What Riding with an Invisible Disability Taught Ava Stauber About Inclusivity (and Why It Matters)

What Riding with an Invisible Disability Taught Ava Stauber About Inclusivity (and Why It Matters)

Riding a horse named Bravo, affectionately described as “a sweet pony, but kinda a devil when jumping,” Ava Stauber didn’t hear a car zooming up behind them. Bravo certainly did though, and he spooked, spun, and Ava ended up on the ground, thinking How did that happen? Her trainer came running, yelling, Didn’t you hear the car coming up behind you?  Ava laughed a little when retelling the story. “I was like, ''Clearly not, no. But can you give me a leg up? The mounting block is a mile away.

Ava’s parents signed her up for riding lessons when she was just three years old. She fell in love, and horses have been a part of her life ever since. “Never have I wanted to quit, as horses are everything to me. I can’t remember a time before horses. It’s just a part of me now, and that’s who I am.” Although she doesn’t come from an equestrian family, her mom and dad have always been supportive of Ava pursuing her passion for horses, even as she decided to take her riding to the next level. “As I progressed, my dad wasn’t that worried--then he saw me get thrown from the horse for the first time. It made his heart stop, until he saw that I was fine and hopped right back on the horse.”

Getting up after a fall, taking challenges in stride, and overcoming obstacles are all things Ava’s parents have watched her do all her life, both in and out of the saddle. When Ava was just a toddler, she started to experience difficulty hearing, probably due to a viral infection, and now she lives with profound hearing loss. Daily life as a teenager and high school student presents struggles on top of those Ava experiences as a rider and an athlete, so Ava is constantly adapting. Hearing loss isn’t something that can be fixed immediately. Glasses and contacts might fix eyesight immediately for as long as they’re in use. Hearing aids do not. They only turn the volume up, so Ava still has to process the sounds, think about the appropriate response, and go from there.

Ava explains, “In conversations, I hear the first, last and middle words, then put the pieces together. So if I only heard, Hi….you...today? I would think, Oh, Hi, how are you doing today? That's the typical sentence. So I do misunderstand, and it’s important that when I ask for a phrase or something to be repeated, I don’t mean say it louder. I want you to be clearer with diction and pull the entire word out better. If it takes me a little longer to reply, it’s because I’m processing. Over the years, I’ve gotten to a place where nobody even knows I have hearing loss. That’s why it’s called an invisible disability, which doesn’t undermine the fact that it’s HARD, and extremely tiring; it’s just how I've adjusted to living with hearing loss." 

At the barn, Ava uses a CeeCoach system to ride. They connect to her hearing aids, and her trainer wears the other device which has wired earbuds. Because she can’t use it when she shows due to trainer interference, Ava has to rely on other riders. She can’t hear if a rider is coming up behind her in flat classes or warm-ups, so she can only hope they are going to adhere to the basic rules. “It’s hard and there’s a lot of repeating and trot circles,” Ava admits, “but because I’ve learned to adapt and adjust, challenges are inviting to me when riding. I want to learn how to overcome certain obstacles, quite literally!” Ava is happy to chat about how she makes it all work, and it’s clear that there’s more to her riding than just overcoming the logistical problems that stem from her disability. A lifetime of facing challenges has instilled in her a persistent work ethic and a healthy sense of humor. In many ways, living with hearing loss allowed Ava to develop skills that make her a better rider, not just a strong competitor whose success is measured in blue ribbons, but a true horsewoman and partner for her current horse and “platonic soulmate” Lando.

Years of relying on social and physical cues rather than just spoken words mean Ava feels connected to Lando in a unique way. “I think my horse and I are on a different level of communication. Not necessarily a better one, but a more accommodating level. He knows when I’m stressed, and he does his absolute best to make me feel better. As for me as a rider, I can sense when he’s nervous. He slows down, and takes a long look at whatever it is. If we’re coming up to a jump, he’ll start doing this at least 5 strides out and that’s when I know to boost his confidence and drive with my seat.” Ava knows when he’s frustrated, even though it may not be clear to others, and she can sense when he’s happy or proud, so she always tries to end their time together on a good note.  

