This week, team GB is para dressage riders have been competing in France. Once again they won both individual and team medals. Nobody can deny that these talented equestrians deserve every accolade that they get. After all, can anybody remember the last time that team GB is para Olympic dressage riders did not come hoe with some gold? Each and everyone of them is just amazing, and I am in total admiration of the talent and ability, but have you ever noticed anything about para dressage…?
As regular followers know, I have a relatively rare genetically inherited condition that has caused me to very gradually go blind over the course of my life. I have never seen properly, and have been totally blind for about 15 years now .I have also been completely horse obsessed since birth.
I started having lessons when I was nine years old. Believe me it took a lot of pester power to get to that stage. My weekly lessons were the highlight of my week. When my parents finally accepted that this was not a phase, and they bought me my very own riding hat, I felt like a Million Dollars. I am sure that my parents must have told them, but nothing was ever made of my eyesight problems at the local riding school. I learnt to walk, trot, canter, jump, and even gallop. I was soon helping out at the riding school at weekends on the hope of getting free rides, and would groom and tack up the horses, and even lead other people who were just starting to learn to ride. Like all the other children who helped at the stables, I had my Particula favourite pony, and dreamt of having a pony of my own. I couldn’t see in the dark, and so found going into the stables and tackroom difficult, and because of my tunnel vision I would occasionally walk into things or knock them over,but I really don’t remember my eyesight problem being a barrier to me learning to ride and look after ponies back then. . This was in the 1970s though, and the total killjoy that is Health and Safety had not really been born yet. There was a big noticeboard outside the office of the riding school, that bore the legend “Patrons ride at their own risk”.This was a very good riding school, approved both by the British horse society and the Association of British riding schools, and was therefore fully insured and had fully qualified well-trained members of staff, there was an expectation that its clients understood that horse riding is a high risk activity, and that accidents happen. There was also an understanding that, people were able to make their own decisions about whether they wanted to take the risk and get on horseback or not, and, as long as they were wearing appropriate clothing, which included A hardhat, it was never deemed dangerous for anybody to have a go.
Going to special education boarding school at the age of 11 did cramp my style. I was not allowed to go riding at first. I would still ride at the weekends during school holidays and half terms though, and, when I was a little bit older, and my school privileges allowed me to be out of the school grounds more often, I started riding at a very small local riding school. This was actually my introduction to riding in the Minaj, boy was that a new experience, I also did a fair bit of jumping there to. . Again, my eyesight problems were fully explained to the instructors, and again, apart from then counting me in to jumps, it was never an issue. In fact I believe that the main instructor really seemed to enjoy the challenge, and soon several of my fellow pupils also began having lessons there.
Apart from not being able to Study for or take the BHS qualifications, , and the fact that I could not actually work with horses, which is really all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life, I never experienced any problems, discrimination, prejudice, negativity or other barriers to my horsey aspirations until the ’90’s. Then suddenly, somebody flipped the switch, and being blind and wanting to ride became A huge problem. . By then I had my own horse, so going for rides and lessons at a Riding school was a rarity. However, I began to notice awkward pauses on the other end of the phone if I mentioned my lack of eyesight. People would tell me that they had to check with their insurance, they would promise to get back to me, and never did. Sometimes they’d just say mo, which I suppose is more honest. If I did manage to get booked in, they would usually put me on the oldest, most knackered nag on the yard, which to be honest I don’t really mind, or they would insist on leading me, which I think is just insulting.
