him, and that's as far as it went," he says. "But without doubt he knew. I still don't think he did anything wrong in the accident. It was just unfortunate how I landed and banged my head."
"So where are you now?"
"Where am I now? I hate, with a passion, the fact that the accident has cost me my career. And I'll never forgive it for that - ever. I'm aware that even if my life gets back to nearly the same, it will never be exactly the same. One of the hardest things about brain injury is not knowing where you are going to end up. I had a very structured life. I knew exactly where the horses were going, and what I was doing, and I don't have those structures any more. But I can't pretend the will to do the sport has gone."
"Yeah. The main period of healing is from 12 to 24 months and I haven't got to 12 months yet, so I don't know. And the will to teach and be involved has definitely not gone. I'd have to feel it was more sensible to stop than to carry on, and at the moment I don't know."
"What about Art? Have you thought about putting somebody else on him this year?"
"Not really, no."
"You don't want to?"
"I just wouldn't."
"Because you want that somebody to be you?"
"If I get to a point where I can't do it, I'll think of putting somebody else on him. I don't have an issue with that. But it would have to be somebody I had a good empathy (with)…"
"You're going back to Tattersalls?"
"Yeah, I'm looking forward to it. People have been so kind to me - it's the thing that's most apparent from the Europeans in Punchestown to when I stayed there in hospital. Everybody in Ireland, or everybody I've met, seems to have a warm heart. They seem to be kind."
Welcome back, Jonty.
Sunday Indo Sport