Paralympian Natasha Baker – who relies on just her voice and seat to control her horse – hoped to be heading to Tokyo this summer to notch up her sixth gold medal. But now she has other plans…
Natasha Baker has just taken her one ride of the day. Like us all, she has been restricting her time outdoors because of the coronavirus. And, for Natasha, it is especially important: she is high risk, her immune system compromised by her disability. She might be a multiple-medal-winning Paralympian, but she is not exempt from isolation, even if she has to train.
In late March, Tokyo 2020 was postponed for a year. Natasha, who won two gold medals at London 2012 and another three at Rio 2016 in dressage, was understandably disappointed. “I felt deflated at first,” she says. “I had such a good plan to be ready for the summer. Plans always have to be flexible, but this had been in the diary for years. I had so been looking forward to it.”
How could she keep up her training schedule, let alone her spirits? And yet, as soon as summer 2021 was confirmed, she readjusted her plans. “I think everyone just wants to forget about 2020 and move on to 2021 as quickly as possible,” she says, with a laugh. “In all honesty, this could work in my favour. I’ve only had Lottie [her horse] for a year. The longer you have with a horse, the better you know each other. This will give us more time together.”
Natasha lives with her fiancé, Marc Jaconelli, an engineer, and her Skye terrier, Poppy, just down the road from her parents’ livery yard in Uxbridge, on the edge of London, where she grew up. At the time of writing, she was visiting six days a week, riding for half an hour to an hour, more to see the horses than to do any sort of intensive training. “I feel really lucky that I can ride my horse and be out in the fresh air,” Natasha says. “This is my escapism at the moment. If I couldn’t go there, I don’t know how I would cope.”
Usually, she would spend much of the day at the yard; now she is thankful that she can go at all. She is unable to see her trainer, so has to just keep Lottie “ticking over”. While her mum can lunge Lottie (guiding her around the arena at the end of a long, single rein) to burn off energy, no one else can ride her. “But everyone is in the same boat,” Natasha adds brightly. “We’re all in this together.”
A sense of freedom
If you saw Natasha at London 2012, you’ll understand the strength of her bond with her horses and why she is called ‘The Horse Whisperer’. When she contracted transverse myelitis as a baby, it damaged her spine and nerve endings, and left her paralysed from the waist down. Instead, she uses her voice and her seat to guide the horse.
The rider-horse relationship is based on an acute sensitivity, an almost intuitive understanding of each other. “Spending time with my horses, whatever I’m doing, is my passion,” Natasha enthuses, “but riding gives me that sense of freedom and movement that I can’t get elsewhere. There is nowhere in the world I would rather be.” Just being with her horses provides comfort. “If I’m having a bad day, I can sit in the stables and chat away to them. It’s not like a human-human connection. They love you unconditionally,” she says.
A love of horses runs in the family. Natasha’s mum, Lorraine, now her groom, once competed on the Horse of the Year Show. There is a home video of Natasha, aged about six months, bopping along in a basket saddle, a drink in one hand, a lollipop in the other. Aged nine, she started having lessons with Riding for the Disabled. Soon she was competing. People began to see past her disability, recognising her talent as a rider. “Growing up doing something that not a lot of able-bodied people could do, I felt like that gave me something a little bit special,” Natasha says. “I never felt I was missing out as a child, but riding gave me a new lease of life.”
Dreaming of gold
When Natasha was 10, her passion took on a life of its own. The family were watching Paralympic rider Lee Pearson compete at Sydney 2000 on TV when she announced to her mum and dad that she was going to win a Paralympic gold medal. “My parents taught me I could do anything, so they weren’t massively surprised,” she says. Determined to realise her dream, Natasha focused on riding and increasing her core stability and strength (she doesn’t use stirrups, so her legs just hang). Within five years, she had notched up a string of national and international titles, but there were setbacks to come – days before the final selection trial for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, her horse, Lazardo, was injured, putting her dreams on ice for another five years.
