By Rennie Dyball
As Wren Blae Zimmerman turns toward the first fence in her jumper classic at World Equestrian Center, she isn’t looking for a distance. She’s just counting. Because while Zimmerman might appear like her fellow adult amateurs, there’s a big difference between her and the others in the class.
Zimmerman has Stargardt’s Macular Dystrophy. In other words, she’s blind.
And if jumping around the 1-meter tracks at big shows isn’t impressive enough, consider this: Zimmerman only learned to ride after she lost her vision. A lifelong horse lover, she didn’t have the opportunity to take regular lessons until 2013, five years after her diagnosis. But she always dreamed of jumping. With her extremely limited sight (her central vision is blank and her peripheral vision is very blurry), jumping seemed like a relative impossibility. But that didn’t stop her from dreaming.
“Even before I started riding, I had this need to learn how to jump,” says Zimmerman, 30, who trains with Diana Conlon of Olive Hill Sporthorses. “I don’t know if it’s something about the gracefulness of the horse or the power, but I just wanted that freedom of flying. Corny as that sounds. Because I can’t drive, a lot of my freedom has been taken away from me. So, to be able to borrow the horse’s eyes and do something on my own – and then take that to a whole new level of jumping – is really freeing from a disability.”
Zimmerman hopes that by sharing her story, she can educate people in the horse world and beyond about what it’s like to live with visual impairment. She wants to be the first blind person to compete at the top level of showjumping and create opportunities for other riders with disabilities – ultimately, the inclusion of jumping as a Paralympic sport.
The Plaid Horse: How did you get your start on horseback?
Wren Blae Zimmerman: After college, I started working at a therapeutic riding center, handling horses on the ground, learning to tack up and groom to get them ready for the kids. I took beginner lessons myself and then had the chance to exercise the horses, too, in exchange for helping with the program. I essentially taught myself how to ride. The instructor said there was no way I’d be able to jump. I ended up reaching out to several different trainers who just weren’t comfortable working with me, and I finally found someone who was like, “I’ve never worked with anyone who’s visually impaired, but yeah, let’s try it.” Of course, most people haven’t since there aren’t many blind jumpers out there. She said, “I don’t really know how to work with you. It’s going to be a learning process, but we’ll learn together as we go.”
TPH: What was that process like?
WBZ: It was really hard to learn to look straight at where I knew the jump was, even though I couldn’t see it, and trust that the horse was going to go over it. Through working with my trainer at that time, Vicki Zacharias at Rain Creek Farm in Oregon, I went from never jumping a course to competing against able-bodied riders at rated shows in just three years. Now, about three strides out, I know that the horse has locked onto that jump. And so, you get that more upright feel from him collecting up on his haunches. We go over the jump, and then my brain is onto the next jump.
TPH: Describe what it’s like for you to jump a course now.
WBZ: Obviously we all do the striding in between the jumps, but I do it throughout the whole ring. I have a mental map of where everything is. Let’s say there’s five strides off the rail to the first jump. I make that turn and I’m thinking about maintaining my rhythm, because the horse I lease (Cassicasca, a 17-hand 2003 warmblood gelding) does try to rush towards the jumps. I’ll check him when there’s three strides left, and then I’ll just point my chin up at the ceiling and wait for the jump to come to me. Then, for example, I would get straight to that next jump and do five strides to get there, and then two strides before I turn right. And then I have another eight strides until the in and out. That kind of thing.
TPH: What happens when things change your plan? Your horse stumbles or spooks, or something happens to change your track?
WBZ: That’s something I’ve actually been working on – recovering after something goes wrong. I’ve also been working on leaving my horse alone about three strides out from a jump. Cassicasca is such a strong horse that when he tries to pull towards the jumps it sometimes throws my counting off, so I find myself trying to micromanage him. It’s about leaving him alone and letting him do his job to get us over that jump, because I can’t actually see the distance.
TPH: When did you decide to pursue riding full time?
