Most of us as kids have jumped down a line of small fences with our eyes closed. We used to do this regularly during riding lessons as a way of teaching us to feel what the horse was doing underneath us and to help with our confidence and balance. But how would you cope if you were without your sight permanently? Would you still be able to ride?
UK mother of two Toni Brown-Griffin was not born blind. But when she lost her sight she was determined to continue riding. Horses have always been a huge part of Toni's life. She previously worked on a point-to-point racing yard training horses and other riders. Her gradual loss of sight was as the result of a hereditary disorder affecting her retinas and she has been left with just nominal perception of light and dark and sadly her condition will continue to deteriorate. To complicate matters even further, Toni also developed epilepsy and suffers seizures. Today's litigious society means that very few riding schools will allow riders with disabilities such as Toni's to ride their horses; their insurance cover simply does not permit it.
It seemed as though riding was no longer an option for Toni; then, enter Hetty. Hetty is a black Labrador/retriever cross breed and the UK's first dual guide and seizure dog. She is specially trained to sense the onset of epileptic seizures. To alert Toni, Hetty will come to a halt and sit at an offset angle rather than straight ahead as she does normally. If the seizure is going to be a major one, Hetty warns Toni by placing her head on her knee and pawing at her. This gives Toni an incredibly accurate 42 minutes' warning. If it's to be a minor seizure, Hetty will head rest just 15 minutes beforehand. This gives Toni plenty of time to get to a place of safety. Toni suffers between four to eight minor seizures per week and averages two major ones.
While Tony is riding, Hetty sits outside the arena remaining vigilant. As well as dressage and jumping, Toni enjoys hacking out too although she always goes with a companion who provides her with instructions and information about upcoming obstacles and hazards. Hetty goes too of course, ever on the alert.
Thanks to Hetty, doors began to open again and Toni was able to take up riding for the first time in 15 years. To begin with taking to the saddle again was more than a little daunting but Toni soon began to get her confidence and found that being blind took her riding to a whole new dimension. She was so much more aware of every move her horse made beneath her; she could feel him breathing, acutely sense every response to her aids.
With her dressage lessons progressing well, Toni bravely decided to take up show jumping! She uses the way the horse feels together with voice cues from her instructor. A few strides out from the fence, Toni can feel her horse focussing on the oncoming obstacle; his stride quickening, his head and neck lowering as he sizes up the jump. She sits deep and still so as not to interrupt his stride and just goes with him as he takes the fence. Clearly a huge amount of trust is involved for both parties and a mutual empathy and bond is essential. Toni says that she now uses her whole body and enhanced other senses to control her horse, rather than just her sight. She admits that riding can be a little scary sometimes, but insists that it makes her feel alive again and loves the special closeness between her and her horse that she had never previously experienced when she was fully sighted.
None of this would have been possible without Hetty. Toni says, "I treasure this incredible bond with Hetty and love and respect her beyond measure. She has given my life back to me."
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