Original MTC: http://www.curefa.org/meet-the-community/helen-kearney
Name: Helen Kearney
What do you want to discuss? My sport. I am a para equestrian athlete and I represented Ireland at the Paralympics twice and I am working towards representing Ireland in Paris in 2024
When did you start this? I started horse riding when I was 10. I started aiming towards the Paralympics and getting serious about my training when I was 19.
What made you choose this? In a lot of ways, I fell into horse riding. My younger sister was dying to try horse riding and my mum thought it would be good if the two of us went, and that is how I started. I was actually petrified of the horses when I began but I guess there is a real adrenaline rush doing something you’re afraid to do and it has spiraled from there. I began horse riding when I was 10 and I was diagnosed with FA when I was 13. As many people know, getting a diagnosis at that age is really tough, so my mum decided to get me a pony and let me pursue horse riding. She thought it would just be for a few years and as my health faded, she thought horse riding would not be possible. As time went on, we realized that the physical activity involved in horse riding was really good for me physically as well as mentally.
My parents are both from rural agricultural backgrounds and they were also really good at encouraging me to be active, so I guess horse riding was a nice fit for me because it was something outside in the fresh air. For a long time after I began horse riding, I was able to compete in able-bodied classes and it was a great boost for me to be able to compete against able-bodied people even though I had a disability. Dressage is what I specialize in now. It’s a systematic way of gradually improving the horse’s way of going and even though I cannot improve my own disability, I can improve my horse’s way of going. In a lot of ways, I would describe it as doing dressage. It has helped me do things my disability does not allow me to do.
Does FA impact this? Please share any adaptations you’ve made to be able to participate in horse riding. I use lots of different things to help. My dad made a brilliant ceiling-mounted hoist and it helps me get up on the horse because that is a really big struggle. I have loops on my reins and this helps me not lose my reins. I have magnets in my boots and stirrups so my feet stay in the stirrups. I had boots made that have orthotics in them because I end up on my toes a lot and fall out on my ankles. I need a saddle with good support with big knee blocks and a deep seat to help me stay in it. Sometimes I use two sticks to help me send the horse forward because my legs don’t work so well, but I find the sticks can be difficult to coordinate so some days I don’t use them. If my horse is feeling forward I don’t need them but if he doesn’t want to go, I do.
Can you tell us more? I had great success at the Paralympics 2012, where I came away with 3 medals. I went to the Paralympics in Rio in 2016 when I came about middle of the field. I was very disappointed in the moment because I thought I would do better and initially I let myself become quite deflated. I thought that my lower marks were really to do with FA and the fact that I had progressed. However, I did more analysis afterwards. I reviewed my performances and I found there were a lot of contributing factors. The progression of FA is very real but it is very difficult for me to say how much of an impact it had.
There were also a number of other factors. A big factor was that I had a different horse. On paper, he was much more impressive than my London 2012 horse but in reality, he was not nearly as strong as I needed. Both horses had very different qualities and they have helped me pick out my qualities I need. My mindset was very different in Rio versus in London. There were lots of good things about London and the biggest one was it was very close to Ireland and it was as close as we could ever get so it was like a home games.
I definitely was very ambitious and I wanted to medal in London but in Rio my priorities were different. I was training very hard, but my overall outlook was different and I wanted different things from my life by the time 2016 happen versus 2012.
I would love to medal again but I am realistic. There is absolutely no denying FA has a much greater impact on my life now than it did 10 or 12 years ago, so everything has become so much more physically demanding for me. They’re also has been a dramatic change in para dressage. It is getting more and more professional and the standard is continuously going up. I have different priorities now to what I had in 2012. In 2012, I was 23, but I will be 35 in Paris 2024. I have had so many more experiences and I want lots of things from life––not just horses and medals.
With all that being said, I absolutely love horse riding and I am very lucky to have been able to pursue a passion. Even though I cannot do all I want, I still enjoy getting out and I am always very grateful for support I get.
Please note that this post represents an individual’s experience and is not medical advice. Please consult with your doctor about the safest and best way to manage your FA diagnosis.