Ava and Lando got off to a rocky start, so she had to pull from her own experience to get through the early days of their partnership. When they had only been together a month, Lando had a hoof injury that needed daily flushing and wrapping, and required stall rest for two months. At first, he was uncomfortable and touchy about anyone messing with him. “After some time, he got quite tolerant, and now trusts me to help him when he’s hurt or not happy. There was one time where we had to sedate him for laser therapy treatment, and I sat with him in his stall for a few hours, and we both fell asleep at some point. His sedation wore off while I was still snoozing, but he was a saint, and continued to keep his head in my lap. I had the side of my face resting on his forehead. It was really special and sweet.”

Ava continues, “I think, as someone who has dealt with personal setbacks, I understand that support is an absolute necessity. Not being able to hear for a few weeks after some surgeries can get really isolating, and you feel like you’re living in your own world. I relied heavily on family and friends to help me with basic things, like pain control, doctor’s visits, care packages and simply being social in my own way. So having had that on my end, I understood how Lando felt. He’s not able to go out with his friends, because he’d reinjure his hoof or get an infection. As we got to know each other, he got more comfortable around me, and his personality came out to stay. I’m sure he understands in some way that I’m not fully able, and can’t hear as well. He makes up for that by being the most perfect under saddle and on the ground. He’s the absolute best, he’s adjustable, lets me learn at my own pace, supports and gives me confidence when needed, and I do all of the above, and more, in return for his efforts.”

Just because Ava has managed to adapt and even thrive as a rider with hearing loss doesn’t mean she’s not ready to point out issues with accommodation and inclusion in equestrian sport. Horses have an almost universal appeal and ability to capture the imagination of people from all walks of life. But, when we look at the top levels of equestrian sport, things start to look pretty homogenous. It’s not enough just to say that everyone is welcome. We need to address the obstacles that stop people from achieving their riding goals. As a person of color, Ava says she doesn’t often see herself represented in horse related publications. And as a rider with a disability, she’s struggled to deal with the paperwork and jump through the hoops required to get the accommodations she needs at shows. She’s missed classes due to grainy speakers, and she often has to rely on friends to make sure gets the information she needs.

Ava also gives more examples. Riders come in all shapes and sizes; yet if we look through a catalogue, almost all the models are a size 2.  And we all know how muddy the grounds can be at shows if the weather is bad. Imagine you are in a wheelchair, and it’s almost impossible to get around. “All these things say, in so many words, there’s not a place for you here. We can’t just ask people to come join our sport when it’s not welcoming in the first place. We have to keep trying when something is important. I can’t just give up on trying to hear because I’m tired and don’t want to anymore.”

As riders, we spend a lot of time trying to get over obstacles. We calculate the distances and figure out what we need to do to clear the jump in front us. Ava suggests doing the same when we see issues with lack of access and inclusivity in the sport. It shouldn’t be next to impossible to get permission to use necessary accommodations at shows when you have a documented disability. And if a publication doesn't include people of color, they should take the time to do the research and seek out a more diverse group of riders to feature. Spend the extra money and send out a photographer, because visibility is important. “In any situation where you don’t ever see yourself reflected, that is isolating. But we can change that,” Ava says, “by supporting everybody and celebrating everything that makes a person unique.”

But it’s not just up to the federations and companies to tackle obstacles, all of us in the horse community, whether we are hanging out at the barn or on social media, can make a difference. As someone who lives with an invisible disability, Ava is quick to remind us that we never really know what someone is going through. Many in this sport deal with mental health issues and have even quit riding due to toxicity. “If you notice that I or anybody else is struggling, regardless of any defining factors like a disability, go give them your support. Recently I showed up to a lesson with Lando, stressed and crying, and my trainer gave me a hug, and warmed Lando up for me, until I felt like I was present enough and mentally there for him. It means a lot when people notice if you’re not feeling well. Don’t make a massive deal out of it, just check in, cheer for them during their ride, give them a compliment or two. Those go a long way.”

Long term, Ava hopes to stay in this sport as long as possible and continue working toward making the riding community a more welcoming, inclusive place. But for now, she’s just trying to stay on top of being a high school student in the middle of a pandemic, while holding down a part-time job and continuing to improve her riding. When challenges start to mount up and she feels like she’s losing motivation, Ava focuses on how proud her younger self would be of how far she’s come. And, of course, Lando is always waiting for her at the barn. “I love him to bits and pieces, and he’s done nothing to ever sway that. It would break my heart to have this thrilling, happy connection and partnership end. He deserves the world. I’m going to try to give him as much as I can.”

Photos courtesy of Ava. 

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