Learning to ride had always been an ambition for Sue Ashton, but one she feared she would never realise
How Sue Ashton overcame multiple disabilities to fulfil her
‘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.’
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