International Para Dressage Rider

Double European and World medallist Erin Orford, 31 from High Wycombe is a leading International Para Dressage Rider and is aiming to bring home the gold in the Tokyo 2021 Paralympics.

Erin was born missing the tibia bone in both legs leading to a through knee amputation when she was 1 year old. Because of these missing bones, Erin had no stability in her legs and was unable to weight bear. Erin is also missing the radius bone in both arms but has not let her disability hold her back. “I have only ever used prosthetics legs so I don’t know any different. It’s how I first learnt to walk, I’ve never had a wheelchair and so I’ve been reliant on using prosthetic legs my whole life”.

Growing up, Erin went to a standard school where most of her friends did not have a disability. Having always been competitive, Erin was determined not to let her situation prevent her from doing what she wanted. “My friends were really great”, said Erin. “If we were doing anything, they would just look at me and say, ‘Come on, let’s go’, they didn’t see me as someone who was disabled.

This competitive nature has been a trusted ally for Erin throughout her life and driven her to achieve great things already. “I was quite stubborn growing up”, said Erin. “If someone said I wouldn’t be able to do something, it made me want to do it more just to prove them wrong. However, people can have a different response to this, especially when they’re younger and haven’t had a chance to discover the full extent of their abilities. Telling someone they can’t do something can make you question yourself and discourage them from trying, which means that you set limits for yourself before you even know whether you have a limit. That’s what makes the Paralympic movement so special, it highlights what people can do, rather than what they can’t.”

From a very young age, Erin has always been very sporty and tried a variety of different things alongside her able bodied peers. Her passion has always been riding though, ever since the age of 2. “I’d ridden from the age of 2 for therapy reasons but the transition to sport riding didn’t happen until I was about 15, before then I didn’t really know much about the Paralympics or see opportunities to compete that might take me in that direction.”

Erin’s mum worked with Para Basketball player Clare Strange’s mum and Clare was heavily involved with Sport England and sport Development. “Clare persuaded me to have a go at wheelchair basketball but my shorter arms and limited experience in a wheelchair didn’t work in my favour so we stuck to my true passion, which was riding and she put me in touch with a riding group that had several sport riders, one of which was fellow athlete, Sophie Christianson.” 

In 2004, Erin travelled to Athens to watch the Paralympics. “I went from not being around many people with disabilities and trying to blend in to being completely immersed”, said Erin. “I saw the British team win gold, heard the national anthem and I realised this is my goal, this is what I want to do”.

Erin now competes in several big competitions every year and has competed both nationally and internationally for over 10 years. Having been named as non-travelling reserve for both the 2014 World Equestrian Games and 2016 Paralympics, Erin received a late call up in 2017, which was a major step towards her long-awaited Championship debut. Erin returned from the European Championships as a Gold and Bronze medallist, a major achievement and the following year was selected for the World Equestrian Games where she was part of the silver medal winning team. Since then, Erin has gone from strength to strength and has her sights set on Paralympic glory in Tokyo.

In 2009 Erin had her first pair of legs made especially for riding. “The legs were based on my walking legs but with a few tiny changes to make them more suitable for riding, which has made a huge difference. Having tried them for a while we started to look at areas we might be able to improve the function and control of the legs and as the heat and the humidity of Tokyo would be especially challenging with my current prosthetics, we wondered whether we could get something made that would be more efficient in both areas. The British team put me in touch with Dorset Orthopaedic and I met Moose Baxter who came and met with me and assessed what I needed. I am now in the process of having some bespoke riding legs made, which I hope will be a great help to my comfort and performance as I campaign for Tokyo next year”, explains Erin.

“It has been a really exciting and interesting collaboration working with Erin”, explains Erin’s prosthetist, Moose Baxter. I’m very hopeful that we’ll come up with a solution that not only allows Erin to continue competing with all the skills and experience she has acquired but that I (and the team I work with) can make some legs that allow her confidence on, and control of, the horse even better”.

Beyond the sport, Erin works part time in digital communications and is a qualified UKCC level 2 British Dressage instructor. “I enjoy the variety that I have as it challenges me in different ways and it’s great to be able to put something back into the sport through my teaching and help other people to achieve their dreams too”.

Erin believes in stretching your comfort zone and embracing things that may initially present as difficult, rather than simply avoiding them. “If I could give any advice to people in a similar position to me, it would be to keep trying different ways and find out what works for you. The more you use your prosthetics and understand how your weight and the rest of your body can influence them then the more they become part of you, which makes a massive difference and every-day tasks become easier. You have to practice and not be afraid to fail because it won’t always be easy, but the process teaches you to adapt and work with what you do have in order to find a solution. People can offer advice and support, but they can’t tell you what you’re capable of, it’s up to you to find that out for yourself.”