For as far back as I can remember, I have always had a love for horses and fascination with horseback riding. From a very early age, these giant, powerful, graceful animals captivated me entirely and they have remained my one true passion ever since. Unfortunately neither of my parents shared this affinity for horses and so, horses were neither supported nor allowed while growing up.
Then, when I was a senior in high school, I got a diagnosis that would change my life forever. It wasn’t until years later however, that I would truly and fully understand just how much.
In the Fall of 2006 doctors first started noticing that there was something wrong with my eyes. I had worn glasses/contacts for several years, and the prescription had always fixed my vision and returned it to normal. But on that fateful day there wasn't any combination of lenses that my eye doctor could use to allow me to see the 20/20 line. This was a huge red flag and so I was sent on to a long line ophthalmologists and retina specialists, each with their own host of tests (there were a lot of bright lights, dye-injecting needles, poking and prodding, and tedious long hours of vision field testing). In school, teachers had started getting mad at me for not being able to read the board (even when sitting in the front row) and not being able to (they thought I simply didn't want to) read from my textbooks. But I had no explanation and no idea what was happening to my vision — it was both frustrating and scary.
During the holidays of that year I learned that I had a form of juvenile macular degeneration — a rare condition that is found in one in 20,000 children and teenagers. The disease was called Stargardt’s Macular Dystrophy — a progressive degenerative eye disease that would eventually render me 'legally blind' (registered as blind even with the aid of corrective lenses).
Over the next few years I continued to lose vision along with many of the things I once took for granted (such as my ability to drive), but went on to receive my Bachelor’s degree with Honors distinction from Queen’s University (Ontario, Canada) and started two Master’s degrees (one in business and the other in Sports Management).
But as my vision continued to get worse, the harsh reality of my situation began to set in and I began to contemplate the importance of quality of life and happiness. I realized that my life would never be the same and that, with no cure on the horizon, I would likely never get my vision back. This was when I decided to put everything on hold and pursue an unrealized lifelong dream of learning to ride and jump horses. Over the past five years, even with the odds stacked against me, I went from never having jumped an entire course and competing in my first ‘schooling show’ to successfully competing against able-bodied riders in rated shows at the 1.00 meter jumpers.
My horse journey began five years ago when I started taking lessons at a therapeutic riding center in exchange for helping with the program. I became comfortable with horses both on the ground and in the saddle, but all I really wanted to do was jump! It was here that the therapeutic riding instructor told me that because of my vision, or lack thereof (no matter how good a rider I was or could become), I would never be able to jump horses. Being competitive by nature, this just made me more determined to prove that it was possible!
By the time I found my first trainer, Vicki, I had already contacted, and been turned away by, several other trainers. I was used to hearing variations on how unrealistic my goals were and that “there was no way I could control a jumper horse and get around a course, let alone ride it well’. But even with the odds stacked against me, Vicki took me on without hesitation.
Within the span of three short years I went from never having jumped an entire course and competing in my first ‘schooling show’ (winning Champion in the beginning hunter division) to successfully competing against able-bodied riders who have been riding since before they could walk, in rated shows at the 1.00 meter jumper level. A year ago, after the 26-year-old horse I was riding could no longer jump at this height, I decided to move across the country from Portland, OR to Louisville, KY to pursue this dream more seriously.
My sights are now set on making the USEF Show Jumping Ranking list and eventually competing in the Olympic and Paralympic Games, becoming the first blind show jumper to compete at that level!
My mission along the way is to raise awareness of visual impairment and what it means to be legally blind/visually impaired. I believe that exposure raises awareness, which in turn fosters understanding. I’m optimistic that this will promote more tolerance and acceptance of individuals with physical (and often invisible) disabilities. My long-term mission is to contribute to the growth and accessibility of horse sport. By personally competing against able-bodied riders, I hope to spur more riders with disabilities to become involved in show jumping competition. Eventually I hope that this will empower change and encourage interest and acceptance of the emerging sport of para-jumping, with the ultimate goal of it becoming a competitive international discipline and Paralympic sport.
My ‘vision’ is that my endeavors will inspire others to have the courage to face their own challenges and pursue their own passions, whatever they may be!
But I have limitations. What I know now that I didn’t before I lost my vision, is not only how challenging, but how taxing, in many ways, it is to live with a disability. There are physical, psychological, temporal, social and financial costs of being legally blind that don’t allow me the luxury of pursuing my endeavors to the level that I would like. Living with my disability often feels like a full-time job. My reality is that the the costs of being legally blind don’t allow me the luxury of being able to live what most people would consider a normal life.
But I don’t let that stop me! I ‘see’ everyday as a new opportunity to overcome whatever challenges the world may throw my way and to continue working towards pursuing my goals and making my dream a reality!
I cannot put into words what it is like to lose your sight. But horses have given me windows of freedom from the burdens of a disability. Riding has given me back my confidence and a sense of independence that I never thought I would feel or have again. This sport has allowed me to ‘look’ forward; it has allowed me to dream and hope again.
I’ve fallen in love with every aspect of this sport and I want to share the joys that horses have brought me with others, regardless of ability or disability.
Horses have given me windows of freedom from a disability. Riding has given me back my confidence and a sense of independence that I thought I’d never have or feel again. This sport has allowed me to look forward; to dream and to hope again.