Based just out of Maitland in the Lower Hunter Valley of NSW, Lisa Martin grew up with horses and has built her life around the animals she loves. Her ankle injury in 2000 was never going to hold her back; Lisa not only got back in the saddle, but returned to Grand Prix level dressage with great success.
With less than 15 per cent movement in her ankle joint, she was invited to compete at Grade V para dressage in 2007 — however, it was not until she was approached by Equestrian Australia six months out from the Rio Olympics that she took up the opportunity. She went on to represent Australia with her mare First Famous, finishing fourth individually in the Team Test, Individual Test, and Freestyle final. In 2018, the pair also achieved over 70% in the Grand Prix arena back home in Australia.
Last year, First Famous had seven months off due to a niggling injury. Lisa spent time riding her young horse, Juicy Wiggle — a four-year-old by Jive Magic, who is half-sister to another horse of hers, In Time, and also closely related to a mare she rode in the early days, Just Elegant. Bringing First Famous back into work later in 2019, she was going well in early December after four months back under saddle.
“I was just getting First Famous ready for her first competition,” recalls Lisa. “I’m usually riding here on the property on my own, 99% of the time; I have a phone on me, but my husband still works an hour away in Scone and my daughter Jess is at boarding school.
“I was just on the long side of the arena, and I’ve stopped and I just wanted to practise a rein-back a couple of times with her because sometimes she can get a little bit sticky in that movement. As I’ve gone backwards, she’s bitten down on her tongue and frightened herself, causing her to go back really quickly. There’s a gully where the water drains away down the side and then there’s quite a steep bank on the other side of that… so she’s put a back leg over the arena kick board, tumbled sideways and collapsed back over herself. We landed between the drain and the bank, with her on top of me. Because she’s so big she couldn’t get up straight away; she was stuck on top of me scrambling.”
As fate would have it, a family was moving into the little cottage on Lisa’s property that day. “I had opened my cottage to a horsey family who’d lost their house in a fire. They were actually moving in, and they heard me screaming. They’ve come down to the arena at 100 miles an hour and called an ambulance. First Famous had taken off by this stage and the gardener, who had never touched a horse in his life, caught her and tied her up with the double bridle to a tree. He still raves about it!”
Lisa was rushed to John Hunter Hospital with severe internal injuries, and spent three weeks in the trauma ward. “Both sides of my pelvis were smashed. My sacrum and sacroiliac joint were smashed. I’d taken all the points of my spine off down one side and crushed that. I couldn’t feel my legs for quite a while… that was probably the scariest part, not knowing if I would ever walk again.”
Lisa underwent major surgery and had “a heap of steel” inserted, however, the surgeons couldn’t do the work they wanted to initially, because the nerve running through her spine into the sacrum area meant it was too dangerous. “They didn’t tell me that at the time, because they only tell you so much.”
The weeks that followed were a bit of a blur. Lisa remembers having many visitors in the trauma ward — something she greatly appreciated. “I can’t tell you how much people visiting helped me — during those early days and then later throughout the recovery process.”
Lisa was transferred to Maitland Private two weeks before Christmas for rehabilitation. She remained there for three months, learning how to walk again. A lot of her early recovery was spent in the hydrotherapy pool, where she was able to learn to walk without the weight down through her back and hips.
Lisa spent Christmas in rehab, as well as Jess’ eighteenth birthday. “My room became my life. It was decorated for Christmas. I was in lockdown three months before everyone else was! I had really, really tough days in there because 90% of the other rehab patients were elderly. It felt like I was in a retirement village; it was actually quite difficult to deal with. I’m only in my 40s and here I was feeling very old.
“Coming home was the most exciting experience. To come home and have your animals around you again… I remember the first time I could touch my horses, it was really emotional.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to let this beat me. There are people out there in worse situations than me, and I refuse to let this beat me’. I started my own rehab at home and it was going well… and then I went backwards. I thought it was just normal pain I was going through, but it turned out when I went back to the surgeon, that where he put the steel through to hold my pelvis and sacrum together — because I’m not in alignment, one hip is now a lot higher than the other hip — there was too much movement and the bone wasn’t healing.”