Back to Badminton: Bubby Upton Defies the Odds, Again

Bubby Upton and Cola III. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

For U.S. readers, the name Bubby Upton may not be as familiar as others, but in her native UK, she is already – at the tender age of 25 – a household name. A Junior and Young Rider medallist, she is also a two-time winner of the National U25 Championship. Bubby’s name is not only synonymous with success; she is also well known for her grit and determination, having broken her back not once, but twice, and made a spectacular comeback on both occasions.

That first break – of eight vertebrae and a collar bone – was in Summer 2021, but Bubby was back in the saddle – and winning – just a month later. The second break, which came last August, was altogether more serious, leaving Bubby’s spine – and her career – hanging by a thread. Yet once again, she has defied the odds, and is on the entry list for Badminton this weekend, just 9 months after she was told she may never ride again.

We are not here to talk about her injuries though. Much has been written about her fall in August, the surgery that followed and the intensive rehabilitation programme that has allowed her to reach this point. Now though, Bubby is looking to the future, though she is keen to reiterate just how lucky she has been: “It is always at the forefront of my brain how lucky I am to have survived and come out the other side,” she says emphatically, and our conversation is littered with variations on this point, an indicator not only of Bubby’s incredible work ethic, but the reasoning behind it, too.

This ability to focus on the future, rather than to dwell on her misfortune (not that she ever refers to it as such), has provided Bubby with the drive to continue, even when the smallest of tasks seemed nigh on impossible: “Every step, trying to get my right foot forward and then my left was such a challenge, so going into the place that I had previously felt so strong and so fit [much of Bubby’s rehab took place at the Injured Jockey’s Fund (IJF) gym, Peter O’ Sullevan House, the same place she trained at before her accident] was tough. That was one of the few times I felt deflated and demoralised. But the next day I went straight back in, and focussed on recovery and that helped reaffirm how lucky I was and made me positive again.”

Similarly, as soon as her surgeon gave her the go ahead to get back on board, Bubby and her team were already tentatively starting to plan for the season to come: “The rough plan, right back from when my surgeon told me I could ride again [in November] was to do my first competition at Burnham Market. As soon as the surgeon told me I could ride again, I was already thinking – when can I compete again? Ash Wallace [head of strength and conditioning at Team GB] said that Burnham at the end of April would be a realistic target, so obviously we are a little ahead of schedule!” That is quite the understatement – at the time of writing, Bubby has just completed a very successful run at Burnham Market, marking not her first but her fourth competition this season, including two top ten International placings at Kronenberg. Little wonder then, that Bubby’s name features on the entry list for Badminton.

Bubby Upton and Cola, Badminton 2022. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Speaking to Bubby just a few days after Kronenberg, where she took both the win in the CCI3*-S as well as the runner up spot in the 4* aboard Cola – I wonder if, perhaps even in the earlier days of her recovery, Bubby dared to envisage an altogether more ambitious plan for the 2024 season?

“Obviously when I got back in the saddle, it [Badminton] was not on my mind at all because I was almost having to learn to ride again, and it was just the sheer joy of being back on board, and working with my horses again. That was enough for me. But then as each week went by, I got a bit stronger, and was able to do the things I hadn’t been able to do – things like rising trot and sitting in canter – and before I knew it I was back doing some dressage and jumping for the first time. Badminton was still not the definitive goal – except maybe subconsciously, in the back of my mind. But then I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t pressing with every ounce of my body to get back there: it’s the absolute pinnacle of the sport, and everyone’s dream to ride around there. So, I guess that while it wasn’t necessarily ‘the plan,’ it was certainly one of the biggest driving forces when I was pushing hard in the gym, rather than just to settle for the easy road, and just been happy to be back competing.”

Unsurprising then, that Bubby has managed to defy the odds once again – as previously indicated she is well ahead of the early targets she and her team had set. Instead of the mooted Burnham Market, she actually started her season a whole month earlier, at Poplar Park. “I knew if I could push the plan forward, then maybe I could give myself a chance of being ready for Badminton. Week by week it seemed that my riding was getting better, and I was more and more comfortable being back in the saddle. Then before I knew it, I was ready for Poplar Park, and I actually entered Badminton while I was out in Kronenberg (20-24th March).”

However, that is not to say that she will definitely be leaving the start box in May, for as she is quick to point out, “I’m not one that wants to go, just to have a canter round. That is not my mindset, not how I operate.” One only need look at Bubby’s 5* results to date to understand what she means by this. Fiercely competitive, she already has an impressive record at the level, with a slew of top 10 placings, including 8th place at Badminton last year. Indeed, the entry was not a forgone conclusion, hence the eleventh hour entry. “It was very much down to how I performed in Kronenberg – did I still have it?” she laughs. As it turns out, yes, she definitely does! “It was just the most incredible week – in some ways it felt like I was riding better than ever, while I am still a bit rusty in others. But I definitely felt like I still had that instinctiveness, as well as the love for what I do, and the hunger for success. That has never ever wavered.”

