Godalming paralympian Sophie Christiansen on the Riding for the Disabled Association
PUBLISHED: 11:17 13 December 2019
© Lottie-Elizabeth Equestrian Photography
Godalming-based Paralympic gold-winning equestrian Sophie Christiansen on how a horse riding charity set her on the right course
Feisty. Are there any other words that more aptly describe Sophie Christiansen? Actually, yes. Try spirited, energetic and determined. Not to mention successful. And before you're tempted to dismiss such accolades as a little over the top, we're talking about a Paralympic multi-gold medallist and BBC Sports Personality of the Year contender whose sporting prowess as a world class competitor has made her a role model for young riders and inspiration to sportspeople of all abilities. She's also a fierce disability campaigner - her most recent petition is to improve rail network accessibility for wheelchair users after she was left stranded on a train at Godalming Station this summer.
Her heady achievements were first nurtured over two decades ago by a charity, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. "My primary school had a special unit attached, which gave me the best of both worlds - support to access equipment and physiotherapists while making able-bodied friends as well." At home in Godalming where she lives with her boyfriend, Peter, Sophie recalls her early contact with the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA), and its immediate impact. "At the age of six, I was taken to my local RDA every other week. Riding didn't seem like physio; I loved the freedom the horses gave me."
Quadriplegic cerebral palsy affects Sophie's whole body. Fine motor skills and coordination have always been a challenge, but not to the point of inhibiting her. Naturally competitive, at school she enjoyed football and hockey until riding became her main focus. "At RDA they knew how to guide me. I was classified as Grade 1, the most impaired category. I didn't realise how good I was when I first started but I won a national competition with the RDA in my first year in dressage when I was 13. I've always had the attitude I wanted to be the best I could be."
Sophie competes at walking pace, creating relaxed and consistent movements: "It's all about harmony and the picture it paints to the audience and judges. My coach is open minded, unafraid to think outside the box, that's important. So what if my legs don't work properly? We'll find a way around it."
With four Paralympic Games already to her credit, and the Paralympic movement now firmly established, Sophie is looking forward to Tokyo 2020 though won't know until next July whether she's been selected to compete on one or both of her horses, seven-year-old Stella and Louie, 12 and her newest acquisition. How does she remain committed to training without confirmation of her place? "You have to believe you're going," she instantly responds, doubt barely entering her mindset.
Visiting a country she's not previously encountered is also appealing though when we discuss expected temperatures, we're sidetracked by the formal attire dressage riders are obliged to wear, surely a challenge in extreme heat? "Yes, I wish we could wear different clothes; I've been told to prepare for 40C." At least she will fly out 10 days before competing, time enough for acclimatisation before making her mark in the arena. You see, she may be a veteran winner, but eight gold medals haven't dulled her appetite for more. Laughing, she admits, "I quite like winning even though I keep telling myself I should be happy with a good performance. Anything other than gold and I'll be disappointed, I'm that kind of athlete. I know people will be looking at me as a gold medal winning prospect. Everyone can follow my journey via my membership club."
Despite her enviable success, the 32-year-old, an alumni of Royal Holloway University and now a software developer at Goldman Sachs, remains committed to the RDA, which has groups throughout the country. She recognises, too, the "tremendous" influence riding has had on her posture and ability to walk while enhanced fitness and communication skills are not only valuable in her chosen sport but transfer to day to day confidence.
Sophie and Peter settled in Godalming a couple of years ago. They love the village's quaint pubs, its close proximity to London and the green Surrey hills although Sophie's professional and training schedule - working two 13 hour days and riding twice a week as well as attending regular gym sessions - leaves little time for enjoying the surrounding countryside. Not that there's any sign of this champion's ambition waning. "I want to leave a legacy when I retire." The laudable declaration is delivered as seamlessly as her riding before she reiterates her recognition of the charity which first introduced her to riding. "I honestly don't think I would have sat on a horse if I wasn't disabled or without the RDA. The organisation shows that achievement can mean anything from sitting up straight to learning how to communicate."
Sophie Christiansen is a role model, both for her sport and the charity which has shaped her life. And as RDA celebrates its 50th anniversary, 2020 will surely be the year our greatest Paralympic horsewoman will revel in yet more success.