American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: Early Childhood      BEYOND THE CLASSROOM

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Taking Life by the Reins

by Melissa Carney

Reprinted from the blog of the National Association of Blind Students, March 2018

Melissa Carney rides horseback in an indoor ring.

From the Editor: Melissa Carney is completing a double major in English and psychology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She won an NFB scholarship in 2017.

When most of us think of sports, we think of soccer, football, basketball, or baseball. We might love to participate in these sports, but as blind students we often dwell on the accompanying accessibility issues. It can be difficult at times to conceptualize, let alone overcome, the barriers in the path. However, certain sports automatically place us on the same playing field as our sighted peers. Horseback riding is often portrayed as a leisurely activity, but it requires just as much skill and athleticism as any other sport. Unlike team sports that involve throwing and catching balls, however, horseback riding is naturally accessible.

I began horseback riding when I was four years old. I still remember the joy that consumed me every time I sat on a horse's back. At first I didn't know exactly what that joy meant, but it didn't take me long to dissect its meaning. That joy was the epiphany of freedom, the gratification of equality.

As I grew older, I was told no or you can't more times than I can count. Horseback riding was one area of my life where I felt that I could excel without the fear of being yanked backward. When I was in the saddle, no one equated my visual impairment with fragility or an inability to thrive. For once no limitations were imposed upon me. My blindness even may have given me an advantage; my sense of touch provided me with excellent balance and a keen awareness of the horse's movements. I was free to take reasonable risks, free to fail and try again until I succeeded. I was given the same opportunities as my sighted peers.

For the first few years, an assistant helped me guide my horse around the arena while I learned to balance my weight, settle into the proper position, execute turns, and ask the horse for different gaits. Soon enough, upon my instructor's request, the assistant stepped back. The reins, and ultimately the control of the horse, were firmly placed in my hands. The instructor placed her complete faith in my abilities. She had the utmost confidence that I could be an independent rider, and she continued to challenge me. She encouraged me to create and pursue my greatest aspirations.

When I was eight years old, I began to utilize echolocation in order to navigate indoor arenas. I no longer had to depend on the verbal cues of others; I could use unique parts of my own skill set. As I traveled around the perimeter of the arena I was able to sense each wall and opening. Directions became a secondary focus. Now that I could manage the navigational aspects of horseback riding, my instructor was able to teach me more intensive balance exercises and maneuvers. Blindness enhanced my mobility, rather than inhibiting it.

When I was ten years old, I ventured out on my first cross-country ride. At first I rode through the woods alongside my instructor. She gave me verbal cues to take the proper turns and change the horse's gait. The footing and terrain were much more diverse than I was used to, so my skills were thoroughly tested. Before long I began to ride with a group of other students. My instructor focused equal amounts of attention on each of us; I was never treated as the weak link. My friends often forgot that I was blind, and didn't shout warnings about low-hanging branches until the very last minute. I wasn't offended by their forgetfulness; I was flattered. I was not treated as a liability or lesser human being. I was treated as their equal in equestrianship.

My instructor taught me to jump at the same time she taught the other students. Everyone worked as a team to show me the correct jumping position. My fellow students worked together to problem-solve tricky situations. They cheered me on over every fence, much as they had supported me over every metaphorical hurdle. My instructor counted down for the jumps while my friends gave me verbal directions for steering purposes. There were times when I made mistakes, times when I almost fell off the horse, but I was not fazed. Every false start or jolting landing was a learning experience, a reminder of what I could improve upon in the future.

For the next several years, I competed in horse shows, learned dressage, and jumped cross-country. I helped a nonprofit, therapeutic horseback riding center for students with disabilities with its fundraising efforts by giving demonstrations and speeches about my experiences as a blind horseback rider. I did everything in my power to show the disabled community that exercise, teamwork, and self-satisfaction are possible. I do not agree that people with disabilities should be sheltered or discouraged from pursuing sports. Everyone deserves a chance to take meaningful risks, explore different passions, and discover the beauty of true equality.

People have told me that I am brave because I horseback ride. I don't view my passion as an instance of bravery. My visual impairment is simply an occasional obstacle that pushes me to work harder. I ride for the whistle of wind in my hair, laughter with genuine friends, and the exhilaration of completing complex tasks. I ride for the companionship between horse and rider. I cannot drive a car or chase a silent soccer ball, but I can participate in an accessible sport that happens to be one of the most rigorous forms of exercise.

My life has never been easy or predictable, between a cancer diagnosis at two years old, discrimination in the classroom, and countless other obstacles that have appeared in my path. That is why I capture every opportunity to take the reins into my own hands whenever possible. Horseback riding enables me to find a greater sense of freedom and peace. It takes away so many of the societal barriers that work against me. In this space, there are no fights for equal access, no condescending tones, and no low expectations. There is only me, a horse, and a group of people who look at me as a horseback rider, not as a blind person. There is nothing more empowering than being seen for your ability rather than your disability. The only barriers I encounter here are literal jumps.

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