Woman with touch of gold

Sue Montgomery talks to the physio whose healing hands inspired Mr Mulligan
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The Independent Online
Where all the King's horses and all the King's men might have failed, the physiotherapist Mary Bromiley gloriously succeeded. Not with Humpty Dumpty, but with the Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Mr Mulligan. Mind you, the situation might have been as eggy as the aftermath of that business with the wall, for as Bromiley said: "It was like putting someone like Sally Gunnell back together again. You never know if its really going to work until it's tested."

Bromiley was singled out for mention in the victory speeches of both Noel Chance and Michael Worcester, Mr Mulligan's trainer and owner, after Thursday's triumph, and rightly so. For without her the giant chestnut gelding would not have recovered from his great fall at Kempton on Boxing Day, when he lost an argument with the last fence, in time to take his place in the Gold Cup.

But if the idea of a personal physio for a horse seems indulgent, why should it? These days no self-respecting athlete would run a step without one, and racehorses are but sportsmen and women in equine form. Mr Mulligan had left Kempton battered, bruised and very sore, no state for one with his Olympics just 77 days away and was sent the few miles from Chance's stables at the Berkshire racing village of Lambourn to Bromiley's Downs House therapy and rehabilitation centre at Baydon.

The place was the first of its kind in Britain when it opened 15 years ago and was viewed with suspicion by traditionalists; nowadays its number tends to be the first one dialled by a vet with an athletic injury to heal, and up to 20 horses, of all kinds, are generally undergoing treatment at any one time, all year round.

Bromiley, whose father was both vet and doctor, worked first as a highly qualified human physiotherapist (and she still has a clientele which includes world-class runners) before expanding the remit of her professional skills. Her credo has been to over-ride the notion that simple rest is invariably the great healer, and introduce human-like programmes of active, accelerated recovery through use of machines, massage and controlled exercise. The horse world is not one noted for its acceptance of new-fangled methods, but Bromiley's persistence, expertise and results eventually won it over.

For 11 intense days, Mr Mulligan's aches and pains were eased and repaired. As a result of tearing muscles in his hindquarters he had developed a massive haematoma, a solid lump of clotted blood, which manifested itself as an ugly swelling inside his left hind leg like, according to Bromiley, "a great boob hanging down to his hock".

She added: "Once a scan had established there was no injury to the bone and damage was only to soft tissue, we used a cocktail of massage and muscle stretching, low-level laser treatment and exercise. The work we made him do went back to the basic classical principles of horsemanship, just as a dancer will return to ballet. What we do is to make sure the muscles that hold the skeleton together are in correct working order. Then it's up to the trainer to develop the activity muscles."

A horse, of course, cannot speak to his therapist as can a human athlete. The only guides are his reaction and performance. When Mr Mulligan arrived at Downs House he stood at the back of his box, cross and miserable. Before he went home, he was at the door yelling with the best of them for his evening carrot.

"We called Mr Mulligan the giraffe when he came, because his legs went in all directions. He must be a difficult horse to train, as he's so big and ungainly, and his stable have done a marvellous job. I couldn't believe how well he jumped in the Gold Cup."

The race was a wholesale triumph for Downs House, for the man who gave Mr Mulligan such an inspired ride, Tony McCoy, was also a patient there. Bromiley's daughter Rabbit, like her mother a qualified physiotherapist, treated the 22-year-old jockey after he broke a shoulder in January. And two other Cheltenham winners, Flyers Nap and Hanakham, passed though en route to glory.

Bromiley first used her skills in Malaya, where she used to buy broken- down horses cheaply, patch them up, and win races. Since those days she has built a reputation that has taken her world-wide, sharing her knowledge with evangelistic passion and soaking up more with an unflagging zest.

The repair of a pony or cob gives as much pleasure as that of a Gold Cup or Badminton winner. "We are very lucky to be called in to help," said Bromiley, and added, with an entirely genuine humility: "The whole thing is a team effort, with vets, owner, trainer and lads involved. We're just one of the pitstops along the way."