In just two days’ time the European Para Dressage Championships will kick off in Gothenburg, Sweden (21 August 2017). Here's all you need to know about inspirational squad member Julie Payne and her quest for gold
1. Julie Payne has defied the odds
Five years ago, Julie’s doctor told her that within two years she would not be able to walk or speak, let alone ride — but here she is just days away from representing Britain at the European Para Dressage Championships. That’s not to underestimate the severity of Julie’s condition, multiple system atrophy (MSA), which she describes as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease and chronic fatigue syndrome all in one. The progressive, incurable disease is a “death sentence”, but Julie credits riding with, quite literally, keeping her alive.
2. Unhorsey beginnings
Julie, now 55, grew up in a completely unhorsey family. She met a lady who lived nearby with a horse and as a child Julie would sit on her doorstep most mornings, waiting for her to come out to ask if she could go with her to feed her horse.
3. Past experience
Julie previously evented to advanced level, showjumped at grade B, competed in dressage up to inter II and did international endurance. “Because I have ridden all my life, I have the muscle memory that riders who were born with their condition don’t have,” she says.
4. Riding has always come first
“It took years to get diagnosed. At one point, I was in hospital for four months and they would let me out some weekends, for respite. But I would call the yard and tell the girls to enter something and we would go out competing. Nurses despaired of me,” she says. “When the consultant broke the news about MSA, my first question was, ‘Would I be eligible to apply to ride as a para?’.”
5. A helping hand — in the form of a giant German shepherd
Her giant German shepherd, Obie, is in training as a support dog. Currently, he takes off her socks, helps load the washing machine and turns on taps.
6. Partnered with an equine celebrity
Julie’s name on the Europeans team list may have come as a surprise to some — she admits she’s seemingly come out of nowhere. But few will fail to recognise the name of her horse: Athene Lindebjerg, none other than the brilliant black mare who won triple gold in Rio with Sophie Christiansen. Julie has only partnered the Paralympic gold medallist since May, but the pair are so far unbeaten in grade I competition. They have competed in just one international — the Hartpury CPEDI3* — but there they won all three tests with plus-75%.
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Since her diagnosis, she has completed numerous challenges for charity — abseiling down the ArcelorMittal Orbit building in London, completing the world’s highest zip wire and climbing Snowdon. “I’m hoping to climb Ben Nevis next. I wouldn’t have done any of these things if it wasn’t for MSA. It made me get off my backside and do the things I’ve always wanted,” she says. “Eventually, I will end up trapped in my body and unable to move, but as long as I’m in a sitting position, somebody can always lift me onto a horse.”
Don’t miss our exclusive interview with Julie Payne, in the current issue of Horse & Hound magazine (17 August 2017)