He stood tall and shiny in an Oregon field, a Thoroughbred so handsome he looked far younger than his 26 years.
Last summer, as the sun glinted off his well-muscled body, Rio turned his finely sculpted head to watch a young woman approach. He could see her thin form, her long hair.
But she could not see him.
He appeared as a blurry brown object in the fog to Wren Zimmerman, a 25-year-old who has been legally blind since her senior year in high school. Walking alongside Vicki Zacharias, a horse trainer who owned the spectacular gelding, a new chapter for the wise Thoroughbred and a young lady who dared to pursue her horse dreams in spite of her deteriorating vision.
“After I was diagnosed with Stargart’s Macular Dystrophy my vision started to get worse with time. And after my senior year in high school, I had to stop driving completely, and was diagnosed as being legally blind,” Zimmerman says.
Losing her vision and independence, Zimmerman returned home to her parents after first completing an undergraduate degree in sociology. And though her world looked as fogged up as a bathroom mirror on most days, inside she was still the same horse-loving girl who could find peace and self-empowerment riding a great steed.
“I found Vicki Zacharias last summer, around May. I contacted her and explained that I’m legally blind, but that I wanted to do a lease or a half lease, and I asked her if my condition would deter her from teaching me,” she says. “Right away Vicki replied, ‘Absolutely not!’ and she said she had just the horse for me.”
Rio, a Thoroughbred with an unreadable tattoo, had been in Zacharias’ facility Rain Creek Farm for 11 years. She took over ownership of the stately gentleman at the close of his heyday jumping a meter 15 for his longtime owner who originated from Rio de Janeiro, Zimmerman explains.
“Rio is so handsome that everybody calls him George Clooney because he’s handsome and older,” Zimmerman adds.
He was no more than a brown blur to her that first day she approached him. But as she drew closer, he started to take shape. She saw the shine of his satiny deep-brown coat, and when she stood right beside him, the sheer size of his 16.2 well-built frame impressed her, and the beauty of his head, turned inquisitively her way, gave her hope that with him she had found a partner who might carry her through the difficult days ahead.
“When I ride, I can’t dwell on anything. I have to focus on what I’m doing,” she says. “It’s my relaxation (from grief) but it’s also a thrill ride. It’s thrilling!”
Though she can’t see the jumps in front of her as they canter up, Zimmerman has learned to use cues from the horse, her instructor and from the large objects in the ring, to guide her over obstacles and jumps. By studying the pattern of the jumps in the area, which her instructor rearranges weekly, Zimmerman is able to commit to memory where they are located in relation to “large spatial cues,” she says. “Vicki has taught me to learn various spots on the wall, and how they relate to a particular jump. So I know that when I get to a certain place, to turn left and that the jump is five strides away,” she adds.
When she is cantering toward a jump, Zimmerman cannot technically see it. But she can feel Rio as he gathers his body and prepares to leave the ground. “He is essentially my eyes,” she says. “Even though I can’t see it, I know it’s there when I can feel Rio getting ready.”
The pair did so well together in their first two weeks of riding that her instructor immediately sent them to a schooling show at the Northwest Classic last year. The pair competed in several classes with 12-inch jumps, after Zimmerman memorized the course on paper, and left the jumping to her wise older horse.
They won the championship of their division! And a few weeks ago, they won the reserve championship in their second show.
Ribbons and championships aside, it is the ability to ride at all that gives Zimmerman her greatest hope in the face of growing darkness.
Zimmerman rides Rio four times a week. Her mother drives her to the barn and watches her daughter feeling strong and powerful as the beautiful Thoroughbred carries her confidently over jumps and obstacles; when for a moment her heart is joyous and her spirit is free.
23 responses to “Blind rider and a T-bred, 26, are champs”
Horses are tremendous Therapy animals as I can attest. My younger sister had a stroke when she was 35 years old. When she got through the many surgeries she took up riding at a Therapy Center that has 20 horses. There are large and average sized horses, large horses are for the returning soldiers with Traumatic Brain Injuries. The smaller horses are for women and children and they are wonderful horses.
My sister is not able to walk however, once she is on a horse she feels free and is able to find her balance. The staff are specially trained and certified as are the horses.
