Waterlooville blind horse rider loves life in the saddle

Zoe Hanscombe doesn’t let anything stop her from getting back in the saddle.

Tuesday, 6th July 2021, 9:36 am
Updated Tuesday, 6th July 2021, 9:37 am

Whether that is falling off a horse, a bad riding lesson or her impaired eyesight.

Born with a rare eye cancer, the mum-of-two from Waterlooville is registered blind. But that doesn’t stop Zoe from doing what she loves most – horse riding.

Having worked at Horndean horse yard at 16, she is no stranger to a stable. In 2020, Zoe, 45, achieved her life-long dream and bought her first horse, Hugo. Now her days are filled with riding lessons, hacks and, of course, mucking out – but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Zoe Hanscombe with horse Hugo at Catherington Equestrian Centre Picture: Mike Cooter (020721)
Zoe Hanscombe with horse Hugo at Catherington Equestrian Centre Picture: Mike Cooter (020721)

‘I have always wanted my own horse. My dream is to canter along the beach one day,’ says Zoe, looking adoringly at Hugo. ‘With riding, I love the freedom of movement and the thrill of it. I love adrenaline.’

It was while Zoe worked as a stable hand in her teens that she fell in love with horses. She says: ‘I used to muck out and do general jobs around the yard in exchange for lessons.

‘I love animals but have a special soft spot for dogs and horses.

‘It was about three years ago that I decided I wanted to learn to ride again. I gave up at 16 because life got in the way but I wanted to get back in the saddle.’

Zoe with Hugo in action. Picture: Mike Cooter (020721)

Zoe knew she had a task on her hands to find a local stable which would accomodate someone who was visually impaired. She explains: ‘I have bilateral retinoblastoma which is a type of child eye cancer. I was diagnosed when I was five months old.

‘There were such bad tumours in my left eye that it had to be removed and my right eye has had a lot of radiotherapy. I still have tumours but they are dormant.

‘I have to go to Moorfields Eye Hospital once a year for a check up and I will do that for the rest of my life.

‘All I see mostly is colours and sometimes movement but there is no definition.’

Zoe with horse Hugo and trainer Elsbeth Jeffery from Catherington Equestrian Centre. Picture: Mike Cooter (020721)

Consultants and doctors have suggested that they could improve Zoe’s condition, but she is not willing to gamble what little sight she has.

‘They have suggested that they can make my vision in my right eye better but I know there is nothing they can do,’ says Zoe. ‘Even if they offered me an eye transplant, I don’t think I would take it because of the risks. I don’t want to lose the remaining sight I have left.

‘I don’t know any differently and my sight has always been like this. I think I would feel quite scared if I could see properly and I would rather it stayed as it was.’

Five years ago, Zoe got her first guide dog, Revels, who has helped her enormously. She says: ‘I got a guide dog called Revels five years ago and she has done wonders for my confidence. I’ve always wanted to stay independent.

‘When I go out, most people think I am training her. Some people have said I am far too young to be blind.’

Independence has always been high on Zoe’s priority list. After she married, she spent much of her time at home looking after her two sons, – now 18 and 21 – baking and walking her dogs.

Zoe says: ‘I never used to work until four years ago when I was employed by Open Sight, Hampshire. I work in tech for visually impaired groups across the county, teaching them how to use mobile phones and other devices.

‘When I go out, a lot of people talk to my husband and ignore me, as if I’m not a human being. I find that quite annoying.

‘Riding has given me my independence and confidence. I love my life now.’

After a thorough stable search, Zoe found Catherington Equestrian Centre which has been ‘brilliant’. It is just a short walk from her home, meaning she can get there independently and does not need to rely on her husband and sons for transport.

The situation now is perfect for her. But not every stable she visited was quite so accommodating.

Zoe explains: ‘There weren’t many stables who could help me. I did go to a stable in Hampshire which was registered as a disabled riding centre. They weren’t confident in me doing anything independently and led me in walking and trotting.

‘They didn’t give me a chance. I did fall off, everyone falls off and gets back on again, but it wasn’t my fault. The person leading couldn’t keep up with the trot so the horse stopped and I fell.’

After that bad experience, Zoe started riding at Catherington Equestrian Centre in 2017. But initially, she didn’t think they would be able to help her.

She explains: ‘When I went up for a lesson, I got on the horse and my instructor, Elsbeth Jeffery, told me to show her what I could do. I felt so safe because I knew the horse couldn’t get out of the arena.

‘Elsbeth has been absolutely amazing. She has never taught someone visually impaired before but it's been incredible. She has never made me feel stupid or incapable.

‘I now know my way around the manège but the instructors know not to shout the letters to me because I can’t see them. However, I can hear everything while riding, whether that’s other people, horses and obviously what my instructor is telling me to do.’

Hugo was the most gentle horse Zoe had ever ridden and she always had a soft spot for him. But her dream was to own a horse by herself. She says: ‘I loved Hugo but he wasn’t mine so I couldn’t take him out of the stables. He is the best horse I could ask for. Even if we were approaching something, he would stop or slow down. I don’t have to do much with him.

‘The stables offered to help me look for a horse but then lockdown came along which made it harder.

‘After some negotiation, I was able to buy Hugo from the owner in October 2020 but he lives at the stables.

‘My husband and I go for hacks every Sunday. My husband rides his bike and I take Hugo.

‘My youngest son comes up to the yard a lot and helps me bring Hugo in from the field, otherwise it would take me about five hours to find him,’ adds Zoe, laughing.

Now she is one step closer to ticking off her bucket-list dream of cantering on a beach thanks to her riding lessons. Zoe says: ‘I’m really learning to canter on him now.

‘He doesn’t really get spooked when I am with him though. Because I can’t see what is happening, I don’t tense up. He can feel me relax on him so it doesn’t make him more scared.’

It is fair to say that Catherington Equestrian Centre has changed Zoe’s life. ‘I love it there. They are family-run and will bend over backwards to help you.

‘The girls at the yard are so nice. They make sure it’s so clean and tidy so I don’t trip over anything. I know the route to lead Hugo from the stable to the arena for my lessons. I sometimes share the arena with other girls and they know just to get out of my way now.’

Zoe’s story is proof that nothing should stop you giving up on your dreams. She adds: ‘I would say to anyone, not just those who are visually impaired, that you should never give up on what you want. Be determined enough to make sure you reach those goals. My husband and sons have been such a huge support.

‘As long as you’re willing to adapt, anything is possible.’

Find Zoe’s blog on Facebook by searching for ‘Blind Horse Rider’.