'The Horse Lends Me His Eyes': How This Rider Soars Without Sight

'The Horse Lends Me His Eyes': How This Rider Soars Without Sight

Riding horses was a lifelong dream for Wren Blae Zimmerman. Unfortunately, her family didn’t have the finances when she was growing up to let her ride. Her parents were focused on academics, and they’ve always wanted Wren to find something reliable that would allow her to make a good living and be secure. As a senior in high school, she was on track for college and business school, with plans to go into the corporate world. Horses were a fantasy, and theoretical equestrian jobs weren’t on the radar.

Then, at 17, Wren started losing her vision. No combination of lens could get her back to seeing the 20/20 line. By the end of the year, Wren had a diagnosis: Stargardt’s Macular Dystrophy. She learned that she would eventually be legally blind.

“Once I finished college, after having lost more of my vision, I decided it was time to finally try something I’ve always wanted to do. I’d had the opportunity to try therapeutic riding, and I loved being around horses. But, what I really wanted to do was jump.”

Not surprisingly, Wren was told no. She was told it was impossible. Too risky. Too dangerous.

Because losing her vision had already meant giving up so much, Wren decided she wasn’t ready to let this dream go. “I’m a pretty stubborn person. I’m a thrill-seeker, and I always want to push boundaries.” So she kept searching until she found a trainer who was willing to let her try.

“Jumping for the first time was amazing. I think for all of us who love horses, we feel a sense of freedom when we ride. It feels like flying when we jump. But for me especially, because I started riding after I lost my eyesight, the horse sort of lends me his eyes."

Wren relies a lot on feel to make up for what she can't see. On the ground, she can't see the horse, so reading his body language is difficult. Is he nervous? About to spook? But once she's on the horse, she finds that she can anticipate much more about what's going to happen according to what she feels underneath her.

“For anyone who rides, we know there’s a feel of the energy of the horse. When you’re on a horse’s back, as soon as the horse thinks about doing something, you can feel this barely perceptible shift in their movement, and you just have a second sense. Ever since I started losing my vision, so much of my life has been focused on limitations, things I can’t do anymore. But when I’m on a horse, it’s all about what I can do - what we can do together.

“For me, jumping is freedom from my disability that I have to live with every day. It’s the most amazing feeling.”

Moving On Up

Once Wren started, there was no way she was going to stop. She wanted to go faster and jump higher. Graduate school plans (and a full scholarship) were put on hold, and Wren made the move across the country to Kentucky to pursue her showjumping dreams.

In just three years, Wren went from never having jumped a course to competing at the 1.0m level. And since para-showjumping is not yet a recognized discipline, she competes against able-bodied riders.

At this point in our conversation, my biggest question was simply, “How?” How do you speed around a course designed for able-bodied riders? How do you clear an obstacle you can’t see coming?

Normal vision (top) vs. what Wren sees (bottom).

In addition to having a ton of grit and nerves of steel, Wren explained some of the logistics that make it possible, “I do use a few accommodations for safety reasons. My main accommodation is a bluetooth earpiece. It’s super important in the warm-up ring because there are a lot of moving parts. Obviously I have the course and my strides memorized, plus I have a mental map of where everything should be, but my trainer can assist if something goes wrong. My aid will also transcribe the course onto a giant whiteboard and then color code it. I can use the little vision that I have to memorize the lines and determine where the jumps go.”

While Wren's central vision is completely blank, she does have some peripheral vision which helps her detect some of her surroundings.

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“It’s like when you get out of the shower and the mirror is super foggy. I can see some general outlines, but I can’t make out the details. Fortunately in the jumper courses, we have brightly-colored jumps. So when I’m coming around a turn, I can kind of get my peripheral vision on the blue blur. I can’t tell if I’m straight or what exactly I’m getting my eye on, but I can at least see the blur and point the horse towards it, and then hopefully we get straight to the jump and my horse gets us over it."

The Reality of It All

Despite all of her positivity, Wren is not out of touch with reality. While it's amazing to hear of a rider overcoming such a substantial obstacle to fight for her dreams, it's an obstacle that most of us will never even have to think about.

“In all honesty, no matter what kind of accommodations I can access or the amount of work I put in, I’ll always be at a disadvantage. Just reality. If anything, that’s my motivation to work harder.”

Wren says she sometimes gets negative feedback because of her accommodations or her disability, especially at shows. “I have a good friend who competes in para-driving, and one thing she told me is: You’re always going to be fighting. No matter what."

This negativity almost always arises when she places well in competition, she explains.

“When I’m not doing well, no one questions it. As soon as I start winning, other competitors or trainers or parents will go to the judges and stewards and say things like, ‘This isn’t fair,’ or even, ‘A horse show is no place for a blind person.’

“I think no matter who you are, there will be people who talk behind your back. But it’s not always mean-spirited. I think it’s ignorant. Truthfully, there’s no reason someone could understand being visually impaired because they aren’t visually impaired, and they aren’t interacting with anyone who is. So, it’s coming from a place of ignorance, not hate.”

To counter the negativity, Wren believes just being out there raises awareness. When she’s at the barn or a show, people can watch her, talk to her, and get to know her. They can see that she’s normal (well…as normal as anyone at a horse show!) and, hopefully, start to change their perceptions.

“I’ve had a mother message me and say, my daughter loved to doing flatwork and they told her she couldn’t jump, but now because of you, she started jumping. I’ve had people come up to me after a class and say, I didn’t know a blind person could do that.”

No matter what kind of accommodations I can access or the amount of work I put in, I’ll always be at a disadvantage. Just reality. If anything, that’s my motivation to work harder.

Of course, there’s a big part of her that just wants to be seen as Wren, as a good rider. It’s frustrating when people only see her disability.

“You know, every rider falls. When we ride horses, we sometimes fall. But when I have a fall, some people don’t see it as a rider having a fall, they see it as the blind girl falling. Not because I lost a stirrup or didn’t get the right distance, they see it as because I’m blind. They see my disability and none of my abilities.”

But at the end of the day, Wren says she realizes that she’s always going to stand out as a blind rider. She’s willing to embrace it, because she has the opportunity to work for change, for herself and for others. Wren plans to continue advocating for para-showjumping to be recognized as a discipline and included in the Paralympics (2028 is the goal!). “The most important thing, for me, is to raise awareness and create new pathways.”

Right now, Wren is at a point where she might not be able to continue riding because of finances. She’s funded by donations and grants, and her horse’s lease is almost up. “I’m in the process of finding a way to keep my horse, so I’ve been making a push to get my story out there and raise awareness so I can continue to train. Horses fill a void. For me, if I have to live with a disability, I need to have horses in my life.”

Even though she doesn’t know yet exactly how she’ll clear the next hurdle in her journey, Wren says horses have taught her that quality of life and happiness are worth fighting for, no matter what limitations life throws your way.

“I’ve never thought this was impossible. I’m a fundamentally optimistic person, and I truly believe that anything is possible.”

Follow Wren's journey on Instagram and Facebook.

Photos courtesy of Andrew Ryback Photography

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Written by Cheryl Witty-Castillo

Cheryl is a former competitive figure skater turned book nerd and equestrian sport junkie. She views the written word and photography as an intimate conversation with the power to both tell an individual's story and unite a community with a shared passion. When she isn't writing or teaching, Cheryl loves spending time at home with her babies and their various furry rescue pets and carnivorous plants.