Gypsy cob Rio has been described by his owner Leanne Williams as her “lifeline” after she suffered a stroke in July.

Leanne suffered the stroke while driving home from the yard, after spending the morning riding Rio on the beach with her sister.

“Within five minutes, it felt like someone had hit me with a hammer in my right eye socket,” recalls 49-year-old Leanne.

Rio and Leanne during her rehabilitation

“My cheek and tongue went numb and I started feeling really sick.”

Leanne pulled over and called her sister, who arrived minutes later and took her to hospital.

“I was deteriorating quickly. When I tried to stand up my balance had completely gone and I couldn’t walk,” adds Leanne.

The doctors found a tear in the main artery in the rider’s neck, as well as blood clots in the left and right side of her head.

“My consultant said in 20 years he’s never seen anyone get off so lightly,” says Leanne. “Apparently I should have lost my ability to speak and swallow.”

After six days in hospital, Leanne moved in with her mum and underwent physiotherapy three or four times per week.

“The stroke impacted my right side and my walking, as well as fatigue and my memory.

“I remember falling onto the bed because I couldn’t walk, bursting into tears, pulling the pillow over my head and thinking, ‘I can’t do this’,” confesses Leanne, who works in the finance department at Cardiff University as a personal assistant and office manager.

The turning point

Leanne’s physiotherapist began incorporating Rio into her rehabilitation, and has since used Leanne as a case study after seeing the vast improvements she made.

“They’ve never seen anyone come on so quickly,” says Leanne. “For a stroke, horses have never really been used like they have for other rehab programmes. It was the first time for my physio and it’s worked amazingly.”

It was seeing this photo that inspired Leanne to get back on board

Leanne’s turning point came when she was reminded of her beloved Rio.

“My sister turned up at my mum’s with a framed photo of me riding Rio at the beach [on the day she had the stroke],” says Leanne.

“A gentleman who had also been at the beach that day had taken a photo of us without me realising.

“As hard is it was to look at, knowing that an hour-and-a-half later I had a stroke, it inspired me because I knew I wanted to be able to ride like that again.”

Three-and-a-half weeks after her stroke, Leanne was reunited with Rio.

“When I saw him, he whinnied and called to me like I’ve never heard him do before,” smiles Leanne. “I was in my wheelchair and he put his head in my lap and wouldn’t move.”

‘He’d stand like a rock’

Leanne has owned Rio for five years and she says the pony, who previously belonged to travellers, was the perfect companion for her rehabilitation programme.

“I started off using Rio to lean on to stand up, and he’d stand like a rock,” explains Leanne.

“Then I’d work my way up and down his legs, brush him and walk around him, to then leading him while I used a frame to support me.

“Rio knew something wasn’t right; he’d know to stop before me to let me rest on him.”

Leanne is now riding again.

“I still have weakness in my right side, which Rio compensates for in order to help me balance. I’m massaging him and doing lots of stretches to help him out too. We’re doing really well.”

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