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Meet Nicola Naylor, Para dressage rider

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Riding a dressage test can be daunting enough, but imagine doing it in the pitch black. Charlotte Anderson met blind rider, Nicola Naylor, to find out how she does it…

When I went to visit Nicola in Kent, I wasn’t expecting the kind of reception I actually received. Nicola, who is completely blind, bar a small amount of light in her left eye, greeted me, shook me by an accurately aimed hand and moved nimbly around the yard with no obvious signs that she can’t see. Nicola is a petite blonde with a sharp sense of humour. When the photographer asked if she wanted to fix her hat hair before having her portrait taken, she simply replied: “Why? I won’t know if it looks bad in the photos!” Her confidence and complete ease with her disability was mirrored by her obvious ability as a rider. Although she had help tacking up her horse and preparing him for our photoshoot (plaits are hard enough with 20/20 vision, let alone if you’re completely blind), the way she rode independently into the arena and started warming up was astounding. 

Having always been partially sighted, she assumed that her passion for riding would always be restricted. Indeed, when she went totally blind in her early twenties, Nicola gave up riding completely. It wasn’t until her daughter’s riding instructor suggested she try her hand at dressage that the passion was reignited. Now she trains every day with dressage rider Daniel Watson and has three horses based with him. So how does she do it? Nicola explains…

The collecting ring at competitions is the scariest time for me. Dan has to communicate with me by radio mic because it would be too dangerous if there were trainers or helpers in the arena as well. It’s pretty scary having other, often preoccupied, riders sharing the space and I know Dan finds it really stressful, too. He’s usually more of a wreck than I am!

In any new environment, I have to go into a zone to keep my focus. If I’m riding a sharp horse who leaps away from the flower pots or spectators, it throws my perception of where I am. Even when I’m not riding, I don’t enjoy going to new places, so competing presents lots of challenges for me. 

There’s no difference between the way my horses perform and the horse of a sighted rider. The way he listens to my aids and executes the movements shouldn’t be a reflection of my lack
of sight.

Trusting a horse is fundamental to forming a relationship with him.
With a young or new horse, there’s nothing to stop him jumping over the boards if I don’t ask him to turn, which can be pretty scary. While we’re getting to know each other it can be interesting,
to say the least.

Although the dressage arenas are a standard size, I can get lost in the space. The size and stride of each individual horse alters my perception, as does the type of surface and nature of the arena we are competing in. It’s an exciting challenge.

I select my horses like any other
I look for a good temperament because that makes them more trainable, but fundamentally I’m looking for the same as every other dressage rider – excellent paces, willingness to learn
and athleticism.

Riding a variety of horses will make me a better rider. Crackle, my stallion who I’ve owned for two-and-a-half years, anticipates the turn at the edge of the arena and even turns down the centre line when Dan calls ‘A’ – that can be a blessing and a curse. We’ve got a very strong partnership, which I hope to recreate with my two new horses. 

To succeed, I have accepted that it’s all about consistency and perseverance. Training a horse is a long road, but fortunately, I love training every day. I’m doing something I never dreamed possible and that, to me,
means everything. 

Anything is possible and with the right support anyone can achieve incredible things. I am definitely
part of a team here with Dan and everyone at Fiddlers Green Stud – it’s not just the horse and me who make a winning combination.”

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