Blog: “When horse riding, I’m no longer a patient or an illness”

The English Federation of Disability Sport (EFDS) website features a blog post every Friday throughout the year. In 2017, we'll be sharing the experiences of disabled people, and those who support disabled people, on their journey to being more active. This week, 15-year-old Evie talks about riding competitively, staying focussed on the sport and how it helps her mental and physical health.

Evie at a showjumping event

I’m Evie, I live in Lincolnshire and I have spina bifida resulting in lower leg weakness and numbness, as well as bladder and bowel incontinence that I manage through catheterisation and a stoma.

My main sports are horse riding and showjumping, and I also swim and cycle. I often ride with my mum, as she too has a horse so we tend to ride and compete together. I also ride within the British para showjumpers at national events.

I began riding when I was four years old. Luckily, as my mum had always ridden I was given the opportunity from a young age to ride and I took it. I didn’t ride competitively a lot until the age of 8.

Being active is like a therapy for me and plays a big part in my day-to-day life. If I’ve had a particularly hard day, then I can usually escape it by engaging my brain with an activity or sport and enjoy myself. I tend to use sport as an escape from everything I may be dealing with, and I love it.

I often struggle much more to mentally manage my illness when I’ve been trapped inside all day, or been hooked up to a feed. If I’ve ridden the horses or been swimming, I can usually cope much better as I’ve done something I enjoy and feel much more refreshed. I’m more ready to take on any challenges I may come up against.

When I’m taking part in a sport I feel so free. I’m no longer a patient or an illness. I can focus 100 per cent of my mind on the sport and at that moment in time, nothing else matters. It’s so nice to mentally have a break from things every once in a while, and I can use exercise or sport as an escape. Afterwards, I feel so refreshed. This makes it so much easier to then deal with my medical life again as mentally, I’ve had a break for a short while. Sometimes I struggle to live as just a patient and not a person, so it’s always easier when I can escape that.

Evie riding her horse at a showjumping event

My family plays a big part in my sport, and I couldn’t do it without them. My mum has done everything she can to make sure I can ride from a young age. Finding a pony that won’t be naughty for a young child is hard enough (ponies can be so cheeky), throw in the fact that I can’t feel my legs (which affects my balance) and my ability to get the pony going has been a nightmare.

My dad, despite not being horsey, is incredibly supportive especially as without riding, I wouldn’t be able to walk. This is due to the way you sit on a horse – the calf muscles are naturally stretched downwards, with the toes then pointing back upwards. This has a very similar effect to my physio plan. It’s the opposite to how ballet would affect your legs. Needless to say, I quit ballet after I fell in love with my pony at a young age.

Without my parents’ support, I wouldn’t be where I am today and I’m so grateful for everything they’ve done to enable me to ride.

My main show jumping competitions have been this summer. Unfortunately, I’ve missed them as I’ve been in hospital for most of the summer and not well in between. But I am determined to jump at Arena UK’s September festival – a wonderful week full of show jumping, with championships at the end. It’s an amazing atmosphere there, and one of my all-time favourite shows. I’m also very lucky that the venue caters for my needs as a para rider, and lets me have use of an ensuite bathroom on site. Without this, I wouldn’t be able to attend due to the high-maintenance treatments I have to do.

I also plan to swim much more this year, as it’s something I love doing and it’s incredibly beneficial for my legs and back. However, I’d need to be much stronger and healthier before I consider doing it competitively as my arms are also weak due to malnutrition.

Taking up a new sport can be a big step, but I’d encourage anyone to try something new and see where it leads. Finding something you enjoy is key, and I do believe it has a big effect on your life in general. When you have something you love so much that you’d do anything to be able to go out and do it, it makes any treatments, disabilities or issues worthwhile. When you love doing something so much, you’ll find a way to do it even in the hardest of times. That’s what we all need sometimes – something that makes you want to achieve great things and overcome any barriers put in your way. Having a love for something like a sport and focussing on it is what makes us unstoppable.

To keep up to date with Evie’s experiences, visit her website and like her para rider Facebook page.

For more information about riding and equestrian jumping, including links to local groups, visit the Riding for the Disabled Association website.