Midlothian horse rider with rare condition overcomes cancer to compete nationally

A Midlothian woman who lives with a debilitating neurological condition and overcame breast cancer has defied the odds by qualifying for a disabled national equestrian competition.

Sheila Barnett, 53, from Gorebridge, was born with dopa responsive dystonia, a hereditary degenerative disorder that involves involuntary muscle contractions, tremors, and other uncontrolled movements.

This led to her being overlooked athletically and often ostracised her from her classmates when at a mainstream high school.

Sheila, who worked for the police as a civilian for 27 years, had to medically retire due to her condition worsening but she has since found success as a talented equestrian rider.

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She has had a long time love affair with horses but it was after retirement that she was able to excel and eventually compete at the Riding Disabled Association (RDA) in 2022.

But in 2022 Sheila was given a heartbreaking cancer diagnosis that meant she was unable ride at the RDA National Championships at Hartpury in Gloucester in 2023 a year after her debut.

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Not one for being told she can't, Sheila has since fought back and is looking to defy her health conditions and age to go toe to toe with the very best disabled riders at this year’s nationals from July 12 to 14.

However to be able to compete, she now has to raise between £1,500 to £2,000 to make her dream a reality.

“I was born with dopa responsive dystonia which is a hereditary neurological condition that gets worse as you get older,” she said. “It impacts my balance and at times I have to walk with crutches.

“I retired from my administrative role with Police Scotland in August 2019 as I was suffering from back problems due to being sat at a desk for eight to nine hours a day. Looking back my condition was something that really started to impact me when I got to the age of nine or ten.

“I’d say the main obstacles I found as a child was being segregated from school friends. I was always the last to be picked for teams and when I went to high school it became worse.

“I would have to leave class earlier to go to my next lesson and would have to be helped by fellow students. My parents felt they had to do something and they were able to secure me a place at a specialist disability school in Edinburgh.

“From there everything changed and I began to become more confident by taking part in a lot of sports. I was a talented swimmer and snooker player and competed at national and international tournaments.

“But it has been horse riding where I found my passion. I was first plonked on my neighbour’s pony when I was about three and I would ride it around the garden. From there I progressed to horses and my passion grew.

“It has always been something I really enjoy, I like being around the horses and have had my own but they sadly passed away. Around 2021 I approached a riding for disabled group and got involved with them and that is when I got my first taste at a competition.”

It was May 2022 when Sheila had her first competition as she qualified for the RDA National Championship through the regionals.

But disaster struck as a heat wave swept across the country making it too hot for her to travel down south with her horse.

Having booked a hotel with her husband, Stevie, she decided to head down to the event anyway.

“My husband and I just decided to head down as we had booked our hotel,” she added. “When we got there I tried to borrow a horse from another riding disabled group.

“It was about 6pm the night before the competition and I got 15 to 20 minutes to see if the horse was suitable for me. Then on Saturday morning I competed and finished sixth out of 17 having never ridden the horse before.”

Sadly in September 2022, Sheila was diagnosed with breast cancer and was unable to compete however she was able to win the participant of the year award at the 2023 Championship - beating 500 other competitors.

Thankfully she is now cancer free and has once again qualified to compete at the RDA National Championships at Hartpury in Gloucester in 2024.

But in order to be able to compete with a new and smaller stable, Thornton Rose, she needs to raise between £1,500 and £2,000.

Sheila says that she will be one of the oldest competitors and that she is not taking for granted having the ability to ride at her age and with her medical condition.

“It is a great competition and everyone is so nice and comes together like a big family," she said. "It is the biggest riding meet for disabled riders in the world.

“This year I will be riding under a different umbrella and will have to cover the costs myself as it is quite expensive. Sadly there is just a short 40 day window between qualifying at regionals and the nationals taking place.

“So far I’ve only got £150 of my £1,500-£2,000 target. So I’m calling on any businesses or individuals that could help make my dream, a reality.”

On never letting a disability hold you back, Sheila added: “I think I would say never give up on your dreams. There is always a way to do the thing you love but it is important to communicate your desires and ask questions to find out how you can get to where you need to.

“If you have a love for something then there is no reason why your disability should hold you back, it just means you do it a bit differently. I’m normally quite reserved and don't suffer from nerves but this year I have a lot as I wanted to be back competing and have a chance to place well.

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“I have a great sense of achievement and I am thrilled I have been able to qualify as it is a huge competition with everyone from all around the UK going head to head but it is just the finances keeping me back. I know the competition will be extremely tough and I will be one of the oldest riders there.

“My condition is deteriorating and so I’m wanting to try to achieve my goals while I’m still physically fit and able enough. I do not know how much time I will have left competing.”

Sheila will be compete across all disciplines including vaulting, endurance, dressage, carriage riding and show jumping.

You can support her fundraiser here.

You can learn more about Thornton Rose RDA by clicking here.