To be honest, as a horse owner, I really feel that I’ve experienced far more positivity and support than I ever have have negativity, or direct prejudice or discrimination. Perhaps that’s why it is so hard to deal with when it does happen. By and large, when I do encounter discrimination, either in the horse world or life in general, it is rarely as a deliberate act of blindest hatred. It does happen, but it’s extremely rare. Usually it’s either because people have little understanding of the law, and their legal obligations towards people with any form of disability under the terms of the disability discrimination act on the equalities act. They often ” Believe that by letting me ride they will be in validating their insurance, , or Breaking health and safety legislation. Neither of these is true, unless of course the insurers also contravening the equalities act. Sometimes people discriminate against blind riders because they believe they are protecting them. I have lost count of the amount of times over the years I have been told I can’t do something, or can’t fully take part in activity, because it is too dangerous. Apart from being a little bit patronising, this is probably one of the most non-sensible reasons for stopping somebody who is blind doing anything. Yes I’m fully aware that horseriding is a high risk sport. However, when you are blind, just going to the shops is a high risk activity. Try crossing the road when you can’t see. I’m sorry, but if you are going to prevent blind people from taking part in activities because it is too dangerous, then most of us wouldn’t be allowed to get out of bed in the morning.OK, I understand that, unless you are actually living with some form of sight loss, or have a close family member or very good friend who is blind or visually impaired, you really do have no way of knowing what blind and visually impaired people are capable of achieving.However, surely when you are dealing with somebody who is an experienced person when it comes to being blind or visually impaired, you should be led in your judgement by what they want to achieve, and what they believe their capabilities and limitations might be, not impose your own prejudices on to them, no matter how well meaning you think you are being.
I’ve lived with my condition for 51 years now, and I’ve learned to,grudgingly, accept that being on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination is just another part of life’s rich tapestry. I get that some individuals believe that I am less capable because I can’t see. What I find more difficult to accept is when prejudice and discrimination are at an institutional level. Especially when that institution is discriminating against the very people it is supposed to support.
I have had very little to do with the Riding for the disabled Association. However, in 1999, and into 2000, I had a very long period of time off work with stress and depression. The horse I had at the time was becoming extremely old and had a few health problems, and as I wanted to have some lessons, I joined the RDA. I had heard that it was possible to take some stable management and riding exams through the RDA, and as my blindness had presented me from taking any BHS qualifications this was something I was very keen to pursue. I have absolutely no idea how anybody, regardless of their disability, Actually goes about taking these tests and qualificationS. If my experience is anything near typical, then it is an impossibility. I was briefly involved with two separate RDA groups, both ran at yards where I had previously ridden as a private client. The first was a very small group. The instructor, Who I am still in touch with now, was excellent, had a brilliant can do attitude, and basically believed that, regardless of what an individual’s disability actually was, they were capable of achieving. Potentially it may have been possible to really progress with this group. However, whilst the instructor was employed by the riding stables where the group was based, The group itself, as I understand is the case with all RDA groups, was run by volunteers. Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against volunteers, I volunteer myself, and the entire British charity sector would collapse without the armies of hard working, unpaid individuals who give their time freely to support others. Unfortunately though, this particular group of volunteers, with one or two noticeable exceptions, appeared to be run in Tiley to the benefit of themselves, and seemed to take very little notice of the needs of the people they were supposed to be helping. It seemed to be some kind of middle-class middle-aged genteel ladies afternoon out. Some of them hardly spoke to the riders they were supposed to be helping, The Group only ran during term time, bizarre when you consider that all the riders were adults, The group did not run if the weather was considered inclement, and the group closed down completely during the hunting season. I was so disappointed that I wrote to the headquarters of the RDA to complain. The reply I received more or less told me to shut up and be grateful. Firmly of the opinion that these shortcomings would be found only in that group, I joined another. The instructor at this group was quite shocked to see me coming through the gate as she had known me since I was a child. She told me that I did not need to be there. How right she was. Again run by volunteers, but this time by volunteers who were linked in some way to the Riders, this group was vastly oversubscribed. You would only find out if you were going to be lucky enough to ride that evening once you had turned up. This group was also extremely risk adverse. . Wants mounted, not only did they insist on having a volunteer lead your horse, but you also had to have a person walking one on either side of you in case you looked like you were going to fall off. No chance of cantering. You weren’t even allowed to handle the horses on the ground. The first time I tried riding there, I got severely told off for loosening my horses girth, Redding my stirrups up, and offering to put the horse back in its stable, once I had dismounted. Apparently this was far too dangerous a task for one of the clients to even consider attempting to do! God alone knows how they would react if they saw the things I do with my own horses. How on earth does anybody learn, progress, or even become a more confident individual, with such restrictions placed upon them? I very quickly decided that the RDA was not for me.
I really don’t want to completely damn the RDA, after all, there are a great many people who benefit enormously from them. Let’s face it, our entire Gold medal winning para Dressage team owe their success in no small way to the RDA. . About that amazing and highly successful para Dressage team, and, for that matter, the entire para Dressage movement. Have you noticed something? Has it occurred to you that there aren’t any blind or visually impaired riders on any of the teams?
