Interview with Irish eventing rider, Jonty Evans
- Credit: Kit Houghton
2018 might not have gone as planned for eventer Jonty Evans, after suffering a life-changing fall, but he is back riding and looking to the future. Debbie Graham catches up with him
This time last year life for Irish eventer Jonty Evans, from near Cheltenham, was looking pretty good. He had won his first international eventing title at Belton International CIC three star, had a string of up-and-coming horses, and Tokyo 2020 was just two years away.
To cap it all, after a crowdfunding campaign, he managed to secure his Olympic horse Cooley Rorkes Drift, aka Art, after he was threatened with sale. Yep life for Jonty was sweet and he was, he says, “looking forward to good times.”
Then in one moment his life changed. Going cross country at Tattersalls International Horse Trials in June 2018, Jonty suffered a life-threatening head injury at the third jump from home.
“I hit my head and had a traumatic brain injury. They initially sedated me and put me in a coma to protect my brain, and then they couldn’t wake me up. In the meantime they got panicky and drilled some holes in my head to release pressure, and warned my mum I might not wake up.
“I feel more sorry for the people connected to me, than for me. William Fox-Pitt [who had been in a coma for two weeks after suffering a head injury in 2015] put it very well. He said ‘you don’t need to worry about Jonty, he is where he is’, and that was dead right; I wasn’t aware.”
For the next six weeks the eventing world seemed to continue as normal, but in reality it had paused, holding its breath for Jonty, with everyone desperate for good news about one of their own.
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Jess Crocker, editor of Eventing Worldwide, started the campaign Wear Green for Jonty so his family could see the level of support out there for this popular rider. It took off and she then started selling green wrist bands and polo shirts in aid of the David Foster Injured Riders Fund, who have supported Jonty in his recovery. Within the first week of launching they had packed and posted over 1,000 orders.
“When I heard about it, I said ‘no way’ and didn’t believe it. My mum and my sister had to show me as I wouldn’t have it. It was incredible. I even met a lady who died her hair green. I have to thank Jess for what she achieved.”
Jonty is known as one of the best event riders in the world and like many other talented top riders worked up from the bottom.
“My mum was very horsey and riding has obviously always been a way of life for me, but there’s always been a quest in me to know how to do something, and how to do it better. That is very important to me.”
His first job was with Tuffy Tilley, before going on to work for many other top riders and trainers including the Olympic dressage rider Trish Gardener. But it was a job with Kiwi eventer Andrew Nicholson that really shaped his career.
“He is absolutely brilliant. He shaped my work ethic. Going to Andrews and understanding what made the best eventing yard in the world was eye-opening.”
Inspired by Andrew he set up on his own with just one ex-racehorse, making money teaching and riding, and by 2005 he had made the Irish team for the European Championships.
In 2011 he took the ride on the six-year-old Art and together they sailed through the ranks, forming a partnership that would take them both to their first Olympics in 2016, where they finished ninth.
“Rio was amazing. Riding a horse that’s so intelligent he can look around an event, take it on board, and do what he does, is amazing. There were only three triple clears in Rio and he was one of them. Words can’t describe how I feel about him. He’s an incredible horse”
But this meant Art had become hugely valuable and in 2017, to Jonty’s dismay, the owners decided to sell him. Through a crowdfunding campaign Jonty managed to raise the £500,000 needed.
“When I got the funding I looked Art in the eye and thought to myself, ‘you don’t have to go anywhere mate’.”
That everyone wants to help Jonty, then and now, comes as no surprise. His genuine friendliness, sense of humour and warmth has won him friends all over the world. But also every event rider knows, that under a different set of circumstances, it could be them lying in a hospital bed.
In July 2018 came the news everyone was waiting for. Jonty had regained consciousness and was talking. The relief was palpable, but for Jonty life was very different. The last he remembered was being very fit and able, and now he found himself in a hospital bed having to learn to do everything again.
“I think I woke up gradually, and it took a long time for me to come round, and realise what was going on and what I had done. I was very fit before my accident and I was told It was probably my fitness that had kept me alive.”
But the old Jonty determination hadn’t diminished. One of his oldest friends Mike Knight would visit and take Jonty out in his wheelchair. Then, when out of sight of hospital staff, they would stop and Jonty would force himself to stand and then sit back down again.
“That was as much as I could do and that was quite an effort,” he says. “I was determined to walk again. I wouldn’t let my children come to Ireland because I was in a general ward and there were things going on children shouldn’t see, so I was desperate to see them. So, in my wisdom, I decided to misbehave in the hope I would get sent home to Cheltenham.”
He finally got his way and left Ireland in late August, by which time he says he had learnt to ‘walk badly’. His recovery continued first in Liverpool before he moved to, thanks to the David Foster charity, the expert rehabilitation centre Oaksey House in Lambourn, run by the charity the Injured Jockey’s Fund.
“Oaksey House is full of experts, people who know what they’re doing, and that makes a huge difference. To have somewhere like that, somewhere you know you can rely on, is the constant in my life.
“The Dave Foster Injured Riders Fund have been brilliant and the fact people would give money in support of injured people is absolutely mind-blowing. The kindness of human nature is fantastic, and if there’s any way I can repay their kindness, and the charities, I will. My family have been brilliant too. My mum was with me the whole time in hospital.”
In December, when he first sat back on a horse there was no feeling of euphoria, but rather a sense of this is right, this is what’s meant to be and where he belonged; normality.
“In terms of plans, it’s difficult to make any because the most frustrating thing is I don’t know where I will end up. I might stop mending tomorrow, or I might keep improving for three years. Everybody’s brain injury is different,” he says.
No one, least of all Jonty, knows whether he will ever event again but this accident shouldn’t be allowed to define him, past, present or future. Today his yard might be quieter than it was a year ago, but Art is still there and Jonty is back riding him, his horse of a lifetime. This time, though, their roles are reversed as instead of training Art, Art is now teaching Jonty.
We never know what the future holds for any of us but Jonty isn’t looking back. The road ahead is what he’s concentrating on and if the past eight months are anything to go by he will achieve whatever he sets his mind to.
“I am not interested in what’s happened in the past,” he says. “I only look at what’s in front of me.”