‘They cheered like he’d done Badminton’: partially sighted rider completes champs cross-country solo after guide had to pull up

  • A young partially sighted eventer who completed the cross-country at the Pony Club grassroots regional championships without a guide rider after her horse pulled up lame hopes his story will help others realise what is possible.

    Charles Stanley, from Smarden, Kent, and Perri, a 17-year-old 15.2hh gelding owned by Sabine Remnant, finished in 11th place at the eastern regionals, at Horseheath in August. But for a while, Charles, 15, and his mother Cat had not thought he would get to ride there at all.

    “It would be really good if Charles’s story could inspire people to keep going, because we nearly didn’t,” Cat told H&H. “I was so proud of him; in a busy life, it’s so rare you have time to stop and stare and think ‘Actually, that was amazing’. I don’t think there are many people with Charles’s level of visual acuity who could have done that.”

    Charles was born partially sighted; he cannot see jumps until they are three metres away, nor can he see dressage markers or numbers on fences. He has always ridden, as do his younger brothers, and much prefers eventing to anything else.

    But three years ago, when Charles and his former pony were competing in a hunter trial, both he and Cat thought they might not be able to make it work.

    “I was with him in the start box, then after he’d jumped four or five fences, he lost his way,” Cat said. “I ran over as he’d just ground to a halt because he couldn’t see which fence to jump. I was trying to tell him, running round, and all the other people riding and walking the course must have thought ‘How strange’. It wasn’t a good day and we nearly gave up.”

    But the family moved to the Romney Marsh branch of the Pony Club, where the chief instructor Lena Pearson-Wood understood Charles’s limitations, and “got him” straight away.

    Lena arranged for Charles to compete with a guide, who rides in front of him across country, sometimes jumping and sometimes not, letting him know where and what he has to jump.

    “The guide is someone to follow so I can get a good line,” Charles explained. “Because I can’t see the angles of the jumps, or the differences between them, the guide can tell me which one I need to jump. I’ll be coming up to it saying ‘Can’t see it, can’t see it — got it’.”

    Guide riders became the norm, and Charles completed his first one-day event, on Perri at Eridge, with a double jumping clear, and then went on to Brightling, where he repeated the feat, and won, which meant they qualified for the regional championships.

    With the help of Pony Club area representative Abby Bernard, organisers there made “reasonable adjustments” to allow Charles to compete, including flour to mark X in the dressage arena, bright-coloured bending poles to show Charles where to turn for different showjumps, and the cross-country guide rider. He scored 27.5 in the dressage, had one unlucky showjumping plank down, and headed into the cross-country in a strong position.

    “He was last to go across country, and what was lovely was that lots of people had stayed to watch,” Cat said. “He started and I went off to get a good picture over the trakehner, which I got, then they jumped some hedges and I saw Charles circle. I knew something was wrong as he and Perri are very strong across country, then I saw his guide on foot, leading a clearly lame horse.”

    The guide rider had to pull up, but Charles had no intention of following suit.

    “I saw him re-present, and go on,” Cat said. “He did the rest on his own. I could see him, suddenly seeing each fence and riding every stride. At the last one, I stopped in my tracks and had a tear going down my face because I knew how desperately hard it was for him.

    “However much you work hard and dig deep, you can’t improve your visual acuity, it is what it is. As he came over the finish line, everyone cheered like he’d been round Badminton.”

    Charles added that he had no thought of retiring.

    “I just thought ‘I can do this’, I’ll finish it on my own,” he said. “It sounds like I’m blowing my own trumpet but I felt proud of myself and Perri. It was like [triathletes] the Brownlee brothers helping each other over the line; when you’ve overcome something like that, you’ve helped yourself over the line.”

    Picture by Cat Stanley

    Pony Club area rep Abby Bernard tweeted about Charles’s achievements, tagging Clare Balding, who sent a congratulatory message, and Harry Meade, who did the same, and invited Charles and Perri to his yard for a lesson. This took place on 20 December, and was “amazing”, Charles said.

    “It was so good; Harry explained everything and used really good analogies,” Charles added. “I got five lessons’ worth from an hour with him; it was a lovely day.”

    Cat added that it was more than worth every minute of the 150-mile drive.

    “It’s so lovely someone recognises how hard he tried, and that it all came together,” she said.

    Charles plans to keep eventing, and would like to step up a level next season.

    “It’s the most exhilarating and the most enjoyable,” he said. “Mum’s trying to get me to take up British Dressage — but I don’t really fancy that!”

    And he and Cat both hope his story, and experiences with the “reasonable adjustments”, will make life easier for anyone in a similar situation.

    “We went through it so hopefully other people now won’t have to,” Charles said. And Cat added: “I think he’s the first one, which is nice, and I hope it will encourage people to see there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

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