- Ashleigh Harris, 18, broke her back after falling in a field near Chepstow
- At just 14-years-old, she was left paralysed and confined to a wheelchair
- Last week, a judge decided that Ashleigh is entitled to full compensation
- The horse, Polly Perks, belonged to her boyfriend Kieran’s mother
- Rachel Miller, 43, owner of the ‘badly trained’ horse, must now pay out
For a pony-mad teenager it should have been a perfect day out — a picnic in the countryside with her boyfriend’s family and the opportunity to see their new horse.
But for Ashleigh Harris, who was just 14 years old at the time, the events of September 22, 2012, rapidly descended into tragedy and changed her life for ever.
Having been encouraged to have a ride on Polly Perks, a powerful thoroughbred ex-racehorse which belonged to her boyfriend Kieran’s mother, she broke her back after falling in a field near Chepstow, and is now paralysed and confined to a wheelchair.
That catastrophic accident four years ago set in motion a chain of events which culminated in an extraordinary £3 million legal battle at the High Court in London, one which lawyers and the British Horse Society say has far-reaching implications for unwary horse owners across the country.
Last week, a judge decided that Ashleigh, who is now 18, is entitled to full compensation from 43-year-old mother-of-three Rachel Miller, the owner of ‘badly trained’ Polly Perks.
It is a decision which could leave the Miller family financially destitute.
While Ashleigh, who is paralysed from the waist down, has faced accusations of being a ‘money grabber’ on social media, her family — speaking for the first time today to the Mail — insist she will need the money for a lifetime of care.
The Millers, who have refused to comment on the case, argued in court that it was Ashleigh’s decision to ride the horse in the first place and that they should not be held to account for what happened to her.
The case has been described by one lawyer as a ‘wake-up call’ for horse owners across Britain. ‘It’s going to make anyone who owns a horse think twice before allowing friends or family members to ride them,’ says equine law expert Caroline Bowler, of Actons in Nottingham.
She points out that many owners do not have specialist horse insurance and rely instead on the third-party liability insurance included under their household policy, which may not, as in the case of the Millers, cover the full compensation amount claimed.
‘It has set a precedent and I think people will be more minded to pursue claims,’ adds Ms Bowler.
The accident also brought about an abrupt and bitter end to Ashleigh’s fledgling romance with her first boyfriend, Kieran Miller, as he stepped in to give evidence against her and the former childhood sweethearts faced each other across a courtroom.
Indeed, as we shall see, accounts of what happened on that fateful day vary wildly, as does opinion on whether Mrs Miller, who had very little experience of horses before buying Polly Perks, was responsible for what happened to Ashleigh.
The teenager, from Woolaston, near Lydney, Gloucestershire, woke on the morning of September 22, 2012, full of excitement about spending the day with her boyfriend and his family.
The ‘competent novice rider’, as she was described in court, had met Kieran Miller at Wyedean secondary school, where he was two years above her, and they had begun dating six months earlier.
‘We got on really well,’ she says. ‘We saw each other at school each day and when I wasn’t riding my pony I’d hang out at his house or he’d come to mine.
‘On the day of the accident, we were going to have a picnic and see the new horse.’
That horse was Polly Perks, a thoroughbred mare who had been bought for just £500 a week earlier from the Abergavenny farmer who had broken her in.
He described her as a ‘delightful ride’, although he wanted to get rid of her because she had proved to be too temperamental for point-to-point riding.
In court, it became clear that the feisty mare was an eminently unsuitable animal for a woman like Rachel Miller, a recruitment consultant who had only recently taken up riding. The horse, described as ‘strong, potentially wilful and difficult to control’, was not used to being ridden.
Ashleigh, who had owned her own gentle pony for just a year but had never previously ridden a horse, had already met Polly because she had accompanied Kieran and his family on the trip to Wales to buy the horse on September 15, 2012.
On that occasion both she and Mrs Miller briefly rode her, but only with the owner walking closely alongside at all times.
‘She was much bigger and stronger than my pony Beauty,’ says Ashleigh today. ‘She was much more difficult to control.’
A week later, on the day of the picnic, no plan had been made for Ashleigh to ride Polly, but with Mrs Miller somewhat nervous about getting on her, the teenager agreed to try her out.
There was, said the judge last week, ‘a positive encouragement’ by Mrs Miller, who handed over her body armour — a padded, shock absorbent jacket designed to protect the spine in case of collision — to Ashleigh. The 14-year-old then climbed on to the back of a trailer so she could get herself high enough to mount the horse.
Right from that moment, remembers Ashleigh, she didn’t feel right in the saddle.
‘I didn’t feel safe,’ she says.
When she expressed her doubts, Mrs Miller told her: ‘You’ll be fine.’
At first Mrs Miller, Kieran and his sister Sammy accompanied Ashleigh as she rode into a neighbouring field. Once inside, Ashleigh put the horse into a trot while the other members of the family waited by the gate. But that trot rapidly turned into an uncontrollable canter, which resulted in Ashleigh being unseated. ‘I still have nightmares about that moment,’ she says.
‘I can remember the feel of her ears as I went over her head. It was as if it was in slow motion. I knew I was about to hit the ground.’ Dazed and confused, she did not realise at first how seriously she was injured.
‘It took 45 minutes for the paralysis to set in,’ she says.
‘My toes went dead and then the numbness ran slowly up my body. Everyone was telling me that everything would be all right, but I knew then that something really bad had happened.’
