I loved loved writing this piece and Jo’s images were just breathtaking! This, the second in my sharing of past In The Country articles, I have always been captivated and in awe of high-level dressage and even more in awe of Paralympic riders just like Natasha Baker OBE.
Photography by the talented Jo Hansford.
Decorated Paralympian winning two gold medals at the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London on Cabral (JP) in the the Paralympic Dressage discipline, Natasha Baker MBE takes the time to share her highs, lows and where her love of horses began.
“I think I was passionate about horses before I even knew I was,” confesses Natasha as we iron out technological teething issues with Microsoft Teams. “I blame Mum, she rode competitively and even competed at HOYS. I grew up on a farm, surrounded by horses, so my love of horses was organic and happened almost from day one I believe. I’ve always been fortunate enough to have them right outside my front door.”
Recalling how she was plonked in a basket-saddle onboard mum, Lorraine’s old pony before she could even walk. “I took every opportunity to be around them, I’d come home from school and race to the yard to groom the ponies, any chance of getting in the saddle I grasped with both hands.”
Defining the childhood dream:
At just 14 months old, Natasha contracted a virus called Transverse Myelitis and was left with permanent nerve damage, loss of balance, sensation and severe weakness in her legs. At aged 8 or 9 Natasha was introduced to the Riding For The Disabled Association (RDA) and explains how, “it totally changed my life. Being around other disabled children who were riding, suitable ponies who understood I didn’t use my legs, instructors who knew how to help me and specialist equipment I could use really was life changing.”
For many pony-mad young girls, riding schools and early experience is so moulding and important in laying foundations for equestrian involvement in later life, Natasha explains how, “We didn’t really know about the RDA until I was introduced by my school. I used to go to conventional riding schools who’s instructors and ponies had no experience with disabled riders. Having new instructors each week and ponies who just didn’t understand limited any progression.”
Natasha continues, “I was lucky enough to go to a school which had disability really well integrated within the curriculum, so I had access to hydrotherapy and physiotherapy. One day my physiotherapist called my Mum and pleaded with her to take me to an RDA centre, all she does is talk about horses, I remember her saying.”
And so, bound for the RDA aged eight or nine, a new chapter of Natasha’s life began. “It was a real family effort, Mum had been cautious not to push horses on me growing up, I had ample opportunity to find my own calling through brownies and swimming but I kept coming back to horses, I am sure much to Mum’s joy.”
Natasha shares with me how her local RDA, South Buckinghamshire really got to know the Baker’s as a family and recognised the collective effort they all put in to support Natasha’s passion. “Mum used to teach every Saturday and Dad always set off early to open our greengrocers, so my Grandad would get up early every Saturday without fail to take me for my lessons, he also raised a lot of money for the RDA too.”
The defining moment for Natasha was during the Sydney 2000 Paralympics, “I remember sitting in the living room, it was the first time I’d even seen Dressage, let alone para-Dressage. To see other riders like me, I was in awe of what I was watching. The ambitious, 10 year old me sat and thought if they can do it, there’s absolutely no reason I can’t and seeing those dancing horses I decided then and there, I wanted to do it.”
And so, a sassy 10 year old Natasha boldly announced to her parents, ‘I’m going to win a Paralympic gold medal one day.’ Explaining how she believes her parents never doubted her, “I’ve always set my mind to things and gone out of my way to achieve them despite setbacks.”
From then, the anti was well and truly upped, waltzing into her next RDA lesson she recalls how she approached her instructor and said, ‘right Clive, I’m going to win a Paralympic gold medal’ and his response was, ‘right ok, let’s get started.’ They worked hard together to progress Natasha’s riding and one of the unique things about her local RDA centre was its heavy involvement in sport riding. Natasha describes how, “one of GB team’s first stops after the Sydney Paralympics was our centre.
I had the honour of meeting Lee Pearson, who really stood out to me when watching the games in awe on TV. He even offered to let me touch and wear his medal, and I responded with, ‘nope, I am going to make sure the first gold medal I touch and wear is my own,’ I think with that both Lee and the team were taken aback but I had my sights set and indeed the first medal I held was my own.”
Although walking short distances is achievable for Natasha, when on a horse she cannot use her legs and so the way in which she rides is different to others. Her horses are retrained to follow voice commands and seat aids. “I have a command for each pace and movement I want to perform. Once I get to know the horse, I can literally think something and they do it. They have to be highly attuned to my differing aids. It looks effortless, easy and all the things we want it to be but there is a huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to achieve that just like in any discipline and any sport.”
“Para riders are granted the use of compensation aids which are adapted to each person, given that every disability is different. For me, my voice is my legs.” She is also allowed to carry two whips to further replace her legs, “if my voice isn’t working in that instance, I can give them a tickle as a back-up,” Natasha informs me.
Many horse lovers would relate to the feeling of freedom and escapism being in the saddle gives you, in agreement Natasha describes how this feeling is doubled for her – their legs become hers when she is in the saddle, “to be able to get on a horse and go for a canter is a feeling like no other.”
Sharing with Natasha my own recollection of the heartwarming moment when my gentle giant Simba met my wheelchair bound father for the first time, and how he seemed to instinctively understand that he needed to be gentle towards him. Where Simba would usually throw his weight around or rub against me, it would have been a very different outcome if he’d done so to my Dad, but it was an indescribable moment and all I can say is he just knew.
“I firmly believe horses have a sixth- sense, they know I can’t move out of the way quickly,” states Natasha confidently, “para-riders perhaps have even more of a connection with their horses than what able-bodied riders have. This is why the RDA is so special, all of their ponies really take care of their riders.”
Achieving dreams and dancing her way to gold
Natasha’s childhood dream became a reality at the London 2012 Paralympic Games when she won gold on Cabral (JP), her horse of a lifetime. What’s more, the champion duo secured a second gold medal in the Freestyle event just 48 hours later. This double gold medal achievement was recognised by the late Queen who awarded her with an MBE.
“I felt so lucky I was able to have the opportunity, we went into London hoping to come away with just a medal of a colour and to come away with not one but two gold medals was beyond all of our imaginations.”
Natasha recalls, pride audible as she recounts the moment, “even just entering the arena in London, I was the first British rider to enter that arena. I remember the erupting applause from the crowd who were so supportive and happy just because I was wearing a union flag. To win gold and do everyone so proud was beyond any of my expectations, it was a surreal moment and I’m unsure its even completely sunk in yet, over a decade on.”