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  • Writer's pictureFran Cleland

Mietta proves that where there is a will, there is a way

Despite some major setbacks, life was back on track for this Victorian
rider before the unthinkable happened
ABOVE: Mietta Innes-Irons and Schonherz competing at the Australian Dressage Championships last year. Picture: ONE-EYED FROG PHOTOGRAPHY

MIETTA Innes-Irons is a remarkable young woman who has faced more obstacles in her life than anyone should, but still aims for the future.

The 28-year-old has a Bachelor of Biomedical Science and a Bachelor of Osteopathy and is now finishing a Masters of Osteopathy.

She began riding at age four and by the time she was 11 was competing in grade one eventing and A grade show jumping at pony club, as well as one-star eventing in open competition. She was on the Victorian state junior, young rider and senior eventing squads.

“From 11 years old in 2005 until my most recent accident in 2021 I have never not been on the Victorian State Eventing Squads,” Mietta said.

It’s a remarkable achievement given what she has been through.

In June, 2017, Mietta was involved in a horrible accident where a horse fell on her, causing hyperflexion through her lumbar spine.

“Within five minutes of this happening I had lost all feeling and ability to move my legs. I was paralysed from my waist down. I was airlifted to Melbourne to the Epworth Hospital in Richmond,” she said.

The diagnosis was five herniated discs (from L1/L2 – L5/S1), a spondylolisthesis at L5/S1 joint (the L5 vertebra had dislocated/slipped forward on the sacrum). She had also fractured her sacrum, her spinal cord had been stretched and all of the lumbar spinal nerves crushed. Tough news for an active 22-year-old rider.

“My doctors told me I that I wouldn’t walk again, let alone ever ride again.” Mietta said.

“Every doctor that told me that I wouldn’t ride again I got rid of and replaced until I had a team of practitioners who would help me and help me get back on a horse at whatever it would take.”

After several weeks in of rehabilitation at Epworth, she could walk 10 metres in two minutes and 34 seconds with a walking frame.

“With help, I returned to riding quite fast, as being in the saddle was the only thing bringing me joy, and getting back competing was the thing making me fight.

“In November 2017, I entered one of our horses we bred, Löwenherz – also known as Babes – in the EvA95 at Avenel at Greenvale Horse Trials without telling mum. “When she found out, three weeks before the competition, she said ‘there is no way you are riding a cross country course if you can’t walk it’. At this stage I was using crutches to get around and couldn’t walk more than 50 metres without having to stop and rest.”

Mietta and her mum made a deal that if she could walk around the lake in Shepparton where they lived, which is approximately 2km, then she could compete. "I started walking it every day. The Wednesday before the competition I did it!”

Mietta competed on the six-year-old Babes (who was also still very inexperienced at the time) and finished on their dressage score, placing in sixth.

The pair continued to compete, graduating to CCI2* eventing and 130cm show jumping, and trained up to four-star eventing. But fate hadn’t finished with Mietta yet. “I had a fall in late 2019 which resulted in both me and my horse going down,” she said.

“We were both completely fine, we got up and walked over to the paramedics. Within five minutes of me being with the paramedics I had become completely paralysed again and was rushed to the Alfred Hospital. “I was diagnosed with spinal shock, which means that any shock to my nervous system, big or small and completely random, can result in me becoming paralysed, which can take hours or days to resolve.”

ABOVE: Training with the Victorian senior state eventing squad on Lowenherz. Picture: TIM HERBERT

Mietta was determined and was soon riding and living her life pretty much back to the way she was before her accident despite having weakness and loss of feeling, coordination and perception issues and was in constant, horrific pain.

To help deal with this, she was on some powerful pain and nerve medication. Because this was significantly affecting her mindset and mental state it was decided in January 2021 to do surgery and have a spinal stimulator implanted, which would hopefully reduce her dependence on drugs.

She says spinal stimulators are like an internal TENS machine, which exerts fast electrical impulses to override pain stimulus. “The battery is implanted in my right upper gluteus. The wires for it go into my spinal canal at T12/L1 spinal level and the probes on the wires attach to my spinal cord at the T8/T9 spinal level.”

Mietta spent three months healing from the surgery and once those three months were up she was good to go and allowed to do whatever she wanted.

Her life was looking great. “I was back studying my Masters of Osteopathy full time, working part time at our local brewery, riding three horses a day, going to the gym every day and running over 50km a week as I was training to run the Melbourne Marathon,” she said.

“I was virtually pain free for the first time in 3 ½ years and off all of the horrid pain medication – I was so happy and felt amazing.”

