Deaf Is Not a Definition: Riders Who Don’t Allow Hearing Loss to Define Them

Raleigh competing in the Hunterdon Cup at the USEF Junior Hunter Finals - East at HITS Saugerties.

By Irene Elise Powlick

Hearing loss and deafness can often be debilitating in the professional world, and procedures such as cochlear implantation do not always work. Equestrian sport does not exclude riders with hearing impairment. The US Equestrian Federation allows for accommodations to be made for those with an impairment, as seen in article EQ114, which states that “exhibitors with a permanent hearing impairment are permitted to use an electronic communication device upon submission of a written certification from a treating medical professional’s office…” This communication device is generally used for flat classes, so that the rider can clearly hear the instructions given by the judges announcer. It does not, however, permit the trainer to coach the competitor while they are in the show arena. With appropriate accommodations and the fact that riding is a solo sport by nature, deaf riders can thrive in the equestrian world.

Raleigh Hiler

Raleigh Hiler, of Sudbury, MA is a talented young rider who competes in the hunter, equitation, and jumper rings. She’s just like the other riders at Holly Hill Farm, where she trains with Caitlin Venezia White. She hangs out with her friends, manages her time between school and riding, and she’s also deaf.

Raleigh competing on her own Cantoblanco at the Devon Horse Show.

Raleigh was born hearing, but after a bout with meningitis at the age of 8 months, she became deaf. She got cochlear implants in both ears, the first at the age of one year, and another at 3 years old. With implants in, Raleigh has 75% of her hearing in one ear, and little to none in the other. Intensive speech therapy and additional support throughout grade school has allowed Raleigh to lead the life of a typical teenager. She attends her local high school and looks forward to college.

As an equitation and hunter rider, Raleigh is required to compete in classes on the flat. Due to her limited hearing, Raleigh and her trainers take advantage of the rule allowing hearing impaired riders to use communication with their trainers, but it’s not necessarily an advantage. “I can tell her what to do in the flat class – walk, trot, canter,” explained White. “But I cannot coach her at all. She actually gets less input as she canters by than the other kids. I can’t tell her to add leg or slow down or anything.”

While issues with her hearing can be managed within the show ring, navigating the areas outside of the ring can often be more problematic. With no peripheral hearing, Raleigh cannot hear another horse or a tractor coming up behind her. White and the other trainers at Holly Hill have to keep a close eye on Raleigh, ensuring that she can safely navigate the chaotic horse show grounds. “We used to not let her walk from the barn to the ring alone,” said White. “We were very protective, but as she’s gotten older and more aware of her surroundings, we’ve relaxed a bit.”

Raleigh competing on her own Cantoblanco at the Devon Horse Show.

Despite everything against her, Raleigh has become confident in her abilities in and out of the arena. “My confidence has grown so much through riding,” said Raleigh. “I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do that others can.”

Matthew Burtard

Matthew Burtard is the 9-year-old son of pony trainer and owner of Stonewall Farm, Emily Elek Burtard. Spunky and free-spirited, Matthew has ventured into the equine world under the guidance of his mother, where he races around the children’s and regular pony hunters.

Matthew showing Jennifer Grey at the USEF Pony Finals in the Small Pony Hunters.

Unlike Raleigh, Matthew was born with profound hearing loss in both ears, which Elek and her husband were notified of at his newborn hearing check. Upon receiving coverage from their insurance, Matthew got cochlear implants done in each ear, but they haven’t been completely successful for him. Unlike the popular Facebook videos when a baby hears for the first time and smiles, Matthew instead cried. “We have struggled with the cochlears because if he doesn’t want to do something, or if he doesn’t want to listen to you, those cochlears come off. [His] eyes are closed, and so you can’t sign at him.” Despite both implants working, Matthew only chooses to wear the right side, when he wears them at all.

Matthew and Jennifer Grey at the new HITS Balmoral.

Because of his difficulty with cochlear implants, Matthew often relies upon sign language to communicate. At school, he is in a mainstream classroom, but attends a class twice a week for speech and language, as well as meeting with a specialized teacher. Additionally, in the middle of the past school year, Matthew got a sign language interpreter in his classroom, which has allowed him to stay focused for longer, and has also taught him new signs, which he then teaches to his parents.

Matthew and Jennifer Grey at the new HITS Balmoral.

