Ausnew Home Care | How para-equestrian challenges disability assumptions and can 'complete a whole human'

How para-equestrian challenges disability assumptions and can 'complete a whole human'

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Jessie Smith has been horse-mad since she was three years old. She began riding, and then started competing as a teenager.

She thought all her "Saddle Club dreams were coming true".

But in what felt like the blink of an eye, everything changed.

"I fell seemingly ill overnight," Jessie said.

In 2013, at 14 years old, she was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) in her right leg.

CRPS is a rare, incurable neuroinflammatory autoimmune disease that often results in intense burning pain in regions of the body.

This disease is known as the most painful disease in the world. While treatable, the condition is incurable.

Jessie's condition later spread to her spine, hip, right wrist, and left leg.

She was also diagnosed with dystonia, a condition causing involuntary muscle contractions that result in repetitive or twisting movements.

Doctors told her she would likely end up in a wheelchair.

"My condition is progressive and incurable," Jessie said.

While she continued to compete, the onset of the disease meant she needed to re-train using alternative methods.

A female para-equestrian rider wears a jacket and helmet and is riding a horse in competition, smiling.
Jessie has to compete in non-disabled equestrian events.(Supplied)

Jessie says her horses are the only reason she can still walk.

"I continued to train because if I had sat at home, I would have lost that ability so much faster."

Now, unable to be classified for Para-equestrian due to the complex nature of her disability, she competes in able-bodied dressage with the use of exemptions.

By way of modifications, Jessie's stirrups are attached to her girth and her foot is then attached to the stirrups. This helps keep her in place and maintain contact with her horse.

"It stops me falling by keeping my foot in the stirrup," she said.

"I shift my weight from side to side to aid the horse to go sideways or get more activity in their pace."

A woman wearing jacket, helmet and jodhpurs rides a horse during an equestrian competition.
Jessie uses modifications to be able to compete.(Supplied)

Jessie and her coach have also trained her horses to respond to the use of two whips that replicate the motions her legs would create.

She uses Velcro straps to secure herself into the saddle along with knee and thigh blocks in the saddle to keep her secure.

"My horses are the only part of my old life I have left," Jessie said.

The aids keeping riders in the saddle

A female para-equestrian rider is on a horse, smiling.
Noella has been riding horses for most of her life.(Supplied)

Noella Angel began riding as a toddler on her pony Echo. She was born with congenital Arterial Vascular Malformation that was diagnosed at the age of five.

This condition, also referred to as Klippel-Trenaunay Syndrome, affects the development of blood vessels, soft tissues and bones.

In September 2022 Noella underwent surgery to amputate her leg.

Since then, she has had to shift the way she rides and reassure herself of her capabilities. When mounting up, she often panics remembering fractures to her now absent leg.

"I have a moment of panic where I think my body isn't going to let me do this," Noella said.

"I worry I will lose my ability and athletic personality, the qualities of myself I hold dear."

She went into Para-equestrian thinking she "wasn't disabled enough", but now competes at a national level.

When riding, Noella uses a customised adaptable saddle. The saddle includes knee pads, velcro straps and knee blocks to keep her in place.

A woman with one leg and crutches stands in between two horses which have prize winning ribbons on them.
Noella is now an accomplished competitior.(Supplied)

A rider's physical capacity, often varying between individual profiles, is used to determine what compensating aids they receive, in conjunction with their classification grade.

Vision impaired riders may be permitted a range of assistance from both 'live markers' and 'callers'. Live markers call out each letter in the arena, while a caller calls out the movements within a test, and the letters a rider approaches.

All grades are permitted one whip, but those with limited lower body function may use two.

The healing power of the horse

A young woman in a wheelchair is in a horse stable, she smiles at the camera.
Jessie pushes through intense pain to compete in equestrian.(Supplied)

For riders from all backgrounds, the emotional bond between a rider and horse is powerful.

For riders with disabilities in particular, horse riding helps make a rider feel physically stronger, and provides a deep emotional connection in a world that can often be isolating and disempowering.

"I gave up my search for the 'why' last year, after eight and a half years of searching my heart couldn't take it anymore," Jessie said.

"Some things are just meant to be and all I can do is take what I have now and do with it what I can."

Prior to her diagnosis, Jessie was also a competitive swimmer.

After acquiring her disability, she is now limited to floating and light exercise.

"Something about not being able to swim is just too much to comprehend emotionally. I feel so heartbroken and frustrated."

But thanks to the guidance from her coach, when she rides her "incredible" pony, Jessie feels that she can do things she did not have the opportunity to do able-bodied.

"It might hurt like hell but my god it's worth every bit," Jessie said.

Noella says her horses can even just look at her sideways in a way that makes her feel better.

"They can complete a whole human," she said.

For Noella and many people with disabilities who ride, horses provide a kind of therapy that cannot be understated.

"My horse is my reason to get up, he makes me feel normal."

ABC Sport has partnered with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.

Melissa Marsden is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor with online publications including Independent Australia. Melissa regularly writes about a range of issues including disability, feminism, inequality as well as political and media biases and is currently undertaking research into disability representation in the media.


Source: ABC

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