Hearing What Most People Never Learn to See - Part 2
Story by Karen Brown

Sam Madden lost her sight to diabetes at age 30. Since then, her passion for horses was re-ignited. Through the horse Sam has traveled a road of discovery about herself, her horses, and the world of competition.

An accomplished rider before losing her sight, Sam Madden has fine-tuned her ability to feel her horse. She amazes people by riding round circles and symmetrical serpentines. Sam explains, “I’ve just learned to pay a lot closer attention. I can feel my circle is round. Feeling is one of my only clues as to what is going on. Most people receive 90 percent of their input visually; I get 90 percent of my information on a horse from a ‘lower seat of learning!’ I can’t see if the horse is on the bit or which way he is bent, let alone something as subtle as where the corner of his inside eye is; and I can’t see whether the distraction outside the arena is just a curiosity or a horse-eating monster. I’ve become acutely aware of the cues through my seat and hands that convey the same things other people see with their eyes.”

Sam has mastered several different methods of orientation. She rides completely independently in a round pen by holding a long whip in her outside hand as a “curb feeler” against the rail. She is able to ride a very round circle around a person by listening to the distance from a steady-speaking voice. On trails, Ralph wears jingle-bobs on his spurs and rides in front of her. In rail classes at horse shows, Sam will get directions via a two-way radio from her navigator in the stands.

For dressage competition, USAE rules allow blind riders to utilize “living letters” in order to navigate the arena. In a discipline where no outside assistance is allowed, this rule provides that eight people may be stationed at each of the primary letter markers around the arena so they may call out that letter to the rider as she negotiates the course. Sam found some difficulties with this system, “The quieter voices of women and children tend to get lost in the wind - and just try to find eight MEN at a dressage show! Plus there is no clause that says if any one of those nine people makes a mistake, the rider gets to call ‘Do over!’”

So Ralph went to work to design an electronic, portable speaker system he christened Alphabet-Eyes. This innovative system is considered adaptive equipment and is allowed in competition under USAE “living letters” rule 1922.4.1. The system consists of eight separate units in which there are three speakers, an MP3 player with a recording of Ralph’s voice announcing the name of the letter, an amplifier, a voltage regulator, a receiver, a servo (electromechanical converter), and a 12-volt battery. One unit is placed at each of the main perimeter letters around the dressage arena. Ralph uses an eight-channel radio transmitter to signal the receiver in any of the eight units (up to four at once) to repeat the name of that letter at the appropriate time to orient Sam to her location in the arena.

Sam and Zoe were so successful competing and winning in open dressage competitions with able riders, that Sam set her sights on the Paralympics. However, Sam was persuaded by her trainers that Zoe could not take her there as she did not have the movement and conformation needed to compete on an international level in dressage. Even though she had already secured a place on the NDSA Developing Riders List for 2003, Sam made the hard decision to sell Zoe. She tried a couple of highly qualified warmbloods but found them to be unacceptable for a variety of reasons.

She continued her search for an acceptable mount, while she waited for another young horse to grow up. Sam laughs, “I went through my mid life crisis a few years ago at age 40 and decided I wanted a baby. So I bought a nine-month-old Pinto/Paint stud colt I named Danny (registered as Dare To Dream In Color). We got home at 5:30am on a Monday morning from a horrendous icy trip trailering him home from Colorado. There was a message on the answering machine that a pancreas was waiting for me if I responded within an hour. The message had been left only a half hour earlier. That evening I was in surgery.”

That young 9-month-old stud colt has fulfilled the promise of his American Warmblood Society sire by filling out to 17.2 hands of muscle, power, and grace. A gorgeous dark bay tobiano Pinto/Paint gelding, Danny has matured into a gentle giant who seems to know his job is to take care of Sam. At 4 years old, Danny has benefited from spending his early years in the hands of a natural horseman who taught Danny that there is fun to be had with the two-leggeds. Ralph took the opportunity during Danny’s pre-saddle days to teach him natural ground maneuvers as well as a number of tricks. While much of this provides fun and entertainment the real bonus is the mental agility and emotional control Danny has gained by challenging his mind while his body developed.

Sam was the first on Danny’s back when the time came for saddle training to begin. She says, “Of course, Ralph had done two years of natural horsemanship with him, and I had already developed a trusting relationship with Danny on the ground. There was no doubt in my mind that when I got on him the first time he’d be a perfect gentleman and treat the whole thing as some fun new game! I do all Danny’s handling: finding his stall, haltering and leading him to the cross ties, getting my equipment from the tack room and grooming and tacking him up, bathing him in the wash rack, and turning him out for a romp.”

Sam originally planned to pursue international competition. But, in the years she and Danny have been together, Sam has felt a shift in her perception of the qualification process for NDSA (National Disability Sports Alliance) riders. “I was nationally ranked on the NDSA Developing Riders list for dressage in 2003, having qualified with Zoe in 2002. But I’m becoming reticent about pursuing the Paralympics as a goal because riders have to submit qualifying scores from showing two different horses. Also, riders often have to qualify at major championships - even compete in the Paralympics - on strange horses. That goes against my ‘natural’ instincts.”

