Keith Elliott at Large: Riding roughshod over disabilities: 'People may be disabled, but they have the same abilities and ambitions as the able-bodied, perhaps more so'

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The Independent Online
TRY this experiment. Stand up and look around. Now sit down in the lowest chair you can find and look around again. Not much of a view, huh? And when other people walk in front of you, the scene is even more limited. Imagine being locked in that chair all your life, forever seeing the world from the standpoint of an eight-year-old. Perhaps this is why those who need a wheelchair for mobility are treated like children; why the insensitive assume that losing a leg means half the brain disappears as well.

Now I may be on a slippery psychological slope here, but it may also explain why more than 25,000 disabled people regularly ride horses. Suddenly you are no longer helpless: you have four sturdy, dependable legs that enable you to see more than even the tallest person.

'All their shackles fall away on a horse,' Tony Hughes, the executive officer of Riding for the Disabled Association, said. 'Riding is a wonderful sport for giving confidence. People may be disabled, but they have the same abilities and ambitions as the able-bodied - perhaps more so, because many are so restricted in what they are able to do.'

His organisation, which has 727 groups in the United Kingdom, does more than giving mentally ill children a view over the hedgerows. It provides riding facilities for disabled people up to 70, and 37 per cent of their riders are adult. Some, like Jo Jackson, of Devon, are so good that only the sharpest-eyed spectator would spot the knots enabling her to hold the reins more firmly with her hooked metal hand.

Jackson, 21, has won the national championships in her category for five of the past six years. She was born without her right arm. 'My mother always told me: 'There's no such word as can't,' so I've played snooker, the piano and cello, and I've ridden since I was three.'

Jackson's missing limb has not tempered her exuberance for living. She is more likely to make jokes about how her artificial arm is ideal for Harvey Smith gestures than to complain about the tendinitis that besets her healthy limb. After completing a three-year diploma course at Warwick College, where she was awarded the top student prize, she is about to take a four-year degree course in equine study. 'I want to work with horses, but I would like to do something in research,' she said.

Her college reports use words like 'remarkable' and 'exceptional' but she prefers stories against herself. 'I was riding in one event and I came off. The wire broke on my arm and the horse ran away with it.' She finds recalling the episode hilarious, as much for the crowd's reaction. 'Jo is so competent, it makes some onlookers embarrassed when they find out she is disabled,' her mother said.

Jackson hopes to be chosen as a member of the British team for the disabled world championships at Harputy College, Gloucester, next July. Others in the squad are blind, have no legs or multiple sclerosis. But put them on a horse and they will acquit themselves better than most able- bodied riders.

Almost half the RDA riders have learning difficulties. Others have diseases from polio and autism to muscular dystrophy and spina bifida. But disability can be something as simple as dyslexia. Nicola Simons, of Bourn, near Cambridge, has won several national championship classes over the past four years. But her dyslexia makes it almost impossible to remember instructions, so she has to have them called out. 'It's difficult to get the tests into my head,' she admits. 'If lots of people go before me, I am all right because then I can usually get them right.'

Simons, now 22 and working as a stable groom, started riding at school 12 years ago. In two weeks' time she takes part in the Special Olympics at Sheffield for those with mental disabilities.

Getting horses is the biggest problem for the riding association, which is self-funded. 'People donate ponies they have outgrown to our groups, and that's fine,' Hughes said. 'But we also get a lot of broken-down horses, which aren't really what we need.'

Finding suitable horses for 20 countries will be the biggest problem at next year's world championships. Although the week-long event will be devoted to dressage, Jackson has high hopes that jumping will soon be part of disabled events nationally. 'But cross-country is too dangerous for me because of my arm. I could be badly hurt if I fell on it,' she says. You can see her point. Such an injury could leave her disabled.

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