Help Sarah reach the Riding For the Disabled Association national championships
PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 September 2014
A talented rider from Lancashire could make it to the top - if she only had a horse. Can you help?
‘I’ve managed to save having part of my lower leg amputated – after that, how hard can it be to win a Paralympics gold?’
The words come, with gales of laughter, from Sarah Underwood. You would struggle to find a better role model for anyone suffering physical hardship.
Sarah has the potential to be one of the country’s finest disabled riders and has her sights set on making the 2020 Paralympics. But she needs help and hopes it might come from a generous Lancashire Life reader.
Life looked so promising for this engaging young woman, who grew up in Ainsworth near Bury. After attending St Monica’s High School in Prestwich and Hull University, she embarked on a career as a clinical psychologist in the NHS.
Then, seven years ago an old ankle injury, caused by a lifelong devotion to sport and a passion for Irish dancing, required surgery. It was then that her world was turned upside down.
A catastrophic problem during the operation caused major nerve damage which has since required several corrective procedures and many sessions of intensive rehabilitation at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Worse still was the prospect of losing part of her leg.
‘I spent four years on crutches but the prospect of losing part of a limb drove me to go out and buy a set of swimming weights and I built myself back up by doing 70 lengths of the pool every day,’ says Sarah.
The failed operation brought a promising career to a halt and she was forced to sell her house and most of her possessions and move back home to her parents’ home in Ainsworth
‘Riding had always been a passion of mine,’ says Sarah, now 35. ‘I’d been riding ponies and horses since I can remember and, while I was doing lots of physio, I knew that riding again would really do me good.
‘I had a try on a mechanical horse and it made me realise that riding is so good for your posture but I needed to be outside because it’s just so exhilarating.
‘People thought this was a catastrophically disastrous idea but I started riding four years ago and became involved with the Riding For the Disabled Association (RDA).
‘It really has made such a difference to my life. The injury means I get frustrated sometimes and have a bad five minutes. Like everyone, I can get angry but I quickly realise that isn’t going to get you anywhere.’
Her work as an ambassador with the charity meant she was invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace and she met Princess Anne, an RDA patron, at Guards Polo Club in Windsor Great Park.
‘I could have sat on the couch, eaten biscuits and watched Jeremy Kyle but I was on crutches for four years – that’s an awful lot of biscuits!
‘Instead I counted my blessings – particularly that I live in a country with free medical care and I’ve stayed positive. I decided that if I did lose part of my leg, well, I still had the rest of my body to help me have a productive life.’
Happily, that hasn’t happened and it soon became clear that Sarah had a special talent for showjumping and dressage. She has qualified on three consecutive occasions for the RDA national championships but she has one major problem – she can’t afford her own a horse.
‘I am the only rider at my level in the region but I have to borrow horses and even that’s not always possible. Myerscough College supported me and provided a horse. They saw in me the qualities you need to be a winner but, sadly, the horse had a problem which meant it had to be put down.
‘I’m finding myself competing against people who have a stable of horses, sponsors, trainers, physios, transport, all sorts of back-up – everything I haven’t got.
‘There have been occasions when I’ve only managed to get a horse 20 minutes before my ride – the commentator on the PA couldn’t read out the horse’s name because he didn’t know it.’
Chris Pollitt and Mike Kidd, who run the Wrea Green Equitation Centre on the Fylde, are great supporters of Sarah. ‘Sarah is the perfect person to train and with the right support there is no reason why she shouldn’t make it,’ says Chris. ‘Her determination is huge.
‘Horse riding is unfairly regarded as an elitist sport but it is true that owning and maintaining your own horse for competition can be extremely expensive. We are hoping that someone with a horse they can no longer ride will see her story and give her the help she needs. She needs to be out there on the circuit and competing so that her talent is spotted.’
Caroline Ward, a national official with the RDA, adds: ‘Sarah is an extremely talented rider, who has demonstrated an extraordinary degree of tenacity and bravery. She is a great ambassador for RDA – passionate about her sport and also a dedicated RDA volunteer.
‘To reach her full potential as a rider, Sarah will need the partnership of a very special horse. Sarah has never once allowed her disability to limit her in any way. I sincerely hope that her dedication, commitment and positive attitude will be rewarded with the financial support she so desperately needs.’
Sarah is a modest young woman who obviously finds it hard to blow her own trumpet. But she concludes: ‘If I didn’t believe I could do this I wouldn’t be wasting everyone’s time and energy. It would be cheaper to just buy a yacht!’
Anyone who would like to help Sarah can contact her on 07898 898811 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here to help
Chris Pollett has been at volunteer with the RDA for 40 years. She and Mike run the Wrea Green centre providing an indoor riding school, facilities for 30 horses and ponies together with a heated spectator gallery plus a variety of lecture rooms.
Through its Horse Power offshoot, they are also a nationally recognised training and examination centre for the people who want to make a career in the equine industry.
Local authorities use the centre to provide riding experiences for young people who have problems at home or school. It also works with the RDA and has close links with Beryl Clarkson and the Seaside Venture scheme which provides riding and holidays for disabled people.