RACING POST FEATURES – 16-1-2011
In June the Royal Veterinary College will have a very distinguished. and newly honoured lecturer in Mary Bromiley MBE. The audience will listen dutifully as the principal extols her virtues as the woman who pioneered proper physiotherapy for racehorses as far apart as Carvills Hill and Binocular. But they won’t have heard the half of it. Not about the Kray Twins for instance.
“They seemed absolutely charming,” said Mary Bromiley about London’s most notorious set of criminals on Friday. “I was working in Harley Street then and all sorts of people would be sent through the door. It was back in the sixties and the Kray Brothers were running the East End and I was once given an enormous sum of money and sent to Harrods to buy toys for every child in the orphanage. They had one or two injuries but I never asked how they got them.”
At 79 Mary Bromiley is white haired, clear eyed, and although slightly stooped, has the extra vigour of someone who has already led about four lives and is absolutely unafraid of what she says. From her old stone flagged farm house set in a plunging valley deep in the heart of Exmoor she looks out at timeless countryside, but when she thinks back she can claim to have revolutionized the way racehorses were treated for muscle injury. Single-handledly she linked physiotherapy to the veterinary profession.
Before her there was mutual suspicion between the sceptic vets and assorted “backmen” and other cure alls. “I went to the Royal Society and told them what we could not do, not promise to solve everything. It took a while but in the end they got it,” she says and in 1985, ACPAT, the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy, was born. A year later Mary, who was already successfully treating Tom Jones’ horses at Newmarket was invited to give a lecture in the supremely unsuitable (for slide shows) venue of Tattersalls Sales ring. Afterwards a lean, sharp faced man with a slight limp came up and asked if he could find out more. It was Martin Pipe.
“I have an awful lot to thank Martin for,” says Mary, “he started to send us horses and had this wonderful enquiring mind. He wanted to know what we were doing to horses muscles and not just would it work but how it would work.” The Pipe association has continued to this day with Mary going to the now David Pipe run operation at Pond House every Monday morning and reviewing the horses under treatment. The assorted therapies of both massage and remedial exercise with weighted boots are following the breakthrough steps of Grand National winner Minnehoma and the flawed but mighty Carvill’s Hill.
“When we got Carvills Hill he had a huge reputation but the first vet’s report said he would never race again,” remembered Martin Pipe on Friday. “He had serious problems with his back and quarters but when I showed the report to Mary she said ‘we are going to rebuild him.’” After months of treatment Carvills Hill returned in the Welsh National to put up one of the most awesome performances the principality has ever seen. “It was so exciting when he won,” says Mary Bromiley, “for it showed what could be done just as Minnehoma proved how you could come back from a serious pelvic injury.”
Listening to Mary Bromiley, whose MBE in the New Year’s Honours drew widespread acclaim, is like sitting at a professor’s feet at the same time as having a rapid slide show of the last days of the Raj. Her father was the first man to both qualify and practice as a vet and a doctor in his home base at Edinburgh and later when he moved to Instow in Devon albeit by then his left leg had been amputated up by the haunch after it had got infected in Africa by a slipping scalpel when he was operating on a man who had been bitten by a crocodile.
“But he never let it affect him,” says Mary in her best stuff and nonsense manner, “he played polo and hunted and if he fell off I often remember having to run off and collect his wooden leg. But I think my parents were quite original people. My mother was the first white woman to walk across Northern Nigeria and we have pictures of the baggage train with all these totally naked young men carrying her chair and bath on their heads. It was a different world. The title on the film read ‘March to subdue truculent tribesmen.’”
With this background it was never very likely that the young Mary Bromiley would settle very easily at Miss Randall’s Academy of Domestic Science in Eastbourne and the wish to solve people’s problems drew her into physiotherapy (“not bright enough to do medicine” she says unconvincingly) first at St Thomas’s and then Fulham Hospital before finding herself, a fully qualified Chartered Physiotherapist as the wife of a doctor attached to a Gurkha regiment in Malaysia during the 1950’s Emergency. “I didn’t fancy playing the Memsahib” she says and for the future of Equine Physiotherapy it is a good thing she didn’t.
For not only did she get her head round the human demands of helping her husband deal with a 3,000 strong leper community but she also took to buying cheap and apparently injured racehorses and training them at the Selangor Turf Club in Kuala Lumpur. It was there early one morning that she received the challenge that would change her life. “I was standing under a frangipani tree, Jim Marsh (who later became a major steward in both Ireland and Hong Kong) was the vet and I can see him now walking away from me with sweat running down his back. I was asking him why the horses were going lame and he swivelled round and shouted at me ‘you have learnt to mend the ****ing humans, go and mend the ****ing horses..’”
So came the opportunity to apply the basics of physiotherapy to the equine just as it had to the human athlete. What’s more the effects of failure could be readily digested by Mary visiting the slaughter house and understanding exactly how the limbs had worked. It was a trip she still makes her pupils do today and a tip picked up from her father when he had to deal with a bunch of willing but unversed volunteers at his hospital at the start of the war. “He took them to the mortuary,” remembers Mary with a crisp smile, “and me and my cousins were all placed around the room holding up different parts of the body, I think mine was the stomach. Every one of the ladies fainted except the one who was a midwife.”
