IN THE SPOTLIGHT – Jo Marsh

Laura Phipps..
 

It was Einstein who said “in the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity”. This is certainly apt for Jo Marsh. Jo’s story is a seismic tale of triumph over adversity and I am lucky enough to be the story teller for you all. 

Listening to Jo, it instantly struck me that her modus operandi is passion and hard work. She is pugnacious and hardy when her game head is on, but she is also a warmblooded human being whose heartfelt interview was a breath of fresh air. Success will be no accident. But it was an accident that was perhaps the springboard for the future. Jo takes up the story “I broke my back when I was 17 whilst eventing. It was the worst day of my life. My spinal specialist told me I’d be crazy to get back on a horse but once he knew me, he soon realised giving up wasn’t an option. It was too dangerous to have surgery as the chances I could have become paralysed were high. So I went home and was bed bound for six months – the simple tasks of washing, going to the toilet and brushing my teeth, all suddenly became the biggest challenges. It was a further six months of learning all the basics again as I had lost every bit of muscle and strength I had. I remember getting on my feet for the first time and walking to the end of my room literally exhausting me.” As a true shining example of the seemingly indestructibleness of horse riders, Jo displayed a granite resolve and it was very much ‘have horses, will ride’. Jo continues “looking back it was a massive blessing. It made me grow up fast and appreciate everything I had and made me realise just how much I wanted to be successful. There was never a moment where I thought I’d give up.” Despite unwavering resilience, the ramifications of the accident still jars, even now: “I have had a bit of sports psychology, as since being back competing, I am nowhere near as brave. I haven’t put any pressure on myself to compete competitively until this year. I have had so many complications over the last few years but finally I am in a place where I can drive forward. So this year I am going to continue with some sports psychology to make sure I have a plan in place. I know breaking my back will always affect me, both mentally and physically but this is the first year I feel confident we have the right tools in place.” The ‘we’ refers to Jo and her Mom and Dad who are very much central characters in Jo’s story. More of that later. Despite the bitter arbitrariness of the accident, Jo (and her family, lest we forget!) have built an enduring empire. 

So, where does the first chapter begin, when was the equine bug born? “As a teenager I was massively into any sport I could get involved in, I am super competitive” remarks Jo. “I started riding at 13; my Aunt sent me to a riding school with my cousin to give us something to do on the weekends. I really struggled socially – I really lacked confidence and the only time I felt confident was when I was doing a sport. Horses changed my entire outlook and I have met some of the most incredible people through this sport – it really has made me who I am today. I was addicted from day one!” As is relatable to the majority – now bestowed upon the family was this other worldly existence of horse poo, falls, tears and joy. Occasionally the latter two of those together. “It’s taken over our entire lives!” laughs Jo. Where there is a pony mad girl, there are parents quietly trundling along somewhere in the background. “My parents had never even touched a horse until I had my first one at 14. Looking back now I can’t believe how far we have come.” Jo’s are a support team of the highest calibre. They handled this juncture in their lives without so much as a murmur, never mind detesting Jo wanting to event again. Neither do they observe succinctly from the sidelines. Absolutely the opposite. They have entered this heady fugue of eventing with nostalgic rapture as Jo continues “Mom now mucks out 10 horses morning and night and her entire life revolves around the yard. She’s crazy but she supports me more than she ever knows – she’s my go to person for everything and always knows the right things to say. And my Dad. Well, anyone that has met my Dad will know how competitive he is. He himself knows what semi-pro sport is like being an amazing rugby player in his youth. His whole mind set has always been getting to the top level. He has never missed a training session/competition of mine, until last year, when he had to have major spinal surgery that left him bed bound for nearly the entire year. Being away from the sport killed him. This year we have him back and he’s pushing more than ever.” As the old adage goes, there is a thin line between genius and madness. The madness? “We all work full time in different industries. We were never blessed with financial support so we work every hour God sends to make this work. Caffeine is the biggest addiction in our family” says Jo.

Jo was having a ball competing at up to BE100u18 level but we all know horses are great levellers. Through the distinct peals of commotion that was breaking her back, instead of making good with a break from the sport, Jo and her parents set about making good of the situation. Hard work knows no bounds – and they set about building their own yard as Jo takes up “I’m lucky enough I have a family of bricklayers and carpenters. We do everything ourselves. We always pondered what to do first – set about obtaining me the horsepower to get me where I needed to be, or build a premises that I could work from, so when the horses came, we were ready. We chose the yard due to my injury. I remember one winter, we literally worked through the night for weeks to build the stable block. The place is now my pride and joy. It’s nowhere near what I want it to be but we are just continuing to develop and adding to it when finances allow. There’s still a long way to go but I know I am so fortunate to have what I have. Sometimes I take ten minutes to just stop and look and think wow, this is mine.” It seems horsey folk are gluttons for punishment. Dreams are not achieved lying on your back even if you have broken it, as the family took on another venture. “Breeding was ALWAYS a huge dream of mine” says Jo. “When buying my first event horse I knew I wanted to buy something I could breed from. I put my mare in foal when I realised I wouldn’t be back from my injury as quickly as I thought. I got seriously addicted to stallion shopping. It was so much fun and wow, I’ve bred two amazing foals from Cevin Z. I’ll be backing the first of them this year, which is hard to believe! There will be some tears when I sit on him for the first time! I don’t have room to breed anymore but this is definitely the way I want to go in the future. I loved every second of it despite it being really hard work and stressful yet it was incredibly rewarding.”