“All my hard work is towards forming a partnership with my own horse. It’s not about advancing my own skills so I can sit on any horse and make him go through the motions. My horse is not a tool, and it takes months to develop the unspoken bond of trust we have. My goals right now are more domestic (the Pinto World Championships in Tulsa) so I can afford them, do them with my own horse with whom I’ve been working so hard to make this look easy, and not have to spend more time fund raising and campaigning for sponsors than I spend with my horse!”

Given her accomplishments to date and her will to succeed, there’s no doubt Sam and Danny will excel in their bid for glory in whatever venue they enter. “I guess what makes me determined is that I see no reason to NOT be determined. I don’t see myself as any different from anyone else. I’m not blind; I just can’t see!”

While Danny’s foundation training progresses, Sam and Ralph have recently realized a mutual dream with the grand opening of Moonreach Ranch. Both have boarded their horses for years, but as their lives revolve so much around the horses it was an obvious leap to create a ranch design to provide a natural home for horses with subtle adaptations to help Sam find her way independently around her own barn.

“Ralph and I decided to create our dream place from scratch and thought we’d tack on a few extra stalls to offer the same luxury to a few select boarders - and help pay the mortgage! I came up with all the major design features, and Ralph did all the detail work and figured out how to accomplish what I wanted done.”

Being the all-around jack of all trades with a background in engineering, Ralph spent the first 8 months of 2004 single-handedly building the uniquely designed 8 stall barn and renovating the existing house she and Ralph purchased in Peoria, AZ.

“And it is a completely friendly facility for a blind person!” exclaims Sam.

“Too many times I’ve walked face-first into the edge of a swinging door left half open, so we have all sliding doors. The floor plan is very simple, and everything has its place. Ralph put in a rope from the house for me to follow to the barn. No horse can stick its head into the aisle for me to run into, and I can get around just by feeling the walls. The barn aisle at one end opens into the round pen, and across from the tack room are sliding doors into the arena, so I can find my way to either place.”

“We have ‘don’t move the furniture on the blind woman’ rules for the boarders. Everything has a place. Now, if we could just teach the rules to the dogs, I wouldn’t be tripping over anything!” exclaims Sam. The quality of the facility speaks for itself, as the 6 stalls open for boarding were filled within days of the grand opening.

While there is still much work to be done on the ranch and their home, Sam and Ralph are settling into a comfortable routine. By day she works at her computer while Ralph manages the barn and horses, gives lessons, and continues his renovation projects. Each evening, Danny’s trainer arrives just as Sam has completed his grooming and tacking up. Sam stays ringside during his workout where she can “watch” his ride. She can hear what most people never learn to see. “I can hear if Danny is relaxed or rushing, forward or lethargic, focused or distracted, in a frame or strung out. After the ride, the trainer and I discuss how it went and the plan for the next day.” While they talk, Ralph will hose the sweat off Danny and take him out for a good roll in the sand.

“My life is a story of hope. But it’s not about me. It’s about letting others know they have the potential to overcome their own challenges. My hope is that I will touch people’s lives and help others see that no obstacle is insurmountable. Each of us has the choice to regard life’s challenges as formidable roadblocks or simply speed bumps; and if you do your best and believe in yourself, you can lasso the moon!”

At this point, Sam’s personal goal is to take Danny to his full potential and to make Moonreach Ranch a quality facility to be proud of. “By achieving my personal goals, I hope to achieve the greater goal of being able to share the gifts I’ve been given in life with others. My enthusiasm and determination in the face of adversity seem to be contagious in making people forget their own trivial troubles. And I hope to enlighten riders to the natural approach to dressage, about which I am passionate; to help them and their horses establish a relationship of natural respect, trust, and understanding.”

Sam concludes, “My true joy comes not from winning ribbons but from inspiring others by demonstrating the ABILITIES of the DISabled to those who are caught up in their own seemingly insurmountable challenges. I don’t want people to come away saying, ‘Wow, look what Sam did,’ but rather, ‘Wow, think what I could do!’” You can learn more about Sam, Ralph, Danny, and Moonreach Ranch at www.LassoTheMoon.TVHeaven.com.

Some people judge their worth by the color of ribbons. Sam has proven she’s a winner by meeting every challenge face-on. “When I say I’m a winner I mean, I’m strong. I’m a survivor. I refuse to be a victim. I’m in control. I’m happy because I take responsibility for my own happiness. I do not blame others or my circumstances. No matter what life throws at me, I know I’m going to find a way to adapt and meet the challenge.”

“Life is about adapting and overcoming, not only overcoming my own problems, but overcoming people not believing in me. One of my philosophies is that success means believing in yourself and surrounding yourself with others who do. I have no time for negative thinkers.”

Thanks to Sam Madden and Ralph Carr for working with Karen Brown on this article.

You can reach Karen Brown at Solitaire Ranch in Bandera at 830-796-4764.

Click here to read Part 1 of Sam Madden's story.

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