After a horrific car accident left her unable to walk, Emma Booth had just one goal – getting back on a horse and representing Australia at the Paralympics. By Cindy MacDonald.


Tall in the saddle: Emma Booth, equestrian

I don’t know why but ever since I was really young I’ve had a real passion for horses. We lived in suburbia and my parents probably thought I was just going through a phase. Then when I turned 11 I entered a competition The Saddle Club TV series was running to win a pony for 12 months, with every cost covered. I think over 30,000 kids entered and I was lucky enough to win. That’s what started my real riding career. I continued eventing all through high school and I was lucky enough to be offered a job riding dressage horses in Germany when I was about 20.

In 2013, a friend and I were on the way home from a horse event in Albury with her two horses. It was 8–8.30 at night and the roads were a bit wet because it had been raining. As we were coming around a bend a truck had jackknifed. I remember seeing the truck’s headlights coming towards us. I woke up in the car after the accident and my friend was next to me and she was conscious but a bit frantic, and the whole car was shaking because one of the horses was scrambling in the float. That’s an awful memory that has stuck with me. I was taken directly to the Royal Melbourne Hospital and immediately had life-saving abdominal surgery – I had a lot of internal bleeding – and I then went straight into my spinal surgery. I had a lot of injuries but the nurses had told me the most extensive damage was to my spine and spinal cord. I knew early on that I probably wouldn’t walk again. It was very hard news to take.

Unfortunately both of the horses were killed – one on impact and the other was euthanased a bit later on. There was a lady travelling behind us who also collided head-on with the truck, and she was sadly killed as well. It was a big, big accident and we were actually extremely lucky to get out alive. So I try to look at it in that light.

I was only 21 at the time and early on there were days that were very mentally challenging. But I had decided it wasn’t really a question of If I could ride again but When I would be able to ride again. I was discharged from hospital after four months, five months earlier than the doctors had first predicted. I worked really hard to get home and went to all of my rehab sessions – gym programs and psych appointments, whatever they put in place, I did. Six months after the accident I got back on a horse.

Only about two weeks after my accident I started googling the Paralympics’ equestrian events. That night I actually said to Mum and Dad, “Okay, I’m not an eventer anymore, I’m now a dressage rider and I’m going to go to the Rio Paralympics.” I threw it out there but I don’t know how seriously I actually took it. It probably wasn’t until I had my first ride that I thought, “This is something I actually could do.” A few fundraisers were set up and we got the funds together to purchase an internationally competitive horse in dressage. Zidane has been a huge part of getting my new life on track and giving it a big purpose. He keeps me motivated.

After my accident I did have to learn a new way of riding. In able-bodied riding your legs are used to communicate with the horse. I now use a lot of voice commands and also a slight shift in my weight in the saddle. I’m also allowed to ride with two whips and they’re a sort of compensation aid for my legs.

It gives me a real boost to get on Zidane – a sense of freedom. There are, of course, certain things I now can’t do. I was a runner before my accident, but in a way Zidane is now my legs. I love having that connection with him too, where we communicate without having a language. I’ve always been an animal person – I’ve got two dogs and two cats as well.

Getting selected for Rio was one thing, then getting over there was absolutely incredible, being on the world stage representing my country with Zidane. The Paralympic village was also a really special place. Everyone there has their own story and their own challenges they’ve had to overcome in order to represent their country. Because it was such a special experience you just want to do it again, so I am now aiming for the 2020 Tokyo games.

To maintain my fitness I love to do Pilates. It’s something I started after my accident because it’s so related to the intricacies you need in the use of your body on the horse. I also do some writing for an equestrian magazine, and I do some coaching of other riders. Seeing them move forward really gives me a sense of purpose. I now do motivational speaking as well. The thing you get out of it is hearing back from audiences and learning something about them. Before my accident I never would have seen myself speaking in front of large groups.

[Paralympian] Kurt Fearnley has got such a contagious vibe about him. Even just speaking to him, he gives people that real determination and it’s a really incredible thing. He was the co-captain in Rio and a real motivating factor for me there. If I can be half the person he is and achieve half the things he has, I’ll be happy.

It’s really important not to sweat the small stuff. That’s something that I’ve learnt. And you need to use the support that’s around you – for me that was my family and friends. My parents and siblings, particularly after the accident, were just there for me every day.

If given the opportunity to change the events of that night, I wouldn’t. Yes, it was a really awful thing and a terrible experience, but from that I’ve been able to meet the most incredible people and achieve the most amazing things. Going to the Paralympics in Rio was just absolutely out of this world and being able to do that was a result of my accident. I think it’s made me a stronger, better person.

This week’s highlights…

AFL: Hawthorn v Gold Coast Suns

Saturday, 1.45pm (AEST), UTAS Stadium, Launceston

Netball: Sunshine Coast Lightning v Giants Netball

Saturday, 3pm (AEST), USC Stadium, Sippy Downs, Queensland

Rugby union: Wallabies v Ireland

Saturday, 8pm (AEST), Allianz Stadium, Sydney

NRL: State of Origin, game 2 – New South Wales v Queensland

Sunday, 7.40pm (AEST), ANZ Stadium, Sydney

• Cricket: Australia v England, 5th ODI

Sunday, 8pm (AEST), Old Trafford, Manchester

Soccer: FIFA World Cup – Australia v Peru

Wednesday, 12.01am (AEST), Fisht Stadium Sochi, Russia

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 23, 2018 as "Tall in the saddle".

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Cindy MacDonald is The Saturday Paper’s deputy editor.