American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2022      TESTING THE LIMITS

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Three, Two, One . . . Halt! The Pleasures and Benefits of Horseback Riding for People Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision

by Suzanne Ament

Suzanne Ament rides a horse named Quip during a horse show.From the Editor: Suzanne Ament is a professor of Russian history at Radford University in Radford, Virginia. In this article she shares her lifelong love of horseback riding and explains how blind riders can participate in every aspect of this activity.

A chilly winter day in Washington, DC; the rumble of the rolling door of the box stall; the fuzzy coat of Muscleman—these are my memories of my first riding lesson when I was eight years old.

Last summer, more than fifty years later, Dante and I turn right at letter A. We come down the center line of the arena, listening for the callers at X in the center and C at the far end. We have to halt precisely at X and in line with C. Three, two, one—halt!

The crowd around the arena cheers! It turns out the halt scored a 9—an unheard-of score in the world of most dressage riders.

I am a professor of Russian history, and I have been legally blind since birth due to a progressive retinal condition called LCA (Leber congenital amaurosis). For the first twenty years of my life, I could see fairly well in bright light. At school, I read large print close-up with a bright lamp on my desk. On sunny days my vision helped me avoid other horses and jump through courses in an outdoor ring. On shady trails, however, I relied on verbal guidance.

Over the years, my sight dwindled to light perception. Today I use screen readers and a dog guide. When I navigate a dressage arena, I do so with the help of "living letters." When I ride less formally I place a radio at either end of the arena. Sometimes I set a radio on a bucket in the middle to help me orient myself.

For blind and low-vision people of all ages, riding is fun, beneficial, and absolutely doable! By sharing my thoughts and experiences, I want to encourage more blind people to try riding as an activity.

A few things hold true, whether you are sighted or blind. First, you should like the idea of riding and enjoy being around horses. Granted, you may have to work up to feeling really confident, but a basic interest should be there from the beginning. You also have to be okay with getting a bit dirty, and you have to like the smells of the stable, or at least tolerate them. Finally, you must have a desire to bond with an animal.

There are many styles or disciplines of horseback riding. I ride with an English saddle and practice dressage. Other options include riding with a western or (cowboy) saddle, riding on trails, riding in an arena, working on the flat, or jumping fences. Several other styles and options are also available. Your location and the instructors who are available may help determine the riding style you choose, but your personal preference can also play a role.

Dressage in its basic form is fundamental to all of the riding disciplines. Dressage involves having the horse and rider balanced and working together. At its more advanced levels, dressage is sometimes called horse ballet, as horse and rider can perform some beautiful movements together. The Lipizzaner performance at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna is one of the better known forms of the dressage ideal. 

I still ride at a fairly basic level, working in an arena of 20 by 40 meters. Riders at higher levels work in arenas that are 20 by 60 meters. A dressage "test" gives the rider instructions to be followed in sequence around the arena.

The arena is marked with letters, some posted on the rail. A and C are in the middle of the short sides, for example, or imaginary in space. X is the center of the arena. The test tells the rider where to make figures such as circles, loops, or serpentines. It tells the rider at what gait to perform: for example, "Pick up the canter between M and C." It also tells the rider to perform certain changes in a gait: "Extended canter down the long side," or "Leg yield from the center line to H." In competition the rider receives marks as these various movements are judged.

Although certainly not the only doable form of riding, dressage offers an excellent opportunity for a developing blind rider. The space is well defined, and there are no obstacles. As one improves, the level of difficulty can become more challenging. A blind person who cannot see the letters can use living letters, people who stand behind the letters and call them out regularly as the rider moves toward them. The rider can also use other sounds. I put radios at A and C when no one is available to call them out.

Some blind riders choose to ride at a "therapeutic riding center," often associated with and certified by an organization such as PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemen). Instructors at these centers work with riders who have all types of disability. If blindness is a rider's only disability, they can easily ride at a regular barn, as long as the instructor is open-minded, interested in keeping open communication, and willing to think out of the box. One advantage to therapeutic centers is that they often have many volunteers who can serve as living letters.

I have come across some instructors who did not want to allow me to ride, but many others have been eager for the chance. One insisted that her insurance required me to stay on a "lunge line." The instructor keeps the horse on a long line and stands in the middle of the ring. After a few lessons she saw that I could ride well independently, and she quietly disconnected the lunge line. 

In general, all riders are required to sign liability waivers. This should not be seen as a blindness issue. If a barn is organized and instructors are competent, there is no difference between a sighted rider's risk and that of a blind rider. In fact, blind riders may learn to handle balance more quickly than some sighted riders do. If a sighted rider becomes distracted and looks around, they may inadvertently communicate signals to the horse even by the smallest movement.

Other barriers to my own riding have been a lack of transportation or the expense of transport. These factors, of course, are influenced by where you live and where you have the opportunity to ride. 

Why do I think more blind people should ride? For one thing, I want everyone to have the chance to have as much fun as I have had over my life. There are multiple reasons why equestrian sport is beneficial. Being around a horse teaches you to be in the moment and to assess what is around you in the present. It builds confidence in dealing with something that is alive and bigger than you are. If the horse moves next to you, you have to be aware and move with it, keep your feet clear, maintain your hold on the lead rope, or steady the horse with your voice. When riding the horse, you have to maintain balance as it moves. This in turn will help your overall balance, core strength, and muscle strength throughout your body. You need to be able to use your legs, hands, and seat independently, all helping you communicate with your horse.

Sometimes blind people are tentative about moving, but you cannot be tentative with horses. On the ground and on horseback, you need to show the horse what you want.

Something about being on the back of a creature much larger than you are and still being able to work with it and control it gives a sense of power. Blind people can't drive cars (at least not yet), so riding is a bit like having a car to drive—although there is much more negotiation involved. Horses basically look out for themselves, and they do not understand that you are blind. They require guidance from the rider as to what to do, where to go, and how fast or slowly to go there.

As one trainer explained to me, "Horses have to want to work for you. If they didn't want to, they just wouldn't." When you understand this, you begin to build a bond that allows you to ask the horse to work with you and pay attention to you. At the same time you learn to pay attention to the horse and its needs.

Working with tack (the saddle, bridle, and other equipment used in riding) can improve a rider's fine motor skills. For your comfort and the comfort of the horse, you don't want bits to be backwards or cheek pieces twisted. Getting the tack right can even be a matter of safety. What you do does make a difference. In the beginning you will need some assistance, and sometimes it doesn't hurt to double check things. That is true for everyone. As a blind person you can learn to groom, tack up, and ride your horse independently.

Riding can give you skills, physical development, and confidence that can carry into the rest of your life. One friend who knew me in many settings said, "I've never seen you as confident as when you are around the horses."

Although I have not achieved any great accolades for riding, being around horses, caring for them, grooming them, and riding them acts as a sort of therapy for me. The day may have been rough, but once I am at the barn, everything fades away save for that bond and the things I do to maintain it.

Here's hoping a few of you out there might give riding a try and find as much enjoyment as I have.

Editor’s Note: If you would like to learn more, please feel free to contact Suzanne Ament at [email protected]

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