I suspect that those close to Bubby may not have been surprised to hear that she had somewhat different plans driving her recovery than those they had prescribed – even if they were initially alarmed! “When I told my mum, I was actually having a conversation with Katie Dutton, my head girl about it [Badminton]. I said ‘I still want to go to Badminton with Cola,’ and my mum was very much like, “ Oooh, don’t you think we should just see how we go, even if we just got to Bramham instead?’” Understandable caution from a loving parent who has just witnessed their child survive an horrendous fall, but Bubby remained undeterred – “She quickly realised I wasn’t going to change it as my goal- ” and it would seem that that goal is about to become reality, with Cola and Bubby’s names firmly on that start list.

Still, as she intimates, her the level of expectation that she has for herself remains as high as ever, and her running at Badminton relies upon how confident she is in her riding in the weeks preceding the event. “I am not going to go unless I feel like I am 110% ready in my new circumstances.” Such pragmatism is typical of Bubby, who seems wise beyond her years – hardly surprising given all she has been through. Happily, it seems that she is already passing the ‘readiness’ tests that she has set herself – as she says, Kronenberg was intended as a key indicator as to whether or not she was on track for the Badminton challenge, and two top ten placings surely proved that to be the case.“ I wanted to use it [Kronenberg] to see if I could cope with things like big drop fences, and all of the things that I haven’t done since having had half of my spine made of metal. All of the little things – my reactions, as well as seeing if I still had that bravery and hunger for success. Cantering round an event like Poplar Park is a totally different ballgame to running for the win around a 4* track. It is fair to say that I have missed that feeling more than words can describe, so to feel that buzz again was just so special.”

Bubby Upton once again becomes the British under-25 national champion with Magic Roundabout IV. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

While the love of the sport has clearly not waned at all since her accident, there are of course, other things to consider now too – namely Bubby’s physical fitness which although much improved, looks altogether different to how it did pre-accident – something that she is the first to acknowledge. “How I cope physically – in terms of the pain threshold – is a big indicator for me now, too.”

Although she is reluctant to go into too much detail regarding the daily struggles she still faces in terms of the residual pain from her accident and the resulting injuries – “there’s pain 24/7, but it’s a very small price to pay, given the severity of the break,” – she is very frank about the day to day sacrifices she is prepared to take in order to make the Badminton dream become reality.

“I am having to back off in so many different areas at the moment. As a team, we have sat down and targeted Badminton, so now anything that doesn’t help lead there is not a priority. That is really hard for me, though. I am someone who has always felt that if there is time in the day, I will do something, but I just don’t have the physical capacity to do everything anymore. We have had to restructure the way we do things now because everything we do has an impact on my back, and therefore the pain that I have to manage. So I guess we just have to be a bit more practical, and keep asking – is this going to help towards the end goal, or not? And if the answer is no, then we have to prioritise the things that are. It’s not going to be forever, but if we are to make Badminton – a goal that is in itself defying the odds – a feasible option, then prioritising that is something that we are going to have to do at the moment.”

Of course, reducing her day to day activity on the yard isn’t the only change that Bubby is having to make; she may be back in the saddle, but the rehabilitation continues, and is in itself is gruelling enough, “It’s very turbulent week on week in terms of how my body feels, and we have to react to that on a day to day basis, regarding how much pressure we can put on in the gym. Sometimes we have to back off and stay in the pool, other times we can load a little harder. But I have physio three times a week to complement the rehab, which is five days a week – whether that be hydrotherapy, or cardio, or just mobility work. There is a lot of it, but it’s fine – there was always a lot of strength work but now it’s for a whole different reason.”

Bubby Upton and Cannavaro. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Anyone that follows Bubby on Instagram will see how hard she is working, for she often shares clips of the work that she is putting in behind the scenes, work that would put the most physically fit among us to shame! All of this, plus the prospect of another operation in November mean that though she may be back in the saddle, and already making another extraordinary comeback, the road to recovery still stretches out before her.

“I have another surgery, to remove the top and bottom layers of the metal structure that I have in my spine. They think that they will leave the middle section, although that isn’t confirmed yet – I have another scan in July, and a decision will be made from there as to how much of the metal work can be removed. My surgeon is apprehensive about removing the middle element of the metal structure because there is a worry that without them, my spine may collapse,” she explains, unflinchingly.

It is remarkable – and testament to her incredible inner strength – that Bubby is able to be so matter of fact about the life changing impact that her accident has had – and continues to have – on her day to day life, but one gets the impression that her gratitude to be back doing the thing that she loves overrides any of long lasting impact that her injuries have had. Indeed, she continues to be optimistic about what the future – and the planned surgery – may hold. “At the moment, there are a lot of restrictions created by the metal work, so by reducing it, that will massively help, so I am really looking forward to that!”

Moving away from her own preparations for ‘the big B,’ her love for Cola – the horse she was 8th with at Badminton with last year – is palpable: “he had an amazing run in Kronenberg, and he feels on fantastic form.” Their partnership has a long – and successful one.

