Caitlyn Saddington - Cheshire’s national dressage champion

Caitlyn in the saddle

Caitlyn in the saddle - Credit: Pics; John Cocks

A rare degenerative condition isn’t forcing Alsager teenager Caitlyn Saddington to rein in her ambitions.

Caitlyn and mum, Alison, with horses, Roko and Remy

Caitlyn and mum, Alison, with horses, Roko and Remy - Credit: Pics; John Cocks

The next Paralympics are taking place in Tokyo in 2020 and dressage rider, Caitlyn Saddington, 17, doesn’t want to say she’s confident she will be there but she’s already developing a taste for sushi! Of course, it’s not just a random ambition: Caitlyn has already won the Winter Para Dressage National Championship earlier this year.

‘I believe in aiming high,’ laughs Caitlyn who, when she was ten, was diagnosed with Friedriech’s Ataxia – a very rare neuro muscular degenerative condition – which affects the heart, eyesight, muscles and ability to walk. She received her diagnosis on the day the 2012 Paralympics began although at that point, she had never even sat on a horse and certainly never dreamed she would be hoping to compete in 2020.

‘Swimming was my thing. I still enjoy it and although my mum Alison had done some riding when she was about my age, at that point I had never imagined riding, let alone winning a national competition. It wasn’t until I began to suffer with curvature of the spine, a couple of years after my diagnosis, that mum thought there could be no harm in trying riding as an alternative therapy. So, we went along to the Riding for the Disabled Association,’ explains Caitlyn who soon found she loved dressage, had a natural ability for it, quickly won a regional competition and, as a bonus, discovered that the curve of her spine began to reduce slightly.

No surprise then that Caitlyn was determined to go as far as she could and despite being told that dressage was notoriously difficult for para riders, she looked for an instructor who would be able to help her realise her ambitions. Luckily, she found Olivia Voce of Long Style Stud, near Alsager, who instantly believed in her.

Caitlyn in the saddle led by mum, Alison

Caitlyn in the saddle led by mum, Alison - Credit: Pics; John Cocks

Olivia is an experienced and very successful dressage rider, a member of Team GB and a respected trainer but she soon discovered that the world of para dressage has its own particular rules; including the fact that, as the field is so small, young riders compete against adults.

‘There has been a lot to learn! There are five official grades of disabled rider and accommodations are made within each grade. Caitlyn has been diagnosed as Grade One, the highest level of impairment. This means her mum can be her commander, going into the arena, reading Caitlyn each movement at a time. She is also allowed two whips, can wear strap stirrups and have looped reigns. Mind you, none of us knew all this when we began and it was while before the penny dropped and we actually asked why some competitors had looped straps,’ explains Olivia.

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Sometimes though, Olivia does have to wait for Caitlyn to let her know that a physicality may have deteriorated.

‘Yes, mum and Olivia sometimes do get a bit frustrated with me. For example, my hearing was becoming worse but I didn’t immediately tell them. When I did, they resolved it by getting me headphones through which I could hear them: unfortunately, they’re one way and I can’t speak back. They’re pretty happy about that aspect,’ smiles Caitlyn who, with her mum and Olivia view each new difficulty as a challenge, not a problem.

Caitlyn is assisted by Olivia Voce

Caitlyn is assisted by Olivia Voce - Credit: Pics; John Cocks

Caitlyn’s eyesight has recently deteriorated and she can now only see a metre past the horse’s ears, making it difficult to see markers, but they’re all confident they will find a way around it.

Caitlyn rides two horses, Dreamallo and Nirvano Morroko, and she added: ‘I won the Winter National with Roko – to give him his stable name – but I absolutely adore them both. Mind you, when I first saw Roko I gulped a bit as he is 15 hands, with a very big movement and I’d never been on a horse that big. We trust each other completely although, that said, I don’t know if he quite trusts my taste in music: after all, for our freestyle, we performed to ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ by Britney Spears!

Caitlyn has already made a splash in the para equestrian world but her Facebook and Twitter accounts have followers from horse lovers all over the UK and, in a bid to share responsibility for her music choices, she is inviting followers to suggest suitable music for her next competition, The Summer Para Dressage National.

‘Obviously, it has to suit our routine but Roko is hopeful that followers might have better musical taste,’ laughs Caitlyn.

Luckily, Roko and Remy – Dreamallo’s stable name – both enjoy travelling, as para dressage events and competitions tend to be dotted all over the country.

‘I enjoy it too, but my condition does mean that I tire and I have to be kept very warm both travelling and when performing. There are heated jackets available – what a fabulous invention – but travelling is expensive and that’s the priority right now.

‘Luckily, I do have some sponsors, including Ashbrook Equine Hospital but it’s great when people donate or send a kind message. It makes me feel connected and that people are rooting for me. It’s pretty heart-warming, so maybe I don’t need that heated jacket after all,’ laughs Caitlyn who, as she has ridden her way to Winter National Para Dressage Champion just five years after first sitting on a horse, is possibly right to start to start developing that taste for sushi!