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‘Anything is possible’ partially-sighted showjumper flies the flag

A 12-year-old rider has been flying the flag for others with sight problems as, before the coronavirus lockdown, he competed and produced ponies for British Showjumping (BS).

Cole Burgess was born with a rare genetic condition causing oculocutaneous albinism that has left him with 3/60 vision, as well as additional complications including nystagmus (involuntary eye movements) and photophobia (light sensitivity).

Despite being limited to a visual range of only around 3ft and the ability to distinguish large patches of colour, Cole is currently producing two 148cm ponies and was planning to start jumping newcomers this season.

“He has always been very brave, happy to take on a challenge and is willing to give everything a go,” said his mother Lauren, who rides herself and started Cole off on lead rein ponies.

“He started competing when he was around nine and he is so switched on; I was gobsmacked with how he managed.”

Lauren said that when Cole tackled his first courses, she hadn’t really “sat him down and explained he couldn’t do circles”.

“He came out asking why he had gone clear but didn’t make the jump-off,” she said. “The following week he wanted to go again and we went to a show in Pencoed and he found a way of going over the course in his head and giving the fences names so he could remember the way.”

“He draws the route in the air with his fingers,” she added. “When he jumped clear the first time and I went to work out the jump-off course with him, he already knew it. He said he had heard them call out the numbers and he knew which fences to miss.”

Some venues also allow Cole to walk the jump-off course on foot, and Lauren sometimes asks new venues if he can walk the perimeter of the ring on his pony before starting his round, but he rarely requires any additional support.

“Sometimes he will miss a turn and I will ask him what happened and he will say that when he got there the gap wasn’t there because of his nystagmus!” she said, “But a lot of people say if I hadn’t told them, they would never have known he has problems with his sight. Once you see him ride, you realise how safe he is — his ringcraft is amazing, probably because he has had to learn it that way.”

Cole finds it easier to compete indoors as he finds it harder to see in brighter light but he has also tackled cross-country schooling with the Llangeinor Pony Club and jumped his mother’s 15.2hh Connemara Reuben (Lisdoon Victory) at a one-day event.

His current pony is a seven-year-old 148cm Connemara called Ollie (Knockenpower Ollie), who had mainly competed in mounted games until he took over last year. He is also due to start producing recently broken four-year-old Connemara Bob (Bobby Celtic) before backing his “future star”, Dutch warmblood Kylo (Arathorne’s Alderaan).

“As much as he rides youngsters, we do make sure the ponies he rides are never sharp or silly,” Lauren said. “The nice thing about youngsters is that we can make them his, but he does seem to have a way with producing them.

“Ernest Dillon comes down every now and then to teach him and he says what is brilliant is that he doesn’t annoy the pony, he sits there and lets them come off the floor, and goes with them. It allows the horse to learn and doesn’t get in their way, which is why I think he’s been successful.”

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Cole has also been attracting followers on Instagram and has secured sponsorship from KV Elite Equine Supplements, Tyler’s Hoof Products, CD Country Services and Ballas Farm Country Guest House.

“When he was growing up, we wanted to see older children coping with his condition and we found a lot of parents wrapped them in bubble wrap — we agreed from day one that we would let them get on with it,” said Lauren, who has two other children, one of whom also has the same condition as Cole. “They have full confidence in themselves.”

Cole, who is also a keen drummer and rugby player, said he goes by the motto “anything is possible, be brave, just try”.

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