Jodie Thorne: no excuse needed

Jodie Thorne puts her life in other people’s hands every time she gets on a horse, but the courageous para-dressage competitor hasn’t let fear hold her back. Images: Libby Law

Jodie Thorne faces more challenges just mounting her horse than many of us will ever experience in a lifetime in the saddle. She requires a team of people to help every time she rides, and even popping down to the paddock to visit her horse is no casual five-minute affair. But Jodie is passionate about para-dressage, the sport which provides her with a sense of freedom she’s unable to experience anywhere else. Watching Jodie give her beautiful dressage horse Ira treats and cuddles from her wheelchair, it’s obvious that riding is not only exercise but all sorts of therapy of the very best kind. “It’s so good for the soul,” she says.

Tauranga-based Jodie has her own website design company, Wicked Eye, and is married to Darren. It’s her husband she blames for her horse addiction, as he encouraged Jodie to get back into riding in 2008. Jodie is amusing and candid about her challenges, and is also currently the only Grade I para rider in New Zealand (Grade I is the classification reserved for riders with the most severe disabilities). 

British-born Jodie led a pretty normal childhood, and wasn’t diagnosed with Facio Scapular Humeral Muscular Dystrophy (FSHD) until she was 12. She began to lose strength significantly in her late teens though, initially, her only real challenge was not being able to hold her arms up in the air or mount from the ground. But for Jodie, the disease has been progressively debilitating, and she started using a wheelchair about five years ago.

“Some people don’t even know they’ve got FSHD – they just can’t whistle or shut their eyes properly when they sleep. Others are in a wheelchair and need carers to feed them, so the symptoms cover a huge spectrum,” she explains. “It affects your facial muscles, so we can’t keep our lips together or close our eyes. It also affects your shoulder blade and upper arm, so all of us have matchstick arms because we don’t have any muscle there.”

Jodie rode as a child in Bristol, enjoying jumping, hacking and looking after her own horses. She stopped riding when she was 16 and went to college in a different town, but her love of horses never dwindled. 

Darren and Jodie met at university, where Jodie did a media production degree and Darren studied business and IT. They first came to New Zealand on holiday during their second year at uni and loved it, moving here permanently in 2004. But it wasn’t until four years later that Jodie plucked up the courage to contact the Tauranga RDA; she had booked a lesson in Kapiti before, but chickened out.

That first session at the RDA was an eye-opener. Jodie says she’d assumed riding a horse was like riding a bike, but soon realised that things weren’t going to be quite the same as before. “I had six people around me, with one on each side using an RDA hold, where they put their hand on the front of the saddle and their arms across your thigh for support. I got off after five minutes and I couldn’t even stand up – my legs were like jelly! But I knew I wanted to get back on again.”

After doing the therapy programme at RDA for a couple of years and working on her balance and strength, Jodie was able to ride unaided, with just a couple of ‘spotters’ standing outside the arena in case she lost her balance. She did her first Grade 1a dressage tests at Napier RDA in October 2009, and was hooked.

Riding has proved to be incredible physical therapy, and she doesn’t really do any other exercise. When she first started at RDA, she couldn’t even sit up properly and she says it has definitely helped with her core strength and stamina. “Riding keeps me supple and moving. When I get off after a 15-20 minute ride I’m panting and I know I’ve done a really good work out, even though I’ve just been walking. I think that’s why I’m still as mobile as I am now. 

“There is also the social side, because I work from home, on my own. The only time I get to see people outside of my family is when I go to the paddock, or the shows. Then there’s the fact that I can train and compete. Being able to ride and be good at it, or get better at it, and have something to work towards, is awesome.”

It’s a real team effort. Every time Jodie rides, she needs at least a couple of people to help. At a show, she has a crew of four and they camp in her float to keep the cost down. It’s not just a matter of getting her horse ready; Jodie needs someone who is capable of warming her horse up, and she also needs help to mount. She requires assistance with dressing and showering, so the role at shows is one of caregiver as much as a groom. For a long time, Jody would drive herself to the shows, but recently she’s found she has to share the driving load. “For me, that’s really annoying, because it’s the one thing I could do. But now I just get too sore. If I drive for longer than an hour, I can’t do anything for the next two days.”

Jodie and Ira with her husband Darren and helpers Claudia Cameron and Andrea Simmons

Jodie rides around four times a week and has a team of about 10 helpers on rotation, as she doesn’t like to call on anyone too often. Some are coaches at RDA and others she found through Facebook and the local schools. “It’s a lot for someone to commit to when they’ve got their own horses and jobs and lives as well. I can’t afford to pay them either – it’s all just for the love.” Several of the helpers don’t have their own horses, so they get their riding time through helping with Ira, and Jodie gives them lessons in return. 

While dressage is a bit of a lonely sport for a lot of competitors, this is not Jody’s experience at all. “This is definitely a team sport. When you watch my competition videos, you can see my crew riding the test with me as I go around, especially in my freestyle, when everyone is dancing.”

