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. — This story was originally published on Sept. 22, 2014.