As with most summer sports, the eventing season fades gently into autumn. The venues, based around the great country houses of England – Chatsworth, Badminton, Burghley and Blenheim – become smaller until, after this weekend’s event at Calmsden in Gloucestershire, the sport peters out.
Then the men and women who have spent months involved in dressage, cross-country and show-jumping batten their yards down for the winter; time spent coaching and dealing in horses.
However privileged it seems from a distance, it is a sport with relatively little money. Zara Phillips could probably afford to take the winter off but then she is the Queen’s granddaughter.
Harry Meade was born into equestrian royalty. His father, Richard, was the country’s greatest three-day eventer, winning Olympic gold in Mexico City and Munich. In August, his son helped take them to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
By any reckoning, his season in company with his horse, Wild Lone, had been astonishing. Had they both finished it, their story would be happy and remarkable.
It was a season not even his family had expected or wanted him to start and he had trained for it recovering from a horrific injury with his arms strapped up to protect two shattered elbows.
Along the way, he and Wild Lone, bought for £10,000, had come third in the sport’s marquee event, the Badminton Horse Trials, and were on their way to finishing second in the World Equestrian Games in northern France, the qualifier for the Olympics.
All four British horses went clear. Wild Lone was the last to go and when he was taken off to warm down, he collapsed and died. Meade was faced with the task of taking an empty lorry home from Normandy.
When he talks of his horse, he speaks of Wild Lone as if he were a person; at the stables in Wiltshire they called him Alf. “He was suspicious, a little bit introverted; he would take a while to get to know you. Most event horses are alpha males but Wild Lone wasn’t. He was brave, though.
“Because of who my father is, there had always been this ambition to win an Olympic gold medal,” Meade said. “On the podium, I was thinking that I had the opportunity but now I didn’t have a horse. My world had been turned upside down.”
Harry Meade’s world began to turn in August last year. He was on a routine cross-country course during a three-day event in Somerset. The fence was nothing special but the horse was distracted. Harry was thrown forward and thrust out both his palms to break the fall. In his own words, the impact caused his elbows to “explode”.
It is one of the worst injuries to befall any British sportsman; certainly one of the worst from which they have made a recovery. His became a story of morphine and operating theatres, grit and wild, ridiculous hope. Wild Lone was with him for most of the journey.
At the start of this summer, in the teeth of his family’s fears, Harry took Wild Lone to the Badminton Horse Trials. He finished third.
He had trained for Badminton with his arms in braces. Initially, he had ridden in secret. The only people Harry told were his wife, Rosie, and Jess Errington, who heads up his stable. “My father was against it. I know he was just trying to be protective,” he said. “Every time a shot of pain ran through my arm he would gently say: ‘Don’t you think this is time to stop?’ When I finally told him I was doing Badminton, he shrugged his shoulders and turned away.”
On the morning of the Badminton cross-country, Rosie tried to persuade him to withdraw. “I was told to remove myself,” he laughed.
For two and a half months Harry could not use his arms at all. He slept with them in slings and propped up on pillows. Rosie slept in an adjoining room, listening for any cries of pain via a baby monitor. They already had one young child, Lily, and another, Charlie, was on the way.
“There was plenty of time to think. Your first thoughts are about the prospects of being disabled and what kind of life you will lead,” Meade said.
“You accept your career is over and you start thinking of yourself in the past tense. You think of what you could have achieved and what you would have liked to have achieved. That did mean that when I recovered I had a to-do list.
“My first thoughts were also that I now had no income but I did have a business to fund and a young family. Rosie was pregnant and had taken unpaid leave to give me 24-hour-a-day nursing. The thing that kept coming back to me was that I had no insurance.”
In January, his family suddenly became bigger when Rosie went into labour on their bathroom floor. When Harry phoned for an ambulance and described his wife’s state, he was told he would have to deliver the baby himself.
He could still barely use his arms, had just learnt to feed himself using a long salad spoon, and now he had a midwife on one line and the 999 operator on the other, each giving contradictory advice. Eventually, the midwife prevailed. Charlie arrived. When we spoke, he was bouncing on his father’s knee.
Many sportsmen, especially those who have recovered from serious injury or a catastrophic loss of form, become the prisoners of superstition to guard against any repetition. “I am exactly the opposite,” said Meade. “I am not like Goran Ivanisevic, who at Wimbledon would shower in a different cubicle after every match and, if he used the same cubicle, became convinced he would lose the next one.”
Whenever Ivanisevic went on to Centre Court, he would pass an extract from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, written on the wall of the players’ entrance. The lines about triumph and disaster may be worn from over-use but they remain the essence of sport.
They were written when Kipling was broke and wondering how he would look after his pregnant wife. For Harry Meade, who has lost his horse, gained a son, helped qualify his country for the Olympics, sustained and then recovered from the kind of injury that would smash most careers, the lines might seem particularly apt.Reuse content