Paralympic dressage champion Natasha Baker MBE, 27, won five gold medals between the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics, among a long list of other triumphs. She lives with her partner Marc Jaconelli, an engineer, near her parents’ farm in Uxbridge, where her three horses are stabled.
‘I was born without a thyroid gland and cannot produce two key hormones that affect growth [Natasha is 5ft 1in], so I take thyroxine. Then, at 14 months, I developed a rare neurological disorder called transverse myelitis (TM ), which attacked my spinal cord.
At first, I was completely paralysed from the waist down. After lots of physiotherapy, I learned to walk again with a metal frame when I was about four. I progressed to two walking sticks, and today I just need one. I have permanent nerve damage and my legs are weak, but I can walk very short distances, which gives me a precious bit of independence. The rest of the time I have a wheelchair, a disability scooter – and horses.
Horses have always been part of my life. My mum, who rode herself, plonked me on a pony in a basket saddle before I was one. After I developed TM I went to a local riding school, but my disability made it hard to build a partnership with different ponies and instructors.
My physiotherapist recommended Riding for the Disabled Association, a national charity (rda.org.uk). I joined the South Bucks branch when I was eight. It was such a relief because the people at RDA understood my disability and so did the horses. I loved riding so much; it was all I talked about.
In 1999, I won the Handy Pony National Championships and found I enjoyed competing. Handy Pony was fun but when I started doing dressage, having to remember all the tiny details while I was riding in front of judges and spectators was nerve-racking. Nowadays it’s different: my horses are my best friends and I love competing with them.
My legs do almost nothing – I don’t use stirrups so they just hang. I direct the horse with voice commands, which we practise constantly, and use my seat. Balance and core stability are the keys. I do exercises on a swiss ball and swim, which I love.
RDA gave me the foundation and the inspiration to follow my dreams and made me realise I can do anything on a horse. Nothing is holding me back.
I don’t remember what it is like to be able-bodied. I haven’t got better or worse since I was 11, although some days I am stiffer than others. I wouldn’t have this wonderful life without my disability, so what is there to be down in the dumps about?’
THE LOWDOWN ON TM
TM is believed to be the result of an autoimmune reaction where the immune system fights an infection (in Natasha’s case it was linked to a virus) but also, mistakenly, attacks the spinal cord, causing inflammation and swelling. This can block messages travelling from the brain down the spinal cord and up again. TM can damage the protective myelin sheath that surrounds the neurons (nerve cells). People with TM may be more susceptible to infections, as in Natasha’s case. Current treatment is usually corticosteroids for inflammation, pain relief and physiotherapy. For more information, visit brainandspine.org.uk.
BOOK OF THE WEEK: Lean for Life: The Cookbook by Louise Parker (Mitchell Beazley, £20*)
This is emphatically not about dieting. The eponymous originator of the Louise Parker Method starts off her second gorgeously produced hardback book by saying: ‘I loathe dieting. [It’s] deprivation, tediously boring and it doesn’t even work.’ I totally agree with her. Research shows that most people put back on the pounds they lose and often more. Dieting lets food control you but Louise’s mission is to giveyou the information to eat well, feel fabulous and reach your naturally perfect shape. I have followed her advice for two years after beginning to despair when my previously slim figure slid into Mrs Blobby mode. Louise’s method works, I promise you. There are simply delicious recipes for three meals and two snacks a day, so please, just enjoy eating.