I consider myself lucky. I had a happy home life, was privileged to be given a pony at an early age and had a love affair with horses and riding that developed into a successful career as an international show jumper. That career took me all over the world, put silverware on my mantelpiece and delivered a tremendous lifestyle.
I don't want you to think it was easy however. Far from it, riding, and especially competing at the top, demands very hard work and dedication (at the expense of a personal life), most of your waking hours in training, anguish around the health and well-being of your horses, and frankly risks to life and limb. Show jumping, is considered to be one of the most dangerous sports in the world.
In spite of the trophies, and they followed from the age of 20, and the immense pride in representing my country many times, the disappointments and heartache came too. The low point of my career occurred when my much-loved horse Everest Oyster died of colic just 14 weeks from the Seoul Olympics. I shed tears over my best friend and the chance to compete in the ultimate sporting event. There was injustice too, when I was picked to ride for team GB, I suffered a terrible backlash from my male team members. It wasn’t enough to be as good as them, as a woman, I had to be better than them. Thankfully, it made me even more determined to succeed. Thankfully, attitudes have improved since then.
The ultimate life-changing disappointment came in 1998 when I discovered that I had developed a severe allergy to horses and had no choice but to end my career. I was just 37 years old. If you know anything about the sport, you may remember Peter Charles jumping at the London Olympics in 2012 and winning gold. He was 52. Nick Skelton, one of his team mates, was 54. A show jumper’s career can last a lifetime, but unfortunately for me, mine didn’t.
Since hanging up my boots I've stayed involved in the sport, firstly as a commentator for Sky and Eurosport, and in recent years, as an ambassador for Riding for the Disabled. I wanted the connection, needed to put something back into the sport, was committed to making it better, safer and bring more people into it.
A couple of years ago I met an incredibly inspirational woman through Riding for the Disabled (RDA). I am an informal ambassador for the charity. Karen Law is Britain's first blind show jumper. She suffers from bilateral coloboma and is registered blind. Amazingly she jumps courses that many able bodied riders would baulk at with the help of a guide rider or shouting instructions from the ground. Karen needed a mentor and I become that person. She also needed a horse of her own to compete on and so I decided to raise the money to buy her that horse. My mad antics included a sponsored sky dive - not my favourite pursuit, but the fear and adrenaline paid off. A year and a half ago, I secured sufficient funds to buy Karen a beautiful and talented grey mare called Pearl who has been her equine teacher and best friend ever since.
Karen Law horse riding
Karen and Pearl are going from strength to strength, but like other para equestrian show jumpers Karen needs more events to compete in. The BSJA currently stage only three major competitions for the para show jumpers annually and it's simply not enough. Karen needs support in other ways too, for example, Pearl is stabled at her trainer Adrian Marsh’s yard in Croft. Karen lives in Stockport and to make the journey to ride Pearl twice a week (Karen works) she takes a bus, train and taxi - it's a five hour round trip! Karen is stoic about the challenges she faces and is totally committed to her sport and her horse. In fact, earlier this year, she was asked by the Daily Mail what she would do if she had to make a choice between having her eyesight back or keeping Pearl. Karen said she would choose to keep Pearl!
Watching Karen jump never fails to move me and I will do everything in my power to advance her career and improve her life. But it's not just Karen who has won my admiration. I have recently got to know a number of the para equestrian show jumpers including Karen Bostock, Sarah Jo Gregory-Wicks and Mark Eldred Jones. All are incredible riders.
The sad truth is however, that they are being let down. In spite of their monumental achievements, they have to deal with all manner of struggles, whether it’s Mark’s need to borrow a horse box in order to get to a competition; a course set up that might unfairly punish a rider like Karen Bostock who is paralysed in her right knee, or the fact that there are only three major competitions to compete in, much more could be done.
It doesn’t stop there either, having attended para shows, I have witnessed discrimination from some of able bodied riders and rudeness from those involved in the events, badly set up courses and inconsiderately timed classes and lorry parking for their horses so far away from the main arena to add unnecessary stress and inconvenience for the riders.
I am not normally a whinge, but I would like to make change, the word has to get out, and so I have put a charter together that I would love general feedback on. My charter would say, that para equestrians deserve the following:
1. Better communication and support from the governing body
2. Greater respect from everyone involved in the sport
3. More accessible parking at events and more convenient times for classes
4. More thoughtful course set ups
5. More events (how are the paras going to improve without more competition) – maybe 7 or 8 a year
6. Events combining able and disabled riders
Riders or non-riders, I welcome your thoughts. I want to make a difference. Joining hands helps.
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