'You Can Live Your Dreams!' We Speak to a Young Visually Impaired Rider Aiming to Inspire Others

Lucy is a 15 year old visually impaired rider on a mission – to raise awareness and encourage other visually impaired riders to realise their own potential! We’ve had a chat with Lucy to help us understand what it’s like to ride with a visual impairment, she tells us about her amazing horse Jessie, and how venues like Eland Lodge can support riders with hidden disabilities.

Tell us about your riding journey, where did your love of horses begin?

“As a young girl I would occasionally visit my aunts horses which led to my first ride, out hacking at a small, local riding school. My first hack was when I was 4 years old, I did this for a year but lost interest until around the age of 9 when I started up lessons again at a new riding school. We moved house so I moved riding schools again where I continued my lessons. Unfortunately, I had a fall and broke my shoulder which really knocked my confidence, and I did not ride for 2 years. I went to a local agricultural show and felt nostalgic and inspired to get back to riding after watching the show jumpers fly round the ring.

So, we found another riding school where I began again, building my confidence, sadly not so much my skill! After a year of sporadic lessons and not a great deal of improvement we took the next step and found a part loan, however this did not work out as he liked to bronc, and I was not experienced enough for this at the time. So, we then took up lessons again which started off well, sadly there was a situation with regards to the riding school weight limit (I am only a size 12!) so my time at this riding school ended abruptly.

At this point in time my parents wanted to give up after the emotional roller coaster we had been on. We had been looking to buy a horse but we quickly realised this is quite a challenge, but after 6 months of searching, driving, tears and money I was introduced to Jessie.

We had her on a trial; it was a tough trial period as she went lame on day 6, but I had already fallen in love with this horse and now had a hard decision to make. We found out she had mild arthritis however she could do the job I wanted her for, so we bought her, and we have been a team for a year now.”

Riding with a Visual Impairment: Lucy Booker-Wilson

Could you tell us about your diagnosis, and how it affects your sight when you ride?

“I was diagnosed 2 years ago after a lengthy investigation process into my eyesight. My condition is called Stargardts Disease which is a genetic disorder that affects 1 in 10000 people, affecting my central vision causing the degeneration and loss of my sight. The best way to describe it in words would be if you rubbed your eyes and the static dots appear, this is what I see in my central vision.”

<< Lucy sent us this picture to show us how she sees jumps out on the cross country course.

It sounds like you and your horse Jessie are the perfect match! What is she like?

“Jessie is a 13-year-old, 16.1hh Irish mare who is a gorgeous bright chestnut with 4 meant-to-be white socks. Jessie is an inquisitive, extremely honest, stubborn mare who loves to steal the treats from my cupboard, she loves everything apart from sugar cubes!

Mine and Jessie’s favourite thing to do is jumping, both show jumping and cross country, however cross country is her all time favourite (with some dodgy strides!). Previously she has done a bit of everything from Hunting to Dressage.”

As riders we find horses such an incredible emotional support. How has Jessie helped you?

“Jessie makes me feel free like I can do anything. She is a huge part of my life and through the Pandemic she has got me through all of it.

It is as if she knows that she needs to look after me, she knows her job and does it well. Instead of dwelling on my diagnosis I get to go to the yard, to spend a couple hours in the fresh air with Jessie, I don’t ride every day, some days I just spend time with her, she is a massive mood boost.”

What was it like qualifying and competing at the Elandlodge.com National Hunter Trial Championships?

“Qualifying for the championships was a shock really. I ended up qualifying at my first competition ever, so there were no expectations, we didn’t even know it was a qualifier until I was placed 2nd. I was so excited when I found out I couldn’t believe it.

I managed to convince my mum to drive a horse lorry, so we started our travels with one very excited horse. Four hours later (and a lot of traffic) we arrived at Eland Lodge which had an extremely peaceful and friendly atmosphere. We got Jessie settled in the temporary stabling; they were pristinely clean with shaving bales already delivered.

We then walked the course TWICE, definitely getting our steps in, so I could hopefully memorise the course to present Jess to the fences in the best way possible. One last check on Jessie then off to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

On the morning of the comp, we went back down to Eland Lodge to a very busy lorry park with very friendly people. I got Jessie looking all smart and we headed to the warm-up arena meeting some very lovely event volunteers. Before I knew it, we were heading out of the box, unfortunately we had a refusal at the first fence but after that we flew round the course just having fun. Amazing commentary spreading awareness of visually impaired riders was said around the whole course by the extremely friendly team in the commentary box. We ended up placing 50th out of 103 which was a huge achievement considering I was competing against fully sighted people.”

