Blind pony finds its way at state gymkhana finals

Julianne Graham sits on Rebel after seeing the posted result while talking to her coach, Jacqueline Cooley.

In March 2012, Julianne Graham’s pony Rebel came down with Moon Blindness and lost all vision.
It happened while Graham had been working with coach Jacqueline Cooley in preparing Rebel for competition in gymkhana, an equestrian sport involving a series of horse-riding challenges similar to non-livestock rodeo events.
When Rebel came down with Moon Blindness – often caused by genetics or sometimes from bacterial infections – her veterinarian recommended against the pony continuing on with gymkhana. The vet didn’t see it as a safe activity for the blind horse or, by extension, the rider.
“I was just distraught,” said Graham, of Platina in Northern California. “I wanted to quit. I didn’t think I would have the confidence to do it on him. But my coach encouraged me, that we could do it as a team.”
They gradually re-trained Rebel, now age 10, to focus on using other senses while riding.
“I just trained very gently,” Graham said. “I had to build up very slowly and regain his confidence.”
She said she had to teach him it’s OK to run blind. That meant Rebel had to completely trust Graham, said the rider, who directs the pony with the use of her seat.
“When I sit back, it means slow down,” she explained.
On Monday morning at the state gymkhana finals, after three total years of training, Rebel and Graham were taking part in one among a series of events for the blind horse during this year’s gymkhana state finals held at Bolado Park. It was barrel racing for ponies in the AA, or intermediate, division.
Cooley watched, seated on her horse, from behind the iron arena gate. As Rebel and Graham finished a clean run and the announcer said the score of 22.423, Cooley yelled “Yes!” and pumped her right fist – celebrating because her student and the blind pony had just won a first-place buckle.
All Graham and Cooley had to do at that point was confirm Rebel’s victory on a matrix of scores posted near the grandstands.
“You just won a buckle,” Cooley relayed to Graham, seated on the white, spotted horse with eyes covered by fly masks to keep out sunlight.
“Yes, yes. I did it – we did it!” Graham said, petting Rebel’s neck. “Right on. Right on. That is awesome. That’s awesome.”
Graham embraced the horse in celebration and credited her coach for encouraging her to keep pursuing gymkhana and for helping her with Cooley’s instruction and experience. Cooley, who won a buckle of her own Monday morning, mentioned that she had witnessed two other blind horses compete in gymkhana over the years. One was a hall of fame horse. The other was similar to Rebel and suddenly lost its eyesight in middle age.
“The way it’s designed these days with the multiple divisions,” said Cooley, from the Orland area, “it’s set up so riders of equal skill and ability compete against each other.”
There weren’t any other blind ponies out there competing, though.
“If I’m not accurate, we hit the barrel,” Graham said. “He can’t see anything. He doesn’t know where it’s at.”
Look back for video of Graham, Cooley and Rebel reacting to the performance.

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