'I set out on a beautiful day to ride my horse. It nearly cost me my life'

SIX months ago 49-year-old Sue Douglas nearly died. It is hard to believe this as I watch the blonde, slim, former newspaper editor leading her horse Ally around the stable yard. It is situated next to the large Oxfordshire farmhouse she shares with her husband, the academic and historian Niall Ferguson, and their three children: Felix, 12, Freya, 11, and Lachlan, seven.

The setting is idyllic - a lake, fields, beautiful house, barn. Surely Douglas's life is perfect. She seems healthy as she chats about dogs and horses but, when I look more closely, I can see there is something wrong with her eyes. One of them has a much more dilated pupil than the other. "I've got double vision," says Douglas. "I had perfect eyesight before the accident but now I have these glasses with lenses like jam jars. If I don't wear them I see two of everything."

Douglas obviously finds the fact she had what she refers to as "the accident" frustrating. "I lost months out of my life," she says. "I feel a lot of anger about that."

Before the events of last August, Douglas was a well-respected journalist - former deputy editor of the Sunday Times, former Sunday Express editor-turned-head honcho at Conde Nast.

"I was in charge of a new online venture at Conde Nast," she says. "Before that, after I left the Express group, I was working with the Barclay brothers on their Scottish titles (including The Scotsman at the time), and I launched a magazine in New York with Bob Guccione Jr. Then I went to Conde Nast. I had a driver. I wore designer suits. I had my weeks in London and my weekends in the countryside and I loved my life. I thought I was charmed."

And then, last summer, it all changed. The Douglas-Ferguson clan decamped, as they did every summer, to their medieval house in Wales. As Ferguson is a visiting professor at Harvard, and Douglas was working in London, these holidays were their family time together. "The children have always loved it there. They surf and walk and ride. We box the horses down and then we ride along the beach."

One morning, Douglas decided to take her 17-hands high thoroughbred mare, Develicious, for a ride along the beach. "Riding is my release," she says. "It's physical and challenging but also very calming. It gives me a chance to gather my thoughts."

As she returned, one of her dogs ran off. She turned her horse round to find the dog. "As I turned the horse, she reared," Douglas says. "I booted her one and turned her round again and that was the last thing I remember."

The next thing Douglas knew she was waking up in a hospital bed a month later. " I can't remember a thing," she says. "It was very frightening. I had no idea what had happened or how I got to hospital." What had happened, as she discovered later, was that her horse had reared again, tipped over backwards and landed on her - all 450kg (1,000lb) of mare. "There was a lady walking her dog and she saw the entire thing," she says. "Apparently, the horse landed heavily on me, crushing my head. This lady alerted another man nearby, also walking his dog, who happened to be a male nurse. He saved my life. If he hadn't have been a nurse, I would have died."

The unnamed nurse realised Douglas had a brain injury. He called for an air ambulance and stabilised her as much as he could without moving her head. "It was amazing," she says. "He recognised immediately what to do."

As Douglas was whisked off to Morriston hospital in Swansea, the nurse scrolled through her mobile phone as he didn't know who she was, where she lived or who to contact. He found the number for her mother. She then called Ferguson who, at that point, had no idea anything was wrong.

The family immediately set off for hospital. "None of them had any idea if I was alive or dead," says Douglas. "I think it was terrifying for them. Niall thought I was probably paralysed." When they got to the hospital, they were told the good news - incredibly, she had not broken a single bone. Her spine was also fine. She was physically in very good shape, but her brain...

"It was damaged," she says. "I had a brain haemorrhage in the area that controls short-term memory. Apparently I had conversations with people in hospital but I couldn't remember them." Her optic nerve was also damaged, hence her double vision. "In many ways I was lucky," she says. "I was alive and physically fine." The specialist told her there was not much that could be done as the head injuries were in a part of the brain that is difficult to operate on and it also looked as if the brain would, in the end, heal itself. "So I went back to the house in Wales to recuperate.

"But that usually magical place was ruined for me. It was a very sad time. I couldn't do anything and Niall and the children were very worried about me. I was worried about myself. I didn't recognise the person I'd become. I had stopped reacting to things in the way I'd usually react and I couldn't remember anything. It was very disconcerting."

