Nicola Naylor is a registered blind para dressage rider competing in the able-bodied championship classes at this week's NAF Five Star British Dressage Winter Championships
The first thing anyone notices when Nicola Naylor and Klein Roderijs Cocktail step into the arena is the pony – he’s palomino, he’s tiny, he’s awesome.
Next you notice that Dan Watson is leading her into the arena. Nicola and “Crackle” come inside the white boards immediately and start to canter round. As she reaches each marker, Dan calls it out to her from his position in the middle of the arena at X. Why? Nicola is registered blind, having lost her sight completely in her 20s. She has light perception in one eye.
Nicola has been competing in grade IV para dressage since 2011. Last year she competed at para three-star level internationally in Holland and Belgium with Crackle, as well as up to medium in able-bodied competitions in the UK. The nine-year-old stallion, by Bodo, already has three licensed sons on the ground.
She is contesting the Spillers medium restricted freestyle — a non-para championship class — which gives Dan the unenviable task of shouting out the markers over the music. He leaves the arena when the bell rings and stands at the B marker.
Watching Nicola’s test, it’s impossible to tell she’s visually impaired. She rides a beautiful, relaxed test — more accurate than most of us can manage — to a Christina Aguilera medley that starts off with Candy Man. She rides difficult lines; counter-canter into medium canter with a simple change into counter-canter on the other rein.
“It’s taken us a while to get to this level as it’s the blind leading the blind,” she says.
Having based herself with Dan at Fiddler’s Green Stud since 2012 for better access to the “intensive coaching” needed to reach the higher levels, Nicola has flourished with her three horses – Crackle, Amadeus and Ewiloma.
The system with Dan has taken a lot of practice – he’s “effectively steering” her around the arena and they really have to work as a team.
Nicola has been an active advocate for blind and visually impaired riders, speaking out against the current rule that these riders must wear a blindfold for para competitions. She explained in a BBC interview in 2012 that covering the eyes of partially sighted riders is an “enormous shock”, and that she finds it “distasteful” to “further disable an already disabled person”.