‘Doctors said I would never be an athlete’: teenage rider excels with former racehorse despite heart condition

  • A 14-year-old rider who was told she would “never be an athlete” owing to a heart condition, is excelling in a new discipline with her former racehorse.

    Warwickshire-based Amber Boiles was born with tetralogy of Fallot, a condition where a person’s heart has four defects. Amber had a hole in her heart, one ventricle too big, one too small, and another ventricle problem.

    Lee Sterrey, Amber’s mum, told H&H her daughter had surgery to fix the condition when she was around a year old but doctors warned she would struggle with sport in the future.

    Despite this, Amber learned to ride aged three and enjoyed competing in showjumping. In November 2021 she bought former Flat racehorse, Ignacio Zuloaga, known at home as Wilson. When she discovered Wilson had been retrained by his previous owner Ness Woodhouse to compete in endurance, Amber decided to attend an event.

    “I wasn’t looking for an ex-racehorse but we found him and sort of fell in love. When you think of a thoroughbred you often think they’re quite hot headed, but he’s the opposite,” Amber told H&H.

    “The plan had been to continue in showjumping because that’s what I’ve done my whole life, but we discovered Wilson really doesn’t like poles. When Ness suggested I come along to one of her endurance rides I found that Wilson really enjoyed it, and I thought we’ll keep going. I’ve always enjoyed going on long hacks, and Wilson seems to enjoy getting to look around at the views and not really having to focus, the way he would have in racing.”

    Amber and Wilson were fifth in their first 26km graded event in April, and Wilson was awarded grade one – the highest grade – for fitness. The pair went on to complete a number of team events, including being part of the Hearts ‘n’ Cromwell winning team at the inter-regionals earlier in the year.

    When the team qualified for the Endurance GB Red Dragon Festival in Wales in September but were unable to attend, Amber decided to enter the two-day Dragon’s Claw Challenge at the festival as an individual. Amber and Wilson won the challenge and Amber was awarded the young rider trophy for the entire event.

    “Every ride I had done leading up to it had been on flat land with only little hills, so I definitely wasn’t expecting what I saw in Wales. Some of the hills were practically vertical,” said Amber.

    “On the first day I started to struggle with my breathing as Wilson had become quite strong, and a rider that came up behind stopped to check I was ok. It’s really nice that everyone really looks out for each other. I was exhausted when I got back but I was not going to let that stop me competing on the second day. I wanted to complete the challenge for Wilson.”

    Amber, who hopes to continue with endurance and see more young riders in the sport, said she does not let her heart condition stop her.

    “When I was younger I tried tetrathlon but I really started to struggle with swimming and running, but equestrian sport suits me a lot better. You have two brains to think about, not just your own, so I’m more thinking about Wilson than what I’m doing,” said Amber.

    “Because I have a condition I’m different to people, but I’m not really different. I don’t want to be brought down or compete in a lower class, I want to be up there. The doctors said I would never be an athlete but that sentence has stuck in my head and I want to prove them wrong.”

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