I wrote this post because of a request that I received in the comments. I was asked to talk a bit more about my experiences with horses and horse-riding as someone with a visual impairment, so here’s my horsy story.
How it all started
I knew that my teaching assistant, who helped in maths and science lessons, and prepared Braille materials for me, had horses. She used to tell me about them, and I was really excited when she invited me to the farm where they were kept to have my first ride.
The first ride on Silke was a stroll down by the canal and back again, but after that, I was hooked. It seemed like a whole other world and there was so much to learn! I set about learning as much as I could, with an intensity that must have driven my poor grandparents crazy. When I couldn’t be with horses, then I was reading about them, thinking about them, and telling anyone who would listen what I had recently discovered!
After that, I visited Silke several times, and also rode one of the other horses there, Rhumba, who was bigger and thought that cantering through the fields by the canal was a lot of fun. So did I! When Silke had her first foal, I was allowed to meet him after a couple of days. All fluffy and still discovering what his spindly legs were for.
I enjoyed our visits, but they lived quite far away, so we needed to find something closer if this was going to become a hobby.
Making horse-riding accessible
We were lucky that the riding stables close to us was so welcoming and helpful. I think I took this for granted at the time, but having been to other stables now, I know I lucked out!
Sometimes I had lessons as part of a group, and sometimes I had private lessons. One of the most important things was that the trainer didn’t just let things go – if my hands or legs weren’t in the right position, she would physically show me what I should be doing. If I was sitting like a sack of potatoes, I was called out on it. I got the additional help that I needed because of my visual impairment, but I was expected to work as hard as everyone else.
One of my favourite things was jumping. It helped that the horse I usually rode loved to jump, but this was good experience for when I rode other horses who weren’t so keen on it. The instructor described the jump, told me if I needed to do anything to correct my approach to it, then gave me a few seconds warning before it was time to jump! I loved it!
We made a tactile arena on a big piece of cardboard and stuck Braille letters on so that I could learn their positions. (Braille is a tactile system which blind people use to read). Once I’d memorised where the letters were, I could understand instructions about where I needed to go. We had a couple of people around the arena who called out the letters as I approached them, so I knew when to turn. If there weren’t enough people, the trainer got a lot of exercise, getting to the letters before I did so that she would be in place to call them out! I understand now that people use more high-tech solutions such as Bluetooth headsets with someone giving visual information.
My assistant teacher also found a 2d wooden horse, and we mounted it on another piece of card, then labelled all the parts of the body with pieces of string that connected the Braille label to the corresponding part of the horse.
My grandparents never shared my love of horses, but Granddad took me to and from the stables every Saturday, and Nan read aloud my pony magazines, often slowly so that I could copy out information that I wanted for my Braille horse folder.
I know that at least one of the people whom I used to ride with has gone on to become an international dressage rider. I stopped riding when I was at High School – other interests got in the way. With hindsight I should have stayed with the horses, but you’re always smarter when you’re looking back.
As well as the weekly lessons, the riding school held its own yearly competitions in which you could enter for events such as dressage and jumping. We spent time grooming, plaiting manes, getting saddles ready and waiting for the big day. I was with the other sighted girls, so I didn’t feel different. Most of us didn’t have our own horses, so we were split up into pairs.
Everyone wanted to ride Bridget, the horse that I usually rode. She was so popular, partly because she seemed to enjoy what we did – especially jumping. But partly because she was a really kind horse with a lovely nature. She would put her head on your shoulder after you’d finished grooming her, and sometimes it felt as though the horses made more sense to me than the other people my age!
Anyway, I wasn’t one of the people in team Bridget, but I was assigned Sam, whom I hadn’t ridden before. He didn’t enjoy tearing around as much as I did, and I’m not sure he ever saw the point of hurtling over jumps when you could do the smart thing and walk round them, but you knew that he wouldn’t get flustered in an arena with so many people around, and he was one of the most reliable horses there. He got the job done – and in doing so we won one 1st, two third, and 2 clear round rosettes! I was proud of him and our picture was on my grandparents’ wall for ages!
I don’t remember it being horribly competitive. Yes, everyone wanted to win, but for me it was more about improving my own skills and becoming a better rider.
Trip to Berlin
The photo at the top of this post was taken when I went to visit my friend Sarah in Berlin. We were doing a kind of language exchange and had each planned fun activities for the other when she came to visit.
One of the things that we did in Germany was a ride through the countryside around Berlin. We met the horses, Maja and Marietta, and were escorted out by their owner for an evening ride. The things I remember most about that day were riding through a field of sunflowers – my favourite flower – and the fact that Maja liked to be in the lead! Ok, I also quite enjoyed being in the lead. The others described the path that we were going to take, where the turns were, and whether there were any low-hanging branches to avoid.
I was really glad I got to do this because so many stables are overcautious when it comes to working with disabled riders and it was great to go and explore on horseback without any unnecessary concerns – or the dreaded lead rein. Oh yes, and galloping was cool too!
I tried a couple of other riding schools as an adult, but never found one that I wanted to go to regularly. It’s true that you don’t realise what you have – until you don’t have it any more. I went on a couple of nice rides with a friend who lived locally, but I never started riding again every week.
As a young teenager I may have tired of my instructor complaining about my seat or leg positions, but she held me to a high standard, as she did with everyone else. I get the feeling that some other schools are so used to people who get a lot out of just being carried around on a horse, and that’s a great thing for some people, but setting the bar really low for all disabled riders is a sure way to demotivate people, especially those who are eager to learn and improve. If you’ve ridden before, the last thing you want is a lead rein, and the only way you can add more insult to injury is to give the lead rein to a 10-year-old child – yes, that did happen once. It didn’t make me want to go back!
Putting disabled riders in the same group can work if they are at a similar level, but not if what they want from the lesson or what they are able to achieve independently is vastly different.
Where I live now, I haven’t really looked around to see what’s available. I have different hobbies now. But I always look back fondly to the time when every Saturday morning was spent at the stables, grooming horses, cleaning saddles, carrying around buckets of food and water, playing games that involved teaching the stable dogs new tricks, and waiting for my lesson to come around.
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