Thanks to his mother’s business, Matthew and his brother have always had ponies to ride. When he was little, Matthew had a Shetland pony called Spot, which he could handle by himself, making him comfortable with horses at an early age. In the past year, Matthew has gotten more serious about riding, after taking a break due to a fall when he was six. “I decided to bribe him,” laughed Emily. “I told him I’d give him a quarter if he jumped the jump. He jumped a jump and then a gymnastics, and then expected a dollar. So, that’s how I got him jumping!”

Because of his spitfire personality, combined with his hearing loss, Elek is careful about his riding at horse shows. She tries to find a quiet warm up ring, where they spend a short amount of time getting ready, and then sends him into the ring in hopes that he actually knows his course. Additionally, Matthew only recently started doing flat classes. Elek has not gone about getting permission to communicate electronically with Matthew, and so he must rely on watching what others are doing instead of hearing the announcer.

In 2017, Matthew attended his first USEF Pony Finals, where he successfully competed in the Small Pony Hunter division on Jennifer Grey. To his and his family’s delight, he was awarded a Betsy Fishback Sportsmanship Ribbon and his pony won the Best Turned Out Pony for the Small Division. Matthew is a well known character at the horse shows, loved and amused by all.

Andie Aviv

Andie Aviv, 13, is a junior rider who rides with the Karazissis family at their Far West Farms in Calabasas, CA. The young equitation and hunter rider has been successful across California and manages her hearing challenges well both inside and outside of the horse world.

Andie competing in the CPHA Foundation Medal Finals at Blenheim Show Park in Del Mar, CA. Photo by Captured Moments Photography

Andie was born deaf, but was not diagnosed in the hospital. Her parents did not know of a hearing loss until she was 7 months old. She wasn’t properly diagnosed until almost one year old. She got her first cochlear implant at the age of 14 months, and the second around 24 months, which her parents insisted on. “We really hustled to get them in to prevent the closing of the Language Acquisition Gap,” explained Katie Aviv, Andie’s mom.

Andie, unlike Matthew, responded very well to the implants, and never learned to sign. Her success is due to hard work and the commitment of Andie and her family to the process. Katie quit her job in order to work with Andie full time in teaching her to understand sound and language. Intensive speech and language therapy, combined with Katie’s extensive efforts, and the noise associated with having two older siblings, have helped Andie thrive in the hearing world.

Andie preparing to head into the show ring.

Now, Andie is a successful student and rider. She began riding three years ago after pestering her parents to let her have riding lessons. After they gave in, she quickly found her way to the Karazissis’ farm, where she has stayed ever since. With her own Splendid, Andie has been tackling the 3′- 3’3″ equitation classes, as well as hunter derby classes despite having only been showing for a little more than a year.

One challenge for the talented rider has been finding a helmet that would fit around her cochlear implants. “I had helmets that would give me a headache because they were too tight around my [implants],” explained Andie. “We got the Samshield, and that fits perfectly.” The new helmet fits so well that most people don’t even realize that Andie is wearing implants, and are often surprised to know that she’s deaf.

For Andie, cochlear implants were the best option, and she has campaigned for others to give them chance. She helps to mentor other hearing impaired children in her area, and even has tried to convince Grand Prix rider, Jamie Barge, who competes with a severe hearing disability, to give implants a try. Katie also helps to mentor families when possible, and the pair enjoy meeting other families that have gone through the struggles of cochlear implantation.

Successful and smart, Andie doesn’t let her deafness stop her. Between starting a new school and moving up the ranks in the equitation, Andie is optimistic. “With my hearing aids, [my deafness] honestly, doesn’t change anything for me.”

Despite hearing loss, all three of these young riders have paved a way for themselves to be successful in equestrian sport. For Raleigh, awareness of her surroundings, a strong support team, and the accommodations provided by the USEF have led to a stellar equestrian career. For Matthew, grit and boyish energy keep him going under the watchful eye of his mother and trainer. And for Andie, her disability does not separate her from any other young rider climbing the ranks of the equitation. These three young riders are testimony to the power of determination combined with love of horse sport to transcend physical challenges.

Photo credits: Jordan Cobb, Irene Elise Powlick, Mackenzie Shuman / Quintessence Photography, Andrew Ryback Photography, Captured Moment Photography, and Katie Scanlan.

This piece originally appeared in the September 2017 print edition of The Plaid Horse.