Teenage rider with autism and Tourette’s ‘finds his wings’ over huge draghunting hedge

  • A teenage rider who is deaf in one ear, and has autism and Tourette’s syndrome, has “achieved his dreams” and grown as a person by finding he and his horse could clear a huge hedge.

    James Preston and his horse Patrick achieved their hedge-hopping goal at Kingsclere, Hampshire, home of trainer Andrew Balding, on his first time out with the Berks & Bucks Draghounds, on 9 May.

    Friend Amanda Stewart told H&H she got to know James as they were both restarting with horses, for different reasons.

    Amanda, a former hunt master who was also a freelance journalist for H&H, had given up riding seven or eight years ago. But during lockdown this year, a friend offered her the ride on a Spanish mare whom she could no longer ride herself.

    “While I was there, I met James,” she said. “His horse had had a very bad tooth, and had to have an operation. So he was having to start again while I was starting the mare, who’d been out in the field. We called ourselves the baby riders, because we were the nursery group.”

    Amanda and James progressed through weeks of fittening work together and became good friends, despite the four-decade age gap.

    “James and Patrick had really lost confidence jumping, and were convinced they couldn’t jump,” Amanda said. “I watched them on the school and every time they jumped, James was almost hurled into the next county.

    “I said ‘Forget about jumping in the school’.”

    Amanda set James “tasks” such as going up and down banks and jumping ditches, which he and Patrick mastered, so when they went back in the school, some months later, they were back on form.

    “So I said we should go to the new Chiltern Cross Country course, which had all sorts of really smart jumps. I took James and Nevaeh Stanbridge, on her horse Paddy, and set them more tasks and they jumped everything, even some no one else had jumped yet, and there had been some pretty serious eventers there.”

    Amanda said James has become fascinated in hunting, and wants to become a member of hunt staff, so he has been quizzing her, as a former master, on all aspects of the job.

    “I said ‘You can’t really go into hunt service unless you’ve jumped a big hedge’, so that’s been his goal,” Amanda said.

    “As he’d jumped everything on the cross-country, I thought he was ready, so the next weekend, we went out with the Berks & Bucks at Kingsclere.”

    James and Nevaeh, on Patrick and Paddy, headed off for the meet, and at first jumped the smaller fences.

    “Nevaeh’s mother and I were videoing them, and suddenly thought ‘They’re going for the big hedge’, and they did,” Amanda said.

    “It was a good five foot tall. Nevaeh’s mother grabbed my arm, and you can hear her on the video saying ‘They’re going for it’. Then we stood in silence, as if aliens had landed; we couldn’t speak, but they survived and stayed on, over almost certainly the biggest jump of the day. We were ecstatic.”

    Amanda said James’s parents are “over the moon”, and that the boost to James’s confidence from his achievement has been huge.

    “It’s opening his world up,” she said. “He’s such a nice lad; I’ve got two sons who have grown up and don’t ride, so he’s like a third son and I’m absolutely over the moon.

    “I always say there are three types of rider. First you’re a passenger, which we all are, then you become a rider, then a jockey, if you’re good enough. I think I’m a rider, and that if you get to that, you’re winning at life. Because of jumping that hedge, he now considers himself a rider, and so do I.

    “His whole persona has changed; he’s walking more upright, has more confidence; it’s changed him. And that’s horses.”

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    Amanda said the achievement would not have been possible without Chiltern Cross Country, so she wrote to the owners, and to the district council to say thank you for granting the course planning permission.

    “If it hadn’t been for lockdown, I wouldn’t have got back on board, or met James,” she said.

    “We’ve both come a long way and we’re the best of friends. I think he was sent for me to help him, and for him to help me.

    “I feel like an Olympic trainer. I’m not — I can’t see a stride to save my life — but I can give confidence, and that’s what it’s all about. James has gained his wings.”

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