The proof that a disability cannot even crash an ambition, a desire, a dream and someone who believes in what he is doing.
Karen jumps over every obstacles while her instructor tell her some instructions standing on the side of the arena: she looks like a horsewoman as the others. But listening more in-depth you can hear strange commands, but essentially simple: “go ahead” or “in 3 galops, turn right.”
These instruction are really important to this horsewoman, because the 53 year old Karen who comes from Stockport, a small town in southern Manchester, cannot see where she is going: she is blind, and the only way for her to finish the course is listening to her instructor’s advices and rely on the strong bond between her and the beautiful grey mare Pearl, which helps her overcome any hurdle fearlessly. These are situations that require an incredible trust and also great courage which Karen certainly has, together with a great lack of self-pity. Failures, strikes, falls one after the other that leave noticeable marks like a scar behind her neck due to a fall and a second one on the chin due to a horse kick. This is the price you pay for being the only british blind show-jumper – and Karen insists: it was all worth it, for the joy she feels while riding. “I have loved horses in my whole entire lifetime, but the very first time I rode Pearl, I felt like she was not just whatever horse and our bond was not going to be a simple one, she knows I have a disability and she is really careful moving around me, our bond grows stronger at any moment, I very much love her that if I had to choose her over having my sight, I’d undoubtedly choose her.” The binding feeling between a horse and a horseman is truly one of the purest and most sincere, but the love between Karen and Pearl still surprises us and leave us speechless.
A DISABILITY TO DEAL WITH
Blind for more than 40 years, Karen has a fake eye, which let her see only few colours, in the other she only sees shadows, and she is so stubborn and full of willpower that she refused to have a guide dog. Karen relies on friendship. She trusts her sense of direction and challenges herself every day. “I have always tried to live a normal life, but it’s not always simple, and I face a lot of difficulties throughout my day. I have a stick that could help, but I do not want to use it because I think it makes me look like a victim.” Karen was born with a rare disease called coloboma, which is a malformation of the eye happened during its growth. The school years were the most difficult. Karen was considered different by the other kids and she was often subjected to bullism. Where could she find a comfort if not in horses? Karen’s family did not live high on the hog, but they were willing to support their daughter’s trust and will of living. So Stan and Gladys saved some money to pay Karen’s first horseback riding lessons and, four years later, thanks to stroke of luck, gave Karen her first two ponies Chester and Bluey. That might seemed crazy considering Karen’s disability, but that was just an encouragement not to back down easily and to live a normal life despite her enormous difficulties. Since then, Karen has been growing up with horses, she relied on them and they paid back her with deep trust, love and dedication. Unfortunately, the little amount that Karen gained while doing little jobs to support her passion and her parent, money was not enough and she had to say goodbye to her two ponies and from her dreams.
A NEW LIFE
Dreams, the true ones, never die within us. After Karen ended her marriage and an entire life to live, she decided to buy an apartment and share it with a roommate to split the hefty bills.
When we move towards our dreams, our dreams come closer too, with some encounters that destiny decides to put in our way. That unknown roommate was a horse-riding instructor and when he heard her stories, he motivated her to get back on the saddle. At 42 years old, 27 later she had her last ride, Karen tried to pursue her dreams once again. “In the moment I jumped on the saddle, I get a weird, wonderful feeling: I felt like I had never quit. I just wanted to go there, ride and start my new life.” Reinvigorated, revived, Karen started to visit the stables whenever she could, encouraged by Pamela Rigby, instructor at a disability equestrian center at Cheshire, and her trainer Michelle Anthony. Both dazzled for what they had seen, they suggested Karen to start her career in para show-jumping. “They were very encouraging, but at the same time they told me that in my condition it would have been difficult without my own horse. I was afflicted, but I knew what they meant. Without a horse to build a strong bond with, it would have been impossible.” Undaunted, Karen skipped steps: she rented a horse from a local stable and started her career in Septemebr 2010, taking part to an international competition along with other disable riders. Among many, Karen was the only one sightless. Her disability did not even stop her in that occasion. She flew over any obstacle within her horse, while Michelle led her since Karen could only imagine where she was directed. Thanks to her sensitivity, Karen managed to finish the course, and the judges were so amazed that offered Karen to perform in an international competition in France, wearing british colours.
LA BAULE DREAM
Karen found herself in the international framework of para-showjumping in La Baule. Her dream was not going to come true once she had arrived at the arena: according to some french regulations, disable riders must have a rider who runs few meters in front of them and opens the way. When Karen was losing hope, only an hour before the start, Peter Charles offered to be Karen’s guide, and, after few moments, she entered the arena. She didn’t only participate, she was also the winner of her category, in a day that Karen remembers as the most exciting one in her life.
Without her own horse, Karen could not improve and build a solid bond. But then, something turned around: Dame Emma-Jane Brown, famous ex international show jumper, saw the incredible horsewoman at the Italian Para-Championship. On that day, Dame Emma Brown was thrilled to see Karen putting up with her disability in a so audaciously way, that she took her case personally.
“I was so impressed to see that confidence, that courage and that willingness of challenging herself, things that someone luckier than Karen should have, but that attitude was just natural for her. I could not stop thinking about her once I got home.” Her dream was to have her own horse, and she was determined to make this dream come true. She started to fundraise to buy the gorgeous grey Pearl. How? Taking up new challenges (like the parachute jump, carried out by Dame Emma) the same kind of challenges that our little big horsewoman bravely takes up everyday. Karen was not aware of anything until the last penny was collected. During the Royal Windsor Horse Show in front of an hyperactive crowd, Karen was invited to be the host and enter the arena with Dame Emma. After a touching speech, Dame Emma announced the entrance of the big gift. Pearl walked in towards her new other half. Finally the two of them belonged to eachother and the dream came true.
THE DREAM CAME TRUE
Today Karen has a 4 hour journey to get to her stable where she trains. Expenses are covered by the charity associations and by Dame Emma actions but this will not last forever. That does not stop Karen from building a great bond with her partner and dreaming about Rio De Janeiro Paralympic games in 2016. Unfortunately blindness is not considered an eligible disability in the paralympic games, but many association are taking action for including blindness in the category of disabilities. Whatever decision will be made, whatever hardship she will have to go through, Karen thinks she is a lucky lady: “I have a beautiful horse and the place where she lives is fairly amazing, full of wonderful people who believe in me and Pearl, like Dame Emma Jane, Adrian, my instructor. Honestly living my dream is the best thing that could have ever happened to me and helps me go beyond my disabilities.”
Pearl and Karen pursue the path of success: they are aware that heroes shape themselves outside the big arenas. They shape themselves by training hard, fighting against anyone and go beyond limits and disabilities. Nothing can stop a passionate dreamer from finding the courage to face any hard times in the road that brings to his dreams.
It is only with heart that one can see it rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.