Leslie Weilbacher on a horse, Major
Editor’s note: Originally published in APH InTouch’s Nov-Dec, 2022 Issue, Leslie Weilbacher shares about competing in horseback riding/ dressage when blind or low vision.
Right before everything shut down in March 2020, I bought a horse. Winston is a lovely old quarter horse who gave me and my friend Melissa something to focus on when we could not go anywhere else. I have always wanted to compete in dressage and was able to do a virtual show with him. Not exactly the dream, but it was a path that worked, and I know I want to keep working at it.
Dressage is often called horse ballet. The arena is set up with letters around the edge, and as you ride through a pattern, you use the letters to know at what point to perform a different movement. Sometimes, it is set to music, and that is called freestyle. Dressage is the only equestrian sport at the Paralympics that blind riders can compete in.
Figuring out the accommodations took a bit, and I am still working a few things out. My Winston is a great boy, but he is a walk-only horse these days. He is 24 and is not up to a lot of work. I wanted to continue to grow in my riding skills, so my friend let me ride her horse, Major, a very sweet standardbred.
One day when taking a lesson on him, I fell off. This is how life works, I think. You are learning, training, practicing, in this case, trotting over poles, and your foot slips, and down you go. Hopefully, you will have remembered to take your iPhone out of your pocket.
So, what do you do when you fall off a horse? You get back on right away so you can end your ride on a good note. Now, falling shakes your confidence, and you may need to take a step back next time, but there needs to be a next time.
This August, I rode Major in the northwest Washington Fair. There were so many of my friends from my barn going, so I was able to share a horse and ride in the big arena. There were no dressage classes, but I was able to ride in English Pleasure. English Pleasure is judged on how suited you and your horse are to ride. Is the horse a pleasure to ride in English tack? Can the rider transition between the gaits with poise?
I had to get a little creative with the accommodations for this one. In the virtual dressage show, I tried a caller standing at X, which is in the middle of the arena. She helped keep me oriented. I tried putting hot pink outlines on the other letters around the edge of the arena that mark where you transition to a different move or pace. This did not work as I could not see them until I was right next to it.
When riding, just turning your head to look for a letter will throw off your line of travel, and you will lose points. For the Fair in a big arena with other riders who did not know that I am blind, I tried something different. I carried a walkie-talkie in my pocket and wore an earpiece with my friend Melissa giving me feedback. She had a running monologue of when to turn at the end of the arena, slow down because I was getting too close to another rider, or when someone else was passing me.
This worked well. I had a larger visor for my helmet because the lighting was glary and it was hard to look up. I also wore a yellow armband. I debated about the armband, but in the rules for upper-level international dressage, it is a point of safety. The armband was so other riders would be aware of me and give me more room as I could not avoid them. In addition, I put up an awareness poster about it and white canes. In English Pleasure, you are asked to walk and trot in both directions around the arena, and you are judged on several points. Major and I got third place out of five riders, and I was the only disabled rider, so I felt pretty good about not being last.