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79-year-old rider with terminal cancer smiles his way through dressage test

A 79-year-old with Alzheimer’s and rheumatoid arthritis, who has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer, is competing in dressage – and dreaming of the Olympics.

Lifelong horse-lover William McPheat and his loan horse Romany came up the centre line on 29 November in their first competition since lockdown was lifted in Wales.

“People at the show were lovely,” Mr McPheat’s daughter Katie told H&H. “Dad’s blind in one eye, and deaf, and four weeks ago we had the cancer diagnosis. He’s having palliative care, and they broke it to him very gently but he’s forgotten since, and as he doesn’t know, he’s happy and still looking forward to the future.”

Katie said Mr McPheat’s dream includes he and Romany competing at the Paris Olympics.

“He wasn’t sure with Covid if Tokyo would be on so Paris gives him more of a chance,” she said. “It’s definitely in his head that he and Romany will be in Paris.”

Katie said her father competed in a one-day event last summer.

“He was sitting there smiling so proudly, and Romany’s so gentle, he stepped over all the fences,” she said. “In the dressage test, I stood in the middle telling him which way to turn, and he remembered to keep his head up and keep smiling.”

Katie said her father finds walking difficult owing to his arthritis, but on Romany, he can feel like anyone else.

“And he can hug Romany, he can’t hug any of us,” she said. “When he went back to the yard after lockdown, it was very emotional; there was a huge hug for Romany, and Dad said: ‘I’ve missed you, old boy’.”

Mr McPheat loved riding as a child, and returned to the saddle with the Green Meadow Riding Centre Riding for the Disabled Association group.

He rode a horse called Stroller, then Romany, who is owned by Lindsey Blayney, came to Mr McPheat on Christmas Day 2017, with a red bow tied in his mane.

The pair have lessons with Catrin John and Sam Whylie.

“Sam does a lot of dressage, and he said we should go down to the arena, and he’d get a judge and some flags, and we could pretend it’s a tryout for the Olympic team,” Katie said.

“We’re not sure about the timing with his cancer as they’ve said weeks, but that could be two or 12 or 52. He’s done a month already and is fine so we will see if we can do that after Christmas.

“He loves going out in the trailer and being part of what everyone’s doing, and he doesn’t know he’s any different; the smile last Sunday when he was walking round the arena with all the beautiful horses.

“It’s just about being included and it’s amazing people are so kind.”

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Katie said the riding boosts her father’s mobility and general wellbeing, and hopes his story might give others hope that relatives who loved horses may like to be involved with them again.

“I think it’s the smell of horses; it’s so comforting,” she said. “Especially during these Covid times, it’s something you can do and enjoy; during lockdown, Dad’s wellies were always by the door.”

“He doesn’t remember Sunday but every time I mention it, he gets that smile,” she added. “He knows something good has happened.”

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