Anyone who has ever tried walking in a straight line with their eyes closed, knows it is a challenge, but how about riding round a course of showjumps without being able to see — trusting only a guide and the horse under you to get you round in one piece?
This is something that blind showjumper Karen Law knows all too well. Next week Karen and her nine-year-old mare Silver Silhouette (Pearl) will take to the arena at Scope Festival (23-30 August) in the para-showjumping.
The Belgian warmblood was gifted to Karen last year thanks to fundraising efforts from her mentor Dame Emma Jane Brown — herself a former international showjumper.
The Chesire-based rider, who shows awe-inspiring levels of both commitment and courage, was born with bilateral collomboma, which meant that her eyes never developed properly. A childhood accident when she was three resulted in a retinal detachment leaving her with no vision in her right eye. She has no peripheral vision, only central vision extending a few feet in front of her.
“My mum encouraged me to ride and would take me to the riding school. I got my first pony, Chester, when I was eight,” says Karen. “I stopped riding when I was 15 and didn’t pick it up again until I was 42, when one day I spoke to a riding instructor and decided to get back riding. Someone from a riding school suggested I spoke to British Showjumping about para-showjumping.”
Meeting her mentor
Karen crossed paths with Emma through Riding for the Disabled (RDA) for which Emma is an ambassador.
“She an amazing person — not only as a mentor, but also a friend,” says Karen of Emma.
Having spotted Karen riding at the RDA National Championships at Hartpury College in 2013, Emma was so touched by her story that she set about raising funds to purchase Karen her first horse.
“When I saw her ride, it struck me how incredibly brave and inspiring she was. She was intriguing to watch,” says Emma. “She was riding a borrowed horse and I started thinking how important that trust between the rider and horse must have to be — I couldn’t stop thinking about it and I wanted to help her.”
Emma raised an impressive £10,000 through a skydive and other fundraising efforts.
“Karen started crying when I told her I was doing it for her, she couldn’t believe it. The skydive was exhilarating but even more so because I was doing it for Karen to make her dream of owning a horse come true,” adds Emma.
The next step was to find Karen a suitable mount. Karen’s trainer Adrian Marsh was the person who came across the grey mare Pearl.
Karen tried her and loved her straight away and unbeknown to Karen, Emma purchased her — but kept it a secret.
“We told Karen she was sold and she was devastated. It was then arranged for her to be presented with Pearl at the Royal Windsor Horse Show last year in front of The Queen (pictured below).
“She had no idea up until the moment the commentator announced it — she was overwhelmed beyond belief,” says Emma.
“Pearl is such a character — so full of life and cheeky. Our bond is so special,” says Karen, who works full-time at an eye clinic and makes a 2hr journey to ride Pearl once a week — a trip involving a bus, a train and a taxi to Adrian’s yard where she is kept.
In the arena — it’s all about trust
Since getting Pearl, Karen has teamed up with her trainer Adrian’s daughter Rebecca — a showjumper herself — who acts as her guide at competitions.
“The most important part is walking the course. Rebecca and I walk it as if we are riding it and go through the striding,” says Karen. “There is a lot to think about and I can only take in so much. The mains two things I have to remember are where the jumps are and where the turns are.
“There is not only amazing trust between me and Rebecca, but also between me and Pearl.
“I do get nervous before, but I love it. I wish I could be competing all the time — I’m so lucky to have the support I do,” adds Karen, who competed in La Baule in 2011 on a borrowed horse and was guided by 2012 Olympian Peter Charles.
“Rebecca is only 21, but is so calm and great at telling me where to go and giving instructions — but I don’t always get it right,” she says.
“Karen and Pearl have a wonderful bond,” says Emma. “Pearl is so relaxed with Karen, it’s like she knows. Karen will often sit outside her stable cleaning tack and Pearl will rest her head on her.”
Being able to see is something we take for granted, but how does someone with limited vision even contemplate getting on a horse?
“I’m lucky because I have never known anything different,” she says in a matter-of-fact way. “When I ride, it is like heaven on earth — life is too short, you need to take every opportunity.”