In the aftermath of the accident, Kieran raced to her side and cradled her. Mrs Miller telephoned Ashleigh’s mother Jacqui, who arrived at the scene half an hour later — before an ambulance arrived.
‘I could see Ashleigh in the distance,’ says Jacqui, a 49-year-old former bank manager.
‘But her body was sort of bent double beneath her with her legs splayed out to the side. At first I thought she’d broken her pelvis. Kieran was holding her up by the head and chest and she was saying that she couldn’t feel her legs.’
P aramedics strapped Ashleigh to a spinal board and took her to hospital in Newport by ambulance accompanied by her mother and Kieran. Her 51-year-old father Geoff, a quality controller, met them at hospital.
There, Ashleigh’s parents were warned that she had a life-threatening condition common to paraplegics called autonomic dysreflexia, which can cause strokes and heart attacks.
But after being transferred to the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, she was stabilised during a five-hour operation to insert two metal rods into her back.
A month later, after being taken out of intensive care, she was transferred to Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, which specialises in spinal injuries.
Ashleigh finally returned home in March 2013, six months after the accident. At first, she struggled to come to terms with her life-changing injury, which left her with no movement beneath her chest. Her relationship with Kieran also ended.
‘We messaged each other for a while,’ she says, ‘but, gradually, it petered out.’
Unable to get up and down the stairs, the living room at the family home had to be turned into a bedroom and she washed in the kitchen sink until her parents built a downstairs extension, paid for with a disability living grant as well as her family’s own finances and fundraising.
‘It was a very difficult time,’ says her mother. ‘She was angry at the whole world.’
Ashleigh continues to suffer ongoing health problems, including a compromised immune system. Although she is still able to have children, any future pregnancy would be deemed ‘high risk’.
Ashleigh returned to her school in May 2013, but as she says: ‘I found it very difficult being disabled in an environment where I had previously been able-bodied.’
She transferred to Dene Magna secondary school and passed five GCSEs and three AS-levels.
As well as coping with sudden disability at such a young age, she also had to face her former boyfriend in court last month when he gave evidence claiming Ashleigh had jumped into the saddle without his mother’s permission. That evidence was rejected by the court.
Even so, Ashleigh insists she has no hard feelings towards him or his family.
‘It was awkward in court,’ she says. ‘We didn’t speak or even look at each other. It felt strange seeing him because we used to get along so well. I could see how nervous he was.
‘I’m sure it was hard for him. I don’t harbour any bad feelings towards his mum or his family. They would never have wanted this to happen to me. But it has happened and I have to deal with that.’
She is all too aware of negative attitudes towards ‘no-win, no fee’ legal claims. But she argues: ‘If your car was damaged in an accident because of someone else, you would want compensation. I have a lifetime of this ahead of me. If anything happens to my parents, I’ll be on my own.’
She points out that she offered to settle her case out of court for the maximum amount that Mrs Miller’s insurance company would pay under the terms of their ‘personal liability’ cover. Had that offer been accepted, then the Millers would not have had to pay a penny of their own money.
But the offer was turned down and following last week’s ruling Ashleigh may now be entitled to up to £3 million — potentially forcing the Millers to pay the extra out of their own pocket.
Ashleigh says that these figures are ‘in the hands of lawyers’, but that her intention was never to punish the family, only to make provision for herself.
Ultimately, Judge Graham Wood QC ruled that Mrs Miller made a ‘serious error of judgment in acquiring an unsuitable horse at the early stages of her riding hobby’. There was a breach in duty of care in allowing Ashleigh to ride such a horse. This breach was the cause of her accident.
The exact amount of compensation Ashleigh will receive will be decided at a later date.
In the wake of the case, the British Horse Society says it has been inundated with calls from owners concerned about insurance. ‘This is a tragic accident and it highlights some key elements that all riders should be reminded of,’ says the charity’s membership director Emma Day.
‘We would always advise that when you lend your horse to other riders that they are both competent and have the right insurance in order to protect both the owner and the rider.’
Guy Prest, managing director of specialist equine insurers KBIS, said he would be reviewing the level of cover his company offers in light of the case. ‘It’s very rare to have a claim of this type,’ he said.
‘The vast majority are people claiming their car was kicked by a horse, for example.
‘But these things are very sad when they happen and you need to be as covered as possible.
‘There’s been a change in the way these kind of claims are settled, too. Often there isn’t just one payment, but if the needs of someone disabled in an accident change later on in life, they may even come back for more.
‘It’s vital that people make sure they are adequately insured and people need to think very carefully about letting other people ride their horse.’
Ashleigh believes that the money she receives will help her move on with her life.
She is already an ambassador for the spinal cord charity Back Up after training to teach disabled youngsters how to use wheelchairs, and this year participated in a fashion show that raised over £50,000.
She appeared on Children In Need in 2015 and won the Inspirational Achievement for Young People Award at the 2016 Spinal Injuries Association Awards.
She briefly rode a horse again a couple of years after her accident when her uncle lifted her into the saddle, although she is no longer able to ride regularly. Her pony Beauty is now cared for by her family at nearby stables.
‘It’s not the riding I miss so much as being part of a community,’ she says. ‘I liked feeling that I belonged to that.’
Poignantly, her new purpose-built downstairs bedroom looks out over stables, a constant reminder of what she has lost.
‘I wish it hadn’t happened, but it did happen,’ she says.
‘I’m sure the Millers wished it hadn’t happened as well. I hope they understand why I had to do this. I am going to have to live with this for the rest of my life.’
Additional reporting by Simon Trump.