Joanne O’Riordan: I won’t be Rachael Blackmore, but 2022 goal will spur me on

Emulating para-dressage athletes and riding solo will create spine-tingling independence

As you may have probably guessed, I’m the resolution person who will declare something dramatic, have anxiety that I must do it, but will never reach the impending doom feeling when my deadline is close I’m compelled to do it. There’s probably a psychologist who can fix that.

Every goal that I’ve set have been accidentally veering me towards something every girl with a disability wants - to be as independent as I possibly can. It all started with yoga, where my main goal was to sit upright without needing aides or getting fatigued because my core couldn’t handle my weight. After a lot of effort, it’s been a resounding success.

Then pilates came around. I’d heard it was incredibly different to yoga but with many similarities. Whereas yoga makes me hold and breathe (read: grunt), pilates is rhythmic with pulsing, bending, and contortionist behaviour. Now I can bend over without falling. Success.

To work with someone towards achieving a goal, no matter how big or small, expensive or cheap, challenging or smooth sailing, is something we can all take away with us for 2022

Then I tried surfing. I still don’t know what challenge I intended on overcoming with this one since I’m forever going to hate water going up my nose, but the sense of calm, freedom and serenity in the water probably tops it all. Of course, those lovely feelings quickly dissolve when I realise my wheelchair, with towels in the bag, is possibly stuck in the sand.


So, now that I’ve actively completed those challenges and top them up as much as I can (read: want), now I’m moving on to dry land in the hopes of emulating a character I came across several years ago.

That character is Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh, born the same as me, only 200 years ago and to a wealthy enough family. Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh was born without his limbs in Borris, Carlow. Over the last decade, I have been incredibly fortunate to meet up with his family through the Festival of Writing & Ideas that has taken place in Arthur’s house over the last few years.

When you’re 18, turning up to this incredible castle, what grabs you is the sense of independence and freedom Arthur’s mother instilled within him. Like my own family, she would routinely ignore cries for help when his disability would get in the way and instead make him creatively navigate his way around hurdles and obstacles. My parents made me chase for sweets on the floor against my siblings, and if I didn’t win, I wouldn’t get the sweet. Arthur’s mother hired a special nurse who would routinely place objects further and further away from him to learn how to fetch things without help.

Add to that his incredible life away from his home. He was an astonishing swordsman, horseman, and MP in Westminster and had 11 children. Rumour has it he was also a roaming Casanova, traits that impressed my 18-year-old brain.

Fast forward, and I'm on RTÉ next to Natalya Coyle and Helen Kearney discussing para-dressage, and I immediately find myself thinking of Arthur and thinking about how freeing it must be to get on a horse and freely move about with very little care in the world. Incredibly, the unspoken heroic act in para-dressage is the horse selection, ensuring a horse is tame but convicted enough to pull out an incredible performance without upending the rider with a disability.

Add to that how incredible sport can be when it comes to replicating to society how to treat those living with a disability. To work with someone towards achieving a goal, no matter how big or small, expensive or cheap, challenging or smooth sailing, is something we can all take away with us for 2022. Even the feedback from Riding For The Disabled Association Ireland has been incredibly positive about achieving my goal, even if the secretary probably nearly passed out when it came in just before Christmas.

We all heard “Can’t see can’t be” for the last 4 years, and only recently have I truly understood that meaning. I have been inspired by Helen, Natalya, para-dressage, and of course, the incredible Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh. I have seen it, and now I want to be it.

So, this is me officially declaring my 2022 challenge. To emulate Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh and the incredible para-dressage riders I've witnessed represent their countries and hop on a horse solo for an amble around (the RDAI have told me cantering is basically Rachael Blackmore speed, so I'm willing to let go of that dream for a while).

The Millstreet Show Jumping competition might be a bit too beyond any dream. However capturing that freedom and independence these riders must feel is something that sends shivers down my spine.

I definitely won’t be Rachael Blackmore, but the symbolic nature of this goal will spur me on, irrespective of the cost and time it will take.