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My Racing Story

My Racing Story

Joanne O'Riordan


I'm a sports columnist in The Irish Times and I was also part of RTE's coverage of the Tokyo Paralympic Games. I was born without all of my limbs in a rare condition known as Total Amelia - I am one of seven people in the world born this way. When I was 15, I campaigned on behalf of people with disabilities in Ireland who were facing a budget cut by the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny. The cut was reversed and I got to do a series of things - I got to go on The Late Late Show, and from that I went over to the United Nations in New York and gave a talk on technology for people with disabilities on the week of my 16th birthday.

When I was much younger, I met two other girls who were born with the exact same disability as I was. One was Tina who gave me a template to do basic tasks and then I met Monica, an Australian, and an adrenaline junkie a bit like myself. She, like me, would never have been able to satisfy the adrenaline junkie in us.

Sport was always a humungous passion in my life - traditionally it has been more gaelic football, hurling and football as well. At the start of every new year, I set myself a mini challenge - for example four years ago I set myself the challenge of doing yoga. I had lost all core mobility and strength and couldn't hold myself up. I wanted to regain that first and foremost - through yoga I managed to do that and then upgraded to pilates.

Seeing the equine community when it comes into Millstreet, Co Cork, for the showjumping festival every year and the camaraderie, friendship and togetherness is something I admire. Every year I have been kind of drawn to get on a horse and ride. When I was younger, I did riding for kids with somebody holding me. I was always interested in it but never really thought it was something for me because I never saw anyone like me on the back of a horse.

Just over six years ago I was asked by a family in Borris, Co Carlow to come up for their festival of ideas and writing. As it transpired, their great- great-granduncle in the 1800s was born the exact same as me. His name was Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh and I got to see the castle and where he grew up. He was an MP in the British Parliament for Wexford, and had seven children, and was a total party animal! They showed me the saddle he used and it resembles the seat I have on my wheelchair. I kept in touch with them and I recently got to sit in Arthur's original saddle.

I have worked in sports for four years and we had the Cant See, Can't Be campaign for women in sport in the Republic. Obviously, if you can't see your idols, you can't be your idols. It touched something within me as I've never seen someone without limbs doing match reports on the sidelines. I've never seen anyone without limbs doing punditry and I haven't seen somebody without limbs doing horse riding until I saw the pictures of Arthur. He was the template of what I wanted to do. When you have something visual you are not reinventing the wheel.

I know I definitely won't be able to emulate him, he had much better core stability than I have but this is an idea I want to try and see if it works for me. I reached out to the RDAI (Riding for the Disabled Association Ireland) and their response was that they would help me do it. That was the first time I was met with a positive response. They said they would have no idea if it would work but they would give it their best go. When people with disabilities are looking to do different things in education, healthcare or sport you are kind of met with a lot of people saying it could be a lot of work. To be met with such a positive reaction from the RDAI was a game changer in itself. Jim Bolger's daughter (Una Manning) emailed me and others from the equine industry have got in touch after my articles in my column and in The Irish Field.

Joanne tries out the saddle

From my end, we need people who are innovative and creative because Arthur's saddle isn't bespoke for me but at least we have the foundation and basis for what could work. I need people within the industry to look at Arthur's saddle, and look at me, and see what could possibly work.

All being well, I have my first lesson with the RDAI in Cork in February. The hope is that it will be on Arthur's original saddle from the 1800s. Only the back of it has been topped up by a saddlemaker 20 years ago, that is the only time it has been touched. It is really good quality and stiff leather - there's a back to it, sheepskin on the inside of it, a belt and the normal part of the saddle. My aim would be to have an individual saddle because when you are sitting on something nearly 200 years old there is a lot of pressure! Nobody else has ever sat on it. At some stage I do want to ride one of the massive stallions because that is what Arthur rode, he didn't have a tiny pony!

For me it is like a freedom. My mum and dad can get up and go for a walk in the local area but this is a different way for me to be outside in nature and to experience it.

Being a woman and a sports writer, Rachael Blackmore and Nina Carberry would be people I am total admirers of for breaking the mould consistently. Their drive and determination to be the same, but understanding that they are different, is something that I can definitely relate to. I want to be the same in that I want to have equal opportunities, but I know I am different in that if I get the opportunity hopefully it will bring down the door for other people with disabilities. I'm a full believer of what we bring into sport we bring into society.

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