Is 20-20 vision a prerequisite for winners? Apparently not. On Sunday (29 June) Adventure De Kannan won the Hickstead Derby — with only one eye. The gelding, who had his right eye removed last summer due to an infection, took the class ahead of his fullsighted opponents, proving that partial vision need not be an obstacle.
And that applies to riders too. British Showjumping (BS) now has 3 blind riders registered, and reports it is a “developing” field.
Visually impaired rider Karen Ward hit the headlines at Royal Windsor in May, where she was presented with a horse by her mentor Dame Emma Jane Brown. Karen competes at BS’s club membership level, 70cm-1m, with a lead rider shouting out directions. She says she only has “a little light recognition”.
“We have other visually impaired riders making queries,” said Rebecca Turner, BS para co-ordinator. “One man wants to use an earpiece [giving directions], rather than a lead rider, which could make it a more level playing field.”
Across the disciplines
Dressage is the more obvious route for visually impaired riders, as the only para discipline recognised by the FEI with an appropriate category. According to their classification by the International Blind Sports Association, they compete either at grade III (classif ed as totally blind, and wearing a blindfold) or grade IV (partially sighted).
Nicola Naylor (pictured right) had 40% vision in just one eye growing up, which degenerated to “a little light perception” by her 20s. She competed in JA classes as a child when she could see just “the rough outline of a jump one stride away”.
She later turned to eventing. “I had to memorise the courses and for cross-country I relied on people standing with large coloured rugs at key turns to guide me round,” she said. “I coped thanks to clever ponies who could change their stride at the last minute, but I learned how difficult it was to continue on horses, who are not as nimble and need more guidance from the rider.”
She returned to horses 3 years ago, aged 50, thanks to her horse-mad daughter. She now competes in para internationals as a grade III and has qualified for the nationals at medium.
She says “keeping straight is the hardest thing with no external point of reference”. And because she specialised in jumping when she could see, she cannot visualise a pirouette or piaffe. “I have to learn through feel and relying on my trainers [Daniel Watson and Alex Wyatt] to feed back when something is right, so I can register that,” she said.
Nicola has competed at both para and ablebodied competitions. But, as she learned aged 16, when it comes to judging fences at speed, any visual impairment can signal the end of a career.
Laura Collett’s sight affected by fall
Four-star eventer Laura Collett lost the sight in her right eye last summer as a result of a bad rotational fall (news, 11 July 2013). She dislocated her shoulder, dislodging a fat embolism that damaged the optic nerve. She has been working with sports vision optometrist Gavin Rebello, who assesses the Harlequins rugby team.
“Laura had major hurdles to overcome and it’s testament to her character that she has adapted so well,” said Gavin. “Two eyes help you judge height and distance — vital in eventing. Her peripheral vision is also limited, which gives other cues such as shadows. Finally, her one eye has to work so much harder, and fatigue causes mistakes.”
“It was very hard dealing with depth perception at fi rst,” said Laura, who can no longer drive an HGV. “I would think I’d seen a stride, but the fence would still be further away — and my left eye got very tired as my right eye had previously been the dominant one. But I’ve adjusted and it feels normal now.”
Gavin prescribed a contact lens to stop her working eye becoming fatigued, enabling her to “see things earlier and make decisions in time”.
“The working eye needs to hit peak performance, so we have tried to make it as efficient, accurate and flexible as possible,” he said. “It can take a very long time — if ever — to recover after losing one eye, but Laura has the right mindset and motivation.”
Laura’s in good company. Jockey Red Pollard also lost the sight in his right eye — and it didn’t stop him steering Seabiscuit to greatness.
This news story was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (3 July 2014)