Anna Lickley is deaf and blind and yet she competes in national horseriding events. Becky Bond reports.
Anna Lickley, from Bingley, West Yorkshire came first - and last in two categories in The Riding for the Disabled Association’s National Championships at the weekend.
She was the only one in her dressage-at-walk and freestyle music classes, being the only entrant who is registered blind and deaf.
“I fluffed one bit and aced the other” she texted, from Hartpury College in Gloucester, where the annual competition is held.
“It’s not so much the winning that’s great, although it’s nice, but having the opportunity to push myself and compete again,” says Anna.
In 1991, when Anna was just 16-years-old she was diagnosed with a genetic condition called Neurofibromatosis Type 2 (NF2).
NF 2 affects about 1 in 33,000 people and almost everyone develops tumours on the nerves which are responsible for hearing and balance. These tumours can also develop inside the brain or spinal chord, or the nerves to the arms and legs. It is believed to be caused by a genetic mutation. In about half the cases, the genetic mutations are passed on by a parent to their child. In the other cases, like Anna’s, the mutation seems to occur spontaneously.
The condition is dramatically life changing and though some symptoms can be managed with surgery, there is currently no cure.
“At one point, I was finding it difficult not to feel subsumed by my disabilities,” says Anna.
“A dual sensory loss felt like too big a challenge to deal with. I knew I needed a sport that would help me feel like myself again,” says Anna, now 42. “I’m competitive whether it’s against others or myself. The kind of person who loves a challenge and finds solutions to problems”.
One major challenge for Anna is communication, because as well as not being able to hear, and having only 20 per cent vision, facial palsy means that speech is almost impossible too.
But she has found a way to make her sharp mind and voice heard, through a mixture of British Sign Language (BSL) and modern technology, such as email and text.
Anna’s love of horses began when she was just seven and when she became a teenager, was lucky enough to own her own pony called Dolly.
“Dolly was inordinately stubborn and used to refuse to leave the stable yard unless my dad led her out. I only really learned the rudiments of riding, but I loved to hack out,” re calls Anna. Even after her initial scans revealed several large tumours in her brain, Anna continued to ride.
However as balance became more of an issue, her confidence waned and other things took up her time.
It wasn’t until 2013 that she decided to visit St Ives RDA in Bingley.
“It turned out to be one of the best decisions I made,” she says. “I love the connection between horse and rider and the horse’s ability to learn and understand slight changes in movement. They all have their own distinct quirks and personalities and it is a privilege to ride them.”
Anna’s once-a-week visit is not easy logistically. It’s a three-person job, but she was lucky enough to find a lady called Sheila who not only knows BSL but loves horses too, so can act as an interpreter during the lesson. One or two other volunteers at RDA help Anna on the mounting ramp before she sets off around the ring. Initially, I rode with a volunteer at either side of me, ready to hold my legs or catch me if I slipped,” says Anna. “My core muscles were pathetic and I found it a challenge even to stay sitting up straight. We created our own way of communication though; one tap on my leg to stop, a tap on my wrist to turn. It was a case of working it out together.” The team also devised a simple way of helping Anna spot certain places in the ring.
“I can see the colour yellow better than any other colours,” says Anna “so we used yellow markers on the dressage points too.”
Anna is not the only one who benefits from the hard work put in by the 16 volunteers at St Ives RDA.
The centre has 35 riders on a regular basis and a school group of eight who come once a term.
“All our horses are trained by our instructors and volunteers” says Head of Operations, Barbara Chuter “We make sure the horses are calm when standing to be mounted and are used to all the equipment such as cones, stands, poles and jumps. We often use our volunteers to mimic the actions or stance of a rider with disabilities so the horses get used to different behaviors. Our horses seem to be so aware of their riders and they take care of them”.
With such an encouraging atmosphere, it is no surprise that many of the riders want to make it through the regional qualifying competition to get to the RDA National Championships - an event which is bigger than the Paralympics and Para World Championships combined. It has been a springboard for some of the current Team GB.
“I recommend riding with the RDA to anyone dealing with the challenges of living with a disability. It’s 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,” says Anna “Riding again was one of those opportunities for me”.
When Anna is not riding, she enjoys adventure holidays with Calvert Trust and writing. She has had a book published called ‘Catch it Anytime You Can’, and is based on some of her own experiences.
In March this year, she was crowned Disability Sport Yorkshire’s ‘Sportswoman of the Year.’
Riding for the Disabled been operating from St Ives Equestrian Centre since 2005.
They have a dedicated team of volunteers with a range of riding and teaching expertise, two qualified RDA instructors, experienced groom and access to a specialist physiotherapist.
They offer riding lessons from ages 4 to 70 plus for either experienced or non experienced riders and also provide training in stable management.
Both these provisions are offered to individuals or in a group setting. Some of our riders go on to take part in regional and national competitions.
The centre relies on fundraising activities to enable them to care for our horses and be self-financing.
If you or someone you know would like to find out more about St Ives RDA in Bingley visit www.stivesbingleyrda.weebly.com.
Details about other RDA centres across the UK can be found at www.rda.org.uk.