Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Sunday 22 April 2018

Blind Doug has his eyes opened up to untapped talent

KEEPING BUSY: Doug Stephenson is pictured with Youri and The Square Rigmarole at his home in Saintfield, Co Down
KEEPING BUSY: Doug Stephenson is pictured with Youri and The Square Rigmarole at his home in Saintfield, Co Down
SILVER: Doug and his trainer Yvette Truesdale at the British Dressage Senior Home International where the pair finished second individually and fourth with the Irish team

Nora Costigan

UNTIL March 2013, 24-year-old Doug Stevenson had never competed in dressage but just six months later, the Northern Ireland-based man managed to bag wins in both the Category 1 novice championship and the under-25 unrestricted novice championship at the Dressage Ireland National Championship.

He also secured a place on the Irish team for the British Dressage Senior Home International in September, taking team fourth and second place as an individual.

But what makes Doug's story even more incredible is that this young man has done it all without the power of sight.

Diagnosed at 17 with a genetic condition known as Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy, Doug's eyesight has been fading for a number of years. It began with a partial loss of sight but earlier this year his eyesight disappeared completely, plunging him into complete darkness.

Undeterred by his diminishing sight, Doug continued to ride horses and, with more high-octane disciplines now out of reach, turned his attention to dressage.

"I couldn't do anything else," he laughs. "I've been riding most of my life really but it was all stuff like polo and racing, cowboy stuff really. No refinement whatsoever."

Having decided he wanted to train as a dressage rider with the ultimate aim of getting to the Paralympics, Doug approached Yvette Truesdale for help.

Yvette herself is a top-level dressage rider who has represented Ireland many times and competed at the World Equestrian Games -- and asked to become a working pupil.

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At this stage he had about 6pc sight and could make out only shapes and shadows.

Initially Yvette just took him for some lessons but when he showed promise, she agreed to take him on as a working pupil. He went completely blind very shortly afterwards.

"I'd never really had a riding lesson until [I met] Yvette," explains Doug. "I got into dressage by default but now that I'm into it I love it. I wouldn't do anything else now."

IMPRESSIVE

Doug's scores have been impressive. On his first outing to an unaffiliated show in March, he scored 81pc. He immediately switched to affiliated shows but to date has still only competed in 10 dressage tests.

To allow for his lack of sight, his trainer, Yvette, calls the dressage test out to Doug as he rides so he knows when to give the aids. Dressage Ireland rules state that the rider can have a caller to call the test or any part of the test, so Yvette calls Doug's test movements from the side of the arena.

"I learn my test and then I have Yvette at E and she calls the letters for me. She calls them in such a way that if there's a movement at E she'll call it just before E, so that I can half halt and prepare for the movement," he says.

"I know how many strides there is between each marker but I only really count strides on my circles just because there's no way for me to know otherwise.

"Yvette can call the letters in such a way that I'll know exactly where I am on the outside track or going across the diagonal.

"But the circles are a bit of a free-for-all," he laughs. "You just hit the marker and hope for the best."

But with his winning scores above 70, Doug seems to be doing more than just haphazardly hoping for the best. His singular determination and drive has been a major factor in his dressage success to date.

"He's a crazy perfectionist and once he starts he can be quite obsessive," remarks his fiancée, Claire Lowe.

"At the last competition in Scotland the pressure was huge; he was in a team, the only para-rider in the whole competition. Doug was one of the last to go in the whole competition and the last person on his team. And he went out with such limited experience and just pulled it out of the bag like a complete professional. He may get nervous but is just totally determined and goes out and nails it. It was very emotional, even strangers were crying!"

She adds that Yvette plays an enormous role in Doug's success.

"She has totally invested herself in helping him achieve his goals. She took Doug on when many people wouldn't have. At the end of the day, he's completely blind," she remarks.

"Many people would be wary of having Doug around their yard for safety reasons but Yvette has taken him on completely and lets him ride her horses.

"There's total trust there. They have a great working relationship."

CLASSIFIED

Although Claire refers to Doug as a para-rider, he has yet to be formally classified by the governing body Para Equestrian Ireland.

In para-equestrian dressage, riders are graded into different levels of disability and compete against riders at a similar level.

The grades are broken up into 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, 3 and 4 based on the level of disability each rider is working with.

