By Heather Wallace
Portraits by Isabel J. Kurek
Most hunters count strides between the jumps, but that’s not easy for blind rider Lissa Bachner. Imagine entering the show ring and only seeing the jump colors with one eye at close distance, or listening for a friend to tell you when to turn.
“My friends discuss seeing their distances, but riding to a jump and seeing a spot is a completely foreign concept to me,” Lissa said. “In fact, I’m trying to find the actual jump, not concerned with where and when I should be bending over. I had to learn to feel my rhythm and trust my horse — things my trainers had told me to do many times over the years but I didn’t understand how necessary it was until I had no choice.”
A Long, Dark Road
Lissa is almost completely blind from a rare ocular condition called uveitis. Uveitis is a general term used to describe an autoimmune disorder that produces swelling and destroys eye tissues. These diseases can slightly reduce vision or lead to severe vision loss.
Lissa’s first surgery was at age 3, around the same age that she began riding. Her mother, Marcia Castleman, owned a lesson barn in Great Falls, Virginia. “I spent most of my time in hospitals and doctors’ offices due to this rare disease,” Lissa said. “At the age of 5 I had cataract surgery in both eyes. But I rode whenever I could.”
While Lissa grew up with horses as part of her everyday life, she described her early riding as “moderate” at best. She was never able to see well out of her left eye even before the retina detached at age 13 and the eye was removed completely at 26. At 28, her health took a drastic turn. As a result of approximately 600 eye injections and surgeries, she developed glaucoma requiring emergency laser surgery. With no time to be put under general anesthesia, the surgeon gave her a local anesthetic to numb the eye. Unfortunately, the surgical team didn’t account for the massive amount scar tissue, and the numbing agent didn’t work. They couldn’t stop the surgery once they began. Screaming in pain and then passing out from shock, Lissa went completely blind for almost four months.
In complete darkness, Lissa retreated to Florida to recover but fell into a deep depression. She crawled into her bed and stopped riding completely. Fortunately for Lissa, her mother, trainer and friends refused to give up. They found a drug in Italy that was not FDA approved for use in the United States, and sent someone to retrieve it. With that miracle drug, Lissa regained a little vision in her right eye. After about a year away from horses, her trainer, Bob Crandall, pulled Lissa out of bed and demanded she get back in the saddle.
Lissa had to completely relearn how to ride. “The thought of it terrified me until I actually did it,” Lissa said. “I’d ridden my entire life. The thought of I’m going to be so bad at it; I’m going to be a sideshow caused me anxiety. But when I got on my horse Milo, it felt great! I thought, I can use his eyes; I don’t need mine.” They became partners with one goal: to compete safely — and win.
Giving up control gave Lissa a sense of freedom she’d never known. Lissa had never had depth perception, but she now had to put even more trust in her horse. “I’m a better rider for it,” Lissa said. “I was so aware of the horse underneath me. I could feel the rhythm and stay out of his way.” This release of control provided Lissa with a newfound confidence. When Bob Crandall went private, she began training with Rachel Kennedy.
Rachel immediately recognized the amazing connection Lissa had with horses. “Lissa has an incredible feel. Horses love her,” Rachel said. “She can get on any horse and ride it. But she will never tell anybody that.”
Rachel asked Lissa what her goals were, and Lissa told her she wanted to move up and compete in the amateur owner hunters. Rachel thought about it and made a proposal: Lissa could move up if she was champion at every show she entered, including the Capital Challenge Horse Show.
The first show was tough. Lissa jumped the first fence but couldn’t find the second. She became nervous and started to pull up. The next thing she knew, Rachel was inside the ring running the course with her in 100-degree heat, Milo following her trainer throughout the rest of the course. They were not letting Lissa give up.
Milo did his best for Lissa and she did the same for him. “When I ride, I scout out the ring an hour early and walk around,” Lissa said. “I see colors well so I know to go to a fence and turn at the ‘red color’ to the ‘dark blue’ to the ‘green port-a-potty.’ I count strides down a line but not the turns. I know that when I’m three strides away, I should see the fence color.” Sometimes that isn’t enough. Lissa has even experienced other competitors in her class jumping off their horses to run to the corner of the ring and tell her where to turn.
After that, Rachel said Lissa went on a winning streak. “Lissa rode her horses Maddox and Ebony that year. In Vermont, she showed three out of five weeks and she won 11 of 12 classes, two classics and had four scores of 90,” Rachel added. Lissa was determined to move up a level.
A Team Effort
Lissa and Rachel have much more than a trainer-rider relationship and are good friends. They’ve been together a number of years through marriage, divorce and Lissa moving to Wellington, Florida. “From the moment I get up to the moment I show, it’s about making me win. That is, getting me around alive,” Lissa said.
Rachel teaches Lissa the same way she does everyone else. However, when it comes to personal coaching and competing, Rachel schools the horses and gets them ready for Lissa. “I put the responsibility on myself,” Rachel said. “Horses trip and things can happen, but I make sure I do everything to assure Lissa doesn’t get hurt.”
In fact, Rachel will sometimes ride with her left eye closed to see what Lissa sees in order to help her better, and she knows firsthand it’s extremely difficult. Rachel’s currently training a young horse for Lissa and teaching the horse to hang back if asked so that Lissa can find the jump, not the distance — that, she trusts to her horse.
A Unique Partnership
While Lissa has a strong human team, she also has strong equine partners — one in particular. Her beloved horse Milo was an abused and neglected horse imported from Germany. “Milo was sensitive and had never been shown kindness,” Lissa said. “I slept in his stall at night when he was scared. He knew when I would walk down the barn aisle and make noise so I could find him.”
Regrettably, Milo wasn’t a constant in Lissa’s life. Her health resulted in mounting hospital bills, and without a job she had to make the difficult decision to sell Milo. Immediately, she regretted the painful decision and both she and her mother tried to buy him back without success.
Three years later, Lissa went out to the paddock to retrieve a horse. She experienced a sensation she could only describe as an awareness. “It was almost like a heart attack,” Lissa said. “I just knew that Milo was close.” Feeling absurd, she called out to him and couldn’t believe when he answered. “He started to scream and gallop down the hill,” she said. “Everyone else knew I was being surprised with the horse. My mom bought him back for me. He stopped and hugged me, putting his head over my shoulder and pulling me in. I was sobbing. I couldn’t survive without him and he wasn’t doing great without me.”
While her story is certainly inspirational, Lissa is quick to give credit where deserved. “I gave up on riding and horses for a year after I lost my vision because I didn’t think I would ever be able to ride and certainly never compete again,” she said. “I was able to return to the ring because I had the unfailing support of an incredible mother, amazing friends, trainers who refused to give up on me, and a horse that many of us assumed was magical. There’s simply no other explanation for why he did for me what he did.
“I was told once by a very prominent judge that there was something about Milo that made you root for him – the minute he walked into the ring, you wanted him to win,” Lissa continued. “Perhaps it was Milo’s invisible wings or his transparent unicorn horn that made the judge feel that way. I don’t know what powers my little horse possessed. It may have been as simple as love. I do know that whatever it was, he brought me back to life.”
Photos by Isabel J. Kurek, unless noted otherwise