Things did not improve much back in Oxfordshire. "I am used to getting things done quickly," says Douglas. "I used to take a conference call on one line and do a pitch on the other while reading a report and getting everything sorted out within 24 hours. Then the doctors told me it could take up to two years for me to feel myself again, I couldn't believe it. And then, of course, they told me it was best not to ride again and to cut down on work."

But a month or so after the accident she went back to work. "My driver took me into the Conde Nast building in London. I staggered into the lift wearing my high Chanel shoes and seeing two of everything. I just about managed to get my desk and then everything was sort of spinning and I realised I couldn't cope.

"I called my driver and asked him to come back.. I took my heels off in the car. It was so awful to think I could no longer work, no longer multi-task, no longer wear high heels! I realised I had to learn a whole new set of skills to survive." But Douglas is a fighter. "I have always pushed myself," she says. "I have always aimed to do well and work hard. I have loved my work. I love challenges. While I was ill I was at home all the time and, although it was wonderful being with the children because I really haven't spent that much time at home before, I realised I couldn't just stay here. I couldn't just give up or become fearful."

So, she decided to ride again. "My husband made me sell the horse for a fraction of what she was worth. He said if I wouldn't sell her, he'd shoot her. He hates horses. For him the thrill of riding is inexplicable and he was keen for me not to ride again as the doctors told me that if I fell off again and suffered the same injury, well, it was curtains."

Douglas didn't tell her husband or children she was riding again. "I got Sarah, our groom, to bring our horse Ally out to me and hold her while I got on. I was so nervous I was shaking." But she got on and rode to the end of the drive and back again. "That was enough for me," she says. "I felt very proud of myself as there had been a serious chance I would never manage to get on a horse again."

Now, she is almost back to where she was before the accident. "I am riding again," she says. "Niall thinks I am mad. But he has accepted my decision. In fact, for Christmas he gave me an IOU for another horse."

Aren't her children worried they could potentially lose their mother? "Maybe," she says, "but they know me. They know I'm a fighter. And I can't run away from things. What would that teach them? Not to take on life's challenges? To give up after one setback? I don't think that would be a great thing for them to learn. I am more careful now but I like taking risks. It is attractive to me. Anyway, the odds on it happening again are very low. I tell myself that every time I mount up."

But she has learned some important lessons. She says: "I hope I am also more sympathetic. Before, when people came to me and they were ill or unhappy, I'd give them pretty short shrift. Now I'd listen and try to understand more."

Has it helped her sort her life out a bit more? It seems to me that, before the accident, she was working so hard her feet barely touched the floor.

"I love working," she says, "but my Conde Nast job has wound up and I am enjoying being here with the children. That said, I'm doing a bit of work now and am intending to increase that in the near future."

So, not much of a change then? "Well, I've got my memory back," she says, "but it has changed me. I hope, I'm a much nicer person than I was. You know, I set out on a beautiful day to ride my horse. It nearly cost me my life.

"I found that very frightening. But it has given me a wider understanding of my life and that's a good thing in the end, isn't it?"

HORSE SENSE ON THE ROADS

• ALWAYS ride on the left side of the road near the kerb, never riding more than two abreast. Riding two abreast is recommended with a young or inexperienced horse, with the more experienced horse staying on the outside. When traffic approaches, it may be necessary to ride single file, with the experienced horse leading.

• BE aware of traffic and look behind you regularly. Look and listen for hazards which might alarm your horse and if you are approaching a noisy or dangerous hazard, reassure your horse. If they are still reluctant to pass the hazard, get another horse to lead.

• ALWAYS keep a gap of a horse's length between each horse.

• WHEN approaching a hazard, such as a parked car which requires the horse to be moved towards the centre of the road, check ahead and behind for approaching traffic. Signal to traffic that you will be moving into the centre of the road.

• BEFORE turning or approaching a junction, check for traffic and use your arm to signal your intention.

• YOU should wear a hard hat that conforms to the current safety standards, and a body protector and fluorescent tabard are also advisable, particularly if you are riding a young or inexperienced horse.

• FOR more information, contact the British Horse Society (www.bhs.org.uk) who operate a Riding and Road Safety Test and many riding schools carry out training days in riding and road safety.