In 1985, when Deb Criddle was 19, she was riding her motorbike home from work to watch Live Aid, and the next thing she remembers is waking up in hospital a week later without the use of her right arm, and her right leg pinned, plated and in plaster. She had been in a head on collision with an out of control car whose driver had a suspected blackout.
It was of course a moment that changed her life forever. Deb’s right leg was in plaster for over a year and she had to learn to use her left hand for everything. She was not married at the time and, not surprisingly, her injuries caused her to become isolated and lonely.
Deb had been a “pony mad” kid and when the opportunity to ride at her local RDA centre arose, she jumped at it. After two years with the RDA Deb was put in touch with someone who agreed to teach her on their own schoolmaster, an Arab called Moon Warrior. Deb started riding him, went on to win classes at the Riding Club Championships, then joined British Dressage as there were more opportunities to compete. So in her words, Moon Warrior “kick started” Deb’s dressage career!
In 1991, Deb did her first international at Aarhus, Denmark aboard Moon Warrior. It was a huge learning curve and leap in standard, and to her credit she came second but she still thinks of that competition as “one that got away”, as she missed first place because of one wrong canter lead!
Deb also thinks of this competition as the start of being hooked on international para dressage but the high standard also made her realise she needed a better horse.
Moon Warrior therefore went on to another para rider and Deb started the long search for the right horse. Clearly a suitable horse not only needs a high level of dressage ability but also the temperament to match the particular abilities and disabilities of it’s rider. At the time Deb was riding as a Grade IV rider but over time her injuries have caused her spine to twist so that she now rides as Grade III.
Over the next few years Deb competed a number of horses, all of which taught her a lot but did not make the top grade she now required. She thought she had found the right horse in Otto who she qualified for BD regional championships and rode internationally until a routine vet check, part of the then new World Class regime, identified that he had a heart condition and was unsafe to ride so he had to be put down.
At the time Deb was aiming for the Sydney Paralympic team, which was still a “borrowed” horse competition, so she needed to keep riding. To help out, local trainer Nina Venables invited Deb to have some lunge lessons on her horse, Figaro IX. Nina and Deb hit it off from the start and Nina offered to lend Figaro to Deb for the European Championships in Portugal in 2001. It was a very successful if wet trip, the tropical downpours causing it to be remembered by all as the “Mud and Medals” championship.
Figaro was originally loaned only for the one championship but Nina enjoyed the experience and she continued to loan him for Deb to ride at the major championships. They were a very successful partnership and went on to win individual, freestyle and team gold at the 2002 European Championships, the 2003 World Championships and the 2004 Athens Paralympics. They were the first combination to have won treble gold at these three major championships. Only Lee Pearson and Gentleman have done it since.
After the Athens Games, there was a big change in the para dressage world as the standard of horse power rocketed. It meant that riders had to have top horses, so money has unfortunately become a very important factor. In 1998 para dressage and Deb, began to benefit from lottery funding and that was the difference for Deb, between being able to continue in the sport on a competitive basis and giving up.
Figaro has now been retired and Deb has just started building a relationship with her new horse LTK Akilles who was purchased for her to ride by the Lady Joseph Trust four months ago. The Lady Joseph Trust has been set up to acquire suitable horses for top para riders to compete. Akilles is a Swedish warmblood who came to Deb via Kyra Kirklund. Deb says she is still getting to know him and has not yet found the “volume control” for his power!! Still they won all three classes at the National Para Championships at Hickstead last month including the Freestyle, with over 70% each time so it its beginning to look like a very good partnership!! Deb is very grateful to the Lady Joseph Trust for finding such a great horse for her.
Dressage Central will keep in touch with Deb and let you know how the partnership is progressing!