Paralympian Natasha Baker MBE tells us how "horses made everything better" during lockdown.
Last week, we were incredibly excited to find out that Verm-X Ambassador Natasha Baker MBE had been formally chosen to represent Team GB at this years Paralympic Games in Tokyo. We were lucky enough to catch up with her and find out more about how 2021 has been for Natasha so far and what her hopes were for the months ahead.
Training during lockdown
Natasha told us that, for her, the first lockdown was probably the toughest of them all:
“Nobody really knew what was going on, what to do for the best so we just had to try our best. As a yard, we gave everybody time slots to come down so that we all had as much space as possible. Only being able to go to the yard once a day was tough, but it was important to follow the guidelines. One thing I am so grateful for is that I was able to spend so much time outside. I have many friends who were living in flats in London at the time, and they could only go out for an hour a day to exercise, so I really do appreciate that I could escape to the yard with sunshine and horses - horses always make everything better in my opinion!
"A huge negative was that I wasn't able to have my trainer or go to my physio sessions. I don't think it was until I lost access to those two things that I realised how important they are to me, as my riding really took its toll on my body."
Natasha contracted Transverse Myelitis at just 14 months old, leaving her with permanent nerve damage, loss of balance and sensation and severe weakness in her legs. Understandably, training and physiotherapy have played a crucial role in her development into the athlete she is today.
Explaining further, Natasha commented: "I'd say for the first three or four weeks I was riding pretty well and then my body slowly got stiffer. Eventually, I was limited just to hacking locally around fields and roads. It was lovely that at least we could have those interludes together, building our bond. It made our relationship stronger.
“I also did lots of TRT work, so all of the desensitising groundwork with plastic bags, umbrellas, flags and clappers. It was a great opportunity for us both to get back to basics in that respect."
Unsurprisingly, the first thing Natasha did when the first lockdown was lifted was to make an appointment with her Team GB physiotherapist, followed by one with her trainer, Lisa. A short period of intensive training meant that Natasha and Lottie were able to get back between the white boards and compete in some able-bodied classes to make up for their lost time.
Back between the white boards
"For Lottie and I, this year has gone better than I hoped it would go so far. Thanks to the Elite Sports Exemptions, and with Tokyo on the horizon, we were eventually able to have a few competitions in March behind closed doors.
“It was the first time that the long-listed riders for Team GB had all been together since Keysoe in October 2020 and it was amazing to be back together again. Keysoe had gone really well for me, I won all three days there, but October to March is a long time so I was definitely feeling a little ring rusty!
It was set up as three days of competition and we had three international judges marking us. It was fantastic. Lottie went really well, we won all three days in the Grade III and over two days we won over all the Grades - an incredible start to the season! Every single time I've been out since then, it's just been getting better and better. The event in March meant we were able to get a great idea of what the judges were looking for this year.”
When April came, the Team GB hopefuls had a second event and, although this one felt more like a squad training to Natasha, she decided to treat it as a full competition, explaining that:
“We didn't have to get dressed up if we didn't want to however, I wanted to treat it as much as a competition as possible as I simply hadn’t had the competition exposure that I wanted in 2020. We weren’t judged for this event, although there were judges there. I find that Lottie can anticipate sometimes when she’s in the ring, so for me to ride as though it was a test but stop and correct her if we went wrong was an incredibly helpful exercise. It gave Lottie a wake-up call to show her that that I might correct her in a test situation. I think that this was a real turning point for our partnership and I would certainly recommend to any dressage riders that you try something similar. Hire an arena and ride your tests away from home, where you can afford to give away marks and repeat things that don’t quite go your way the first time. It really made a difference for us.”
“It just keeps getting better and better.”
Natasha went to score a personal best at Wellington in May, scoring over 79% in the team test and over 80% in the Freestyle. She returned to Wellington at the beginning of June to score yet another personal best after being awarded 81.8% in the Freestyle. It was then Natasha discovered she had been short listed for the Team GB Paralympic Squad, with one final competition to go before finding out whether she would be flying to Tokyo this year.
Telling us about her experience at the Hartpury Festival of Dressage CPEDI3* event, Natasha explained:
“Lottie flew through the trot up and we went on to win the next day with a 76.64%. It was such a promising start to the competition, and I was really looking forward to riding my individual test on day two. That is, until I misdirected Lottie and lost us 0.5% from each judge. I was absolutely gutted!”
Luckily, the mistake wasn’t too costly as Natasha went on to win with 76.6%. The freestyle went as well as ever and Natasha remained unbeaten in international competition in 2021 and was shortly confirmed as a member of Team GB for the Tokyo Paralympics.
Natasha explained: “In a strange way, I feel as though everything being postponed in 2020 has actually helped me. I have had an extra year to spend with Lottie and I feel like every month she keeps getting stronger. It has taken 18 months for us to really connect in our relationship, so I would say it was more relief of the games being postponed rather than disappointment.
“The British Paralympic Association and the International Paralympic Association are doing everything they can to deliver the safest possible games. We won't be able to go on public transport. We will arrive in Tokyo, go straight to our hotels and then it will be hotel, venue, ride the horses, compete the horses and then immediately back to the hotel again. We must be out of Japan within 48 hours of our final class, so we'll be out there for the bare minimum time. We are testing for Covid-19 every single day out there and so we will be aware of everybody's health. I'm testing twice a week at home anyway just to make sure that I am staying safe and healthy in the run up to leaving.
“It’s certainly a different kind of preparation than for the previous Olympics that I have ridden in. One thing we’re organising at the moment is to have access to some heat chambers so we can get used to the heat and humidity, as it's going to be really hot out there and I don’t know how Lottie and I will cope with that. Temperatures will be in their thirties, so that’s a little daunting.
“I am really, really hoping that I will be winning a medal in Tokyo. Obviously, it would be amazing if it was more than one, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t want them to be gold! I would love to retain my Paralympic title, but I know this will be my toughest Paralympics yet. The other competitors are on top of their game and, with Lottie and I being a new partnership, all I can do is my best!”
We are so excited to be able to support Natasha in her ambitions and look forward to bringing you more updates as she prepares for this year’s Paralympic Games.
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