The Foreseeable Future Foundation had the amazing opportunity to sponsor an up and coming Equestrian queen, Wren Zimmerman, for the Kentucky Summer Classic in Lexington, Kentucky. This is an extremely competitive horse show event where the majority of the riders are able-bodied. Our spotlight athlete Wren, fortunately, won’t let that additional obstacle get in her way.
“Para show jumping is not a recognized discipline or sport in the US… it’s sort of an emerging sport,” Wren explains when talking about the lack of blind equestrians. “There is no specific competition for people with disabilities who want to jump horses here in the US, which means all of the competitions I go to are for able body riders.”
This poses a unique challenge that Wren must face, but Wren has no problem with unique challenges.
Wren’s senior year in high school was when she got the diagnosis that would change everything. She was diagnosed with a form of juvenile macular degeneration called Stargardt’s Macular Dystrophy, a condition that is only found in one in 20,000 children and teenagers. This progressive degenerative eye disease has since then been causing her vision to fade, rendering her legally blind.
Wren’s central vision, which is how she sees straight out, is completely blank while her peripheral vision, the side vision, is very blurry. This, of course, poses a challenge navigating a two-thousand-pound animal through an arena, a challenge that many didn’t think she was up to face.
Wren Learns to Ride
Wren started riding horses at a therapeutic riding center in exchange for helping with their program. While exercising the horses, she learned to ride; but most importantly, the love for jumping. All she wanted to do was jump, but the instructor told her no, it wasn’t safe. So, naturally, she left.
Wren didn’t like the answer no, she went through several trainers until she found someone comfortable with a blind rider. When she finally found someone, that same year she was off trying competitions now that she was learning how to do showjumping. After about a month and a half of jumping, Wren competed in a “schooling show,” which is geared toward more inexperienced riders. The very next year, Wren stepped up her game and began competing in rated-shows like the Kentucky Summer Event.
Wren may have a disadvantage by being one of the few impaired riders at the Kentucky Summer Classic, but through experience and practice, she has come up with her own system that keeps her up to par with the competition.
Wren’s Process at Horse Show Events
If you have never experienced a horse show, there are many different types of competitions depending on what kind of discipline, such as show jumping, eventing or dressage, and then those are divided by skill level. For show jumping, the course’s difficulty level is increased by adding more combinations or tighter turns making the course more complex. Our spotlight equestrian Wren competes in the discipline show jumping, and she’s pretty good at it.
After Wren has unpacked and gotten ready when she arrives at the event, she goes to the arena where she will be showing. In these events, at the beginning of each day they put out a new course.
“So, you don’t know where the jumps are going to be or what the course will be until the morning of… That’s where a lot of my preparation comes in,” Wren explains. “I’ll go over to the arena ahead of time before I bring my horse over, and someone else will take pictures of the course that are posted on a bulliten board.”
Wren memorizes where the jumps are, and the course on the whiteboard, and then goes with the trainer to the course to walk it. But, before she learns the actual course, she will walk the perimeter of the arena, then the quarter line, then the half, which divides her surroundings into a grid system to help her get a sense of the space and the size of the arena.
Once Wren is ready for the jumps, she and an aide will go to each jump together and scope them out individually. Wren and her aide will stand at the jump and the aide will describe to her all of the jumps around her, telling her the estimated distance and angles. This helps to fill in her mental map of where her obstacles will be.
Once she has mapped out the course in her head, she heads over to her own “massive whiteboard,” she calls it, that has different colored magnets, and she places them where the obstacles would be in the arena. Then, using different colored markers, she draws her course starting from the first jump and working her way to the last.
“It’s a lot of memorization,” Wren says. “I’ll be memorizing for several hours before I even get on the horse… Being hyper-aware of where everything is… definitely helps me focus. There will be people coming into the arena who have never seen the course, and they have their trainer yelling, “Left, right,” after each jump. So, I think it’s more ingrained in me, [but] I don’t know if it is an actual advantage.”
Once Wren has the course in her mind, she goes to the warm-up area. The warm-up arena is a smaller arena that is a bit of a free for all. In the center of the arena, there are jumps for the riders to practice on and warm up. There can be up to thirty riders, the only warning they may give that they are about to gallop full speed at a jump is yelling out to the riders around them. It can be hectic for anyone in the warm-up arena, especially if you are blind.
Challenges in the Arena for a Visually Impaired Equestrian
Wren doesn’t always have an issue in the warm-up arena, and luckily there weren’t any incidences at the Kentucky Summer Classic, but she has had some problems with other riders in the past. Wren doesn’t walk around with a cane because her memorization skills are so exceptional thanks to constant exercise. She knows where everything is and navigates with her memory. Because she doesn’t walk with a cane, many people wonder if she is truly blind. Unfortunately, riders have tested her blindness by cutting her off or getting too close just to prove she isn’t faking. This can be very dangerous, but a challenge Wren has learned to deal with.
After Wren’s warm-up, she’s off to compete. This year, she competed in [What you competed in. and how many others competed]. Wren has an approved earpiece that she wears for an accommodation that gives her a little assistance as she navigates through the course. When Wren isn’t winning, no one seems to have an issue with the earpiece. She has noticed that once she starts doing well, people begin to call her out on it saying that she has an advantage. “There can be a lot of pushback when you start doing well,” she says.
Wren and Valentine/Cassicasca
Cassicasca, which is the show name of her leased horse Valentine, plays a massive role in this endeavor. “[I] Get that feel and then you know okay, I have three strides left. And I can feel him and he takes the jump and it’s actually his job to take the jump. It’s definitely a team effort… like he’s a seeing-eye dog if you will.”
Compared to other riders, her relationship with her horse is a bit different because of her visual impairment. “I think you have to put a lot more trust in the horse, whereas a lot of people try to control the horse because they can see what’s coming… but with me, it’s like I literally can’t see what’s coming, so I need to put that trust in the horse.”
How Did Wren Do in the Kentucky Summer Event?
During the warm-up, Wren did a “Training Jumper” class, and out of 22 competitors, our equestrian queen placed first. In the main division, Wren competed in the “Low Adult Jumper” where the height of the jumps is one meter. In one class, she placed fourth out of 18 competitors. In the second, she placed fourth out of 12, and this is just the beginning of her journey.
Wren’s Main Goal is Awareness and Advocacy
Wren is not only riding for the love of show jumping, Wren is also trying to raise awareness. “I use riding as my vehicle… I’m using that more as a vehicle to raise awareness of visual impairment and change society’s perception of what people with disabilities, especially blind people, are capable of.”
One way she wants to achieve the goal of raising awareness is to make show jumping a career and becoming the first blind person to be ranked in the USEF Show Jumping Ranking List, which is used to rank only top-level athletes. Her goal is to one day walk into an arena and never again hear, “A horse show isn’t the place for someone… who is blind.”
You can visit Wren Zimmerman’s website at www.wrenblae.com and learn about how you can help her achieve her dreams!