Dressage — Just What the Doctor Ordered

Until recently, I was the only blind woman in Arizona riding in open hunter/jumper and breed shows (you can read about it in my story “Blind Trust,” in the February 2001 issue of Practical Horseman, or here on EquiSearch). I’ve since switched to dressage for an unconventional reason: doctor’s orders! I developed a clotting disorder that prompted my physician to outlaw me from riding for life due to the danger of falling and bleeding. But after learning that the last time I did an unscheduled dismount was 15 years ago, he amended the ban to say I can ride if I understand the risk and try to minimize it.

So no more of this daredevil jumping stuff! My Pinto/Paint mare Zoe (Sugarplum Vision) and I have shifted our focus to dressage, the most elegant, controlled, and disciplined form of riding, where we can play in an arena by ourselves and not have to dodge a dozen other horses and riders.

Of course, I’m not just taking up dressage, I’m setting my sights high – to make the 2004 international Paralympic dressage team! To qualify, I will compete in USDF shows and submit scores above 60% from five different dressage tests equivalent to first level or higher, including a musical freestyle.

Riding dressage with such precision pattern work is difficult enough when you can see; try riding a circle or straight line when you have no reference as to what “straight” is! The first step was to teach Zoe that my inside leg is not a cue to perform an upper level lateral movement over the arena perimeter! Then my boyfriend/coach Ralph called out when I was passing each letter so I could learn my distances at each gait. I ride by feel and never count strides because if I’m not exactly on the rail or if my angle is off, my striding will be off, too.

Typically, “Living Letters” are used to orient blind riders to their whereabouts in the dressage arena. This involves eight people standing at the perimeter letters and being directed by Mr. X in the center of the arena to sound off when the rider is headed their way. Trouble is, I don’t have nine people with whom to practice — and I have enough performance anxiety without worrying about recruiting volunteers at a show and entering the arena to do something none of us has practiced so much as once. There’s also no clause that says if any one of the nine other people involved makes a mistake, the rider gets to call, “Do-Over!”

The headset I use to hear Ralph’s directions in rail classes isn’t suitable for the precision riding of dressage. He would tell me “left,” only if I had gone too far to the right, and my centerline would look like a drunken sailor’s. It is much easier to travel straight and maneuver through patterns using a fixed sound as a reference.

So Ralph, who will still play Mr. X, designed an electronic system we call Alphabet-Eyes that will replace eight of the nine fallible Living Letters with remote-controlled mini disc players, each announcing the letter it represents. The snag is that there are eight letters; and the cost of components for eight units is more than a disabled rider with an equine mouth to feed can afford.

But no challenge is insurmountable. My trainer, Eileen Earnhart, is hosting ‘A Vision of Dressage,’ a benefit to fund Alphabet-Eyes, at Dynamite Dressage in Scottsdale, Arizona, on December 15, 2001. It will be a once-in-a-lifetime afternoon of educational and inspirational demonstrations including a Grand Prix ride by USDF Gold Medalist Paula Paglia. She will then try to ride blindfolded, after which Zoe and I will show everyone how it’s done!

My hope is that everyone will come away from the event “seeing” that each of us has the choice to regard life’s challenges as formidable road blocks or simply speed bumps; and if you do your best and believe in yourself, you can lasso the moon!

For updated information, photos, and more, please visit my website: www.sammadden.tvheaven.com.

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