Real life

Learn­ing to ride had al­ways been an am­bi­tion for Sue Ash­ton, but one she feared she would never re­alise

Woman's Weekly (UK) - - News -

How Sue Ash­ton over­came mul­ti­ple dis­abil­i­ties to ful­fil her

horse-rid­ing dream

‘I’d dream it might be me go­ing off to pony club’

Ever since she was lit­tle, Sue Ash­ton, 62, has strug­gled phys­i­cally. She was

born with spina bi­fida – a birth de­fect where the mem­brane sur­round­ing the spinal cord doesn’t de­velop prop­erly, leav­ing a gap which can cause long-term move­ment prob­lems.

For most, that would be chal­leng­ing enough. But Sue also suf­fered from cur­va­ture of the spine (sco­l­io­sis) and a de­formed left leg, which was am­pu­tated when she was 17.

De­spite her con­di­tions and the need for sev­eral op­er­a­tions when she was younger – one to re­lieve the pres­sure around her spinal cord, oth­ers to fuse her spine, and her am­pu­ta­tion – her par­ents en­cour­aged her to live a nor­mal life; she learnt to swim, passed her driv­ing test and went to univer­sity be­fore work­ing as a char­tered li­brar­ian in Lon­don.

But when it came to sports, Sue al­ways felt lim­ited. ‘I’ve never been sporty – I couldn’t do PE. If you had any con­di­tions like I did they wouldn’t let you do it; though I did have one pro­gres­sive teacher who taught me to swim,’ re­calls Sue.

‘I’ve al­ways loved an­i­mals too, es­pe­cially horses. When I was younger I read books about lit­tle girls go­ing off to pony clubs and I used to dream that one day that might be me. My par­ents let me do most things but they were ner­vous about things like that.

‘I un­der­stand why. My cen­tre of grav­ity is shifted be­cause my sco­l­io­sis curves me to the left,’ says Sue. ‘Com­bined with my am­pu­ta­tion, I strug­gle to keep my bal­ance even on sta­ble sur­faces, let alone on the back of a mov­ing an­i­mal!’

Still, that didn’t dampen Sue’s ado­ra­tion of horses.

And af­ter mov­ing to the Not­ting­hamshire coun­try­side in 2001, Sue would of­ten pull over to ad­mire the horses in the sta­bles near her home.

It was on one such oc­ca­sion, in 2015, that she

fi­nally started to think about mak­ing her horse-rid­ing dream a re­al­ity. ‘All my life I’d con­vinced my­self it was some­thing I’d never do,’ says Sue. ‘But then I con­sid­ered all I’d achieved, many things I’d never thought pos­si­ble un­til I tried.’

A friend who owned horses sug­gested she con­tact the char­ity Rid­ing for the Dis­abled (RDA) to see if there was a cen­tre lo­cal to her. She was in luck. Kesteven Ride­abil­ity is an RDA group based at the Pad­docks Rid­ing School in Gran­tham, Lincolnshire, not far from Sue’s home. She got in touch and head rid­ing coach Karen Thomp­son in­vited her to the sta­bles to try out a spe­cial­ist rid­ing sim­u­la­tor.

‘The sim­u­la­tor got me used to how to sit on a horse, but as I’d an­tic­i­pated there was an is­sue with my spinal cur­va­ture,’ says Sue. ‘I kept slip­ping off to the right.’

Un­de­terred, Karen

sug­gested Sue look into get­ting a bal­ance aid with a built-up, padded sup­port on the left side. ‘A cush­ion or yoga block wouldn’t work be­cause it would slip out with the move­ment of the horse,’ says Sue. ‘So I de­cided to stitch gel pads into the left side of a pair of cy­cling shorts.’

It worked a treat. With the help of other aids, in­clud­ing a

sad­dle cloth cut with flaps to in­sert Vel­cro wedges to keep her legs in the cor­rect po­si­tion, Sue fi­nally found her­self firmly in the sad­dle.

‘Af­ter that I felt a lot more

con­fi­dent,’ says Sue. ‘Af­ter my third ses­sion, I joked to Karen that maybe one day I’d ac­tu­ally get to sit on a real horse. That’s when she turned to me and said, “Let’s do it now.”’

Sue ad­mits that she was

re­luc­tant at first. ‘We walked into the arena at the cen­tre, and I was so ner­vous. But as soon as Karen bought this lovely brown cob cross called Roma to me my nerves melted.’

With the help of Karen and an­other rider, Sue was able to hoist her­self up into the sad­dle be­fore Karen led her around the arena on a rein.

‘It felt amaz­ing,’ says Sue. From there, she quickly pro­gressed to rid­ing by her­self, then trot­ting and work­ing on more dif­fi­cult ex­er­cises such as cir­cles, corners and ser­pen­tines – mov­ing in snake-like pat­terns around the arena.

‘It sounds a cliché, but when I was rid­ing I didn’t feel dis­abled,’ says Sue. ‘And the longer I rode, the bet­ter I got.

A year af­ter

she first rode Roma, Karen paired her up with black cob cross Betsy and en­tered them into an on­line dres­sage com­pe­ti­tion, which in­volved sub­mit­ting a video of Sue rid­ing to judges. Mirac­u­lously, they were

placed first. This qual­i­fied

them for the on­line na­tional cham­pi­onships where they

fin­ished fourth. Since then, Sue has started rid­ing Dales pony Rio, with whom she has won an­other RDA re­gional com­pe­ti­tion.

‘My in­volve­ment with the RDA has been life-chang­ing,’ says Sue. ‘It’s not just about rid­ing, I’m now a char­ity trus­tee at the sta­bles, I help ap­ply for char­ity money to sup­port dif­fer­ent projects, and I’ve started writ­ing a monthly blog. It’s a fan­tas­tic new in­ter­est, which keeps me busy and ac­tive.

‘Char­i­ties like the RDA didn’t ex­ist when I was younger, but the work they do is won­der­ful and, thanks to them, when I’m on the back of a horse I feel like I can do any­thing.’

‘When I was rid­ing I didn’t feel dis­abled’

Sue is fi­nally liv­ing her dream

Sue and Rio hav­ing a laugh and (left) af­ter their re­gional win this year

Dur­ing a dres­sage les­son

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