LEXINGTON, Ky. — She was told she could never jump horses. That's because Wren Zimmerman is legally blindand she is working to advocate for people with disabilities in the horse riding industry.
“I am a legally blind equestrian show jumper, when I was 17 years old I was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease called Stargardt's macular dystrophy and it is progressive degenerative so it gets worse over time. So there's the possibility that I could go totally blind one day,” Zimmerman said.
Out of college, Zimmerman started working with a therapeutic riding center in Oregon and in exchange she would learn to ride the horses. Two years ago, Zimmerman decided to move from Oregon to Lexington to pursue her passion for horses more seriously.
“My central vision, about the size of a dinner plate, is totally blank and then the peripheral vision is very blurry. So my brain uses what it does see in the edge to guess what should be in the center so if there's kind of a blue blob over here and a green blob over here, it sort of guesses and says, Is it green. Is it blue and it ends up creating this sort of sparkly effect,” Zimmerman said.
Being legally blind, Zimmerman says her limited vision is completely blurry, and faces challenges with everyday activities like being unable to read or even drive.
“A lot of the challenges that I face are, you know, it takes me longer to go in and memorize the courses I tried to get my courses ahead of time, not being able to see my distances to jumps you know one of the hardest things is someone can adjust accordingly if they maybe make a wide turn if they need to move up to the jumper, back off with the jumpers I can't really see that so I do kind of struggle with getting the right distances to jumps,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman reached out to Jack Nash and his wife who have decided to help Zimmerman with her mission to change the perception around riding and disabilities, training her to become the show jumper she is meant to be.
“As far we've tried to just find out what it's like for her. It's hard for me, I have vision 20/20, I have never worn glasses, I don't understand the visually disabled, so I try not to treat her any differently than I would any other rider. In fact, I think she rides a lot more competently than riders that see just fine. So, the whole process of figuring out training walls, not necessarily disability walls, what can you do, what do you not. What are you able to do with your horse irrelevant of the fact you can't see the jumps all the time,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman says she has created a special bond with her horse, Valentine. Trusting and relying on him to know when to jump and to get through the course safely.
“My connection with my horse is very special. I like to call him my Seeing Eye horse if you will. And essentially you know everyone creates a bond with their horse. Part of the sport, you know, they say it's an individual sport but in reality it's actually a team sport, There's yourself your horse and your trainer,” Zimmerman said.
Memorizing each course beforehand and putting in multiple hours a week in training, Zimmerman hopes her hard work shows that people with disabilities, specifically the blind and visually impaired are capable of anything.
Wren says she hopes to spread awareness of her disease and encourage the horse industry to expand their competitions to allow for more people with disabilities to participate.