British rider Bubby Upton took pole position on day one of the Mars Badminton Horse Trials just nine months after undergoing major spinal surgery.

The 25-year-old leads aboard Cola on a score of 27.3 penalties halfway through the dressage phase.

And it represented a spectacular return to eventing’s elite five-star arena as she put the trials and tribulations from a serious fall last summer well and truly behind her.

Upton broke several vertebrae, needed a seven-hour operation and effectively had to learn to walk again, such was the magnitude of her injuries.

“If you had told me in August that I would be here at Badminton, I wouldn’t have believed it after what we have been through,” she said.

“It is very magical. Just being here is a dream come true.

“Subconsciously, I always wanted to be at Badminton, but at first I was learning to walk again. The thought of even just riding again was kind of out of the question.

“When I started riding at the start of the year, I kept falling off at the side and my first jump was very painful.

“But I just kept pushing and never stopped dreaming, and when I am doing what I love, the pain goes away.”

Upton’s performance headlined an opening day that saw her establish a lead of 1.7 penalties over American challenger Boyd Martin, while 55-year-old William Fox-Pitt – a twice Badminton winner – is equal fourth with Ireland’s Georgie Goss.

Further down the leaderboard, 2006 world champion Zara Tindall lies 24th aboard Class Affair, and three-time Badminton champion Pippa Funnell is in 35th place on Majas Hope.

Ros Canter launches her bid to successfully defend the Badminton title – a feat not achieved since Funnell did it in 2003 – on Friday, when other notable starters include British Olympic team gold medallist Laura Collett, an in-form Emily King and New Zealander Tim Price.