Grade 1 riders have the most severe limitations and compete at walk only, while Grade 2 riders have walk and trot movements in their tests.

Grade 3 is comparable to a novice test for able-bodied riders and Grade 4 riders are required to show some lateral work in their tests.

As a completely blind rider, Doug expects to compete at Grade 3 but must await classification from Para Equestrian Ireland first.

Until then, he will continue to compete in able-bodied competitions.

Of course, equestrian sports are about the partnership between horse and rider and Doug has a huge asset in his horse Youri.

Youri was being stabled at Yvette's yard when Doug started there. Part Halflinger pony and part Dutch Warmblood, the bright chestnut already has an impressive CV.

The gelding was most recently the Paralympic mount of Eilish Byrne, who represented Ireland in the Beijing and London Paralympics, taking home a bronze medal with the Dundalk woman.

Doug asked Eilish if he could borrow Youri to use in a photoshoot for a proposal catalogue he was compiling to secure sponsorship towards his goal of competing internationally.

The horse and rider hit it off so well that Doug is now in the process of buying Youri.

The pair appear to have an extra-sensory connection and Doug is quite convinced Youri is aware of his disability.

"I got Youri before I went completely blind and to be honest, he can be an absolute brute on the ground. Leading him out to the field he would be a complete nightmare -- barging and bucking and what not," he recalls.

"The day I lost my sight I was in the house and didn't do anything all day, and then the following day I thought I'd better do something -- Youri can't just stand in.

"So I made my way to the stable, put the headcollar on him thinking 'how the hell am I going to get him out. This is going to be awful, usually when he comes out of the stable, he's dancing on the spot," he says.

"But I was walking along the wall trying to feel my way along the wall and Youri was just walking slowly on the end of the rope tentatively. It was amazing, he definitely knew I couldn't see."

After such an impressive debut year, Doug has no intention of losing the momentum he's gathered and he's already planning his 2014 schedule.

"Competition season dies down over the winter but in January I want to go to France," he explains.

"Yvette is also trying to qualify for the World Equestrian Games so I'm going to try to tie that in with myself going to a few international shows there.

AIMING

"I can go as an individual and represent Ireland. If I got my classification I could go to any of the CDI (Concours De Dressage International) starred events. Short term, there are National Championships in April again so I'd be aiming for that."

Naturally, with international travel and competition in the pipeline, money is an issue.

"Aside from blindness, money is the biggest obstacle to progression in the sport. It's the same for any rider," remarks Doug.

"Flynn Transport sponsored us with transport and fuel costs for the last two competitions, Horseware sponsored some equipment and Horse First has also donated supplements which I give to Youri."

Attracting more sponsorship will be crucial for the pair to be able to continue competing. Nonetheless, Doug is firmly focused on his goals.

"Ideally, I'd love to get my para classification and start competing in para classes to build up points and hopefully get chosen to go to the World Equestrian Games in 2014, but there's a lot of red tape and the classification may come through too late. Beyond that, going to the 2016 Olympics would be my other goal."

For the moment, Doug is focused on competing in able-bodied competition and has the encouragement of not only his own trainer but two other Grand Prix-level dressage riders in Roland Tong and Dane Rawlins.

Both have urged him not to limit himself to para-riding and to aim as high as he can. As Dane Rawlins remarked about Doug's impressive second place in the British Dressage home international, "We hear a lot about disability. Doug only has ability."

Leber hereditary optic neuropathy

Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) is an inherited form of vision loss. The condition usually begins in a person's teens or twenties and affects young males much more than females.

Blurring and clouding of vision are usually the first symptoms of the disorder. The problems can begin in one eye or simultaneously in both eyes but if vision loss starts in one eye, the other eye is usually affected within several weeks or months.

Over time, vision in both eyes worsens with a severe loss of sharpness (visual acuity) and colour vision.

This condition mainly affects central vision, which is needed for detailed tasks such as reading, driving, and recognising faces.

Vision loss results from the death of cells in the nerve that relays visual information from the eyes to the brain (the optic nerve).

Although central vision gradually improves in a small percentage of cases, in most cases the vision loss is profound and permanent.

The condition has a mitochondrial pattern of inheritance, which means the condition is passed down from a mother to her children.

Irish Independent