For the past five years, Jodie has trained with Grand Prix dressage rider Jody Hartstone. They met when Jodie was a demo rider for Australian trainer and equitation science expert Andrew McLean. 

“That introduced me to equitation science and Jody has taken us to a whole new level of it. She thinks outside the box and she knows me so well now.  It’s such a great way of training because it’s really clear for the horse. I have six different people handling him and it’s been easy to show them how it works. 

“When we have our lessons, Jody always gets on and rides the first half for me, so she can get Ira light. He feels amazing when I get on after Jody has ridden him.”

Jodie doesn’t have a lot of movement in her fingers, so her reins aids are miniscule. However, the biggest difference is her leg aids, as she’s unable to squeeze. Instead, she uses a series of little knocks or kicks, and clicks. “Also, because my left side is so weak I sit really heavily on that side, so the horse needs to learn to ignore that.”

Riding for Jodie needs quite a team effort

A real unicorn

Ira, Jodie’s 16.3hh Irish-cross gelding, is owned by Rosie Richards and had previously competed to Medium level dressage. The rising 11-year-old bay is a gentle giant and their bond is touching; Ira is attentive to Jodie’s feather-light rein aids and obediently walks alongside her wheelchair.

A Grade 1 para horse needs some special qualities. They have to be calm and quiet, but they also need to have a super walk and be happy to stay in walk only. Ira has all of this but he definitely has a bit of spunk too, says Jodie – at Horse of the Year in 2020 he bucked her warm-up rider off! But he seems to know when Jodie is on board.

“When I first started riding Ira he was so careful with me – he just did the slowest walk ever. It took a lot for me to get used to being up that high, but I actually feel like he’s easier for me to ride. His movement is smoother and because he’s wider, there’s a lot more stability.

“I honestly have to pinch myself sometimes, watching the girls ride him. He just kind of floats around the paddock. He’s a really fun horse.”

Ira had no idea about wheelchairs but he’s adapted easily; not every horse Jodie tried out was unfazed. “One of the horses I went to look at came around the corner, saw me and spun out – I wasn’t even moving! I realised that wasn’t going to work at all. But I’m sponsored by Big Red’s, so the horses soon learn if they spend any time with me that the wheelchair is a cookie dispenser.”

Besides Big Red’s Stable Snacks, Jodie has quite a few sponsors who’ve been on board from the beginning, including Savvy Touch, NRM, Top Stock Supplements, Equip Outdoors and Ridir Clothing, who custom-make all Jodie’s show jackets and shirts. 

Jodie and her amazing Ira

No easy ride

Jodie’s Grade I para tests are walk-only, but include medium walk, a long-rein walk, 10m and 8m circles, and a three-loop serpentine 5m either side of the centreline. In her freestyles, she’s allowed to include lateral work. “It doesn’t sound like much, but it takes a lot to get a 16hh-17hh horse around an 8m circle. The only thing the judges give us a bit of a concession for is our position; otherwise the horse has to be keeping the frame and the activity, just the same as in an ordinary dressage test.”

At a competition, Jodie’s helpers are allowed to walk around the outside of the arena with her, but as soon as the bell rings, she’s on her own. They stand outside the arena, one at each corner, in case something goes wrong, However, once Jodie starts her test she’s so focused that it’s just her and her horse – everything else falls away.  

As a Grade 1 competitor, Jodie has a few special compensatory aids: she’s allowed looped reins, a solid handlebar on the front of her saddle, which she hooks her thumbs into for support, and Velcro thigh straps for stability. She’s also allowed to use two whips but doesn’t, because as she says, her left hand is “so useless” she simply ends up poking herself or Ira in the eye! 

“Sometimes when you’re at a show, people do a double-take. It’s as if they think it’s unfair and we’re getting an advantage. But the thing is, those aids are just there to give us the same abilities as everyone else – it’s not extra stuff we’re getting.

“Some people think we’re lucky to be para because we get things easier, but no. I’d much rather be able to canter and not have to do a walk test!”

In addition, para rules are stringent. Yes, Jodie is allowed to have someone warm up her horse, but they are only allowed on for 30 minutes (for the whole day) and that is strictly timed. They must also get off 15 minutes before she competes. “It’s not as if they can set my horse up and I go straight into my test. It can seem like an easy sport, but it’s not.”

Jodie tires quickly and at a three-day show she can only cope with 15 minutes in the saddle each day. This means her test warm-ups have to be carefully coordinated and something as minor as the judges running late can have a huge impact. “I don’t get on until the person in front of me is going into the ring. I know then I’ve got eight minutes of warm-up and I will be at my best in the arena. I come out and fall in my wheelchair afterwards. If that is lengthened by even five minutes, it makes a big difference to me.”

Although Jodie has won an awful lot over the years, for most of that time she has been the sole Grade I competitor. “I don’t have that pressure of wondering what the last person got, because it’s only ever me in a class! I’m always competing against my last score.” 

Her goal is to be hitting 70% regularly with Ira, a mark they achieved at their very first show together. She would love to take him to Australia, to get an international comparison. “And then who knows how far we could go?”