“It was a fantastic competition with an extremely high standard — in fact, it put some able-bodied riders to shame,” said judge David Bartram, who used to help at Wetherby RDA centre and officiated here alongside David Ingle and Richard Ramsay. “We had 30 entered and because they were so good, we decided to put four riders through to the final at Addington.”
The winner at Hartpury had only been riding her horse for a month. Gabby Blake, 24, who lives in Whatton in Nottinghamshire but is from Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, beat 29 other hopefuls riding The Rose of Derry, as her own pony, Geronimo, was unsound.
“My horse went lame a month ago — we tried to get him ready for today but he was too sore, so I used Rose,” explained Gabby, who does volunteer work. “She does lessons during the day and is an ex-show jumper, but she was so good, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. She was fantastic.”
Gabby, who is in the South Notts RDA group, has a rare and painful condition but has been riding for most of her life.
“My parents are horsey and I have been for as long as I can remember — I got my first pony when I was two months old,” she said. “My main problem is pain, but when I’m riding I don’t feel the pain. I don’t get sore and it’s a lovely feeling.”
She competes with Geronimo in para dressage but used to do showing and has been considering returning to the show ring. She was impressed by the standard at Hartpury, where this qualifier was held as part of the RDA National Championships over the weekend of 14-16 July.
“All three classes were very good and it was quite a buzzy atmosphere,” said Gabby. “It’s great to have a showing series because it’s something different for us to do, and this has encouraged me to go back to showing. I hadn’t competed at Hartpury before and I certainly didn’t expect to do so well.”
David Bartram commented:
“It was a fantastic competition with an extremely high standard — in fact, it put some able-bodied riders to shame. The winner was quite severely disabled but had the most lovely core position and rode really well. She got her horse in a beautiful rhythm and way of going, with its ears pricked the whole time. It was a lovely, quality animal and they were fabulous to watch — out-and-out worthy winners.”
The judges were full of praise for the runner-up, too – Lizzie Bennett, who rode side saddle on the coloured cob Rolo. In contrast to Gabby’s previous showing experience, it was Lizzie’s first show ring outing but she was undeterred.
“I’ve never done showing before in my life so I didn’t know what to expect, and I didn’t really know what I was doing,” joked Lizzie, 27, who rides one-handed with specially adapted reins from Mulryan Saddlery.
“They’re normal reins but with holes along their length and three bars with metal spikes that slot in. You can move them up and down to make a shorter rein for jumping and a longer one for a nice long-rein walk or something like that,” she explained. “They’re really nifty! There’s another girl in my group who rides one-handed [Eleanor Currington, who finished sixth on Minstrel] and she uses them too.”
Lizzie had her own horse when she was younger, but had to sell him when she broke her back doing gymnastics about 13 years ago.
“It took me about 10 years to get back to riding but I was trying at a normal riding school and sometimes they had to pull me off the horse because I couldn’t move,” she revealed. “I joined the RDA about three years ago and it’s worked really well — I wish I’d done it before. My back will never be right; I’m in constant pain but it’s been that way for half of my life so I’m used to it.”
Her weakened left arm is due to a genetic condition that also affects her left shoulder.
“It’s not helped by the fact that I keep falling off and landing on it,” she admitted.
Like many of the SFAS contestants, she was also competing in dressage and show jumping at the national championships. She and Rolo finished seventh in dressage on the second day and won their show jumping class on the first day.
“I’m very proud of Rolo,” said Lizzie, who works part-time at primary school intervention for special needs children in Saffron Walden, Essex. “The Cambridgeshire College RDA group was told he wasn’t an appropriate RDA pony because he can be quite naughty. But I love riding him because I know that even if he has his silly, spooky moments, he’s just a sweet little horse. I wish I owned him so I could ride him every day.”
Steward Chris Bartram-Lawton, who also helped with David Bartram at Wetherby RDA group, said:
“Despite only being able to use one hand, the runner-up had a fabulous position and rode quite beautifully in a really good rhythm — some able bodied riders should have seen it. She had only ridden side saddle four times so this was an incredible achievement.”
A last-minute decision to enter paid off for Middlesbrough-based Brooke-Leigh Johnson, 10, when her charming 15-year-old pony, Wrentnall Snowman (Spider), took the third qualifying ticket. Brooke-Leigh, who suffers from hearing loss and speech problems, has been a member of the Unicorn Centre for the past five years and is a keen competitor at all the shows held there.
“She’s come on in leaps and bounds and has a great partnership with Spider,” said yard manager Christine Beedle. “We had three ponies here at the [RDA] championships and thought we’d enter them in this competition for a bit of fun. I knew Brooke-Leigh would give it her best shot, and we’re delighted for her. We’ll definitely make the long journey down to Addington for the final.”
“This pony had the sweetest outlook,” said David Bartram. “It went with its ears pricked, the jockey was smiling all the time and the whole package was picture-perfect.”
The fourth qualifier was Imogen Darke, 18, who was inspired to take part in this competition when she attended the initial lecture/demo given here last year, when the SEIB concept of the class first took root.
Imogen, who suffered a severe head injury in an accident at the age of 11 and spent two months in a coma, has little peripheral vision but she partnered Chandaem My Guy, her family’s 14-year-old hunter, with great aplomb.
“As a family, we’ve been involved with horses all our lives and we’re very lucky as the Erme Valley RDA group — which Imogen has attended for the past three years — is only 10 minutes from our home,” said her father Ross, a former jump jockey. “We are over the moon to qualify for the final. It’s a fabulous competition and we’d like to thank SEIB and Hartpury College, as well as all the judges for giving up their time.”
SEIB marketing director Nicolina MacKenzie, who first thought of the competition and pushed to make it happen, was delighted with both the numbers forward and the standard they represented.
“These riders are truly inspirational,” she said. “Many of them would give able-bodied riders a good run for their money, and the difficulties they have overcome in their lives are a lesson to us all. I am so very pleased that SEIB as a company has been able to launch this series and we are very grateful to RDA for its help with running this competition and its support generally.
“I am so delighted to be involved with this – it is completely new and one of the most important things I have ever done. I am sure it will go from strength to strength and we are all looking forward to a superb final at Addington Manor on 7 September.”