Accessible horse riding with the RDA

My Name is Julie, my life changed forever when I was diagnosed with a 6cm brain tumour, which post-surgery left me, with rubbish balance, partial sight and hearing. Left sided palsy and not least a defining, significant facial weakness – all on the left side.

After fantastic rehab to help my balance issues and speech problems in particular, I left there able to walk with a stick and make myself understood to others. A horse rider all my life, one of my main aims was to get back on a horse, it was a long drawn out (and back to the beginning) process, but with the help of the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) I managed it.

I continued to improve with the riding and began to compete in walk/trot dressage tests at first. Setting my goals to achievable levels, kept it ‘real’ and although improvement seemed frustratingly slow initially, I ceased to compare my riding to how it had been pre-surgery. I soon realised it was a pointless comparison, that would get me nowhere at all! This gave me both confidence and determination, to stretch the boundaries at every opportunity and to this end I found myself competing in the RDA championship Qualifiers, which if successful mean you compete at the RDA National UK Championships in Hartpury, Gloucester-shire. Riders here from every corner of the UK, compete every July, in Dressage, Carriage Driving, countryside challenge and show jumping. I have been fortunate enough to qualify and compete there, this being my 5th year. I look forward to this truly unique and fantastic event, the largest of its kind in Europe. The converging of disabled riders and their mounts, all turned out to the highest standards, is a showcase event in my view. The level of commitment and skill of all the competitors, whatever their age (children and adults compete) is phenomenal and I simply cannot stress the uplifting and inspiring feeling of this championship.

This year was no exception and the event felt bigger and better than ever. Probably to everyone’s relief, we were neither baking in unrelenting heat or floods! The classes and different events all seemed to go smoothly. As well as competing myself in the Grade 3 Championship class (I came second), I had been proud and pleased to support others attending the event for the first time, People I like to think, I have encouraged to attend, when they have qualified, so that apart from anything else, they could feel the buzz and sheer tingling thrill of taking part in their class. For that focused few minutes, it is just you and the horse or pony.

Julie - SPARKYLike any other sports competitor, you have to focus your mind, knowing what you can do and just hoping you can bring it all together on the day… and yes, of course, it is in that respect like any other sport…but it is a sport where you have a four-legged partner, who may well be your legs, your sight, your support and perhaps your best buddy too! You can be assured that your equine partner, will also be feeling the occasion and I salute their ability to adapt themselves to it, with all it’s different sights, scents and distractions, from which they may have their own ‘opinion’…

A horse may not be a guide dog or a pet that sleeps on your bed to comfort you, but I experience the connection we have to them every single time I mount up. If it is a horse that I know, he will recognise me, knowing what to expect and if it is a new equine friend, he will be quietly taking stock – assessing me if you like. And yes, every child, every adult whatever their disability will know that feeling for sure. It is a beautiful thing, and part of what is so incredibly unique about the whole riding experience. You see this every minute of every session I imagine, at RDA centres all over the UK. The culmination of which is the championships, giving hope and inspiration to competitors and spectators alike. Yes of course, it is a nerve wracking experience for the competitors, but the right kind of nerves. Not the nerves of surgery, pain or life’s difficulties. It is the expectation of being consumed by something that you love and believe in, making you aware of who you are – and can be once again. However you look at it, it is just the two of you, out there in that large, white railed 20 X 40 metre arena.

Everyone who competes over those three days, does well in my view, some will do exceptionally well – and by that I mean a level that would have you holding your breath in sheer awe; Some of the competitors, will go on to be British Paralympic riders, proud to represent our hopes and dreams…and yes a few will get to the Olympics. In this respect, I cannot emphasise enough how important and influential this peak of perfection RDA event is. It is the culmination of hard work, commitment and the determination of so many to overcome the dam near impossible at times…

I personally feel, it challenges the views people have of disabilities of all kinds (right across the spectrum) and would enlighten many who have never watched this kind of event. The whole atmosphere of the event is quite unique, bringing out the best in absolutely everyone. Riding and competing has given me focus and commitment, to being as good as I possibly can be. Not reflecting on what I can no longer do – and to be honest that really doesn’t matter now – and focus instead on all that I can do, still enjoy and achieve beyond my wildest dreams.

You can find (and buy) my book entitled “On the Hoof: Pony Girl” here.

By Julie Ashby

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