In 1990, five years after going blind from diabetes, I got back in the saddle at Camelot Therapeutic Horsemanship in Scottsdale, Arizona, a program for equestrians with physical challenges. I didn't expect much more than pony rides--but Camelot showed me I could do flying lead changes and flying dismounts .and, clean stalls) without sight. The day I jumped, I felt I'd grown wings!
In March 1998, after graduating from Camelot, I leased Kenos Tomy Tutone, a Paint gelding. Five days a week Dial-a-Ride dropped me off at the stable; I unlocked the tack room (except the day someone put the combination lock on backward--I figured out the problem but couldn't get the numbers to work in reverse), groomed and tacked up, and, using my cane, led Tomy to the round pen.
I couldn't get lost there; if I fell off, all I'd have to do was walk until I bumped into the fence, then follow that to the gate where Tomy would be waiting. A dressage whip in my outside hand let me know where the rail was, and riding bareback for six months helped me feel everything going on underneath me.
Through a "personals" ad in a local horse publication, I met my boyfriend, Ralph Carr, in October 1998. He became my coach at horse shows, directing me through arena traffic by radio transmitter. (My receiver was discretely tucked into my cleavage, with a wire to the speaker in my ear.) He tells me what other riders' eyes tell them-that there's a horse blowing up ahead, that I need to pass someone, that we're coming off the rail . . . He has to be very precise, saying not just "move left" but how far and at what angle.
Some people think the radio gives me an unfair advantage-but, believe me, there's nothing anyone could tell me (or have time to tell me) that would do that. If I don't do my homework and learn to feel and react to what my horse is doing underneath me, I'm not going to win the class.
I first showed as a blind rider in December 1998, in a walk/trot class in a huge arena. There were only three of us. The other two riders, both sighted, collided; I won the class by default!
In 1999, Tomy and I earned year-end high-point awards in three different local show circuits and placed in equitation at the Pinto National Championships. But I didn't want anyone to think I was winning only because I had a push-button horse. So in September 1999 I bought Sugarplum Vision (Zoe), an unbroken three-year-old hunter type Pinto/Paint filly--despite a top trainer's warning that for a blind rider, such a green horse was a "death warrant." (Other people tend to think I need a horse that's one step away from the glue factory. But I want to show in equitation on the flat, hunter under saddle, and hunter hack--which means I need a horse who's quiet and sensible but has a keen mind and can perform!)
One way I determine how safe I feel with a horse is to unexpectedly open an umbrella in the animal's face. Green as she was, Zoe let me pop the umbrella and twirl it around her. She has no idea I'm blind, but her relaxed, forgiving, trusting nature makes her an ideal mount for me.
This article was originally published in the February 2001 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.