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Harnessing success – a para carriage driving journey

BES Rehab share the inspiring story of Naomi Sutton and her journey into para carriage driving



BES Rehab share the story of Naomi, and how her inability to continue horse riding due to Functional Neurological Disorder led to her highly successful adoption of para driving


The story begins in October 2019, and has been driven by Naomi’s passion for equestrian sports. Her path has not been without obstacles.

Naomi had been diagnosed with Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder from a young age, and later developed Functional Neurological Disorder (FND). Her FND was diagnosed in April 2019, and it prevented her from continuing to participate in horse riding.

Undeterred by these challenges, Naomi sought ways to enhance her performance and support her physical needs in the sport she had grown to love. Determined to pursue her passion for equestrian sport, Naomi transitioned into para driving.

FND, also known as conversion disorder and functional neurologic symptom disorder, refers to a group of common neurological movement disorders caused by an abnormality in how the brain functions. FND is not caused by another disorder and there is no significant structural damage in the brain.

The most common symptoms include motor dysfunction: functional limb weakness/paralysis; functional movement disorders including tremor, spasms (dystonia), jerky movements (myoclonus), and problems walking (gait disorder); functional speech symptoms including whispering speech (dysphonia), slurred or stuttering speech.

It is estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 adults and up to 20,000 children under the age of 16 live with FND in the UK. In addition, there are an estimated 10,000 new cases per year.

Carriage driving is a sport that received a lot of publicity as being one of the late Duke of Edinburgh’s favourites. Carriage driving is a friendly and inclusive sport where there are many opportunities to become involved.

There are many different types of carriage driving available, whether it’s simply for pleasure or for competitions (which are known as horse driving trials).

Drivers control a carriage that is hitched to one, two (positioned in tandem or as a pair), or four, horses or ponies. Para driving consists of drivers sitting on a vehicle drawn by a single horse or pony while facing three trials – dressage, marathon and obstacle driving. Since 2006, para driving has fully joined the ranks of the other seven FEI (International Federation for Equestrian Sports) disciplines with national and international competitions in Driving for individuals with a disability.

A para driver is classified into one of two grades according to his or her functional ability to ensure a level playing field.

In para driving there is an attendant (‘groom’) who stands behind the driver and can give support and verbal direction to the driver. Steps on the carriage behind the driver are called the backstep and the grooms are also called ‘backsteppers’. Grooms are required for safety reasons because the driver must stay on the carriage at all times, holding the reins, and controlling the horses. They have an important role to fulfil ensuring the safe release of the driver should the carriage overturn.

Initially, Naomi did not explore any supportive aids since she did not anticipate competing at a high sporting level. However, she soon excelled in para driving, and began searching for solutions to accommodate her conditions and provide improved stability.

Initially Naomi tried using a lap belt, which is a standard accessory, and which she placed around her chest. Although of some help, this did not provide the necessary support, and the backstepper had to hold the strap in place manually.

To ensure adherence to the regulations of the sport (which prohibit fixing any equipment without a quick-release system for safety reasons), Naomi continued to seek a more suitable option. Naomi’s journey took a significant positive turn when she met her mentor Julie, the chef d’équipe for para carriage driving, and Pandora’s Diplomat, Julie’s pony.

Recognising the need for a more effective support system, they connected with BES Healthcare. Virginia Saavedra, one of BES Healthcare’s Assistive Technology Specialists (ATS), visited the yard to assess the situation and collaborate on finding a FEI legal, safe, and functional solution. The team worked together to incorporate rings into the mounting system, providing the necessary support for a Bodypoint Stayflex harness.

Naomi became the first person to be set up this way, and the results were remarkable!

Armed with her improved set-up, Naomi took on the competition arena, showcasing her new-found confidence and physical ability. Her exceptional performance led her to become the reserve champion in her class, marking a significant achievement in her carriage driving journey. Word quickly spread, and other athletes expressed their interest in adopting the same set-up for themselves, recognising its potential to enhance their performance.

Reflecting on her experience, Naomi said: “In the second phase of the competition – the cones – I got the best score out of all of the competitors, including the able-bodied entrants, and I wouldn’t have been able to do this without my Bodypoint Stayflex set-up.”

Naomi’s testimonial stands as a testament to the power of determination and the impact that proper postural support can have on an athlete’s performance. Through the collaboration between BES Healthcare, her coach Robert, Julie, and Pandora’s Diplomat, alongside the implementation of the Bodypoint Stayflex set-up, Naomi overcame significant physical challenges and continues to excel in the world of para driving.

Her story serves as an inspiration to others facing similar hurdles, offering hope, and a reminder that, with the right tools and support, anyone has a chance to achieve their dreams.

To find out more, visit besrehab.net.