Far from being a one trick pony, Jo is a dynamic dynamo. She also currently runs a small section of the yard as a full livery service and enjoys retraining racehorses; “I love this side to the yard; knowing that they are getting the best care. I currently have three amazing show jumpers in on livery. I love watching their careers progress. I’ve also always had a soft spot for an ex-racehorse. I usually have one or two in a year to retrain. The first horse I ever produced was straight off the track; their willingness to learn and athletic ability are great. I’m a sucker for a blood type. I’d also love to expand with this in the future if space and finances allow me” said Jo. 

Block by block, foal by foal, the family are seeing the vision for their empire brought to life. So, what of the future, what are they building towards? Perhaps, making good with what they can? No, they are building toward the big blue. The sky is the limit. “My dads dream is for me to have a Grand Prix dressage horse, a 4* eventer and a 5* showjumper” comments Jo. Suddenly, it’s felt Jo’s easy demeanour is suddenly roused to battle talk as the conversation turns to her goals. “My long term goal, like many, is to get a gold medal around my neck. And if you ask my dad it would have to be on one of my homebreds. This may sound totally unrealistic to some and yes, I’ve heard so many people say ‘she must be joking, she’s deluded’, but I wouldn’t work 19/20 hour days, 7 days a week if I was just playing at this. I know I’m still a ‘nobody’ in the equestrian world but one day the right people will see the vision my family and I have and we can really go for it. I train hard in all disciplines because I want to excel in all the phases, not just be good. I feel all the disciplines can learn from each other and I know the horses love the variety. I love learning,
I’m a bit of a geek. I have two incredible trainers in Hannah Biggs for dressage and Joe McDonald for showjumping. This sport is SO tough, there is so much to learn but we are giving it our best shot with the tools we have to perfect each phase. I know it will pay dividends in the future.” Said not so much as a revelation but a statement of fact. Jo continues “we currently have nine of the most incredible horses on the yard. I love getting to know them all individually and allowing them to find their own personalities. We usually have lots of young horses starting their careers here, so I forever feel like a Mum to them all. It’s pretty special watching them blossom knowing you’ve had a major influence on their life” she enthuses. 

Jo’s current horses to compete include Wilderness Halcyon a 16.2hh 8 year old gelding by Arkadian Hero and Scarborough Rock a 16.2hh 9 year old gelding by Notnowcato. No coincidence that both are ex-racehorses. Jo describes Halcyon as the love of her life: “He’s just a dream. He’s like a gigantic dog with the most amazing heart. I’ve had him since the start. As for Rocky – he’s now converted to the showjumping world. He has undergone two kissing spine operations so I am seriously precious with him. I always found myself worried about the ground when eventing so have decided to concentrate on jumping some bigger showjumping tracks. He has huge ability in this area and it will help me to be braver in this discipline. I hope to be jumping 1.20 tracks by the end of the year. None of these sound like world beating goals, I know, but for where I am mentally and physically, I know this will be a fantastic achievement” said with modest understatement.

I feel to add the word pragmatic to Jo’s MO. Talk turns to the grassroots/pros competing against each other debate: Jo well placed to comment as an amateur with designs on being a pro. And Jo’s thoughts are those of a young lady with a mature head and the mindset of a winner: “I feel eventing past BE100 level is very much a pros game anyway and I understand why, the time and money to get horses to the top of this sport competitively is unbelievable. I’m hoping one day I can turn around and say it’s doable. Personally I love competing against the pros week in, week out because you have to be on the top of your game at all times, otherwise you don’t stand a chance. But isn’t that what affiliated sport should be? The equestrian world is so full of opinions and unfortunately there are many people who don’t support what others do. I try and stay blinkered to this side of the sport – I know where I want to be and I’ve chosen a certain way to do it. There are many people that don’t agree with my thought process and equally there would be many people I look at and think why on earth are you doing that. But surely we all understand what we sacrifice to give this a try. I don’t think the debate for me is necessarily pro/grassroots, it’s more of how do we find a way to all support each other. How do we distinguish who’s pro or not? In my head I’m going to be an Olympic event rider, in reality I pick up a lot of horse poo to pay for my weekly training to try and get there. At what stage do I class myself a pro? Does it matter. Not to me, I just want to do the best for my horses and chase my dream. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m competing next to four olympians or four Humpty Dumpty. I just want to achieve the goals I’ve set for that particular day and hopefully one day I’ll turn round and say ‘I guess I’m a pro now'”. Be in doubt, with a healthy dose of luck, Jo will make it.

In life, we never get a peek of the script mapped out for us before we journey through. It makes for an enthralling roller coaster of a ride. Would Jo still have chosen to break her back if she had foreseen the results it led onto. Probably not. But Jo did rise to the apex of the exponential roller coaster and whooshed into a galaxy full of opportunities. Now this year, Dad is back. Horses are back. Jo is ready. You sense the pen will remain in her hand for years to come. God knows when she will be finished writing her fairytale.