Let’s think about this. Take your mind back to Rio and the Paralympics. Team GB were incredibly powerful, and our blind athletes played no small part in this. We have vlind runners, blind swimmers, vlind cyclists, blind Judo, blind archers, blind football, we even had vlind skiers at the recent Winter Paralymics in Koria. No blind equestrians though.!any idea why?
Well it’s not because there aren’t any. I know 3 very hard working and talented blind riders who would be excellent team riders , and there are a great many extremely talented vlind riders out there who will sadly never reach their full potential if things stay as they are. Part of the provlem is the Grading system. In disability sport Grading is used to ensure a level playing field. People get graded according to their level of impairment with Grade1 being the most severely impaired and Grade I’ve being the least. Grading also relates in some way to the actual disability, e.g. CP1 relates to an athlete with extremely severe cerebral palsy and B1 to an athlete who is totally blind. This means that on the whole people with a similar kind and level of impairment will compete against each other. People with lower leg amputation run against other people with Lola leg amputation, paraplegics race against paraplegics, blind against blind. You never end up in a situation where a totally blind runner is racing against somebody who uses a wheelchair. Unless you are talking about para equestrianism that is. There is only one stream of grading in para equestrian. Grade 1, The most severely disabled riders, Who compete only in walk, through to grade 4, The least disabled, Who can compete in all three paces and are not allowed anyspecialised equipment. . all blind riders are automatically graded as grade 4.
. So you have competitors who are physically extremely fit and capable, but have no way of orientating themselves around the arena because they can’t see the dressage markers, , competing against people who have a small amount of physical limitation but perfect eyesight. It’s like a totally blind person competing in the hundred metres sprint against a person with an arm amputation. There really is no comparison.
Why is there no separation of grading in para equestrianism? It seems to me that it might be because, as has been my experience with the RDA, that the specific needs of blind and visually impaired riders have not entered sphere of consciousness of the people who make the decisions. It’s like we are an afterthought, and an inconvenience. If any other group was treated this way there would be hell to pay.
I consider myself to be extremely lucky. For me it’s all about the horse, and I am truly living the dream. There are a great many fully cited, able-bodied, riders and horse owners for whom having their horses at home, with their own little yard, seems completely unobtainable. I am not the most talented rider., and have no illusions that I would ever make a Paralympic team .However, I know quite a phew other blind riders, some of whom could be extremely talented if they had the right support network and coaching around them, and many of them are extremely frustrated with the status quo. Even if they do not see themselves as the next Sophie Kristiansen, like me, they want the opportunity to learn, progress, and have fun with horses. Unfortunately the majority of them are finding that The mainstream of turning them away because of their disability, whilst the RDA is either unable or unwilling, to facilitate the development as equestrians.
Blind riders are continually being overlooked, misunderstood, and discriminated against. It’s unjust and unfair A something needs to be done about it.
I have an absolutely amazing support network around me, but just occasionally it takes another blind equestrian to understand your frustrations, or suggest solutions to blind specific problems that you’re having. At these times being blind can be quite isolating. In order to combat this, last year I started the Blind Riders UK Facebook group,. This now has many members which include blind riders, parents of blind children who ride, and other supporters.I also have several friends via Twitter Who are blind riders, and it is becoming increasingly obvious, that barriers are being put up in the way of them enjoying their riding, Learning to look after horses, and competing. Sadly it would appear that as a group blind riders do not exist in the majority of peoples consciousness. Therefore I have now started a new Twitter feed @BlindRidersUK. Although run solely by myself, , The aim is to gather together as many blind riders as possible, and spread the word that we are out there and that we can and do ride, and that we can and do look after horses, that we want to be taken seriously, we want to, compete, own, and have fun with horses, in exactly the same way as everybody else who loves horses does.
Hearts are never won, and mines are never changed, by screaming and shouting. We are fed up of being overlooked though. Sober haps by spreading the word and being more public about our existence, we might change the status quo, and make somebody take notice of this so far invisible group of equestrians. I really look forward to the day when, A specific team of blind riders stands on the podium having won gold in Olympic para dressage