As told to Kate Johnson
Evie Toombes, para showjumper and disability campaigner, on living with an invisible illnesses, her accidental foray into grand prix and meeting Prince Harry…
I classified as a para rider six years ago, aged 12. I was the youngest in the UK and the first to be registered as junior. It was just after one of my main surgeries; I was lost. I had no school friends because I’d missed so much time.
I went to horses for comfort and a pick-me-up. I wanted something that gave me value, that I could enjoy, that made all the months in hospital worthwhile. That’s exactly what it did. Even as things got more complicated with my health, horses have been the constant.
I was born with spina bifida; there’s a fatty tumour wrapped around the nerves to my legs, bladder and bowel at the base of my spinal cord. All of that means tube feeding, four hours of treatment each night for my gut, I catheterise every three hours, wear night splints and do two hours of physio a day. I’m attached to tubes for sometimes 24 hours a day. If I’m riding, it’s 23 hours, and I’m no longer a patient for those 60 minutes.
After I had neurosurgery at about 18 months, Mum asked the surgeon, “How much do I let her do? Should we wrap her in cotton wool?” He said, “Let her live her life.” He knew Mum had horses and he did too. He said, “Get her riding a pony bareback. It’ll help her legs and back. If she falls off, plonk her back on.” It was literally doctor’s orders to get me to live my life to the full.
I’d been doing OK in British Showjumping. But after a round when my feet were slipping from my stirrups and I couldn’t kick – I can’t feel my legs below the knee – a course-builder said, “You could be registered as a para showjumper and get some help, like capped stirrups so your feet don’t go through, and compete in para classes.”
I thought I wasn’t disabled enough, but my local RDA said, in the nicest way, “You definitely are.” When you’re always trying to fight it and encourage yourself to get out there, you don’t realise how much you’re struggling. If you admitted it you’d probably give in to it.
Growing up I was convinced I was the only disabled person on the planet; I looked normal so no one understood why I was exhausted and throwing up. I wanted to explain but I hate the whole pity party; I want encouragement.
Competing at Pferd International in 2018 was a wonderful achievement. Sarah Wicks, a fellow para, travelled my mare Daisy over there for me; she helped my dreams come true. We were third on the first day.
On the last day, we were going clear in the jump-off in the main international arena and we turned inside a 1.50m grand prix fence. Daisy, loving the atmosphere, locked on to it, jumped and cleared it, and carried on with our para 90cm course. It was the best elimination ever!
The past year’s been turbulent; my health took the biggest dive yet. We were quite scared – I had no strength, we lost a lot of hope. Even then, I’d sit in the car half asleep while Mum tacked Daisy up and put me on – I’d ride round the village holding on to my saddle. Daisy can go from an all-guns-blazing competition horse to “I’ll look after you” donkey mode.
I visit primary schools to educate younger people on invisible illnesses. Being poorly you feel judged, worried about upsetting people or asking too much, so I wanted to shed a positive light; I’m a para showjumper and chronically ill.
I won a WellChild award; it’s a charity for seriously ill children and Prince Harry is a patron. I met him and Meghan the summer they were married, it was a pinnacle. We joked about gingers being fantastic, Daisy being a chestnut, and Meghan said she’d seen my blog. It was amazing to hear how enthusiastic they were.
Para showjumping is slowly making its way to the Paralympics; I’d love to see myself there. If I’m not on a horse, I’ll definitely be there cheering everyone else on.
H&H 22 October 2020
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