I Won't Let My Diagnosis Hold Me Back from My Bucket List

I Won't Let My Diagnosis Hold Me Back from My Bucket List

When her doctor told Susan Oakes, 37, of Navan, Co. Meath, Ireland that she would have two years left to ride before rheumatoid arthritis sidelined her, she created an extensive and ambitious bucket list of riding goals to complete while she was able. 

Fifteen years later, Susan is still riding, and still ticking items off that bucket list – and adding increasingly adventurous ideas all the time. Most recently, she and her childhood friend Barry O’Brien Lynch competed at the Skijordue Festival in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Now Susan is based at a show jumping stable in Mexico, where she is training to become the first Irish Woman in about 65 years to compete in the puissance jumping competition at the Dublin Horse Show. Susan, who holds the world record for side-saddle jumping, having jumped over 2 meters in 2013, recounts the numerous ups and downs of her riding career, and describes what keeps her motivated to continue achieving her goals.

I grew up in a horsey family: my mum and dad hunted 45 seasons together, my sister and the four of us rode together all the time. I had an idyllic childhood surrounded by ponies, all riding together. My granny and grand-aunts would have always ridden sidesaddle, and I started at age four on the family donkey and just continued on. If I can do something astride, I can do it sidesaddle.

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My father, who died last February, all he wanted me to do on every pony and horse was jump higher and higher, wider and wider. My parents were brave, that’s where it came from. Also my sister loves her horses and hunts every week - in between having her four children she’s on the horse. She was on the Irish mounted games team and things like that, she loves her horses.

Fifteen years ago I was told I’d have two years to ride and then rheumatoid arthritis would take over. So I wrote a big bucket list, and here I am today, still working on achieving my dreams. Three years ago I got a phone call from Paola Amilibia, a Mexican show jumper (who competed at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Caen), who is also married to Mexican show jumper Federico Fernandez (who competed at the 2018 WEG in Tryon). Team Mexico was invited to compete at the Dublin Horse Show, and they had to jump in the puissance, and they needed a horse. Paola called me and said I was maybe the only person that could help her. I did in fact have a horse for her, and with the borrowed horse they got to jump in Dublin. Mexico were the complete outsiders and won the Agha Khan Trophy for the Nations Cup Competition at the Dublin Horse Show.

If I can do something astride, I can do it sidesaddle.

We also developed a friendship, and last year she rode my horse in Falsterbo and Dublin. I told her then that I’d love to take six months out, and I’d love to train with her to jump the puissance in Dublin myself. 

In 2018 I had two horses jumping in the Horse of the Year show in the UK. I came around the corner in the stables and met this white horse called H.D’or – we had a little chat, and I told him I’d love to ride him, and he said he’d like to have me ride him. I told  his owner that if he ever sold him I’d like first refusal; he said maybe he’d consider it in four or five years, and I said that was fine with me. The horse went on to jump in the Hickstead Derby and won a few puissance classes, then last November the owner sent me a message saying the horse was available. So I rang him and we did a deal; then I called Paola and said I wanted to be her working student.

Susan holds the world record for highest side-saddle puissance. 

At the time they normally return to Belgium, but she said they were going to stay in Mexico for a few months longer, and that I should be in Amsterdam in nine days for the flight. It was all very last-minute, but I managed to make the arrangements and I flew with my horse the following week. I’ve been here in Mexico since the first week of January.

I have the world record jumping side-saddle for puissance. It’s so different than jumping astride; I might also have the Irish record for a lady jumping 6’10”. But I came here because I haven’t jumped a track of fences in years, and I had a brain injury in 2016, when I was in America preparing to compete at the Central Park Horse Show in New York City. I also have rheumatoid arthritis and rarely get to ride, so I decided I’d take time out and follow my dream. After the brain injury I lost my eyesight in my left eye; everything is back perfect now, but I have to retrain my body and get back the muscle memory to see the stride when I’m jumping. Now I’m jumping tracks of 1.30m, which is a huge thing – the first time I went in a ring full of jumps I was terrified of jumping a meter track.

It’s a slow process, it took probably two years or more for my vision to come back to normal. If I’m tired or stressed it would go, and I lost my speech and the use of the left side of my body. It was really a freak accident: I fell off the horse and landed on my feet. I was wearing a corset, which is for support riding sidesaddle - I always wear a corset to support my core when I’m riding, because you need a huge amount of core strength when you’re riding side-saddle - it’s an unbelievable support, it keeps your posture really nice and gives you a lot of support. But when I fell, the shock went up my legs, bypassed my back because of the corset, and went to my brain and caused two bleeds. It was really a freak accident. But when you talk to people, they’ll tell you they did something like trip over a child’s toy and ended up with a major brain injury; things you wouldn’t think were possible.

Photo by Nadina Zavadilika.

My life has really changed in the last three years; typically I wouldn’t get to ride every day, or maybe only once a month at home. I wasn’t riding regularly at all. So I came here to improve my fitness and get my system back to normal. Here in Mexico I can ride every day and get back to where I was maybe five years ago.

