Read DSY Sportswoman of the Year’s inspiring story

Recently crowned DSY Sportswoman of the Year, Anna Lickley has shared her inspirational story with us of how her love for equestrianism has helped her to overcome her disability and literally ‘get back on the horse’.

 

My horse riding journey

A little background: I first got on a horse when I was seven years old. I remember because the riding stable I went to with my sister wouldn’t let me ride until I was seven. We used to go out on hacks in the Derbyshire countryside.

Later, in my teens, we were lucky enough to own a pony called Dolly who was inordinately stubborn and used to refuse to leave the stable yard unless my dad lead her out!

So, like many people, I rode a lot in my childhood and have always loved horses although I only really learnt the rudiments of riding such as how to sit on a horse with heels down and shoulders back.

In 1991, when I was sixteen, I was diagnosed with a genetic illness called Neurofibromatosis type 2 (nf2). Nf2 means that you develop (usually) benign tumours on nerves in your body, often in the central nervous system (your brain and spine). My initial scans revealed several large tumours in my brain and, following several surgeries, I soon found myself deaf with badly weakened balance.

I still rode on and off after that but it was getting harder to stay on horses and I more or less stopped riding as other things took over my time.

In 2011, the cornea got damaged on my one good eye and I was registered blind (I have some remaining limited vision, very sensitive to glare). The reduction in eye-sight also meant that my balance got even trickier as I had been using visual messages to get my balance where the usual centre of balance in my ear was damaged from surgeries. I am still ambulant but must use a rollator or hold something to keep myself upright.

At that point, I also began to experience debilitating bouts of fatigue and panic attacks and I stopped working as it was too stressful for me. I had been a keen runner but with my health as it is now, that is no longer an option. With the trauma of losing significant vision, I found myself feeling despondent and was finding it difficult not to feel subsumed by my disabilities. I know these feelings are a natural human response to acquired disability but this time it was more difficult to see a way to rehabilitation.

I am the kind of person who loves a challenge and finds solutions to problems. I am competitive whether it’s against others or against myself. Since my diagnosis, I have been able to adapt many times to physical challenges but I was feeling as if dual-sensory loss was too big a challenge for me to deal with. I really wanted to find a new sport that I could access as I knew that would help me to start to feel like myself again. It was then that I remembered my love of horses and horse-riding.

Fortunately, St Ives Bingley RDA is very near to where I live and so I visited with a PA who was supporting me in communication and as a guide. That visit turns out to be one of my best decisions!

I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to get on a horse (or stay on!) but they have a brilliant mounting ramp and lots of lovely volunteers to support me. At first (for several months) I rode with a volunteer on either side of me, ready to hold my legs or catch me if I slipped. My core muscles were quite pathetic and I found it a challenge even to stay sitting up straight.

We also had communication challenges but over time, we created our own way of communicating using touch (one tap on my leg to stop, a tap on my wrist to turn that kind of thing). If the teacher wanted me to put my heels down then someone would physically pull my heels down. As I was only recently deaf-blind, it was a case of working it out together as I had little experience to go on.

We also learnt other useful adaptations. For example, I can see the colour yellow better than other colours and so we would use yellow cones and have yellow markers on the dressage points when I started to learn dressage.

The first time I visited to ask about lessons, I asked, rather naively, if they ‘did’ dressage. I didn’t have any expectations of getting to the stage of being able to learn but I did feel it would be a good sport for me if I ever became stronger on a horse.

With excellent, patient teaching I progressed in dressage and it has been an amazing journey. I love the opportunities it gives me to challenge myself and push myself to improve. The feeling of achieving a goal and then setting a higher one is fantastic. Last year, I competed in the RDA National Championships for the first time and won both my classes. It’s not so much the winning that is great (although it is nice!) but it is having an opportunity to push myself and compete again.

Added to that is the connection between horse and rider, the horses ability to learn and understand slight changes in rider movement. St Ives has several lovely horses, all gentle and polite, all with their own distinct personalities and quirks and it is a privilege to ride them.

Winning DSY sportswoman of the year was the icing on the cake for me in what has been an very affirming year in the sense of rehabilitating myself..

All in all, learning to ride again with RDA has done so much for my general wellbeing: my physical, mental and spiritual strength. The confidence I have gained has led me to pursue other things too that were impossible to find time for before my corneal damage such as writing (I have written two books, one of which is self-published. The other is as yet unpublished).

I recommend riding with the RDA to anyone dealing with the challenges of living with disability. If riding isn’t for you then some other sport can really help with motivation, there really is something for everyone. It is true that the best way to deal with any trauma is to look for opportunities that can directly result from it rather than dwelling on negative thoughts of loss and regret. Riding again was one of those opportunities for me.

 

Anna is a truly inspiring lady. You can find her book; ‘Catch it Anytime You Can’ available from Amazon and on Kindle https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/cka/Catch-Anytime-You-Can-Anna-Lickley/099272970X