Talented horsewoman Niamh Simmons has triumphed over adversity and set the bar even higher by qualifying for a prestigious national competition for disabled riders – just months after getting back in the saddle.

Niamh (41) of Grindlow, near Buxton – whose mobility is severely restricted by multiple sclerosis – has achieved first place in her class in the Countryside Challenge section of the North Midlands Regional Qualifiers for the Riding for the Disabled (RDA) Virtual National Championships 2021.

She came top in the senior class for riders with a leader or side walker, and will now go on to represent Buxton-based Helen Atkin Group RDA at national level in September.

“I can’t quite believe it – it’s absolutely fantastic,” said Niamh, who lost mobility from the waist down overnight in 2014 and steered her mount Cracker to victory using only her hands and voice.

 “When I suddenly lost the function of my legs I thought I had hung up my riding hat for good, but thanks to Helen Atkin Group RDA I have not only got back on a horse, I have done so well in this competition.

 “Even though the opportunity came up so soon after I started riding again, I was keen to support it by taking part, and never thought for a moment that I would win my class at regional level.

 “Being able to do the Countryside Challenge gave me the chance to dare to dream. When you find someone like Cracker, who will willingly lend you their legs when you can’t use your own, anything’s possible – even winning, apparently!”

 Janette Sykes, Countryside Challenge co-ordinator for Helen Atkin Group RDA, added: “Although Niamh had ridden and had horses before she suddenly found herself disabled seven years ago, she has only recently joined us, so we are extra proud of her fantastic achievement.

“We’ll all be rooting for her now that she is going on to represent us in this year’s RDA Virtual National Championships. Competition in the Regional Qualifiers was tough, and the national test will be even stiffer, but we’ll be supporting her all the way.”

 Niamh was one of 11 junior and senior riders representing Helen Atkin RDA in the virtual North Midlands Regional Qualifiers, which attracted almost 50 entries. Covid 19 restrictions meant that the competition was held virtually for the first time ever, with riders filmed on video and entries judged online.

Others who scored individual success were Hannah Webster, who came second in the same class as Niamh; Becky Edwards, who achieved fifth place in the class for senor independent riders; and Hamish Dicken, who came sixth in the class for junior independent riders.

Helen Atkin Group RDA volunteers rose to the challenge by building their own obstacle course, featuring everything from milk churns and ornamental sheep to a post box and farmyard pond. And riders unable to enter the regional competition didn’t miss out on the fun – they joined in an in-house competition and all those who took part took home a rosette.

 “The Countryside Challenge is all about riders having fun while they are learning new skills, so we thought we would celebrate our return to riding after a long lockdown this spring by involving them all on both filming days – and a great time was had by all,” said Janette. “In our eyes, all our riders are winners, but Niamh’s success really is the icing on the cake.”

 Added Niamh: “Thanks to Helen Atkin Group RDA, I am back on a horse, happy and looking forward to the time I spend riding, which makes my disability disappear, With the volunteers’ support and the kindness of horses, I am very much more than I am on my own. RDA makes the seemingly impossible possible, and, through the possible, graceful.”

 Niamh’s entry will once again be filmed on video and judged online. The top six competitor videos in each class will then be streamed, along with other attractions, during the RDA Virtual National Championships on September 25 and 26, when the results in each category will also be announced.

Helen Atkin Group RDA is always keen to hear from anyone able to volunteer to help run its regular riding sessions at Buxton Riding School, Fern Road. Opportunities range from leading horses and assisting with riders to administration tasks and fundraising. Anyone interested is invited to contact Janine Frost at janinefrostrda@gmail.com or on 07960 961605.

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