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an equestrian’s tale

My name is Nicola Tustain. I was born on 27 December 1977 and I live near Corwen. I started riding at the age of three, rode my grandparents’ horses. I started at the Riding for the Disabled Association at the age of nine, and from then, I developed my love of horses. I have a right paraplegia and dystonia, which is like having a body that is cut in half – one half is normal and the other half has got a world of its own with lots of pain and lots of spasms.

I had a lot of bullying in school, and when I went horse-riding once a week, it was a relief. It was somewhere where I wasn’t looked upon as someone with problems. They would actually look up to me on the horse, rather than down at me in school.

one of them

When I started riding, there weren’t many competitions that I could enter in dressage, only one per year. I got the buzz straight away. At my first National Championships, I saw the Great Britain team which were then training for Atlanta, and I decided that I wanted to have a jacket with the Great Britain badge on it. I just wanted to be one of them. I was picked one day to ride in front of Princess Anne at our local Riding for the Disabled Association. I remember it well. I was in pigtails and one of the trustees came up to me and said, “And who might you be?”. And I said, “My name is Nicola Tustain and one day I’m going to be a World Champion”, and she looked at me and went, “Really, are you?”. I won my first Nationals at the age of eleven, and I’ve never looked back. As soon as I won, that was it; I wanted to win again and again and again. At the age of thirteen, I was taken to Warwickshire where they were talent-spotting for the Great Britain squad. At that time, they only had the junior, senior and elite squad, and, unfortunately, I was too young at thirteen, so I had to get a few more years of experience. They kept an eye on me, though.

riding like miss piggy

The horses that I’ve ridden, some of them do know that there is something not quite right. When I ride, I ride with my arm out to the side, and my leg goes back into spasm giving off different signals. I ride with a special rein, a bar rein, and they have to get used to that. I used to ride like Miss Piggy! I rode many different horses and ponies to learn the skills required to be able to bring up the strengths in them and hide the weaknesses in test situations. When we used to go to different countries, we used to ride their horses and ponies, because we couldn’t afford to take ours. It was a case of horses’ names in a hat, riders’ names in a hat, and you’d pick out the horse’s name, and you trained with that horse for three to five days. It is a big thing for a horse to get used to the rider within that short space of time, even without having a disabled rider on its back. There was a lot of trust needed between you and the horse, a partnership to be able to go out and compete.

dreams coming true

My first major success was at the National Championships. It was absolutely amazing to get first place at eleven, and competing alongside the ones that were training for Atlanta. It wasn’t good enough for me just to win a National Championship, though; I wanted to do better. I always set myself higher goals.

I’ll never ever forget the Sydney Paralympics. I was the youngest one on the squad. The horse that I had picked that time had done no dressage and had not been in the Olympic Arena before; it was brought in purely because they were looking for horses to make up the competition. I went over for the experience; that’s how I was looking at it, that’s how the management was looking at it, but, when I got there, the experience alone wasn’t enough for me. I went around and saw what I was going to compete against and I said, “I’m going to go out there and win medals”. First competition day, I had joint bronze for the warm-up and, then, I went on to win bronze. And each day it got better and by the last day I got gold. For me to win gold, first Paralympics, youngest on the squad, strange horse that I only had for five days before the competition, that was a dream come true. My golden moment!

That’s the one that really sticks in my mind but there have been many, many others. I’ve done three World Championships; I’ve been World Champion from 1999 to 2007. I had three gold medals in ’99; that was brilliant because I’d just bought a horse four months before the competition, and I took him there and he brought me home three gold medals. Then, it was my second World Championship where I said to myself. “I want to stay World Champion”, and I stayed World Champion, and I had three gold medals, again. And then, on the third occasion of the Worlds, my horse went lame, so I had to go and search for another. I found one but, unfortunately, I had a bad fall, got injured, so I brought my old horse back who had won the Worlds in ’99, twenty years old then, the oldest in the competition, and he won gold for me, again.

Then, there’s Athens. Athens was the same experience as Sydney, but I was much older. There were different expectations on me as a competitor, to go out there and win medals. Fortunately, I did it. I’ve been to three Europeans, three Worlds and two Paralympics, and I’ve been seven out of eight times National Champion in this country. In total, I have thirty-four gold medals from when I first started competing in a team at the age of seventeen. From all this competitiveness and the winnings, I was fortunate to be the first ever Welsh athlete to be nominated for the World Sports Awards, held in Lisbon in 2004. That was one moment I will never forget. And an MBE! An absolute honour, a privilege to be recognised for something that you love to do. I had it for my equestrian achievements but I also like doing charity work, raising money for the local RDA centres.

no ‘ah, bless’

Even though you have a disability, even though you have special tack to ride with, what we do, we just write it all down on a piece of paper, what we call ‘a dispensation certificate’ which allows us to compete alongside the able-bodied, on a par, in the same competitions. We don’t get no “Ah, bless”. We go out there, we do exactly the same as them, we compete like the able-bodied, but we just let the judge know why we’re riding the way we are.

everything just moved away

Back in 2001, I had a bad car accident, which left me with more pain down the right side of my body, from the top of my hip right down to my ankle. It affected the way I held my arm. Up to the Sydney Paralympics (2000), I was able to keep my arm nice and tidy down by my side, but after that it was quite hard for me, and the pain, more pain down the right side of my body. But it’s funny, when I got on a horse, all the troubles just disappeared, all the pain just went away. What I love about horses and horse riding, everything just moved away, just went over my head, because I was doing what I loved.

I broke my coccyx six weeks before the World Championships in 2007, a major injury for me because you need your seat to ride the horse, and I couldn’t sit! Lucky for me, I had a great support team, I had a great physiotherapist who got me back on a horse three weeks before the Championships. I remember I had two seat savers on top of my saddle so I was quite high up, felt quite unusual. On the last day, when I got off, it was, like, “Ah, thank goodness it’s over. I’ve done what I wanted to do and I’ve finished”. That was the worst injury, but I got there in the end.

what’s more important?

Ten, eleven years I’ve been doing this sport. I’m unable to drive a wagon myself, to take the horses away, so my mum was always the one who was there by my side. It would be sometimes to team training, a ten-hour drive. We would only be home about six or seven days per month and that was difficult on the family, the people we were leaving behind, seeing the younger members of my family growing up. Socially, it was hard too, because I wouldn’t have much time to do the things that the people that I grew up with were doing. But then, you ask, “What’s more important?” and you think, “I want to do this”. You want to be the best and you have to make a decision, and for me it was the right one. The achievements, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, it’s been amazing. I decided to retire; it’s coming up to two years, now. Unfortunately, my mum fell poorly. She was with me all the time; she was my mentor. I couldn’t have done it without her.

I’ve loved every moment of it, from beginning to end. Lots and lots of dreams fulfilled. Yeah, there’s been a few weaknesses in between but that’s what makes you stronger. It’s been a whirlwind of competition life. I was one little girl looking at a dream. While everyone was saying, “Don’t be silly”, I got there. I believe that if you have a dream and are determined to work hard in your life whatever you want to do with it, be it in sport or anything else, you will succeed. When I first began, I was just dreaming ... but I got there. I got there, step by step.

If I had to describe myself in three words, they’d be focused, determined, and a hardworking young lady.

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