“We’re immensely proud of everyone who competes at Hunter Trial Qualifiers around the country, and qualifies for the prestigious National Finals here at Eland Lodge. It takes dedication and determination to be one of the elite riders who join us to compete at the Nationals, and Lucy is no exception to this. It was a pleasure to watch her ride, she achieved a well measured and positively ridden round, and it was a delight to see the clear bond she has with her horse. This amazing young lady also used her time here to help raise awareness of visually impaired riders with some fantastic commentary notes. We were proud to help her with her mission.”

John Coupland, Managing Director of Eland Lodge

What are your long term riding goals?

“I would love to be able to event at a professional level and one day compete in the Paralympics if they ever include jumping! I would also like to have a career with horses, working with the RDA to encourage and support disabled riders to ride in any discipline would be my dream job.”

Could you tell us about some of the challenges you face as someone competing with a visual impairment?

“The first challenge is knowing my course as when I am riding I cannot see my fences, I have to gauge a general idea of the course by walking it 2-3 times in order to know the direction and lines of the jumps and to ensure the safety of both me and Jessie.

Another challenge is the warm-up arena as other riders do not know I have a visual impairment and don’t always call out there fences or follow left to left. This is difficult for me as I rely on everyone following warm up arena etiquette and being verbal as I am not aware where other riders are.

Navigation around a course can be tricky when the jumps are all similar in colour and shape as I cannot differentiate the jumps, I rely on my memory from walking the course to help get me round, when the jumps are all different colours this really makes it easier to remember!

I must ride confidently into a fence and when I am focused on that sometimes I am not so focused on strides which means sometimes we can take off too soon or too close, but Jessie is a superstar jumping and does her job well. If I push her forward with confidence she will jump from whatever distance, and we always seem to nail it!”

As we all know horse riding is a risk sport, and as an extreme sport cross country riding has even higher risks. Do you have to take any extra steps to make sure that you and Jessie stay safe?

“Horse riding is a dangerous sport for anyone, and I am fully aware that there are heightened risks for me and Jessie. Me and Jessie are a team though and I trust her to do her job and get us over the fences safely. I am also aware of mine and her limits and capabilities so never push us beyond that.

The only extra step I take is really understanding and knowing my course, as soon as the course is released online, I study each jump, this time consuming but it means even before I have walked the course I am familiar with each jump.

I also have lessons to maintain my current riding level and make sure I haven’t picked up any bad habits!”

Lucy & Jessie flying over the Devonshire Banks at the Elandlodge.com National Hunter Trial Championships.

Lucy & Jessie flying over the Devonshire Banks at the Elandlodge.com National Hunter Trial Championships.

What do you think equestrian venues can do to help or encourage riders with a visual impairment?

“What I would like to see is the course being available in advance for visually impaired riders in order to give as much time as possible before the event to become familiar with the course.

Signage could be larger at events and out on the course to increase accessibility.

Full support from venues with inclusivity for Para-riders as we would not enter a competition if we were not capable and could put others (rider or horse) at risk.

Something I have thought about is when around others (at a venue) it would be amazing if the sunflower lanyard was recognised by others to inform them of a of hidden disability.”

John, as MD of an equestrian venue, what can you do to support riders with a visual impairment?

“As a grassroots venue it’s a key part of our ethos to help all riders realise their riding dreams. A rider having a visual impairment, disability or medical condition shouldn’t change this. As a venue we would encourage any rider to talk to us before the event and let us know how we can help make your experience as safe and as good as it is possible to be.

Safety is always a key concern when running any event, so it’s important that we talk to you before the competition and understand your situation, in order for us to make any arrangements necessary for you to take part in your event, sometimes quite small adjustments can help immensely. We see it as our role to facilitate competition for anyone who wants to take part if at all possible.”

What would you say to encourage other riders with a visual impairment?

“GO FOR IT!! You have to have a can-do attitude as there will always be people out there who say you can’t or shouldn’t do it -  you need to get back up again, dust yourself off and show that you can live your dreams! You don’t have to compete in designated para-rider classes, you have every right to compete against able bodied riders in whatever discipline you please.

Horses are therapy, being with Jessie everyday makes me so happy, I have something to look forward to and focus my energy on, rather than dwelling on the loss of my eyesight.”

We’d like to say a huge thank you to Lucy Booker-Wilson and her mum Amanda for taking the time help us learn more about some of the challenges riders with a visual impairment face. Good luck with your awareness-raising mission Lucy, we’re proud to have been able to play a small part in your journey.