Since I started training again I haven’t trained the puissance wall at all. I’m trying to get my fitness, get around a track, see my distances, and ride my corners properly. Every day Paola helps me; we do a flat work session and a jumping session. Federico helps me too, they’re amazing. Their teaching is very basic, very simple for me to understand. They make me ride off my eye and encourage me to trust my eye again. We had a conversation about it and we all took my fall into consideration and they’re so supportive to let me work it out myself and let my eye come back to where it was before.

I am a daredevil – I love the extreme of everything. I love challenges and things that really get my adrenaline pumping. A few weeks ago I was saying to Paola I love roller coasters, and she does too, so we went away to ride roller coasters. I love anything like that, except for driving fast in a car. That’s really not my thing.

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Mexico is a very peaceful place though, it’s like food for the soul, this is my time to self-heal. I’m 3200 meters above sea level in the mountains. The air is clear here and it’s peaceful and removed from the outside world. I’m just here with my horse. With the world going into shutdown over the coronavirus, this is a perfect place to be isolated and continue healing and training.

That said, I’m not in perfect health. Sometimes I get a flare-up and am in bed for a week or two. There’s a lot of inflammation and I’d be very sore if I fell off a horse – or for example if I were out hunting for five hours, I’d be pretty sore. Over the years I would’ve been on a lot of anti-inflammatories and painkillers and a lot of medication. I decided when I came here to come off of the medication and let my body heal, and see what happens. Since I came to Mexico, the heat and maybe the lifestyle have made me feel amazing – it’s incredible. I definitely think Mexico will be a big part of my life in the future.

I’ve been self-funded to date, but there are a lot of things I’d love to do, and I’d love to reach out and maybe find a sponsor. Skijoring was a crazy experience, something I will never forget! I went out there and knew what was involved, but I’d never ridden in a Western saddle or that depth of snow. The rope that attaches to the skier, I had to hold around the horn of the Western saddle, and there’s a huge amount of strength and pressure involved. Chinook Valley Inc. leant me their horse Bowie, a beautiful palomino Quarter Horse, who knew what he was doing. You’re really in with the cowboys and they’re a different breed, it was just incredible - to think we won the sprint race was hard to believe! Back in Ireland, before the competition, we were practicing with an ancient tractor and a roll of carpet in a muddy field - it was just like the Jamaican bobsled team!

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I always love the underdog, and maybe taking on something that no one else thinks is possible. I won the inaugural running of the Diana’s Chase, a sidesaddle point-to-point. I’ve ridden in races in America, France and the UK sidesaddle, I rode in the Calgary Stampede sidesaddle last year, I rode the Camino De Santiago side saddle which is 900km and I rode through the streets of Boston sidesaddle on a Connemara pony, in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, it was quite a thing to do!

My next adventure will be to do the Serengeti migration ride in Africa, following wildebeests on their migration through the borders of Kenya and Tanzania. No one has done it sidesaddle before. I’ve booked it through Zara’s Planet – my friend Zara organizers a huge number of safaris and we spoke a few years about how wouldn’t it be a great adventure? It’s taken a while to organize and we have three different Safaris organized. If all goes to plan I will be going in January, 2021 with my friend Laura from Ireland Equestrian Tours, for anyone who wants to join us.

I always love the underdog, and maybe taking on something that no one else thinks is possible.

Also in 2021 I am going to do the Mongolian Derby which is known as the “World’s Toughest Horse Race” - 1000km, sidesaddle! That’s probably going to be the biggest challenge of my life. The organizers have to test my saddle, and we’ll have to get a few sidesaddles made because if a pony takes off, that could be my sidesaddle never seen again! You’re riding unbroken Mongolian horses, so they’re very unpredictable. I’m getting a few saddles made that are safe and that I feel 100% comfortable in. There are a few people in the UK and who work with endurance saddles, and we’re trying to get them to work together to produce what I need.

I have about 16 pretty extreme things left on my bucket list, and I hope to get them done by 2023. I actually had a ride around the foxhunters’ amateur race at Aintree over the Grand National fences arranged, but the horse was lame the morning of the race and had to be withdrawn; that’s something I would still really love to do. I would like to jump in the puissance in Dublin and Washington and jump a big track of fences, maybe the Hickstead Derby! There are 154 registered hunt packs in America, and I would love to try and hunt them all sidesaddle - I reached out to Tony Leahy, of the hunting association in America, and they’re very supportive. I’d also like to try an Endurance race sidesaddle. I went to Dubai and watched it there, and it was unbelievable.

I am hoping my body and my arthritis doesn’t get in the way, that’s why I’m putting a push on to get it all done. Now that I’m here in Mexico riding every day I’m fit, I’m in good health, and I feel like it’s all achievable. When I’ve ticked off the last goal I don’t know what I’ll do, maybe sit down and write a book. From the very start I’ve kept travel journals and pictures of everything, so when the time comes to write a book, I have everything documented for the past 15 years or so.

To be sure, all of this didn’t start out with me planning a book - honestly I didn’t know if I’d get to do any of this. But when I’d just finished school and started traveling, I always kept a journal. I’m grateful that I did and that I have everything recorded. I find that in life there are so many highs and lows, you just have to get up and keep going. I’m grateful that that’s what my mindset is, never to give up and whatever I’m faced with, to deal with it as best I can.

As told to Amber Heintzberger.