Without Fear or Feeling: Riding with a Sensory Processing Disorder

Photo courtesy of Alex Blackston


Like a lot of other riders in this sport, I ride because I love climbing up the mounting block and being able to walk away on top of a thousand pound creature with nothing other than confidence and the trust that my horse will take care of me. The freedom, love, and realizing how lucky I am to be a part of something so much bigger than anything else I’ve ever known—it makes me proud.

Every person in this sport has a story. We are all coming from different places and struggling with something that we’re working through in different ways. For me, I face not being able to feel anything physically while I ride, because I have sensory processing disorder. 

I’ve been riding since I was 8, but didn’t start my jumping dream until 2 years ago. I believed I had no chance of being any kind of successful. I thought I was down right crazy, and completely out of my mind for thinking I would be able to jump a single cross rail—let alone entire courses.

Photo courtesy of Alex Blackston

When I first started in the hunter world, I was worried. Like the kind of worried that makes you stop breathing. The kind of worried that makes you stop dead in your tracks. I was worried it would be too much to take on. I was so worried I wasn’t good enough. How was I ever supposed to jump a horse over fences if I couldn’t even feel my face, tongue, or even my cheeks when I’m smiling? How was I supposed to jump if I couldn’t feel my fingers or my toes? My chest rising and falling when I breathe? 

I didn’t understand how I could jump around a course when I couldn’t feel what was fast or slow—couldn’t even feel physical pain. Someone touching me to try to get my attention, hard and soft, hot and cold, my own feet when I walk on the ground… it’s all blank. But like with everything else, I had a choice. I could keep worrying, and stay stuck spinning that hamster wheel all day long or I could acknowledge the feeling, let it go and ultimately push through and be better.

The answer was with a trainer who believed in me, a horse that carried me all this way to 2’3, and my own ears. It turns out that was all I needed besides learning that I—just as I am—am enough. I had everything I needed to make it. It already lived inside of me. I just needed to realize it, and keep choosing to let it shine through. 

Photo courtesy of Alex Blackston

I’ve followed Wren Blae Zimmerman, a blind rider, for a while. Knowing she’s out there jumping horses without being able to see, makes me feel a whole lot less alone. She made me realize there are so many other riders in this world who are setting aside whatever it is that makes them stand out. They’re riding right through it—just like I am.

I can still remember when my trainer looked at me one day and said, “If Wren can jump this vertical completely blind, and make it to the other side of this fence without being able to see her distance, you can see and pick your distance, count your strides down the line, and throw feeling out the window and do this too.”

That’s when I decided I was going to hurt, and love, and worry, and be afraid all at the same time. That I was going to believe in myself enough to not only ride well, but I was going to prove to everyone at the horse show that I do not have to feel a single thing to go into the ring and hold my own. Even with so much going on, I can still look like every other rider in that ring. 

Photo courtesy of Alex Blackston

It has taken me a long time to get to where I am. Some days I still struggle with not being able to feel. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that riding isn’t just about getting on a horse, riding around a ring, and throwing yourself over fences. What you learn in the saddle doesn’t stop when you put both your feet back on the ground again. It carries over to everything you will ever do in this lifetime. 

Riding will teach you everything if you choose to let it. It’s taught me to take all of my emotional pain, and turn it into power. The power to hurt and be scared—even broken—while still finding the courage to keep going. It has taught me that I have to stop trying to pretend to be everything but myself. Trying to pretend I can feel things I’ve never been able to, just because it’s so much easier than having to explain how I can’t, or why. It means I can still be whoever I want, regardless of what it takes to get there.

Riding is about trusting something more than yourself, more than you thought you’d ever have to, to let go only to hang on. To remember the people that love and support you, because nobody makes it very far by themselves in this sport. Honestly, who would want to? We all need a little help, a little hope, and people in our corner who can believe in us when we forget how to be there for ourselves. 

Photo courtesy of Alex Blackston

I’ve learned if I want to be better, then I’m going to have to lose. I’m going to have to be scared. Cry, and ask for help. I’m going to have to keep failing, and getting back up to try again. I’m going to have to smile and be proud. 

That’s why I choose to keep doing this, regardless of how ugly my ride was the day before. I keep getting back in the saddle and riding like I have been doing this my entire life. Every step forward matters.

So the next time, and every time after that, I hold onto someone’s hand while I climb up the mounting block to get on my horse, I’ll hold my love for this sport in my heart. In every stride to those fences, every corner I don’t cut short to get the right distance, every lead I don’t pick up wrong. With every fence I don’t chip or jump first, I’ll hold onto hope. I’ll hold onto bravery. I’ll hold onto the love I have inside that has carried me all this way. 

And I’ll know in my heart I’ve been good enough all along.

Alex Blackston has been around horses for as long as she can remember. She believes that you become what you surround yourself with, and doesn’t think she’d be who she is today without horses.