From The Magazine: Peter Walsh Has Never Stopped Following His Passions

Dec 5, 2016 - 11:10 AM

As he lay in a hospital bed for nearly three months and slowly began to regain his senses following a catastrophic riding accident, Peter Walsh survived many agonizing days and nights of pain and anxiety by focusing on foxhunting, the pursuit that had very nearly killed him.

“Every day I was in there, I knew where the hunt was going that day,” said Walsh, a native of Ireland who lives near Middleburg, Va. “I could see it in my head, the territory they were going over, how the horses would react, how they’d jump. I could feel it, hear it, almost smell it. I couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital and do what I love to do.”

Walsh doesn’t remember much about that frightening morning in February of 2014, when he was foxhunting near Richmond. The horse he was riding took off galloping in deep woods after its bridle broke. “Robin” was a young, green hunter in full-sprint panic mode, and there was nothing Walsh could do but try to hang on for dear life.

To this day, he’s still not exactly sure what happened, but when another rider eventually found him, he was on the ground, bleeding, out cold and lying next to a fallen tree. When he regained consciousness several minutes later, he knew he was seriously injured. At the Virginia Commonwealth Medical Center in Richmond, he learned just how badly he was hurt.

His neck was broken and so was his jaw, with a total of 30 broken or fractured bones (including 14 ribs), mostly on his right side, which apparently had smashed into that tree when he flew off the horse. His wife, Haley, immediately drove down to Richmond from Middleburg, and Peter, with his jaw already wired shut, was in surgery for hours as doctors worked on repairing his neck.

The two weeks Peter spent in the hospital remain a blur, as does another week in a Richmond rehab center. He’d suffered serious head trauma and eventually was taken to the Washington Hospital Center (D.C.) to continue recovering. He was allowed to go home two days after Easter in 2014, almost three months after his horrific fall.

“Even through everything,” he said. “I was always thinking about how am I going to ride again?”

Young And Crazy

Riding has always been Peter’s life, ever since he and his seven siblings started jumping on ponies near their home in suburban Dublin. As a teenager, he was galloping and schooling race horses for Irish trainer Toss Taaffe. Walsh’s uncle, Ben Hannon, a well-known Irish steeplechase jockey, helped him get a job with Irish trainer Michael O’Brien, and at 16, he became an apprentice jockey.

In his first race at the Curragh race course in Kildare, Peter finished eighth in a 1 ½-mile flat race, but he much preferred jumping races, particularly steeplechasing. In 1978, Peter came to the United States to work with trainer Bill Walsh (no relation) in Unionville, Pa., before returning to Ireland to finish his apprenticeship with O’Brien.

Over the next six years, he rode in jump races all around England and Ireland, and in 1982, he rode in the English Grand National at Aintree. He managed to get over 13 mostly terrifying jumps before his horse went down at the 14th. “I was young and crazy back then,” he said.

In 1985, remembering how much he’d enjoyed his brief sojourn to America seven years earlier, Peter came back to ride the U.S. steeplechase circuit. He settled in Unionville, trained and galloped horses and entered countless races. He won the Bowman Bowl at Fairfax (Va.) three times, the Miles Valentine at Fair Hill (Md.) and rode in major races, from the Gold Cup (Va.) to the Carolina Cup (S.C.). At age 39, after one last win, he hung up his tack and retired from racing in 1999.

“I had taken a few good falls,” Peter said. “I had always said when I was done, I was done. I knew it was time.”

This is an excerpt from the story “Peter Walsh Has Never Stopped Following His Passions” by Leonard Shapiro, which appears in the Nov. 28 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. If you’d like to read the article in its entirety, you can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication Untacked. Or you can purchase a single issue or subscribe on a mobile device through our app The Chronicle of the Horse LLC.

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