It’s a balmy summer day in Lexington, Kentucky and Wren Blae Zimmerman, 31, and her horse, Cassicasca “Valentine” are preparing to negotiate an obstacle course at a show jumping competition. While the sport of show jumping can be difficult for even the most seasoned riders, navigating the course poses additional challenges for Zimmerman who is legally blind.
From the time she was a young girl, Zimmerman was fascinated by horses, yet never had the opportunity to take riding lessons. After being diagnosed at the age of 17 with Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, a rare and incurable retina disease that causes central vision loss, Zimmerman wasn’t sure if riding horses could ever be a part of her future.
“As a child, I wore glasses, but 14 years ago, I began having serious vision problems and experiencing blurriness,” Zimmerman says. “My eye doctor referred me to several ophthalmologists and retina specialists, but despite numerous tests, they couldn’t find a combination of lenses to get me back to 20/20 vision.”
As Zimmerman headed to college to pursue a business degree in marketing and management, she found her vision became progressively worse. Halfway through college, she became legally blind.
“My peripheral vision is blurry and my central vision is blank,” Zimmerman explains comparing her eyesight to getting out of the shower and looking into a foggy mirror.
After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in business, Zimmerman had planned to pursue a master’s degree, but with her loss of vision, her career choice no longer seemed feasible.
“Tasks such as reading data sheets on a computer became increasingly difficult,” she says. “My vision loss tends to get worse and then plateaus, so given the uncertainty, I decided to take a break from college and pursue my dream of competing as a show jumper.”
“My vision loss tends to get worse and then plateaus, so given the uncertainty, I decided to take a break from college and pursue my dream of competing as a show jumper.”
Zimmerman began volunteering at a therapeutic riding school that offered her the chance to learn how to ride a horse in exchange for helping out with the program.
She quickly found that riding was everything she thought it would be.
“When I’m on a horse it offers me a sense of freedom,” she says. “I feel like I’m flying.”
Refusing to Quit
Once Zimmerman felt confident in her riding abilities, she confided in the school’s therapeutic riding instructor that she’d always wanted to compete in show jumping, an equestrian event where horse and riders compete on a timed obstacle course.
“I was told that because of my lack of vision, I would never be able to effectively control a horse or safely compete as a show jumper,” Zimmerman says.
Other trainers echoed this sentiment, but despite the lack of encouragement, Zimmerman persisted. When she met Vicki Zacharias, a trainer at Rain Creek Farms in Portland, Ore., she braced herself for rejection, but was pleasantly surprised when Zacharias readily agreed to train to be a show jumper.
Under Zachiarias’ instruction, Zimmerman learned how to navigate an obstacle course on horseback and jump over a set course within a designated amount of time. Soon, Zimmerman was competing against riders who had their full vision. Within four years, she was vying against seasoned show jumpers at the 1.00-meter level, over fences 3’3” in height. Realizing that she wanted to continue competing, Zimmerman decided to move to Lexington, Kentucky two years ago.
Zimmerman says her horse “lends her his eyes” and that on horseback she can read his body language and anticipate his movements.
Her boyfriend of four years, Nick McMillen drives her to the barn every day where she trains and to all of her competitions. He also serves as her aide, helping her to walk the courses before an event, counting the strides between each jump, and then transcribing the course onto a giant whiteboard and color coding it.
“I’m able to use the little vision that I have to memorize the course and where the jumps are,” she says. “As I’m competing, I also use a Bluetooth earpiece so that my trainer can alert me if anything changes or goes wrong.”
“When I was in college and lost my eyesight, I struggled with depression. Riding horses and finding a passion, helped me through that period in my life.”
Now that Zimmerman is living her dream, she hopes to inspire others and show others with vision loss and disabilities that anything is possible.
“When I was in college and lost my eyesight, I struggled with depression,” she admits. “Riding horses and finding a passion, helped me through that period in my life.”
Zimmerman is currently striving to make para-showjumping a future Paralympics event where riders with vision loss and conditions such as cerebral palsy can compete. She also works to secure private donations and grants in order to cover her training and competition fees and hopes to move up a level and prepare for bigger jumps.
“Rather than dwelling on the things I can’t do, I try to focus on what I can do,” Zimmerman says. “I also hope I can help to change the perception of what it means to be vision-impaired.”