Death 'never crossed my mind'

Debbie Henderson, who broke her back in a horse-racing accident, and 10-month-old son Will at home in Oamaru. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
Debbie Henderson, who broke her back in a horse-racing accident, and 10-month-old son Will at home in Oamaru. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.

The horse-racing world might still be mourning jockey Ashlee Mundy, who died after a fall at the Kurow races in December, but one former Oamaru jockey who suffered a horror fall believes jockeys will not be deterred.

More than nine years ago, a fall at Hastings racecourse left Debbie Henderson in a wheelchair.

She said yesterday most jockeys accepted broken bones as a hazard of the job but it had never crossed her mind that racing could result in anything more serious.

''I never thought it was dangerous, when I was riding. I used to think `if I break a bone, it's no big deal'. I never thought I might get killed or break my back.

''It never crossed my mind.''

However, Miss Henderson said Ms Mundy's death had ''shocked'' her.

The 38-year-old mother said she still vividly remembered her own fall in June 2003.

''I remember coming into the fence and I can remember [jockey] Chris Allen coming up to me saying, `We've got to get out of the way; the horses are coming around again. And I remember saying, `Not yet, I can't'. And then I realised I couldn't actually move.''

In 1994, Miss Henderson, on Noble Express, became the first female jockey to win the Grand National Steeplechase at Riccarton in Christchurch, but the fall at Hastings resulted in spinal injuries that left her without the use of her legs and confined to a wheelchair.

She spent three months in Burwood Hospital, where she had rods inserted into her back, as well as treatment for a punctured lung and broken ribs. But she had always kept a positive attitude.

''When I was in Burwood, I believed I would walk out of there. I thought `No, I can beat this; hard work fixes everything', but it can't fix a broken back.

''I always hoped I would walk, and it's a good possibility to think that, but I don't think it is a reality, to be fair; not any more.''

She had been a jockey for about 11 years before the accident, and adjusting to the realities of her injury led to a ''complete 360'' turnaround in her lifestyle, she said.

''I went from being away every weekend, riding through the winter overseas and doing everything at the drop of a hat, to everything having to be organised in advance. Some things are just not accessible [in a wheelchair]. A lot of things are out of reach.''

However, she remained fiercely independent, and still mows the lawns at her Ardgowan home.

''It's hard. Everything I do is harder than it was before,'' she said.

''It's certainly a life-altering change. But I have great friends and family; I couldn't have done it without my friends.''

Although some things might be out of reach, motherhood was not.

After a trouble-free pregnancy and birth, she and her partner Mark Bamford are now the proud parents of 10-month-old Will, and Miss Henderson said life had never been better.

Although there was ''no drama'' with the birth, she said she did initially have concerns about her confidence to look after a child. However, her doubts proved unfounded.

''I just thought it was hard enough to look after myself, let alone someone else, but he's pretty good to look after, really.

''Baby Will is my greatest achievement.

''I'm healthy and I have a healthy wee boy. Life at the moment has never been so busy. I've never been so busy or tired, but it's never been so good.

''Just because you have an accident, it doesn't fundamentally change who you are, even though a lot of people think that.

''Bloody-mindedness and stubbornness helped me out a long way.

''Everyone has issues. It's just how you deal with them, and there's always someone worse off than yourself.

''It was an emotional roller coaster getting injured, but I think we have come out the other end.''

Despite the accident, she is still involved with the racing fraternity, as a shareholder in a horse, and she still enjoys going to the races.

''Racing was so much fun. I had the most fantastic time. All my memories are good memories.''

The racing world was ''just like an extended family'', she said.

- andrew.ashton@odt.co.nz