Life Health & Wellbeing

Monday 21 May 2018

'When I am on a horse no one knows I have a disability'

When Helen Kearney was diagnosed with Friedreich's ataxia at the age of 13, her parents encouraged her love of horses by buying her a pony. Less than 10 years later, Helen had defied the odds by overcoming the rare, degenerative condition, and qualifying for the Paralympic Games in London. After taking home two bronze and a silver medal for equestrian dressage, Helen tells Joanna Kiernan why she's back in the saddle and on the road to Rio

Helen Kearney
Helen Kearney
Helen Kearney with her bronze and silver medals in Equestrian Dressage from the London Paralympics Photo: Mark Doyle

When Para equestrian dressage rider Helen Kearney (26) from Dunlavin, Co Wicklow returned to her hometown following the 2012 Paralympics in London, she and her three medals - two bronze and one silver - were met with a hero's welcome.

Four years later, Helen has once again qualified for the Paralympic Games and will travel to Rio in Brazil this September, determined to top her London performance.

"I am kind of level headed about it all," Helen says. "I always feel if the horse is going well, I will be fine and if he is not, I won't be.

"I guess having been through London nothing afterwards has seemed so big. Getting to the Paralympics is really the pinnacle of it and once you've experienced it and all of the other competitions on the way up, you have a good taste for what is out there.

"It's going to be a long trip over to Rio and I want to do my homework this time around, I don't want to peak too soon," Helen says. "We will be out there for a while so I've held back and I haven't done as much competing this year as I would usually, but it is very exciting."

Helen became involved with horses when she was 10-years-old. In 2001, aged just 13, Helen was diagnosed with Friedreich's ataxia, a rare, degenerative condition, which causes progressive loss of coordination and muscle strength in the arms and legs.

Helen was born with the disease; however, it was only discovered after she had to undergo an operation for scoliosis at the age of 12.

"I was petrified of horses to begin with, but my younger sister wanted to go, so my mam sent us both," Helen laughs.

 "As soon as I did it I absolutely loved it; the adrenaline of doing something you are nervous to do is great, so I was hooked and started to do different things with the horses then.

"I was diagnosed with Friedreich's ataxia in June 2001 and in about September my mam and dad got me a pony," Helen says. "I think they did that really because it was the only thing I had shown an interest in and with the disability now they just thought 'right well she may as well do it for a couple of years while she can and get the miles out of it'."

Helen however became consumed by her passion, an enduring interest which she now credits with enabling her to overcome and defy the expectations that often surround her condition.

"One thing just led to another and I kept going," Helen smiles. "For the first number of years I competed with able-bodied people doing pony club and riding club events, just messing around and doing a bit of whatever was going.

"Then in 2008 someone asked if I had ever thought of doing the para riding and working towards the Paralympics. I went and looked into it, saw the standard and I was absolutely blown away."

In 2010, due to the progressive nature of her condition, Helen's Paralympian classification changed considerably from Grade III to 1a, which is the most disabled category for competitors.

"Horses have been a huge part of life, particularly since my diagnosis," Helen says. "Horse riding and the physical activity that goes hand in hand with it, is what is keeping me walking; it has given me a reason to keep fighting.

"Horse riding and competing in Para Equestrian sport has given me back so much of what the disease takes away. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of crap parts to it, but being involved in Paralympic sport and getting to do what I love is amazing; it has given me a reason to be up and active and out every day, moving around.

"I am 26 now and I was diagnosed at 13; most people with this condition are in a wheelchair within eight to 10 years," Helen adds.

"I use a wheelchair sometimes, but I also still use a walker. Okay I wouldn't be giving any walking demonstrations," Helen laughs, "but from that point of view it has been great. The fact that I am still able to be on my feet is amazing."

Ahead of Rio, Helen will make few changes to her normal training regime - consistency she believes, is key when working with horses.

"I would try and ride most days and I would be on the horse for about 45 minutes each day, but between everything it would take about two hours," Helen says.

"You need to be quite structured with them. I know with some other sports they might up their training coming up to a big event, but with horses you might blow their minds, so you just have to do a little bit all of the time and stay consistent.

"I do bits and pieces of physio and exercise myself from time to time; even just the simple things like walking around the house, keeping on my feet and moving around are great," Helen says.

"My younger sister suffers with Friedreich's ataxia as well; she has gotten a job with the civil service and is working away and she also does some horse riding just for herself too.

"Being around the horses has really helped the both of us. You don't have to be big and strong in equestrian, or out doing weights or anything. It is great for us because it works all of your body a very small amount rather than working just your arms or legs a lot."

There are, however, certain practicalities, which pose a challenge for Helen on a daily basis.

"My old horse was amazing; he just knew that when I was getting up he had to stand like a statue. I haven't quite drilled that into my current horse, but they are amazing animals and they do learn to adapt even if it takes a little time," Helen laughs.

"At the beginning of my Para Equestrian journey I trained with a couple of people, but I really clicked with my current trainer Heike Holstein.

"I really like the way she works, she had never coached anyone who was involved in para before, but that was never even an issue," Helen smiles.

"I was in Kill Equestrian Centre a couple of years ago, riding around and someone asked if I was up next to jump; that's something that horses give me because when I am up on a horse, riding around, people don't notice any difference and that is kind of cool.

"If people see me on the ground they know, but when I am on a horse, they are none the wiser."

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