It’s tough enough to win in the hunter ring – competition is fierce, as is the judging – but can you imagine riding those courses blind?
For American equestrian Lissa Bachner, that became her reality. When she was three, Bachner was diagnosed with two rare immune disorders – juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which inflames her joints, and uveitis, which attacked her eyes. By the time she was 30, the rider had lost her left eye and most of the vision in her right eye. Yet despite of her lack of vision, painful surgeries, and her doctor’s disapproval, Bachner never lost her passion for horses and riding and continued to ride and compete at the top levels of the sport.
And she couldn’t have done it without at least one special horse. For Bachner during this challenging time it was Milo, whom she imported from Germany as a five-year-old, who would carry her back into the ring. Together the duo would accomplish what seemed impossible; becoming one of America’s most successful riding teams in the hunter ring, winning two national rankings, four zone rankings and over 35 nationally-ranked classes with Bachner visually impaired and Milo as her “seeing-eye horse.”
To honor her journey with Milo (who has since passed away), Bachner has written a memoir, Milo’s Eyes: How a Blind Equestrian and Her “Seeing Eye Horse” Saved Each Other, published this month. Horse-Canada interviewed Bachner about her book and her inspiring story.
Horse Canada: You write that you bought Milo sight unseen when you were 26, before you lost your vision. This was in 1998, before online videos and sales had become the norm; what made you take the risk?
Lissa Bachner: It’s important to remember a few things when it comes to Milo’s childhood. Milo’s mother was Retina Z, a celebrity in the equestrian world. He was bred to be an Olympian and although Milo was an athlete for sure, he was never fit to follow in his mother’s footsteps – or in this case, hoofprints.
By his German breeder’s standards, Milo was an expensive disappointment. That doesn’t excuse the way he was treated, but we must keep in mind that in a German sales barn, Milo was nothing more than a commodity. If it was thought about at all, I doubt Milo’s original caretakers felt he was at all mistreated.
If there was a video of Milo as a youngster, I never saw it. In 1998, a video would have arrived via mail as a VHS tape! I think my ownership of Milo was the result of fate hard at work.
Milo wasn’t on the list of horses that Bob [acclaimed hunter rider/trainer and USEF judge Robert Crandall] was looking at. When I spoke to Bob about Milo, he told me the horse happened to be walking past and something about Milo captured Bob’s attention. “There was something about him,” Bob told me – and that was all I needed to hear. I was sold. Well, actually Milo was, but you know what I mean.
When you realized that Milo was in such a bad state, what made you determined to save him and also still believe in him?
Milo was a physical and mental mess. But he was my mess and when I see a mess, as long as it doesn’t involve a vacuum, I clean it up. (I detest vacuuming.) Plus, Bob was correct about Milo. There was something about him. Bob couldn’t put his finger on it but I found it in Milo’s eyes, the way they glowed and looked straight into my soul. Somehow Milo’s gaze could unlock determination in me that I didn’t know existed.
When you lost your eyesight, did you ever imagine being able to ride again?
After losing my vision, I wasn’t sure how I was going to live, much less ride.
Can you describe those first few months of riding after losing your sight?
I did have a little vision. By the time I got back in the saddle, I could see color and movement. Shapes were difficult to make sense of, but eventually, I learned how to untangle the blur.
I’d spent countless hours staring into black holes. When a bit of my vision came back, I attempted to be more mobile. I tried to walk outside and into strange places but it was terrifying and exhausting.
Getting back on Milo was an instant relief. Not only did riding alleviate the constant stress of not tripping over something, I was finally able to move faster than a crawl. I’ve learned that getting safely from point A to point B should never be taken for granted.
What surprised you most about this journey to the show ring and your success despite the physical challenges?
When I first returned the world of riding and competition, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was being judged. And not just by the judges, who’s opinion I actually pay for! This is a sport in which everybody expects perfection. You must dress, look, and talk a certain way. This is all before a rider even steps into the show ring. So, I was sure I would have to endure all kinds of unkindness. And I did, on a small scale.
The incredible amount of support I received from the equestrian community was shocking. Trainers, grooms, and my fellow riders all rallied around me to offer their encouragement. I was not only amazed but also empowered by the predominantly positive reaction people had when they heard about Milo and me.
Later on, when I had my system in place and Milo and I were having more success in the ring, I was astounded by how perfect we had to be in order to win, especially in the amateur division. There wasn’t a bit of space for error. In order to earn that blue ribbon, we had to be flawless.
Was there a special trainer who helped you?
I have had many special trainers in my life. I rode in Canada when I was on ponies. Bobbi Reber was, and has remained, a dear friend and has positively influenced my life on and off horses.
Bob Crandall and Rachel Kennedy taught me while I was first coping with vision loss. I wouldn’t have Milo or gotten back on a horse if it weren’t for Bob. Rachel gave me the confidence to accomplish the goals I’d set for myself long before I was blind. She made dreams come true.
Now I ride with Kim Stewart and Jacob Pope. It isn’t often that a rider is able to train with her best friends but I’m incredibly lucky.
My trainers have all had different takes on training me. I’d have to ask them for specifics. You’d think I’d be less obtuse but when it comes to competition, I’m too busy memorizing every nuance of the ring. What each jump looks like. Flowers, fencing, decorations. All of it. Once in the ring, I can’t afford to make a mistake or forget where I’m going.
Tell us where you are now with your riding and life.
Well…I’m 49 years old and I live with three pomsky dogs. I live on a simple yet beautiful farm in Wellington with two horses, Mango, and Minx. It isn’t the life I imagined for myself. It’s better! Although, I imagine if I were to regain my vision and look in the mirror I’d be horrified. Can you imagine? The last time I truly saw myself I was 29.
I ride almost every day. I’m still competing, though no longer travelling to do so. Sometimes it’s nice to rest on my laurels and not take life and competition so seriously.
That being said, I have a new horse that I’ll spend the summer riding in preparation for my return to the Amateur division next year.
What’s next for you?
I think I have more to say, so I have begun scribbling notes for another book.
My immediate future is consumed with plans for an event I’m organizing which benefits the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation. I didn’t have cancer, but my immune disorder was so rare, I was often placed on the pediatric cancer floor. My suffering was nothing compared to what these children went through, and due to a lack of funding, are still enduring.
On January 28th of next year, I’m hosting The NPCF Equine fashion show in hopes of raising money that will fund the cure. As I’ve never hosted as much as a bake sale, you can imagine what a daunting undertaking this is! However, I am determined to make it a success. And, after all, who knows better than I that every problem has a solution. Sometimes it’s standing in the stall in front of you. Other times, you have to do whatever it takes to find it.