Cola arrived on her yard in 2016, and together they have come up the levels together, as Bubby explains: “He was my young rider horse in 2018 and 2019. Throughout his career he has been a horse that has continuously amazed me – every time he steps up he seems to take it in his stride. He is a hilarious character – he definitely knows that he is the King of the yard! He is a horse that I owe so much to, he has made my dreams come true, in ways that I never thought possible. We bought him as a horse to do Juniors and Young Riders on, and yet he has gone on to take me around my first Badminton and Burghley. Hopefully we will make many more memories together too. I adore every single horse on my yard, but he is extra special; we have been through so much together.”

It is understandable then, that it is Cola that Bubby has chosen to make her to return to Badminton on. I seems that he is somewhat like an old pair of slippers, and a horse that she knows inside out -and he her – as Bubby confirms: “Every time I get on him, particularly for the cross country, I just feel totally at ease. I know that he will try his absolute heart out for me, and it is up to me to do him justice, because I know that he will give me his all every single time.”

Bubby will undoubtedly ‘do him justice;’ her results so far this season are testament to the fact that she has lost none of her talent, and despite all that she has been through, she remains as fiercely competitive as ever. “I don’t think I will ever lose the perfectionist that is inside of me – I’ve had that since before I can remember. That will never go, no matter what I do – I always want to be the best, so even now, I am hungry for success, and even more determined than ever.”

Her accident has also imbued her with a renewed sense of perspective, an awareness that can only come from such an incident: “When I have has a bad day, and it feels pretty rubbish, I have a much better perspective. Before, I would have spent so long beating myself up about the tiniest of mistakes and dwelling on it. Now, after what I have gone through, I allow myself to analyse it, learn from it, and then move on because I know that in the bigger picture, it is not the end of the world.”

Again, I am struck by Bubby’s prudence – and can’t help but feel that the adversity she has faced have only made her even more of a force to be reckoned with. Some might interpret this that she has a ‘point to prove,’ but to assume that would be to misinterpret the ambition that drives Bubby – and the incredible passion for her horses that lies beneath it all.

Now that Badminton is just around the corner, does Bubby have any specific goals in mind – given that ‘a canter round,’ is, as we have established, not in her remit? “I’m not really a one for putting a number or a placing on things – I feel that takes care of itself. I can’t control what anyone else does either. For me, I just want him to jump really well, and I control what I can – take care to ensure I give him every chance possible, dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’- then hopefully the result will take care of itself.” Remember what I said about a wisdom beyond her years?! A top 20 result would not be out of the question then, I suggest? “Hopefully not, no,” she smiles, and if anyone is deserving of that, it is Bubby. To reach 5* takes years of hard work, setbacks and resilience and as this tenacious young lady has demonstrated she is well versed in all of these things, and has the necessary talent to go with them, too.

As for the future, Bubby is already considering who she might take to Burghley, and it seems she cannot wait to start to incorporate her young horses back into her daily schedule once Badminton is ticked off the list. Amongst them is It’s Cooley Time, who the eagle eyed amongst you will have spotted as the winner of the CCI3*-S in Kronenberg, and the runner up at Burnham Market.

“I think the absolute world of him. He’s taken a lot of time, because he was incredibly sharp as a young horse, but he seems to have really matured and developed in the last couple of years.” The tentative plan for him then, is Blenheim 8/9 year old class, Bubby also cryptically reveals that she has a “very exciting new horse – watch this space with him!” A good result at Badminton won’t see her resting on her laurels, that’s for sure: it seems she is keen to make up for lost time!

Happily, Bubby’s accident has not led to any added nerves: if anything, the thrill of competing – especially at the big events – has increased tenfold: “It has a totally different feel to it now. Going to Kronenberg, I felt like a kid going to my fist International again. That excitement within has been reignited all over again! Even entering Badminton is beyond belief – let alone if I am actually able to drive in those gates and leave the start box.”

Again, Bubby’s gratitude is tangible – not just that she is back out competing, and at the very highest level – but also for those around her who have helped her get to this point.

“It’s been such a huge team effort to get to this point. It simply would never have been possible without my surgeon, without the support of the British Eventing Support Trust (BEST), the Injured Jockey’s Fund, my incredible family: some of the very few people who saw the reality of the situation and saw me at my lowest. To be in this position really does feel too good to be true.”

Typical of Bubby to be so modest – there is no doubt that all those people and organisations helped her along the way, but what of her own strength of character and incredible resolve – she alone has put the work in and physically made it happen, I remind her. “Yes, but also without the opportunity to have this road to recover on, I wouldn’t have been able to do that work to get here, so I really do count my lucky stars every day and every single morning that I wake up, I am super grateful,” she says, with obvious emotion.

Whether it is the luck of the stars or the courage within her – or perhaps a bit of both – one thing is for certain: Bubby Upton is back, and better than ever. Broken bones, what of them?! Badminton, watch out. Bubby and Cola are coming for you, and I can’t wait to see it.

Bubby Upton and Cola III. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

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