How a Blind Rider Helps the Disabled Community
When rider Wren Zimmerman enters a new ring, she creates a mind map of the course that other riders don’t need to have.
She walks the perimeter of each new arena, noting each quarter line and each half line.
Then, her helper holds her hand on each jump so she can get a sense of where she is in relation to the center of it. Then it will resume the course.
Why does she have to learn a class in such an unconventional way?
She is legally blind.
Zimmerman, now based in Lexington, has Stargardt disease, a rare eye disease that does not cause vision loss until adulthood. The National Institute of Health estimates that 30,000 to 200,000 people in the United States may be affected by Stargardt disease. It is caused by a genetic mutation and results in progressive vision loss.
Although Zimmerman is not completely blind, most of his central vision is blurred. She must rely on her peripheral vision to do most activities, including show jumping.
“My central vision is totally blank,” the pilot described. “My peripheral vision is very, very blurry. Instead of this central vision being totally black and white, my brain uses the peripherals to guess what should be in the central part which is empty. It creates this shimmering effect because it grabs things left and right. He constantly grabs these faded colors to guess what should be in the center. Anything directly in front of me, I will miss entirely.
If she looks towards the horizon, Zimmerman sees a drop of green (grass) and a hint of blue (sky). But his life wasn’t always like that. Although she’s been wearing glasses since she was 2 years old, Zimmerman was not diagnosed with Stargardt disease until a traffic accident in high school.
“The moon and the streetlights were blending together and I just couldn’t see where the road was,” she recalled. “I couldn’t see the details of the car in front of me and it was scary. I stopped and called my parents and said, ‘Can you pick me up? I can not see.
Despite her diagnosis, Zimmerman continued most of her activities. She went on to earn a degree in Human Geography from Queen’s University in Canada. She had also started riding at a therapeutic riding center to fulfill a childhood sweetheart.
“Ever since I was little, I was obsessed with horses. I would see a horse on the side of the road and I wanted to stop and look at it,” Zimmerman recalled.
As she found joy in her post-diagnosis world, things slowly changed. It wasn’t until college that she realized Stargardt’s disease would prevent her from living the life she had originally planned. The accommodations she needed made her success in business school even more difficult.
“I use a large TV screen that I connect to my computer,” she explains. “Not being able to have this on the go and having to work through the amount of courses, databases and financial projects has become incredibly difficult. It was then that I really started to realize that the path I was on was not impossible, but incredibly difficult. ”
It was then that Zimmerman found herself considering another career: show jumping. To date, she has participated in several competitions against able-bodied riders. Although she didn’t need lodging initially, Zimmerman’s help helps her learn lessons ahead of competition days.
The United States Equestrian Federation supported Zimmerman’s efforts to compete through his visual impairment
“USEF’s vision is to bring the joy of equestrian sports to as many people as possible,” said USEF’s Vicki Lowell. “We salute Wren’s commitment and passion for show jumping. Sharing her story inspires others to consider what is possible.
Zimmerman recently retired her horse, Cassicasca, and has not competed since, but she is in talks with USEF and other organizations about how to make show jumping more inclusive for the disability community. She has even been in contact with the international organization for equestrian sports, or the Fédération Equestre Internationale, about her cause.
Ultimately, Zimmerman wants to make show jumping an officially recognized Paralympic sport.
“I can only imagine people with disabilities or other challenges they face who receive feedback that stops them from pursuing what they love,” Zimmerman explained. “For me, it was a kind of realization over time. By having a disability myself, I have the power — the power to change other people’s lives.
According to the International Paralympic Committee’s website, “Any sport wishing to be considered for the Paralympic Games must apply at least seven years prior to the Paralympic Games in question.”
If show jumping were to be touted as a potential new sport, then the earliest it could appear at the Paralympic Games would be at the 2032 Games in Brisbane, Australia. The IPC’s website also states that potential new sports are evaluated according to “the principles of ‘quality, quantity and universality’.
“There’s a lot of conversations about things that could happen,” said Zimmerman’s assistant and partner Nick McMillen. “It’s just a matter of time and organization so people can get them back.”
Zimmerman is gaining traction within the equestrian community and continues to have conversations with official governing bodies. She recently spoke with representatives of the World Equestrian Festival, which is one of the largest equestrian events in Europe.
While Zimmerman celebrates these milestones along the way, she knows her work doesn’t end after show jumping officially becomes a Paralympic sport.
“All of these things add up to this big goal of having show jumping recognized as a Paralympic sport, but it doesn’t stop there. Once that happens, you get into programming and really start rolling athletes and competing to ensure the long-term success of this whole program.
Although he is not currently competing as an active jumper, Zimmerman has no problem going through the arduous process of trying to make show jumping at the Paralympic Games. Why? According to her, the answer is simple.
“If I can help, even a little, to change that or pave the way for others to do it more easily, then why not?”