Of all of the sports in my JohnsRoad2Rio challenge, horse riding was the most daunting. Despite – or was it because of – my family’s very horsey background, I had not ridden since I was very young, and the thought of being up so high with the real risk of falling, filled me with dread.

Fortunately, I have received expert help and advice and thanks to Rolo and Bonnie two fabulous horses I undertook the challenge at the end of July.

Back to the beginning. Here is an extract from my first blog about riding….

When I was four I rode in a specially constructed basket on the back of a donkey. Apparently I adored it. However I wasn’t, because of my disability, graduated to a pony, but rather later – when I was 10 or 11 – to my mother’s rather tall, say 16 hands, frisky hunter! My mother had me man-handled up to her and sat me on the front of her saddle.

It was terrifying and very painful! I can feel it 45 years later. Not only did I feel scared because of the height – no gradual increase given to me – and the concrete floor, distantly below me, but there is no good way of describing the agony for a young boy, sitting on the pommel of a saddle. I am still surprised I have children. Not a good omen.

So I was trepidatious arriving at the Milton campus of the College of West Anglia, on the north east edge of Cambridge, where the local Riding for the Disabled Association meet on a Thursday afternoon. I had successfully blanked the fear all day but when I was led in to the viewing gallery it dawned on me there was no way back! Fortunately, the RDA crew were so reassuring and in wheeled Rebecca, whom I know from CADMuS, who was so calm and collected, it kept me calm, certainly on the outside. Suddenly I was up. After a scramble to find a helmet I was being escorted forward. We alighted on using the mounting block from within the gallery, since the block is designed for people with long legs to swing their legs over. I still needed much lifting.

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Suddenly I was on board. My first thought was, “Blimey the ground is a really long way down!” And “Don’t fall off!” I was sat far too far back, but moving was counter-intuitive as that meant risking losing my balance. Catherine, the lovely lady leading Rolo, the fabulous horse, a piebald 14.2 hands, solid, placid creature, persuaded me to wriggle forward. Poor Rolo, disconcerted by the unorthodox arrival of a big lump, and semi-spooked by the gap in the gallery through which I had been posted, was noticeably nervous. But he held my nerve so I felt obliged to hold mine.

We then tried to walk a few paces. This was truly alarming. I had not realised the most basic idea – to move with the horse. Sitting rigid, worse than a sack of potatoes, as I was tight like a board, meant that it was uncomfortable for poor Rolo and very scary for me. We stopped, I wriggled forward, gripped with my legs – short though they are, they gripped with all their power – lower in the saddle, and I was encouraged to swing my hips in rhythm with Rolo’s walk. Although still scary it was bearable. It may have been at this point (or earlier, my memory is confused) that a belt with handles was found to assist the reassuring helpers either side of me, with something to grab if I tipped forward, back or to either side. I felt safer. Thank you Rachel and Georgina (oh dear I think I am getting these names wrong).

I guess it was about 5 minutes in that I started to breathe – great advice from Catherine! – and even swing my hips. And this was all at the walk, with someone else leading – no control by me – and with supporters either side. My admiration for those who can really ride knows no bounds! Brave, balanced and bold.

Getting off was a challenge, but thanks to Chris we managed a controlled slide, boots first, to the soft ground of the arena. A big thank you to all at the RDA but none more than Joy who took on the challenge with such enthusiasm.

A postscript – I awoke on Friday and Saturday to aches in muscles in my inner thighs that I had in 55 years never known! I now apologise to mother, sister, father, wife, and daughters for not being sympathetic to this riding consequence….

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As I said my family were very horsey. At one time we had 14 horses and ponies and I used to joke there was more chance of seeing the vet than the doctor. My mother rode in the same pony club team as Richard Meade, the triple Olympic gold medalist and my sister rode for British Universities. My father was more enthusiastic than skilful. But though I apparently loved riding a donkey in a specially constructed basket, I wasn’t keen on moving to ponies. I couldn’t see the point of being led around on a gentle pony while my sister and my peers were charging about, jumping, cantering and playing games. The key thing to remember is that though the Riding for the Disabled Association was already strong, the Paralympics didn’t exist, and there was nothing to aim at. So football and other sports – even watching – were more attractive.

It put me off. And created quite a mental barrier to overcome.

After my first go, I was introduced to the marvellous Mel Tomlinson, a specialist RDA teacher, who came to the College on Thursday afternoons. And I was introduced to Bonnie, a 14.2 hand brown and white horse, with a fabulously placid mentality. Outside it was harder to mount but with help from my friend Richard, daughter Sara and Mel and her helper, I was manhandled up. Mel was insistent that the “walkers” rested their hands on my legs and held the front of the saddle, rather than holding me. This gives the legs something to push against, helping the balance, especially if the horse lurches (I exaggerate) without holding the rider. No waistband with handles!

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I still was terrified but not quite so much. Towards the end, with Mel’s patient urging, I began the process of sitting into the saddle rather than gripping on for dear life. It did take two further goes, one back on Bonnie, one on a simulator, before I could feel even a little confident that my “walkers” could take their hands away. Remember this was all at the walk, though I did dare the canter on the simulator – going through trot was scary! – so all well below novice level.

On the big day of my challenge I tried to think of anything but the daunting prospect of a first dressage test! I had been learning the test, memorising it, even though I was to be led by Mel. I copied my father’s technique of drawing out each movement in a series of rectangular boxes representing the dressage arena; it helps to visualise it. Mel wasn’t so sure so Sara read the rest for her, but when we came to do it we both knew it well enough not to need a reader.

The last big twist came just before I started the test. I was doing the RDA Introductory novice test, 1A. Courtesy of Dressage Anywhere – a huge thank you to them – I was entering one of their monthly competitions. This works by the competitor having the test videoed and then uploading it onto Dressage Anywhere’s website. It is then marked by a qualified judge and the mark, as with the video, shared with the world. I was proud to wear the Dressage Anywhere shirt and to give the numnah (a cover for the saddle) to Bonnie and her owners.

The twist was that my “walkers” weren’t allowed, just a leader – Mel. That meant my daughter, Sara, and then the ever dependable Steve Morley leaving me just before we started. It was like taking the stabilisers off. Scary but no turning back.

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The test itself went well.  The first halt – you are expected to get the horse to stop with your body exactly level with the letter marker, this time “A” and all hooves square – was the best I’d done.  The final halt brought my first salute, rather improvised, as my right elbow was holding the reins.  But it signalled I had completed the test.  Yoohoo.  Relief and grateful thanks to Mel and all at the College.

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Jack, the Power2inspire intern, with his last major act of his year long term, uploaded the video.  Very quickly we had the result. I scored 110 put of 180, 61.11%!  I am thrilled. Sarah Leitch, one of our top dressage judges, judged the test and rightly complimented my fabulous mount, Bonnie.

Wow.  I’ve done it!  Thank you to all involved.

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