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Overcoming challenges comes naturally to Kate Kerr-Horan

Life-changing accident as a child didn’t prevent her pursuing her equestrian dream

Kate Kerr-Horan with her horse Arlande and her mother Pam Kerr at Broomfield Equestrian Centre, Tinahely, Co Wicklow. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

It happened just over 20 years ago last month but Kate Kerr-Horan’s mum still recalls the sort of tiny detail that a traumatic life experience sears on your memory.

“It was a Friday morning. She was about 3½ and already animal-mad and she used to toddle around with her dogs.There was someone schooling on the cross-country outside and she probably followed them.

“There were loose horses in the field, we think she got a kick,” Pam Kerr says, still grimacing at the memory. “When she was found she was unconscious and we couldn’t get a doctor initially.”

Her immediate reflex, like all people who work with horses, was to phone their vet whose wife, fortunately, was a nurse.

Her only child was immediately rushed to Crumlin and then to Beaumont and within days she was being told she might never walk again.

Yet eight months later she heard little Kate saying ‘I will’ and looked over to see her pushing herself up out of wheelchair to stand.

Today Kate has a degree in Equine Business from Maynooth University, is a Level 1 riding instructor and helps her run the Broomfield Equestrian Centre at their family home outside Tinahely in Wicklow.

Not only is Kate walking and riding but competing in both able-bodied and para-equestrian dressage and she has her heart set on qualifying for the 2020 Paralympic Games.

She didn’t lick her determination and work ethic from the stones.

Pam never left Kate’s side for the first three months, sleeping in a chair beside her in Beaumont and then moving to stay with an aunt in Blackrock when Kate was moved to the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH), where she spent nine months and first started primary school.

“I survived,” Pam smiles stoically. “It’s funny what you can do really. Family were very good and you just find the strength from somewhere. She was so tiny and she was my life.”

Kate’s injury and 12-day induced coma resulted in paralysis of her left side and vocal chords.

Further surgery

A dropped left wrist and a slight hitch in her speech – pieces of her ribs were inserted into her vocal chords to keep them permanently open – give some clues to the years of pain and rehab she has endured.

She needed a tracheostomy to help her breath until she was 11 and when it was finally removed – “September of fifth class” – she spent another month in hospital re-learning to eat and swallow.

There was further surgery in her teens to fuse her left ankle, her left side is still weak and she needs to use a mobility scooter for long distances.

It was a year before they came home permanently from the NRH yet the little girl in the wheelchair would still plead ‘Up pony! Up pony!” and her physios actually encouraged it to rebuild her strength.

She was riding within a year.

Her first vivid memory “is my ‘first ridden’ in the RDS, that’s the first time you compete without a lead rope. I was still in primary school and thought I’d done a terrible test so I couldn’t believe it when I won!”

Their walls are now laden with rosettes and competition photos and it would be easy to believe that riding solved all the problems of her fractured young life but it didn’t.

She suffered some bullying during primary schooling and found secondary school even tougher.

“I had loads of acquaintances but no real good friends and no best friend. That was hard. I was the only one in the school with a disability, I never felt like I fitted in,” she admits.

“No one else was into horses either, which probably didn’t help. It was six long years. I used to live to come back to my ponies. They got me through it.”

College with like-minded equestrians proved much happier and these days her 17-year-old competition mare Arlande – AKA ‘Lara’ – is the light of her life.

“A complete anti-Christ in the box!” mutters Pam as she answers her mobile phone whose ring-tone, naturally, is a horse’s whinny.

“Yeah, she’s a nightmare to tack up,” Kate giggles. “She puts her head down to bite her leg and then tries to turn and bite you. If she was human she’d be a dizzy blonde in high heels, a complete diva!

“But once she’s tacked up and out she’s great and we’ve been going really well together so far this year.”

High performance

Kate first competed in international para-equestrian when she was still in Junior Cert and is part of Para-Equestrian Ireland’s high performance squad since 2011.

She has already competed in two European Championships and the 2014 World Equestrian Games in France (ninth in her class).

There are no speciality para-equestrian competitions in Ireland so she competes in able-bodied dressage here and beat 26 riders to win the elementary class (the third of six levels in dressage) at this season’s National Winter Finals in Cavan.

That qualified her for the Hickstead Masters in June but has also left her with a quandary because all her competitions are currently self-funded.

“The European Championships are in Sweden in late August and to qualify Para-Equestrian Ireland have upped the qualification mark to 69 per cent, which is even higher than the usual 67 per cent.

“There’s a para competition in Hartpury (England) in July and another in England two weeks later so I’m hoping to compete in those to try to qualify for Europeans.”

Her scores in Hickstead, which is not a starred, international event, won’t count for Europeans but she doesn’t want to pass up the opportunity of competing in such a prestigious venue.

“That’s my dilemma. I wouldn’t usually compete in able-bodied that late in the year. I have some money that I can use for Hickstead, and Hartpury will still be doable, but, after that, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Those who see horseboxes and presume ‘loadsamoney’ have no idea of the reality for many equestrians.

Several generations

Pam and Kate are the latest of several generations of her mum’s family to run Broomfield.

It’s a rambling old house with stone stables where white jodphurs wouldn’t survive two minutes of their daily toil through mud and manure and hay and hassle.

Tough daily graft is matched by constant headaches over maintenance and insurance and finding teaching cover whenever they load up Lara and head off to Kate’s competitions, usually sleeping in the truck.

Twice over she has had to learn how to breathe and eat and walk and talk.

To have survived and thrived in such a physically demanding sport and business is testament to both her and Pam’s indefatigable spirit and unbreakable bond.

To get to the next level Kate has now turned to the busy marketplace of crowd-funding and is, literally, depending on the kindness of strangers to help finance her season.

“Because this isn’t just a hobby for me,” she says. “I don’t just compete to take part, I compete to win. Horses are my life.”

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