The breakthrough gained in Malaysia had to go into a 20 year abeyance as the family was relocated to Sheffield, four children were born, the marriage failed and provisions had to be gained by working for the Kray visited practice in Harley Street’s “Golden Mile.” But the call of the horse was still there and Mary started riding out with Rosy Lomax at Downs House Baydon and got so involved that she eventually bought it and with her daughter Penny started to apply the lessons she had learned with human anatomy to the horse world.
Not everyone was prepared to take her on trust. “When I went to Ron Smyth’s at Epsom,” remembers Mary, “he asked me to look at a horse for him. After five minutes in the box I came out and said to him ‘I am sorry Mr Smyth but I really cannot find anything wrong with this.’ He gave a canny smile and said ‘well at least your honest. The one I really want you to look at is here next door.’”
The animals were not the only beneficiaries because anyone within hailing distance will soon notice that she is a natural teacher. We have reconvened down a couple of impossibly switchback tracks to have pictures taken at a local stable. “This is where Binocular was hurting,” she says, “placing her experienced fingers just at the back of the horse’s neck. “The nerves where the skull joins the neck are absolutely critical to a horse’s balance. The Danes have shown that if you block out the first nerve, the horse falls over; if you block out the second it goes disunited behind. We are talking about threads the size of an eyelash which if it is out of sync will upset the whole thing.Buffy (Shirley Beavan, vet to trainer Nicky Henderson) did other work on Binocular but I showed Corky (Brown, Henderson’s long time head man) where to rub and I do think it made a difference.”
So too does Corky. “You could feel the change in him,” says the man who has been at Henderson’s side throughout the glory years and who first went to Mrs Bromiley for treatment to his own back which had never recovered from an injury that had meant 7 months prone when he was originally apprenticed in Ireland. “She is a very remarkable lady and I just wished I was young enough to join one of her courses. All I know is that there is so much to learn.”
That cry from one of racing’s most senior staffers is echoed across the parish and when the Queen pins the MBE on Mary at the forthcoming investiture it will be as much for those she has taught as for what she has done. Both Julie Cole who works on David Pipe’s horses, and Liz Welch who is a central pillar of Philip Hobbs stable which Mary visits every Tuesday, are graduates of the 9 months Equine Massage Course which Mary pioneered at Downs House with her daughter Penny and continued after she moved back down to Exmoor.
“She was still at Down’s House when I went on the Itech Diploma course ten years ago,” says Liz Welch whose exploits with massaging Motorway back from lameness to win at Cheltenham were part of the citation that won her the Stable Staff of The Year Award back in 2007. “A friend of mine was into human massage and put me in contact, the boss (Philip Hobbs) was very good to let me have some weekends off and some of the studying was very intensive. Now Mary comes every Tuesday and we look at the horses who I think need treatment and she suggests what we should do and what we need the vet for. For instance Menorah had quite a sore back after his first run and we massaged it full on for a week and it was OK. In the past we might have had a problem. Mary has completely changed the way I look at horses.”
Over at Nicolashayne Martin Pipe puts it pithily. “God gave me eyes,” he said simply, “but Mary taught me to see.” At Pond House it is East End born, Redruth raised Julie Cole who also pays tribute. “I had no connexion with horses,” she remembers, “and when I came down to Cornwall they thought my voice was Australian. But I used to go with my Dad to the bookies and eventually got hooked on racing and went to Robert Alner’s where I fell off so often that I had to just work in the yard until I saw what Mrs Bromiley was doing. I went on the course and now she comes every Monday and she discusses what I have done and ought to do. She is a great lady but does not mince her words. When someone looked queasy on the course Mary said ‘come on girl, get some balls.’”
Leaving a legacy is something that anyone should be proud of and in Mary Bromiley’s case the improved care for bruised equine muscles is not even the best known part of it. For every day in the Racing Post you will details of at which racecourses the “Flying Physios” are operating, and these two were pioneered by Mary with in this case her younger daughter “Rabbit” Slattery. Like every good idea, once established it is difficult to understand why we could have been ignorant for so long. To think that when I was riding the received wisdom after a bruising fall was to get home as soon as possible, have a hot bath and try and find a physio next day. Not just wrong, in these ice pack, immediate treatment days, but 180% the wrong direction.
What it needed was someone clear sighted to step up to the plate and point out the error of our ways. “I was seeing a lot of jockeys around Lambourn,” remembers Mary, “and it didn’t seem to make sense that there was no treatment on course. For a start it was difficult to get the backing but then DR Michael Turner helped us out and the Injured Jockeys Fund were able to keep us going. What’s more because ‘Rabbit’ was much nearer the jockeys’ age than me she would have their confidence and could intervene in those times when they have had a bang and don’t really know what they are doing.”
Not just one legacy but two and little sign of letting go. On the face of it Combeleigh Farm and the old lady in it belong to a rural past that links pretty instantly back all the way across Exmoor to images of Lorna Doone. But some intellects are ever young. It had been a long trek up the floods of the Cove Valley but it was at the farmhouse that we found the fountainhead.
After you leave the farm and wind your way through the village of Wheddon Cross you catch the name of the local pub. It is an old coaching Inn on the Dunster to Dulverton journey. It has a splendid title which would be gladly adopted by many of Mary Bromiley’s two or four legged clients but certainly not herself . It is called “The Rest and Be Thankful.”