Then, unbelievably, in late June 2021, on a very wet and cold day, Mietta once again suffered another severe accident.

“I was out and involved in a freak accident which resulted in me receiving a high voltage electrocution,” she said.

“I didn’t know it at the time but the electricity had conducted along the wires of my spinal stimulator and burnt my spinal cord at the T/8/T9 spinal level, higher than my previous spinal cord injury.

“I knew something was wrong but I didn’t put two and two together initially. It took a few days for the full extent of the electrocution to show itself. Over the few days I gradually got weaker and weaker, I couldn’t get onto my horses, I could barely run a couple hundred metres (when I had been doing 20km runs easily).

“It got to a point where I couldn’t walk at all and I was in excruciating pain.”

The family contacted Mietta’s pain specialist, who had implanted the spinal stimulator, and explained what had happened and he instructed her to immediately get to a hospital. “Mum drove me down to Melbourne to Epworth Richmond,” Mietta said.

“By the time we got me to Epworth I was back in excruciating pain – the worst pain I had ever been in in my life – and I was paralysed again.

“The doctor in the emergency department at Epworth called a neurosurgeon at the Alfred who specialises in electrocution. He explained what had happened to me and the neurosurgeon explained that the nervous system already works as a conduction system in the body for electricity and on top of that, I had wire in my body, in my spinal canal, to conduct the electricity directly to my spinal cord.

“He also explained that when you get a burn it’s not the initial burn that causes the severity of the burn, it’s the heat which remains in the burn which makes the severity of the burn so bad.”

They were told that there was no way to stop this process and that Mietta’s spinal cord would continue to burn and that my condition would continue to deteriorate for approximately 18 months, and that it did.

“My whole body has been affected from being electrocuted, especially my hands, arms and legs, but from my knees down is more affected than the rest of my body and the symptoms are a lot worse.

“I have a reduction in strength and function, constant pins and needles, numbness and involuntary movement. “I am now highly dependent on a walking stick walk to the very small distances I can walk, otherwise I need a wheelchair to get around.

“I can walk and ride and drive but I am very limited. I am a lot worse off that I was after my first spinal cord injury and that has been very hard to process and come to terms with.

“I had my life back for two months after 3.5 years of excruciating pain and disability and now I am a lot worse off than I was.

“It has been described as a cruel twist of fate – I would take my old pain and injury back if I could because it was so much less painful, less debilitating and mentally not as hard on me.”

Mietta attempted to get back into eventing in December 2021.

The dressage was fine but she got to jump five on the cross country and lost all strength and feeling in her legs and retired.

It was a bitter realisation.

Still determined to ride, it meant that she needed to change disciplines because she was deteriorating and was going to continue to do so.

With the never-give-up outlook that has been her trademark all along, Mietta decided to focus on dressage, as her disability qualifies her as a Para Equestrian.

“I competed in my first dressage competition in February last year,” she said.

“For a few months I competed in open dressage with an exemption card, which allowed me to compete with two whips and elastics strapping my feet into my stirrups.

ABOVE: Riding Tanzenherz at the Northern Victorian World Cup Festival last year.

“I have had an amazing first year in dressage competing in Novice and Elementary, placing at every event, including a couple of wins and reserve championships competing against able-bodied riders.

“I still do some low-level show jumping with my feet strapped into my stirrups on my other incredibly talented and honest mare Tanzenherz, or Daisy, who I plan on bringing across to the dressage world.”

Last May, Mietta officially became a Grade V Para Equestrian.

Despite now needing help doing most things around the horses, she is incredibly excited about 2023 and what the rest of her life has to offer.

“I am aiming to get onto the Australian Para Dressage High Performance Squad and qualify for the 2024 Paris Paralympics,” she said.

“I am going to be working incredibly hard and put everything into getting to Paris. I have a very exciting team of Trakehners and one mare in particular who is soon to have her debut with me and is my strongest chance.”

Looking to the future, horses are only part of the story.

While her dreams include expanding her horse breeding program, becoming an EA coach and competing at the highest levels she can, Mietta also plans to complete her studies and become an osteopath to help people in chronic pain. “I also want to be an advocate for people with disabilities and people being bullied,” she said.

“I have copped a lot of discrimination, mistreatment, abuse, bullying and hurt. No one deserves this treatment, especially seeing I am already going through an incredibly hard, life-changing transition.

“I am lucky to have amazing support – not everyone one does.

“Some incredible people have stuck by my side through the bad and the ugly and got me to where I am today.”

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