f you look carefully on British para-dressage rider Natasha Baker’s hand, you’ll spot a ring made from horse hair. It’s not just a piece of jewelry, but a treasure worn in honor of her lost friend and dancing partner, Cabral. With the gelding never far from her thoughts, she is keeping her head up and striving to compete in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
At the young age of 14 months, Natasha contracted transverse myelitis — a condition that affects the spinal cord and left her with permanent nerve damage, loss of balance, and severe weakness in her legs. Now 29, Natasha is resoundingly upbeat and is not one to shy away when faced with adversity. Her physical disability doesn’t detract from her drive, and her mental resilience has conquered the darkest of times.
Natasha and the stunning dark bay gelding, Cabral, etched their names in the record books by winning five Paralympic gold medals — three from the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and two from the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. The duo were the ones to beat, and having stepped down from the competition arena, Cabral was looking forward to a fan-filled retirement ceremony at the 2017 Badminton Horse Trials followed by an active lifestyle out of the ring. Then tragedy struck. In February 2017, Cabral, known as JP, sustained a small cut while grazing in the field that morphed into a deadly bacterial infection. He was sadly euthanized.
“I literally never take this ring off so I know that JP is always with me,” Natasha says. “I miss him so much and I think I probably always will. I can’t listen to my old freestyle music because I just cry, but I think it’s about not being afraid of that emotion, and taking the time to actually mourn.”
Saying goodbye to the horse who had elevated her career to the upper echelons of the sport prompted Natasha to take some time away from competition. She spent the rest of 2017 reflecting on her momentous partnership and healing from her loss — a chance to pick up the pieces and move forward.
“If someone tells me I can’t do something, I just want to prove them wrong.”
“I’ve always been an ultra-positive person who tries to get the best out of a bad situation,” Natasha says. “Even though you might go through really tough times, you learn from that and you become a better athlete. And I put that outlook down to my parents Lorraine and Phil — our motto has always been that ‘everything happens for a reason.’”
Letting the Right Horse Find You
Natasha is as independent as possible despite her disability. She requires assistance tacking up and mounting but is otherwise self-sufficient when she’s in the barn. She can walk short distances with the help of a stick and uses her pink scooter, known as Jordan, for getting further afield. Without the use of her legs, Natasha relies on her voice and seat in creating a solid partnership with her mount. This unique set of aids and the bond required between horse and rider makes finding the perfect equine partner all the more critical. Thus, Natasha’s next mount had big shoes to fill after the loss of her beloved JP.
Enter Mount St John Diva Dannebrog, otherwise known as Diva. In January 2018, Natasha leased the special chestnut mare from the prestigious Mount St John Stud in Felixkirk, England. Within eight months of the formation of their partnership, Natasha was on the podium at the FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina, where she won two silver medals.
“I couldn’t quite believe last year,” Natasha says, who is based on her four-generation family farm an hour from London. “It was such a whirlwind, and after such a bad 2017 it was the boost that I needed.”
Natasha’s lease with the talented chestnut mare ended at the beginning of this year when Diva returned to the stud to fulfill her primary role as a broodmare. And so, the search for Natasha’s next star resumed from square one.
“I always think that the right horse finds you,” Natasha says with her signature optimism — and she was right. In March, she tried the eight-year-old Keystone Dawn Chorus, known as Lottie around the barn, and the pair instantly clicked.
“The first time I sat on her I got butterflies. She had the best temperament in the world and the movement to go with it,” Natasha says. “She was also super quick [to get used to my aids]. Beth Bainbridge, who we bought her from, knew that I use a lot of voice and so she started getting her used to that, and Lottie got to know what everything meant. I think it is easier with younger horses — they pick things up a lot quicker than established, older horses.
“The first time I rode Lottie I didn’t need a whip or spurs. She’s naturally really forward thinking, and I think a lot of people think that because we’re para-riders we need a really laid back horse. And yes, we need a laid back temperament but we actually need them really off the leg and self-motivated because I can’t use my legs, so I’m relying on them to keep going.”
The new pair have only competed at a handful of competitions together but have quickly established a winning partnership. At their third show together, Natasha and Lottie produced an exciting 73.5% in their novice test and recently placed sixth out of over 40 competitors at the Keysoe Regional Championships.
“I think spending time with new horses in the stable is massively important for building up a relationship,” Natasha says. “I spend a lot of time grooming and chatting to her. I’ve also been doing quite a lot of doing in-hand work, which is based on pressure and release. So, a pressure would be a flag or a plastic bag flapping over her, and when she relaxes the pressure is withdrawn. It’s built a really good trust between us.”
Like JP, Lottie is easy to handle in the stable and has the same powerful walk. “She is similar in so many ways but she has a different personality. It’s nice to find that relationship with another horse,” she says. “I can never replicate the relationship I had with JP but I can have it in a different way with a different horse.”
‘Paralympic gold was my plan A, B, C, and D’
The secret to staying positive, according to Natasha, is constantly having a goal to strive towards. When her gelding Lazardo sustained a suspensory injury two days before the final selection trial for the 2008 Paralympic Games, and was later retired in 2009, it was a shattering blow.
“There was no other plan. If you have a plan B, it can be too easy to fall back on it.”
“It was a massive setback because we’d put all of our money into him — literally every single penny that we had. It could have been a make or break situation, but I knew that I wanted to get to the London [Paralympics in] 2012. So, it’s about having something in the forefront of your mind to aim towards.”
Shortly after, Natasha began raising funds for a new horse and wrote letters to local companies encouraging support. “You have to look outside the box and be proactive,” she says. “I managed to scrape together some money to buy JP, who was the cheapest horse I’d ever bought, and he ended up winning me 11 gold medals. So, it’s not about your resources, but what you do with them.”
Similar to most top riders, she admits to being incredibly competitive. “If someone tells me I can’t do something, I just want to prove them wrong,” she says. “And I think that’s been instilled in me from a really young age — I just want to do my best in everything. At school I said that I wanted to win a Paralympic gold medal and they were like, ‘Yeah, but what do you really want to do?’ And I had to tell them that that was my plan A, B, C, and D. There was no other plan. If you have a plan B, it can be too easy to fall back on it.”
Onwards and Upwards to Tokyo
As the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo looms, Natasha is ever more determined — this is someone who, at just 10 years old, dreamt of winning a gold medal as she watched the action unfurl at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. But how does she stay hungry for success having reached the pinnacle of her sport in London and Rio de Janeiro?
“It’s all about passion. I always want to be a better rider than I was yesterday. I won all of my gold medals on JP, so I’d love to do that on another horse and hopefully that will be Lottie. And my ultimate dream is to be World, European, and Paralympic champion at the same time,” she says with a determined edge. “The day that you think, ‘What’s left?’ is the day that you should probably think about retiring — but I’m definitely nowhere near that.”
Infectiously positive, those dark days of 2017 are now firmly in the past. “I am always striving for the next thing. It’s about looking forward, keeping positive, and working really hard to get there.”
Photography by Sophie Harris for NoelleFloyd.com.