Alex gets back in saddle and pursues dressage dream after her brush with death
A brush with death is enough to make anyone reconsider their priorities in life. And so it was for South Hams horsewoman Alex Farleigh.
When Alex was kicked in the chest by a horse in her own stable yard in May last year, an accident which left her with a shredded liver and a ruptured lung, she very nearly didn't make it.
"We were in the yard, loading horses," recalls Alex. "I was loading a mare, and suddenly she swung her backside out and kicked with both hind legs, hitting me in the chest. She didn't mean to. Consequently I was thrown 20 metres into the air, and ended up with a shredded liver."
As Alex drifted in and out of consciousness, bleeding profusely, she was dimly aware of those around her keeping her alive, both at the yard and in the Devon Air Ambulance helicopter en route to Derriford Hospital in Plymouth.
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"My blood pressure was very high, and they thought that they were going to lose me," says Alex, who has run Dittiscombe Equestrian Centre, near Kingsbridge, for the past 25 years. "Without the air ambulance, I wouldn't have stood a chance."
She spent five weeks in hospital, with complications including septicaemia as potentially deadly as her original injuries. Her daughter Emily, who runs the yard with her mother, divided her time between her mother's bedside and keeping things with their staff, "a brilliant lot of girls".
Alex could have died, but she says that it was the thought of her children Emily, 23, and Matthew, 25, that made her determined to pull through.
"What kept me going was my two," she says. "They lost their father to a brain tumour several years ago, they couldn't lose me as well."
Then there were all her friends and supporters in the Westcountry equestrian world, who kept up the messages of support. "People were amazing, they were so kind. There were a lot of texts, saying 'she'll pull through, she's a tough old bag!'."
Luckily, they were right. And as the weeks passed, and Alex realised that she had indeed cheated death, she started thinking about what she wanted out of life.
She vowed to fulfil a personal ambition which had laid dormant for some time, to train her horse Amun-ra up to compete in the Advanced level of Pure Dressage. While she had competed in her youth, more recently her busy life running her business and helping her daughter in her own eventing career.
"I think it gave me a kick up the backside, It made me think 'for goodness sake, life is short, you never know when your number is up' get out and do it while you can," says Alex, 55.
"It is easy to make excuses, like the fact that my daughter is competing now, that I'm busy running the equestrian centre and so I don't have enough time, but then I thought if you don't do it now, both you and the horse will be drawing your pension. He's 16 now, so it is good that both of us had got back out there and achieved what we wanted to do."
It was no mean feat. When Alex came out of hospital, she needed a lot of care at home from her daughter, as it was three weeks before she could walk. "At the time I couldn't have sat on a rocking horse, let alone a real horse," she says.
But she made slow but sure progress. "In the first week in September I had a little sit on my horse, and by the end of September I was absolutely fine, back to work and doing everything."
With Emily taking the reins at the equestrian centre, Alex has been able to put aside time to train.
She spent regular slots with well-known trainer Matt Frost in Gloucestershire and at Bicton College in Devon with Sue Petty, who, as a judge in Pure Dressage competitions, was able to give her valuable insider tips.
And Alex duly qualified this May to don the immaculate garb of top hat and tails to compete at the advanced level in Pure Dressage.
She had not worn the garb of the Advanced level for 12 years, so it was a proud moment when she dug them out of the wardrobe.
She has already taken part in a couple of competitions, winning a first in one competition and a second in another. She plans to continue her training, with ambitions to compete in Prix St Georges (PSG), the first level of international dressage.
Alex has not forgotten the lucky escape she had last year. She and her son Matthew took part in a skydive from 1,500 feet at Dunkeswell on the Blackdown Hills, raising £4,780 for the Devon Air Ambulance, as a thank you for airlifting her to hospital. If she had gone by road, she says, she would never have survived.
It was an emotional occasion when she met the crew who rescued her at an open day.
"The Devon Air Ambulance were amazing. When they drop people off at hospital, they don't know what happens to them next, and with me, they thought I hadn't made it," she says. "I can't thank them enough for what they have done. They saved my life."