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Tim Stockdale: ‘I have broken my neck but I still expect to compete in Olympics’
The show jumper lies in a hospital bed after a horror fall, but tells Sue Mott nothing will stop him riding in London aged 47.
Tim Stockdale, one of Britain’s leading show jumpers, is staring at a white ceiling today. If he moves his eyes he can catch a glimpse of the hospital window. If he’s in the mood he can watch a tiny television suspended above his bed. Mostly though, he is thinking about being fit to compete at the 2012 Olympics, as he did in Beijing three years ago on his magnificent grey mare, Corlato.
The only problem in this scenario is that he broke his neck. A horrendous fall from a young horse just over a fortnight ago has left him lying in a hospital in Oswestry, Shropshire. To him this is a frustration and nuisance, a painful one, but it fails to dim his ambition to be part of the London Games. To the medical professional, however, it is a double fracture of the neck and his doctors are insisting on another month of complete immobility. He has headaches, understandably, but it has been the agony of uncertainty which has caused him more distress than the pain.
“I don’t mind telling you I cried a little bit at first,” he says, from his hospital bed. “There was a lot of pain and I was strapped to the bed so I couldn’t move. But the worst thing was that nobody wanted to give me any answers. As well as being extremely mashed up by the fall, I was really frustrated. No one would say whether this was short-term, long-term or finito. ‘This is the last chapter,’ I was thinking. I’d wanted to retire on my own terms one day, ride away to a cigar and glass of wine after some great victory. Not a stupid fall off a young horse in the Welsh hillsides. It felt wrong, dramatically wrong. I must say I was struggling.”
What had begun as a foray into North Wales, well off the beaten track, to try out a recommended young gelding had ended with a call to emergency services as he lay on the ground, knocked out cold, blood running out of his ears.
“I remember nothing,” Stockdale says, perhaps mercifully. “All I can recall is trying to get on the horse and then getting off again because there was an issue with the stirrups. I was going to abort the ride altogether but the guy said: ‘Sorry, get back on again. He’ll be fine now.’ So I started to do some work when he shot off into a flat-out gallop. The girth slipped and as he was turning left I started to slip off backwards the other way. I must have looked like a bloody Cossack. All I could see was a fence post and horses’ shoes and then I remember nothing.
“I must have gone like a washing machine, spun and smashed. I was knocked out cold for half an hour and finished up out of the arena on the other side of the fence. When I came round I asked the guy what happened. He just said: ‘You don’t want to know.’ The blood coming out of my ears was lucky in a way. When they heard that, the emergency services told someone to keep my head still. That might have saved me.”
He finished up in hospital with multiple and massive bruising, bruised kidneys, enough internal trauma to require a catheter and five days of morphine to manage the pain. When his wife, Laura, brought his two young sons to visit, aged 12 and 7, they were initially afraid to go in the door. “They’ve probably seen Casualty and thought I’d be wired up to all kinds of horrible machines but they’re all right now.” He has since been moved to the specialist Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Oswestry where he has nothing but high praise for the staff (and the beef pie), although they are struggling to control his perennial urge to do more.
Stockdale’s world has condensed, suddenly and extraordinarily, from running a yard, riding a string of horses and competing internationally on his world-class bay gelding, Kalico Bay, to the smaller but rapturous delight of being allowed to take his neck collar off to shave. “You know when you’re wearing a niggling pair of shoes that don’t fit properly. Times that by a hundred. That’s my collar. When I take it off, even for a few seconds, it’s bliss.”
He cannot blame himself for the accident. Riding young horses is what show jumpers do. “That’s my job. I’ve done it hundreds of times. You’re always looking to enhance your string of horses. But I don’t put myself at risk. I’m too old for that at 47. I’m not a stunt rider. I just thought that it was worth going off the beaten track into Wales to look at this horse because it just might be that golden nugget you’re always searching for. If you try to buy an eight or nine-year-old, they’re too expensive. Over a million pounds, some of them. So we try and produce our own and we’re very successful at it. We produced Corlato all the way through. That was dream stuff. Mills & Boon. That’s why I’m always looking.
“I’m pretty philosophical about all this. Having a fall is an occupational hazard. I always maintain that about once every five years, you’re going to have a decent fall. Riding horses, you’re putting your neck on the line. Literally. But I’ve always been a positive person. I remember once when I was 14 I split my hand open. But I wanted to ride in a show the next day, so I didn’t tell anyone and sewed it up myself with my mum’s needle and cotton. It went septic later and I was quite ill but that did not matter. I rode in the show, finished second and qualified for Hickstead.”
A hugely popular competitor, Stockdale has received mounds of cards and well-wishing phone calls from all over Europe, plus the assurances of continued support from Kalico Bay’s owners, Colin and Ann Garratt, and his sponsor, John Harris, chairman of Fresh Direct . The work at his yard in Northampton is being maintained by his wife in between the 200-mile trips to visit him. “She’s very good under pressure, my missus. Some people crumble in a heap but she stands pressure very well.”
That could be a useful asset. The consultants have explained that her husband could make a fine recovery – he already has movement in all his limbs and the fracture is stable – as long as he remains completely still for another four weeks. He could be riding again by March. “I’ve got tanks of motivation now. If I can get myself up and running and if Kalico Bay takes this break to get over a few niggles, we can both come out flying. I tell you what, we could be very close to making the Olympic team.
“Watch this space.”