Heather's Driving Ambition

Posted on Wednesday 9th July, 2014

UK thalidomide survivor, Heather Clark, talks about her lifelong passion for horses.  After falling off and losing her nerve, temporarily, she turned to carriage driving and has represented the UK in international competitions. 

Due to the effects of the thalidomide drug prescribed to my mother to combat morning sickness during pregnancy, I was born virtually without arms or legs.  Doctors stated that, without limbs, I wouldn't have the balance to sit-up, so would lie down almost permanently, thus contracting chest infections and die young.  52 years later.........!
Heather Clark
My mother was conscious of the fact that I couldn't actively play out with friends, so stuck me on a pony at the age of four (and to divert my attention away from wanting to be a ballerina!)

Artificial legs somewhat thwarted this ambition, but on horseback I now found freedom of movement - seeing over hedges and looking at/down on people rather than up as it had been thus far - and for the first time I was in control of a situation, by holding the reins and giving the pony verbal commands.  Obviously the pony was being led, but to me it was palpable.  Balance in the saddle was a little precarious but a Western (cowboy) saddle supported me reasonably well. 

As I got older my artificial legs were made longer and balance in the saddle became an issue.  Plus my ambitions grew to do more than just amble round a field, and all too often I found myself either on the floor or hanging underneath the horse (perhaps - not surprisingly - resulting in me losing my nerve).  Not losing my love of horses though, I would pester/persuade my long-suffering father to take me to horse shows. 

Fast-forward twenty or so years.  I had a chance meeting with a Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) carriage driving volunteer who, after little persuasion, introduced me to carriage driving with neither of us understanding why I hadn't discovered it before. 

The new found hobby soon took over and became a passion bordering on obsession; it wasn't long before I wanted to do more than my local RDA could offer, so I found a carriage driver willing to take me on, adapt a carriage and reins, find a loan pony (in case things didn't work out) and eventually one of my own that enabled me to compete at Club and National Horse Driving Trials on a level playing field against more physically able competitors, ultimately representing GB at Para Equestrian World Championships three times. 

For years horses have been driven and used as a form of transport for day-to-day existence, but modern horse driving trials came into existence in 1968 when HRH Prince Philip initiated the formulation of the rules for the new sport.  Now, approaching its 50th anniversary, the sport is going from strength to strength. 

The sport of competitive Horse Driving Trials consists of three very different phases or stages.  Modelled on the ridden 3-day event, Horse Driving Trials is a triathlon for horses/ponies that tests the overall versatility of an animal in harness.  People of all abilities and ages, ranging from 14 to 80+, participate in this all-inclusive sport that constantly grows in popularity.  It is a sport that has 'no limits', catering for everyone at all levels. 

Heather Clark
Heather Clark

The 2014, World Championships were held on The Royal Estate at Sandringham in June where eight nations took part - including the USA.  British driver, Mick Ward, took individual bronze whilst Team GB just missed out on a medal, finishing fourth.  I went along as part of the support team, which was great fun, hugely rewarding and almost as nerve-wracking as competing; driving every part of each phase with our seven drivers was mentally exhausting!

Not wishing to sound patronising, these World Championships epitomise determination and indomitable spirit.  The British squad are all members of the charity CDSG-dd (the Carriage Driving Support Group for drivers with disabilities) which consists of disabled people from all walks of life from around Britain catering for drivers keen to improve their driving skills and providing a structure for the selection and training of members wishing to compete as individuals or in teams, both nationally and internationally. 

Anything involving horses is a risk sport.  I did a magazine interview last year and was asked if I'd had any accidents.  My answer was that although I'd seen quite a few, I'd been lucky and not had any.  Three weeks later that luck ran out when I had a tip-up with a young horse and spent nearly three weeks in hospital with multiple rib fractures, amongst other things. 

I cannot begin to tell you how much the support I receive from friends means to me as an already labour-intensive sport becomes even more so when you throw disability into the mix.  It is all very special, but the most special thing of all is my amazing Irish cob, Barney, who understands me inside out - no mean feat! The bond is immense and I trust him implicitly.  Unfortunately, due to Barney's advancing years, he has retired from competition but we still go out for a gentle jog round the lanes to keep us both active!

Horses are good for the soul and I can't imagine my life without them in it in some way!

Tags: Thalidomide Horse Carriage Disability Sport UK Article


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