Most people, probably, would not feel comfortable riding in such a precarious state, but for Joanne Chu-Fook, a hunter/jumper rider from Toronto, Ontario, this is just the reality of her horseback riding experience.

Joanne was born with a hearing impairment called sensorineural hearing loss, where the nerves surrounding her inner ear are dead, leaving her with only about 20 per cent hearing and other symptoms like random bouts of vertigo and dizziness. Her parents didn’t know she had the condition until she was three years old. “Back then they didn’t really test for hearing in babies and my parents only figured it out when they were calling my name and I didn’t respond,” she said.

In fact, Joanne had gotten so good at lip reading, her parents didn’t believe she was hearing impaired at first and ordered a second set of tests from the audiologists. It was then they fit her for hearing aids.

Hearing aids are better now, but back in the 1980s, Joanne said the aids still made it hard to decipher noise the way a biological ear can hone in on a specific sound (like a certain person’s voice in a crowded room). “One-on-one it’s okay, but if I’m at a dance club or something, everyone turns into Charlie Brown’s teacher,” she said, laughing, referring to the perpetually mumbling Peanuts character.

Horse Crazy Kid

Joanne got her first taste of the horse life when she was six years old, and she had a pony ride at the Toronto Zoo. But both doctors and her parents told her horseback riding was too dangerous with her disability. “I kept asking my parents for lessons after that,” she said, “but they thought it was too unsafe for me. They were worried about me not being able to hear things around me and also the balance thing.”

Even today, Joanne admits she’s “clumsy,” often tripping while just walking or jogging on the ground. “I did a five-kilometre race recently and tripped and sprained my ankle badly,” she said.

But it’s her normal. “Because I was born with this, I don’t know how much of it is because of my inner ear, and how much of it is that I’m just clumsy. I’ve been living with this my whole life.”

More concerning for riding than the clumsiness, is her balance. “I do have sudden moments when I feel dizzy and get vertigo and hear ringing in my ears,” she said. And sometimes this happens on a horse, particularly when cantering and jumping. “I just don’t have as much balance.”

Because of this, Joanne’s parents continually tried to steer her away from horses, suggesting alternative activities and sports in the hopes she’d forget that pony ride at the zoo. First, she took tennis, then figure skating. She took art classes. But she kept bugging about the horses and her parents kept saying no.

It wasn’t until she was 16 and got a part-time job cutting keys and engraving trophies that she finally had the money and freedom to start taking horseback riding lessons. But a teenager with a part-time, minimum wage job isn’t able to ride nearly as much as she’d like. “Back then, if I took one riding lesson per month, I was happy,” she recalled.

The group lessons were tough, too. Even with her hearing aids she found it difficult to hear the instructors because riding helmets muffled sound. She resorted to just watching everyone else in the lesson to know what to do next. “I’d just watch to see if people were walking, or trotting, and then do the same.”

And when she finally graduated to jumping cross rails, she found her dizziness coming up in waves. “It’s like I had no rhythm and couldn’t follow the horse. Every single jump, the horse would jump and I’d fall off.”

Obviously, this didn’t sit well with her parents, who finally came to see her at a horse show, where she promptly fell off. “They couldn’t take that.”

Never Give Up

Despite numerous falls, Joanne continued to ride and try to jump. “I wanted to jump and when someone tells me I can’t do something, I just never give up trying,” Joanne said.

She worked with various coaches, none of whom had ever taught a person in her situation, making her riding strategy one of trial and error. She bought an FM microphone so she could properly hear her instructors, and obtained a Para-Equestrian card that allowed her to wear the mic system at horse shows.

According to Joanne, what really helped her was the thing that helps most hunter/jumper riders – a focus on flat work and riding without stirrups. “Riding without stirrups was really difficult for me and terrifying. But it helped me get my balance and rhythm.”

Lots of poles and gymnastics grids helped her learn to count and predict when the horse was going to take off, and she learned to cope with the feeling of dizziness that accompanied leaving the ground on horseback.

Finally, Joanne got to a point where she was confident to show at the Ontario provincial level – on the Trillium circuit. Her parents came out to watch one of those shows, too, but it was one where she fell off and ended up with a hairline fracture in her hip. “They don’t really come anymore,” she said with a laugh.

But despite a few falls, she did pin in some hunter classes, finally, in her 20s, achieving the dreams she’d had as a six-year-old.

The Path to Ownership

Joanne achieved the ultimate goal of every horse-loving little girl when she made the leap and purchased her first horse in 2009 – a nine-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred named Strider. His previous owner had sent him to be professionally trained as an eventer and when she got him back, she decided she didn’t want to ride him, so Joanne bought him.

Strider proved a new challenge for Joanne, who had to get used to his hotness and forwardness. “For the first little while, I was terrified to canter him,” she said.

But a focus on flatwork and a good coach helped improve both their balance at the canter to the point they were showing jumpers. She even found the guts to push the jump heights, clearing a 4’3” jump aboard him.

Joanne is now 41 and her parents are still nervous about her riding. “They don’t have much to do with my riding life and have only met Strider a few times.”

Joanne has friends who cheer her on at shows though, and a handful of other riding accomplishments that make her proud. She’s planning to continue riding for as long as she can and hopes she can do some eventing with Strider.

“I never thought I’d ever jump higher than 2’ and I’ve managed to jump my horse 4’3” on my own – even though it wasn’t pretty,” she said, with a grin. “It was just more me going: I can do this. Even if I have a disability, I can still do it. It’s not going to stop me.”