You could say Anne Watts is undergoing a rebirth of sorts after a hare hound-hunting accident left her lying motionless in a forest in Karaka, south Auckland.
"Each day was a new day for me after that," says Watts of the life-changing mishap on a "very safe" horse, Flash, who had slipped on cowpat and pinned her in the fall in March 2011.
"I got crushed, breaking my neck and injuring my spinal chord," says the grade IV para dressage rider who is facing an uphill task in trying to accrue four 70-plus scores to book a flight to the Tokyo Para Olympic Games in Japan from August 25 to September 6.
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She is in Hastings with partner/farmer Graham Shaw competing at the week-long Land Rover Horse of the Year Show at Showgrounds Hawke's Bay Tomoana which culminates with the Stirrups Equestrian Olympic Cup showjumping event from 2.10pm tomorrow.Watts, who had to give up her dentistry assistant's job, is classified as an incomplete tetraplegic. She has had to re-learn just about every aspect of life again.
She's mobile but requires the help of crutches. Her memory of lying in the forest is still quite vivid.
"They wanted to know my age and I didn't want to give it to them."
Watts thought she was going to be fine because she couldn't feel anything at the time.
"When you're not in pain your mind tends to be quite different so I was ready to get up and go but I couldn't."
They couldn't use the services of a helicopter because it was too foggy, with misty rain that day. An ambulance came to the rescue of the property that wasn't too far from the road although fire tender was employed to push the vehicle from the mud.
Watts remained upbeat, believing after surgery she would start to heal but the news wasn't that good. The doctors had informed her she might not heal or walk again.
"It was a bit of a shock but I could feel one foot [left] so I knew then I would be all right because all I had to do was work on it," she says. "I did. I've worked really hard."
Soon after checking out of the spinal unit from a six-month rehab in south Auckland in August 2011, Watts enrolled with the Riding for the Disabled. Friends had helped her and it had dawned on her the horse she was riding was coping although it was too lazy for a competitive arena.
"Your body is an amazing tool in the way it heals," says Watts. "That's what I had learned."
Not long after the Riding for Disabled experience, she bought Josef Dream. That had culminated in the now 7-year-old gelding helping the combination acquire FEI percentage at two shows in Melbourne, Australia, from December to January.
Tragically her mother, the late Shirley Watts, had died in the same year. She was instrumental in helping her during the recovery phase with Anne's siblings, Margaret Watts and Jan Thomson.
Anne Watts suspects her accident probably expedited her mother's life. Consequently she picked Josef Dream because her mother would have approved of the gelding's temperament.
"Even if I don't make it to the Paralympics the money spent taking him to Melbourne is still money well spent because of the experience," she says, revealing she was based in Sydney during that period and indebted to sponsors Bates Saddles, of Cambridge.
With speculation rife marquee global sporting events will be cancelled, she is looking forward to the 2022 World Equestrian Games in Šamorín, Slovakia.
While her accident had reaffirmed one must never take life for granted, it had also reinforced other values.
"Do what you have to do because when your numbers are up — if you're going to have an accident or you're going to die — it doesn't matter how careful you are it's going to happen so you're going to have to live your life to the full."
Pre-accident Watts always shot for the stars and that hasn't changed. If Paralympics becomes a bridge too far she'll persist with dressage in the able-bodied arena.
"I'm definitely running out of time," she says with a chuckle of Tokyo. "I'm more or less out of it now but you never know what's around the corner [with coronavirus]."
She salutes her grooms, Annie Vandersloot and Rina Estall, for helping build that Team Watts affinity.