Riding blind, the nurse turned patient tackling a 5,000km horse ride w – Ausnew Home Care

Riding blind, the nurse turned patient tackling a 5,000km horse ride without sight

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Rowena Dowling was a registered nurse working in a busy Brisbane hospital when she lost her sight almost three decades ago.

The avid horse rider was born blind in her left eye but had managed well with full sight in her second eye until she was diagnosed with glaucoma in her 20s.

"I actually was born blind in one eye for an unknown reason, but it was never a disability for me," Ms Dowling said.

"I had good vision in my right eye,"

She said despite numerous surgeries, and daily eye drops, the condition of her right eye became worse.

"I was on a shift at nursing, and I noticed that my vision was deteriorating during the day," Ms Dowling said.

"I didn't say anything to my nursing colleagues. I rang my brother and said, 'I'm sorry, can you come and pick me up from work? I can't see well.'"

Ms Dowling underwent more surgery, but the prognosis she received from doctors changed her life.

"I remember coming out of the surgery, and I opened my eye, and I couldn't see anything," she said.

"I had no perception of light, so I'd gone from having deteriorating low vision to having no vision at all after the surgery.

"I would rather be dead than be blind."

Learning to thrive not just survive

Ms Dowling, who now lives at Sippy Downs on the Sunshine Coast, spent six months after the diagnosis learning how to care for herself and do basic tasks around the home.

A woman in a purple shirt putting a bridle on a white horse
Rowena Dowling saddles up her horse Ice using touch and memory from when she was a sighted rider.(

ABC Sunshine Coast: Amy Sheehan


"When I was over the initial treatment and surgeries, I came home and was very quickly linked up with various blindness organisations for some rehabilitation, learning new skills, new ways to do things," Ms Dowling said.

"I've gone from strength to strength, and I now truly embrace life as a person who is totally blind."

But there was one activity Ms Dowling longed to do again — ride a horse.

"Horses are a lifetime passion for me," Ms Dowling said.

"I was very lucky, I grew up with a dad who was horse mad, and he had three black Arabians in his youth, and he gave me my first horse, which was a beautiful chestnut Arabian filly," she said.

"Twelve months ago, I met a lady who works with people who are blind or visually impaired, and I found out that she was a very experienced horse lady, no longer working in the horse industry.

A year later, Ms Dowling now has her own horse, Ice, a 10-year-old grey quarter horse mare.

The pair have spent the last four months getting to know each other, with Ms Dowling relying on her past experience as a sighted rider to brush and saddle her mare with little assistance.

She does regular lessons with Ice at an agistment facility at Beerwah in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, using audio beacons to guide her around the arena.

She also relies on an NDIS support worker to help her while out on trail rides in forestry.

"I naturally could not just ride on a trail without sighted support, so I need a support rider that's very confident themselves with horses and still look after my safety," Ms Dowling said.

"I prefer my support riders to be behind me so they can see me and my horse at all times.

"So the horse may be going around something and straying a bit off the track, so they'll let me know, you know, steer left or right to get back on track.

Support needed for ride of a lifetime

The renewed passion for horses has sparked a big idea for Ms Dowling — to ride the Bicentennial National Trail, a 5,330-kilometre journey from Cooktown in Far North Queensland to Healesville in country Victoria.

A map showing the Bicentennial National Trail
The Bicentennial National Trail stretches 5,330km from Cooktown, Far North Queensland to Healesville in Victoria.(

ABC News Supplied


Ms Dowling said it had been a dream of hers since she was a child.

Ms Dowling said she hoped to begin the trail in May 2022, starting in the Far North.

The ride is aimed at raising awareness for the organisations that have helped Ms Dowling on her journey, including Vision Australia, Guide Dogs Australia and Diabetes Australia.

Ms Dowling is looking for people to help support her on her journey, from those who can ride the trail with her to others who can be her eyes on training rides leading up to the event.

But she plans to do a lot of training before hitting the national trial.

Ms Dowling said she was looking for riders in her local area, on the Sunshine Coast in southeast Queensland.

"I'm looking for riders that can pick me up and provide transport for me and my horse, so they have a horse float and their own horse. They can pick me up and my horse and transport is to local trails," she said.

"But I can't wait for that day to take the first step at one end of the trail and the last day when we finished that epic ride."


Source: ABC

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