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True grit: trainer Jo Foster winning battle after fall that broke her back

Trainer Jo Foster at Jack Berry House
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David Carr calls in on Jo Foster as the trainer recovers from an injury in November that was a lot worse than she initially believed


Parents, eh? There's nothing worse than being shown up by your mother when you're 11 years old and in your first year at big school.

So you have to feel sorry for trainer's son Felix Foster, whose novice season at Ilkley Grammar was enlivened by a recent trip to the local cinema.

"We arrived and the film had just started," recalls his mother Jo. "We walked in and five girls from Felix's class were sat in the front row.

"The whole of the picturehouse then saw my boyfriend Pete lift me out of my wheelchair, then carry me along the row, as everyone stood up to let us past, and Felix had his head in his hands, thinking 'This is the most embarrassing moment of my whole life'.

"The poor boy is mortified to go anywhere with me because it's so embarrassing – people feel sorry for him and he can't cope with that."

Fortunately, Jo Foster can do enough coping for two people – she's shown that through a horribly testing couple of months, a period when knocking over the odd cinemagoer's box of popcorn was not her biggest worry.

Surprised by injuries

Foster is the archetypal tough horsewoman – a showjumper, amateur rider and now licensed trainer, with her Menston yard based in what the tourist board would call Bronte country but a racing fan recognises as Sue and Harvey Smith territory.

But nobody is indestructible, as she found out one day early last November.

"I was on a youngster we hadn't had very long," she recalls. "It was going a bit too quick, there was nowhere to go, it went into the back of another horse and I fell on to a rotavator.

"It hurt but I didn't think I'd done that much damage. I probably was in a lot of pain but I've got quite a high pain threshold."

Houndscourt wins for Jo Foster at Wetherby last year

A CT scan at Airedale Hospital in Keighley showed the extent of that damage. "I'd broken four bones on the back of my spine and my pelvis was detached from my spine," says Foster.

"I was quite surprised – from the ambulance I'd rung an owner who was coming to see a horse and I said, 'I won't be able to get there because I've got to go to hospital, so maybe come tomorrow!'"

Instead, she was transferred to the trauma ward at Leeds General Infirmary. She says: "I had two operations because I had a big hole in my back where the piece of metal had gone in and they had to clear it out, then they fitted two ten-inch screws through my hips and my pelvis into my spine.

"I was in hospital for 11 days but it was brilliant – you just press a button and people come! And you get three-course meals twice a day. But the worry was keeping the business going."

The heavy lifting back in Menston was being done by Pete – "but he's a land agent, he's got a proper job!" – mum and dad, despite their being flat out selling 2,000 Christmas trees in their own business, which could scarcely be put on ice until Easter, and the "fantastic" staff.

Hard going

And the boss's discharge from hospital was hardly the cavalry arriving over the hill.

"I couldn't even go up to the gallops some days," Foster reflects. "I could go into the yard, looking at horses and feeling legs, but it's trickier getting to the gallops – you're already getting someone to drive the horses up there for you, then you need someone else to take you up, and you've got to sit in the van, you can't get your wheelchair out in the middle of the field.

"Going home and not being able to do anything was the worst, you're confined and you lose control and independence. If you go outside you get your wheels dirty and somebody has got to clean your wheelchair before you come in. It's all taking up other people's time and everybody was having to do my work anyway. You feel like you are demanding the whole time."

Nor has Foster been racing since her fall. She says: "I was going to go to Wetherby on the day after Boxing Day but it was freezing and I felt rubbish. Some days have been really hard, feeling in pain, tired or quite down, which I'm not used to.

"There have been a few dark days. Immobility is mental torture. You just feel you've no control over your life, you've no independence. I couldn't remove myself and take myself out. I'd love to be able to stand on a moor and feel the wind and rain on my face, on a horse or not – it's quite soul destroying I can't do that.

"But then I think, 'Stop feeling so sorry for yourself, pull yourself together – you're only like this temporarily'."

Jack Berry House the key

Not being at Wetherby meant she missed seeing a fine fourth place from stable stalwart Houndscourt, whose part-owner Jack Berry has been her salvation in recent weeks.

Foster has been a regular visitor to the Malton venue that was born out of Berry's tireless fundraising for the Injured Jockeys Fund and spent her birthday there last week – "I'm 45," she admits, reluctantly. "I've been 28 for a long time but this has put a few years on, so I'm 30 now!

"I can escape to this place for hydrotherapy, physiotherapy, gym work and nutrition. We've done loads of fundraising for the IJF over the years – Jack said, 'Now you're reaping the rewards', and thank goodness I did because otherwise I would probably have felt guilty. It saved me from mental torture!"

"I'm now allowed to do some exercises on crutches. Having always pushed the boundaries when I was riding, I'm now a really good patient because this could be life-changing if I don't look after myself. I'm desperate to stick to the rules and they are really strict – they say, 'You'll be in a wheelchair if you do not look after yourself'."

If she does, Foster could well be back to full fitness in a couple of months, and she's vowed to get straight back on the horse, literally.

"I never thought I wouldn't ride again," she says, stressing that what has happened will leave no mental scars.

"It wasn't the fall, it was what I fell on," she says. "If the rotavator hadn't been there I'd have got back on and carried on. It was just bad luck – and it's actually good luck because I can walk, I have not done too much damage."


You may also be interested in:

Facing up to my new reality one year on from life-changing fall

Jolly japes as Dettori and McCoy pull out all the stops for Injured Jockeys Fund

There have been a few dark days. Immobility is mental torture. You just feel you have no control over your life, you have no independence

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