WBZ: I graduated from college and then my plan was to do an MBA and go into the corporate business world. I got about a semester into a Master’s in management, and my vision had deteriorated so much that all of the reading and work on the computer was just too difficult for me. The path that I had set out on since high school had to change because of that diagnosis. That’s when I really started to contemplate my quality of life. I’d always dreamed of riding horses and learning to jump, so that’s when I made the big decision to put graduate school on hold to pursue quality of life and happiness. My diagnosis made me realize that you only have today and anything could happen, so it’s really important to follow your heart.
TPH: Can you tell us about the earpiece you use at shows?
WBZ: I got permission from USEF to use an earpiece accommodation. I use it in lessons, just to make sure that the communication between my trainer and myself is very clear. But where it really does come in handy is at the horse shows. Not so much when I’m showing, but in the warmup arena or navigating the showgrounds. The warmup arena is the hardest place for me. Everything is moving, and there’s no preparation I can do to memorize where things are. With the earpiece, the trainer can tell me, “Someone’s about to trot out in front of you – you have to circle.”
TPH: How do you finance your riding?
WBZ: I’ve received grants through the Challenged Athletes Foundation, the Foreseeable Future Foundation, and the United States Association of Blind Athletes. And I depend on private donors and sponsorships to be able to ride. I’m doing everything I can to find sponsorship for this year so I can keep riding. Maybe there’s someone out there with an interest in being at the forefront of the movement to advocate for para-show jumping, so that any rider with physical disabilities could compete.
TPH: What’s your process on a show day?
WBZ: If the ring starts at 8:00, I’ll be there at 5:00 a.m. to map out all the courses before I get my horse ready. I’ll walk the arena and stand at each jump with an aide telling me, “There’s a blue jump five feet away.” I do that at every single jump and form that mental map of where everything is in the arena. Then, we take a picture of the course, and the aide will draw it out to scale on a large piece of paper or whiteboard – I can make that out with my remaining peripheral vision. We’ll do that for each course. Then we go back to the arena and walk the course with the large paper or white board so I know where I’m supposed to go, and count out all the striding. Then I’ll visualize the whole course until it’s time for me to ride.
TPH: What are your goals for your riding and your advocacy work?
WBZ: I want to be the first blind, elite level show jumper. And I want to change the perception of what blind and visually-impaired people are capable of doing. I have kids with vision impairment and their parents contact me and they say they’ve been afraid to try something, or someone told them they couldn’t do something. But because they heard my story, they went out and tried it. To have that impact on someone else’s life is really cool. I’m also trying to advocate for jumping to become a Paralympic sport, where riders would compete against others with similar disabilities. Someone who’s missing an arm might compete against someone who’s missing a leg. Several countries in Europe have regulated para-show jumping and now see it as an official sport. I have spoken with USEF about it and they want to see enough people with disabilities competing against able-bodied riders like I am before moving toward regulating para-show jumping. So part of what I’m doing is trying to create more pathways and opportunities and resources for people with physical disabilities who want to learn how to jump. Because right now, there really aren’t any.
TPH: Will your vision continue to deteriorate?
WBZ: It’s a rare enough disease that it’s hard to know what will happen. A couple months ago, I did lose a bit more of my eyesight. Essentially, the central part that is blank increased in size. We believe my grandmother has what I have, and she is completely blind. On a good day, she can tell if it’s light or dark outside, but otherwise it’s black for her. So that doesn’t bode well for me, unfortunately. It’s pretty scary. But my outlook on life is very positive. You make a decision when you get a diagnosis like this – whether you want to make the most of what you have and live life to the fullest, or roll over and let life take its toll on you. I’m going to make the most of it. If it gets worse, it gets worse. I’ll cross that bridge when I get there, and in the meantime, I’ll try to accomplish all my goals as soon as possible.
To learn more about Zimmerman or to make a contribution, visit www.wrenblae.com.
Originally from the April 2020 issue.
About the Author: Rennie Dyball is the author of several books, including The Plaid Horse’s middle grade novel series, Show Strides. She’s also a contributing writer for TPH and a ghostwriter for celebrity books. Rennie lives in Maryland and competes in hunters and equitation.
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