At the start of summer 2012, Natasha was “the underdog”, but she was to triumph not just once but twice – winning gold in both the Individual and Freestyle Dressage competitions. Her joy was unbridled. After one performance at Greenwich Park, Natasha threw her arms in the air, encouraging spectators who hadn’t wanted to scare her horse to cheer. “First and foremost, I was proud of JP [her horse],” she says today, “of everything that he’d achieved and what we’d achieved together. Winning is such an awesome feeling, especially when you’ve had to work so hard.”
When your ups are so high, your lows can match, and London 2012 brought both. “I was overwhelmed by it all because it was never on my radar that I would win one gold medal, let alone two,” Natasha admits. “I was thrust into the limelight. I just couldn’t cope.” She suffered “a massive comedown”. “I struggled going home. You build yourself up so much for one big event, then suddenly it’s all over. It’s all I’d ever dreamed of.” Natasha went to stay with Christian Landolt, a close friend and part-owner of JP, on his farm in Gloucestershire. “I needed to see the countryside after spending three weeks in the city. It had been so intense. It felt nice to be me again… I needed to press my reset button.”
Backing away from the Queen
Natasha emerged to a year of appearances, interviews and parties. “My life just went crazy,” she says. In the New Year Honours 2013, she was appointed MBE, with an invitation to go to Buckingham Palace. “I was very nervous,” she recalls. Natasha explains the protocol of greeting the Queen: you can’t turn your back on her, so after you’ve approached her, you have to walk backwards. Years of riding has enabled Natasha to walk short distances with a stick, but it’s hard. She usually gets around on a pink disability scooter. “I can barely walk straight, let alone backwards, so I was petrified about that,” she says, laughing. “I told myself, ‘Just don’t fall over – that would be the most embarrassing thing in the world.” The Queen was “lovely… Because she’s horsey, she had plenty to chat about.”
Rio 2016 was the next big goal. “After London, I was expected to win every time I competed,” Natasha says. “That was really difficult for me to get my head around. I realise now that it’s pressure you’re putting on yourself – people have a certain degree of expectation, but you make that ten times worse.” Yet the expectation was well founded. Natasha came home with three more gold medals. “I was incredibly proud, but I also felt relief that I hadn’t let anybody down.” She has since spent a lot of time with a sports psychologist, learning how to cope with expectation. “I’m in a very different mental state now,” she says. The next Paralympics, she says, will be different.
Riding the storm
Natasha had intended to retire JP after Rio but planned to still ride him. Yet 2017 had other ideas. Early that year, her “best friend and soulmate” died from an infected cut. “2017 was the worst year for me,” she says. “It was horrendous.” She took some time off. “It was like after London. I needed to find myself again. Marc and I bought a flat. I ‘adulted’.” Together, they did “normal things” like going to the cinema and cooking. Natasha’s speciality is banana bread. “I was more like Natasha Baker, human, than Natasha Baker, athlete, that year.” Her young horse, Freddie, lifted her through her grief. “Sometimes I would go into Freddie’s stable and have a good old cry about losing JP,” she says. She had no set plans to return until August, when she did some commentating at the European Championships: “I realised I missed it; it was time to go back.”
It took a couple of years to find Lottie. “They are very different characters,” she says. “JP had his close friends; Lottie is friendly to everyone. JP was a scaredy-cat; you could walk Lottie through a warzone.” Now, she wants to show people what they can do together.
That may be a while off, but Natasha is staying upbeat. She’ll restart her training schedule as soon as she can, focusing on the Paralympics again in January. Fortunately, there is a distraction on the horizon. Marc proposed in January while they were skiing in Switzerland and they are aiming to get married in spring 2022. “I thought, with Tokyo this summer, that this was going to be a really busy year and I could spend 2021 planning the wedding,” she says. “Now we can plan it earlier. We’re thinking of a big wedding in a country house.” Might there be a horse theme? “No,” she says firmly. “This is about me and Marc. It’s not about me and me.” A pause. “But, afterwards, I’d love a photoshoot in my dress with the horses.”
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