Today in Journalism: You Mean They Can Ride Horses Too?

This delicious little story in the Carluke Gazette by Craig Goldthorpe is pretty much your run of the mill profile of a local person with disabilities by a journalist who has no idea what he’s talking about, but, gosh, thinks it’s actually neat! Milena Canning is an equestrian who enjoys riding Clydesdale horses, which isn’t exactly a news item, except for the fact that she’s blind. The story is cringe-inducing, but the real standout in the piece, to me, is the level of astonishment at the idea that a blind person could ride horses. Alas, I can’t pick up a copy in person to read the promised expanded version.

I’ll be sure to tell blind Paralympic athlete Ann Cecile Orr of Norway, who took two silver medals in Sydney in 2000, that she has talents that ‘can’t be believed.’ Likewise, I’m sure the International Blind Sports Federation, which recognises dressage in particular as a sport practiced by blind and visually impaired athletes worldwide, will be interested to know that blind people can’t ride horses. The folks over at Blind Equestrians will be surprised to learn they can’t ride or handle horses and the rapidly expanding Para-Equestrian community should probably be alerted as well, as should therapeutic riding schools that work with blind and visually impaired students, like the Marianna Greene Henry Special Equestrians Program (yes, I know, the name leaves something to be desired) at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s stories in the news about how amazing a disabled athlete is, simply because of the disability. While I think it’s good to profile disabled athletes, for a number of reasons including the fact that it’s important to alert people to the fact that, yes, people with disabilities do engage in sport, articles like this don’t do much to educate people. Goldthorpe could have written about blind equestrian sports and discussed the various adaptations blind riders use to engage in high level competition (people, it does not get much higher than Olympic-level sports, which is what the Paralympics are) instead of engaging in a ‘wow, look at the blind person!’ story. He could have pointed out that the story takes place within the larger context of a long history of disabled athletics.

Like other blind athletes, blind equestrians may work with guides and spotters. Callers are stationed around the ring for sports like dressage (where riders are also expected to memorise their own programmes) and I’d note that nondisabled equestrians also rely on callers and spotters during their own training; many people who have had an opportunity to be around horses probably remember riding while someone else controls the horse with a lunge line, to learn balance, focus on your seat, and get better connected with your horse. Blind and sighted riders have more commonalities than disparities, not just a love for horses and equestrian sport, but shared learning experiences.

I have an interest in equestrian sport and a love for equestrians because I used to ride, although I never reached a very high degree of proficiency. Thus, I tend to look out for stories about horses and riding, and I always watch equestrian events when I can. I love the connection that develops between horse and rider, where a working team can reach a very high level of communication and focus, and many equestrian sports are also just beautiful. Dressage, for example:

Dinks' Dressage: A dark horse faces the camera, head down and neck arched. The rider has a relaxed, comfortable seat with  hands low on the reins and the horse's ears are flicked back, almost as though listening to the rider

(Photo by Flickr user Axel Bührmann, Creative Commons License)

Dressage Abram Hall July 09: A shot of a horse in action, hooves in motion and neck out, with a rider posed comfortably and confidently in the saddle.

(Photo by Flickr user J.harwood, Creative Commons License.)

Articles like this, with their patronising attitudes about blind athletes, don’t do much to break down social attitudes. They tell readers that the subject of the article is astonishing and send the message that we should gawk at disabled athletes because they are disabled, not because of their athletic abilities. They also don’t leave people with more information; say, for example, information for blind folks about how and where to take riding classes, if they are interested, or information for people interested in watching athletic events. (Of course, given the writer’s level of surprise that a blind person could write horses, I’m guessing he probably doesn’t know there are entire events organised just for disabled riders in general, in addition to events for blind riders in particular.)

There are, of course, dangers to equestrian sport, but those dangers are present for all riders at all levels of ability, and the commonsense steps to address them are the same. Horses used in therapeutic riding programs are trained and handled especially carefully to address concerns about new riders who may not have the experience or the strength to control frightened and nervous horses, and riders, disabled and nondisabled alike, learn about safety as soon as they start handling horses. Riding is dangerous. Skiing is dangerous. Boating is dangerous. People participate in all these sports at all levels of ability because they want to, and find them interesting, and journalism that suggests that sports are just not accessible, or highly unusual, for people with disabilities frustrates me.

It’s not ‘remarkable’ that blind people ride horses and participate in competition, any more so than that anyone rides horses. What’s remarkable is that journalists still can’t be bothered to do any research when it comes to talking about disabled athletes, and still repeat the same old chestnuts in most articles profiling disabled athletes.

5 Comments

  1. Great post. 🙂 I’m a longtime equestrian (I ride dressage and do reining) and I’ve been fortunate enough to complete alongside people who have been blind or disabled in some way. That is actually one of the best things about equestrian sports, is that the athleticism and bond of the horse and rider not only allows men and women to compete against each other without being segregated into different divisions, but also allows for blind, deaf, or other temporary or permanent disabled people to complete right alongside.

    And your point about spotters couldn’t be more accurate. I am not otherwise disabled, but I do have a problem remembering my patterns in dressage – and often have had to have a “reader” who calls out what I do when. There is no reason that someone who is blind couldn’t show and complete in dressage and do just as well as someone who can see. Riding horses is all about feeling the horse, feeling the connection, and using your body, not just your eyes/ears.

  2. Horseback riding is one of the sports I’m least “surprised” to hear about. I haven’t done it a lot, but it seems like with a bit of training and know-how, it’d be easy enough to do it without vision. The horse is going to keep you from steering them into bad obstacles, and you can really feel what the horse is doing under you. I don’t see where the patronizing shock can come from, especially in this case.

    And I really need to stop being surprised to hear about people with disabilities doing certain sports. I reign myself in after, of course, but it’s such a silly impulse.

  3. Great article, s.e.

    Although I did LOL a little at your ‘who enjoys riding Clydesdale horses’, which I’m guessing you got from the name of the organisation – Clydesdale Riding for the Disabled. Except … Clydesdale is the name of the region in Scotland which includes the towns of Carluke, Lanark, Nemphlar and Douglas Water – all mentioned in the article. (I should know – I come from that area myself.) So I think ‘Clydesdale’ in this instance refers to the region, rather than the breed of horse. 🙂

  4. I thought the horse in that photo didn’t have the conformation of a Clydesdale!

  5. (Of course, given the writer’s level of surprise that a blind person could write horses, I’m guessing he probably doesn’t know there are entire events organised just for disabled riders in general, in addition to events for blind riders in particular.)

    I hate to say it, but the lack of ‘how to get involved’ info is probably down to a more basic ableist fallacy: that blind people don’t read the paper/its website. I had to explain to someone recently that screen reading software exists…