Disabled people can ride and there is no good reason why they should not do as much as they can!
Thank you for accepting the rider with a disability. The story reinforces what I have found in my career. Horses are very intelligent and partner with people.
I went to high school with her. Glad to hear she’s doing so well despite setbacks.
My daughter now has retina eye disease,50yr.old , but totally deaf from measles from birth! I want all info I can get. Anywhere, anyway. God bless.
Thank You for your beautiful story! For your information, a company called, Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), is presently conducting Clinical Trials for Stargardt’s Disease, found here on this Gov. website, https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT01469832?term=SMD&rank=2 . Results have been very promising thus far with many patients improving their visual acuity. The company website for ACT can be found here, http://www.advancedcell.com/ . You may find this video on Charlie Rose with Clinical Trial lead investigator, Dr. Steven Schwartz very encouraging, http://www.hulu.com/watch/625416 . Also, a peer-reviewed publication on 20 or so patients from this Clinical Trial is expected soon…
All The Best Wren, God Bless You…
John Redaelli – twenty2
WOW! Absolutely a great pairing! Wonderful story Susan.
What a great story! It would be fabulous if someone would recognize Rio and give us a backstory. 🙂
It gives new meaning to the phrase, “the horse took care of the rider over the fence”. There has been plenty of times where I misjudged the spot, but my horse took care of me:). This is such an inspiring story, and it sounds like she is going to make a name of herself:)
What can I say? Perfect partnership.
What a wonderful and touching story and such courage on Wren’s part to pursue her riding interest. Rio is a champion and hero no doubt. So glad they have each other. Bravo….
This brave young woman’s trainer is clearly someone who should be teaching. Kudos to both and that wonderful horse.
This is such a beautiful story!! I wish Rio and Wren continued success and many, many, happy hours together. Thanks for sharing their story with us.
Wonderful story!! Very inspiring!
Such a beautiful inspiring story. Animals are such a wonderful gift to us in this world. So so proud of your gutsy pluckiness Wren!
So happy to read this! Wren has a “vision” none of us ever will. Best of luck to her, Rio and their trainer. So happy for them!
Beautiful story! What a beautiful, wise, kind eye he has. I wish them both all the happiness in the world. It’s so true that being on the back of a fine horse can put all the negatives in your life away – even for just a little while.
My first horse was a OTTB. He always took such good care of me. Once, he spooked from a snake and I got dumped. He ran right back to me and then to the barn to get help. As soon as he saw people were coming, he ran back to me. He was such a champ! I miss that old boy.
This is an amazing story!! Awesome for Wren that she had the courage to not only ride, but to jump!! And it is so great she found an instructor and a horse who will take her on her journey. Best wishes to Wren!!
I constantly wonder how anyone can truly feel or anticipate the horse’s next move when they ride with 100 lb. saddles and gear tied all over the place. This story may seem to be about a handicapped person but, to me, it is about the wonderful bond you get with your horse when the trust is there. No, she is not handicapped, she is blessed to be the kind or rider I see people aspire to for years and never get there. OTTB will bond that way if the rider can get there. When you two move as one, there are no limits because the horse can do it alone. Too often, the person limits the horse. This bond cannot be bought or taught–they click.
SUPER SUPER SUPER!!!
All I can say is WOW! Wren is learning to do what all trainers want us to do and try to get us to do: ride our horses by feeling them and sensing them. It takes so long to trust our horses and ourselves as riders to ride a horse this way and Wren has it down.
One of the steps in learning to ride better is to jump with your eyes closed so you learn to feel your horse and relax as a rider. Wren apparently has made that huge step quickly. She’s quite the rider and they make quite the team!
Fabulous…animals can be miracle workers for their human colleagues. Great read to start to the week!
Thoroughbreds are all heart…for the ride of your life…ride an off-track thoroughbred…Love this story Susan…sharing, sharing….
My OTTB ‘Callie’ used to take care of me as well. He raced until he was 6 and then became a ‘Big Timber’ Horse. We had jumped fences of 6 feet and he never missed a step. These horses are so kind to someone who trusts them and lets them be. I miss him, he was gorgeous… Wishing this pair continued success!