BY HANNAH HAZEL/THE DISABLED EQUESTRIAN
In 2018 I was mucking out stalls as a working student when suddenly I awoke, lying on the stall floor. After being taken to the hospital, followed by months of expensive and extensive testing, I was diagnosed with a condition called POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome). This diagnosis, along with a few others I’ve collected along the way, has completely changed the way I must live, work, and how I function on a day-to-day basis.
POTS makes my heart rate climb whenever I sit, stand, bend over, or change postures. In my case, it also makes my blood pressure drop to a level of presyncope or even syncope (passing out).
As you can imagine, this heavily affects what I can still do in the horse world. I can no longer ride due to fear of causing my conditions to flare up. Working at a barn or outside in the summer heat is intolerable. The cold of the winter makes my body ache to the point of not being able to function. Having to do tasks while keeping in mind what I can tolerate is a job in and of itself.
So, where did this leave me?
After some time, I came to the decision to close the riding chapter of my life for good. Some of us have physical limitations. We know there are things that we can and cannot do, and we suffer real consequences for not listening to our bodies. Can I go take lessons or plod around on my horse? Perhaps, but it will cost me days or even weeks of my life trying to recover from the physical toll of pushing too far.
Sometimes, overcoming life’s biggest obstacles just means accepting things as they are. For me, it’s about realizing that just because you can doesn’t mean you should. And there is nothing wrong with either of those things.
But in the horse world, there is a heavily ableist and classist topic that I keep seeing and hearing about: “You just need to try harder and push yourself further.”
Let’s get this straight—there has never been a lack of passion or hard work in the horse world.
I have never met an equestrian who was not passionate about their horses, whether it be owning, riding, breeding, competing, etc. The majority of us would give up anything to be able to make our dreams come true. We all want to succeed. But, the harsh reality is that this is no longer an accessible outlook for many. Horseback riding is one of the most expensive sports in the world. The privilege that comes with having the money to be involved, take lessons, own horses, and compete is very real.
The mindset that comes with telling people to “Try/work harder, and push themselves more” specifically targets and punishes the working class, people with disabilities, people of color, and others who do not have access to the same opportunities as everyone else does. The term is used under the assumption that people aren’t already doing the most that they can, when in fact, most of the time they already are!
Not everyone has the ability to work or to aim towards finding jobs that will support their hobby/sport. Not everyone can be a working student or meet people that will help them gain the connections they need to get anywhere. I personally know people that have been involved with horses for most of their lives that have endured abuse and trauma of all kinds to try and make it to the top and accomplish their goals But in the end, they got nowhere.
So it’s not a point of not working hard or pushing through. It is a point of deciding where you have to draw the line and what you can afford to do. Life is not a fairytale. Working hard does have its limits. It does not make anyone less passionate or less of a hard worker.
The pain of not being able to do what you love anymore, or not being able to afford it, is a very real and harsh reality for many of us.
I ask that when you speak of equestrians to make sure you include all of us. If you want more riders, more competitors, and better diversity and accessibility for everyone, then you have to educate yourselves and put in the effort to create those accessible and welcoming spaces.
There are many chronically ill and disabled riders who are in the same boat as me. We all had just as much passion and want as everyone else in the world, but were unfortunately dealt bad cards. We are not any less of people or riders due to this. The majority of us do not have an inspiring tale of “Overcoming disability/hardship” to share. But we still exist and we are listening to the ableism and classism the rest of the world and community participate in.
I ask everyone who reads this to ask themselves, “How can I be better?” Educate yourselves on how harmful ableist language is. Work towards making your barns, shows, and any environments you ride or work inaccessible and diverse. Listen to—don’t dismiss—when there are people who are willing to tell you when there is a problem and take action to improve yourself and your surroundings.
We desperately need to start working harder to make our sport more affordable, diverse, and accessible. When that happens, I promise you that all of those people that you think don’t work hard enough will come to light, and we will have an even more amazing sport and community than we do now.
Hannah is a 23 year old living in the southern US. They’ve been involved in the horse world for over a decade and wish to share their views from the perspective of a rider with disabilities.