An equestrian from Corfe Castle is celebrating a year like no other after competing first at national and then international level.
Zoe Squirrell, who started horse riding as therapy to help with a form of cerebral palsy and a visual impairment, got back into riding in March 2021 after Covid lockdowns.
Within six weeks, she was competing in dressage at the Winter Para National Championships in Preston, where she came second in her class. And from there things just got better.
Zoe Squirrell works for the National Trust at Corfe Castle
“An amazing year”
Zoe, who as well as competing as a para dressage rider, works as a visitor assistant for the National Trust at Corfe Castle said:
“It’s been an amazing year.”
She went on to compete at international level, winning her category at events in Yorkshire and Bedfordshire.
In the summer national championships at Solihull, in September 2021, she was champion in her class.
Down time: hacking with Biscuit near where he lives
“It was absolutely surreal. When I saw the score, I was quite surprised but it’s such an honour when a judge validates what you’ve been doing.”
Zoe started riding at the age of seven when a cousin put her on a horse and she says ‘I was hooked from there’.
Her parents investigated riding for the disabled and she was told by her physiotherapist that riding was excellent therapy for her condition because it forces you to be symmetrical and helps the movement of the hips.
Riding Katie at Southfield Riding for the Disabled group in Longham, near Bournemouth
Olympics sparked her ambition
Zoe ended up doing riding as part of her physical education GCSE before going to university in Southampton to study occupational therapy.
It was the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and seeing the paralympic dressage, that really sparked her ambition.
She doesn’t own her own horse, so is reliant on the support of others. She hooked up with her first competitive horse, called Ollie, at a riding camp in Gloucestershire.
She rode him for two years until he went lame and then had a period without a horse, until she found her current ride Biscuit.
With Ollie at Solihull Riding Club
“Exceeded all my expectations”
At 18, Biscuit is nearing the end of his career but with that comes a lot of experience at competing with both able bodied and disabled riders.
Zoe wasn’t able to ride during the lockdown – she didn’t feel able to justify the six-hour round trip by public transport to practice.
“It’s been a brilliant year and it’s exceeded all my expectations. When Ollie stopped, I didn’t even know whether I would find another horse. To be competing against riders at this level is a dream come true.
“Obviously, it’s been a lot of hard work, but I feel I am so lucky to be able to do that with a horse who really knows what he’s doing.”
Ollie, at 18, is a highly experienced competitor
“Continue learning and having fun”
Zoe has financed herself through crowdfunding and assistance from charities. She is also looking for local sponsors.
In 2022, she hopes to go up a level in competition and while she would love to compete at the Paralympics, she’s not thinking about that at this stage.
“I am always working on what is in my control. If I can continue learning and having fun, then the marks you get in competition are a bonus because it’s a subjective sport.”
Follow Zoe Squirrell para dressage rider on Facebook
Zoe and Biscuit at Hayling Island