24hr Support Line 0800 6300 443
15 March 2023

Case Study: Esther Spencer

Esther loved her job as a Head Person at one of Middleham’s racing yards. That was until a head injury caused her health to deteriorate quite rapidly, and she found herself needing support from racing’s human welfare charity, Racing Welfare.

Esther was usure what was causing her chronic neurological symptoms, symptoms that had come and gone over the course of a couple of years. She said: “I was quite poorly, but not yet diagnosed. I wanted to keep working but was finding it hard to hide my difficulties from others. I eventually told my boss who put me on lighter duties so I could continue working. Unfortunately, during this time I had an accident [whilst working with a young horse]. I tore my ACL [Anterior Cruciate Ligament] and had a knock to the head which triggered a flare up of my previous neurological symptoms – it was clear there was something going on, and that’s when [my employer] put me in touch with Racing Welfare.”

The local welfare officer at that time, Sarah, supported Esther for an extended period as she received physiotherapy for her torn ligament and sought to obtain a diagnosis for her ongoing neurological symptoms. Eventually, with Racing Welfare’s support, Esther was given a diagnosis and work towards a better quality of life could begin.

Esther recalls: “It took nearly two years to get my diagnosis, and Sarah was with me at every step. Things were getting out of hand neurologically. My balance and hands weren’t working properly – my brain wasn’t talking to my body.”

To help her cope with her symptoms, which included crippling back pain, muscle weakness, and seizures, Racing Welfare funded physiotherapy, hydrotherapy and acupuncture treatments. The charity helped her overcome barriers that her condition caused, such as helping her access medical appointments when her symptoms made it impossible to drive, and purchasing a washing machine for her when she was unable to make it out of the house to a launderette.

She says: “I couldn’t walk very far, I didn’t have a washing machine, and the launderette was quite a way into town. Small things like that really do make a big difference.”

Esther talks about how Racing Welfare not only supported with her physical health issues, but also mentally as it became clear that returning to her job at the racing yard would not be possible. She says: “When I had to stop work, that was the worst thing. When you work in horseracing it’s your social life, your work, everything.

“Work was always my identity. That’s who I was, then suddenly that was gone.”

Sarah suggested to Esther that she might benefit from attending a horsemanship course that the charity was offering in partnership with HorseBack UK. The course was fully residential, in the beautiful Scottish Highlands, available to a small group of beneficiaries who’d experienced physical or mental trauma.

Esther said: “It took a while for me to decide whether to go to HorseBack. I didn’t think I had any mental health issues – I was completely ignoring any effects on my mental health… I’d grown up in a family who’d always just got up and got on with it. Though, I finally agreed.

“I remember the first day, a chap called Jock talking about kindness. I was sat with all these people I didn’t know and I just started crying. I realised I’d been ignoring everything – I’d ignored the fact that it looked like I was going to lose my job… I thought, as long as I can just keep going, I’ll be ok.”

Esther admits that she hadn’t realised what a huge toll her physical health struggles had taken on her mental health. She reflects on her life-changing experience at HorseBack UK: “I got so much out of HorseBack. By the time the course finished I was a far stronger person than I had ever been previously. If Racing Welfare hadn’t referred me to the course I think I would probably be in that same mindset now. I was a walking time-bomb. It was all going to have to hit eventually. HorseBack UK helped me diffuse that.

“On my return I realised I needed to tackle these issues head-on. I started a course of CBT [Cognitive Behavioural Therapy] and still receive psychological support now. “

Esther reflects on how she is still searching for her renewed identity and continues to work with Racing Welfare to help with this: “I still probably don’t know who I am now. I always used my job title to define myself.

“I’ve completed the mentor course with HorseBack UK and will be returning there at the end of March this year to mentor another Racing Welfare group.

“I also volunteer with the local RDA [Riding for the Disabled] and for Racing Welfare’s Check-In and Chat service. Sarah had suggested that I receive calls a few years’ ago, but I’m getting as much from it as a volunteer as the people that I am talking to. I feel better being the one that is instigating the call. It helps with my sense of purpose now. It’s good to have that, otherwise every day can become the same.”

As part of her volunteer role with the local RDA, Esther will be at Racing Welfare’s ARC Middleham Open Day on Good Friday (7th April). She says: “It’s nice seeing all the people coming in their coach loads from the surrounding cities and towns, all having a great day out.”

Esther closes by reflecting on all the support she’s had from Racing Welfare over the years: “It had never occurred to me to get in touch with Racing Welfare, I don’t like admitting it was a tough time.”

To anyone else in that mindset, she says: “Go to Racing Welfare. They’ve heard it all, it doesn’t matter what you sit and say to the welfare team. You could just be going in for a cup of tea and a chat – popping into one of their offices or calling Racing’s Support Line doesn’t necessarily mean you are going through a big problem. They were great, and have really helped me.”

The ARC Middleham Open Day takes place on Good Friday, 7th April, 2023. For further information or to book tickets go to www.middlehamopenday.co.uk