27/08/2017

Natasha Baker: five-time equestrian Gold Medallist inspiring the next generation

WE TALK to Natasha Baker about her five equestrian Gold Medals and her focus on inspiring the next generation of horse riders.

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Natasha Baker

Natasha Baker won three Gold Medals at the 2016 Paralympics.

NATASHA BAKER is a five-time Paralympic Gold Medal winner from Britain and an inspiration to athletes around the world.

 

She contracted transverse myelitis when she was just  14 months old which left her with weakness and no feeling in her legs. However, the disability has not stopped her fulfilling her ambition of becoming a Paralympic great. Today she is Great Britain’s top-winning Paralympic equestrian Gold Medallist with five already under her belt.

 

Natasha was brought up with horses and had been determined to win a Paralympic medal one day after being inspired by the Sydney Paralympic Games in 2000. Her parents supported her and through hard work and determination she is now looking ahead to Toyko 2020 and the chance to defend her three Golds.

 

Here Natasha talks to us about her journey to the Paralympics hall of fame as well as her work to motivate the next generation of equestrian enthusiasts.

 

What or who got you into horse riding and how long was it until you realised you had a real talent for the sport?

 

My mum initially got me into horses, she used to ride as a child and I was fortunate to be brought up on the family farm. I knew I wanted to get into para-dressage after watching the Sydney Paralympic Games in 2000 when I saw Lee Pearson win Gold. I told my parents I was going to win a Paralympic medal one day too. I think the realisation came when I won my first senior international title in 2005.

 

Natasha Baker

Natasha was brought up around horses and her relationship with them has remained central to her life. photo Jo Hansford Photography

Tell us about your style of riding and how your disability affects the way in which you have to ride and control your horse?

 

I control the horse with the use of my voice predominantly but I also use my body weight and small movements in my saddle. I am unable to use my legs at all when I ride so my horses have to be ultra sensitive to small sounds and changes in my weight distribution.

 

Which disciplines do you compete in?

 

I compete in para-equestrian dressage grade 3. This consists of three tests at international level; a team test, an individual test and a freestyle (to music).

 

Natasha Baker

Natasha had previously won two Gold Medals at London 2012 before she went to take her hat-trick in Rio.

How important is your relationship with your horses to you?

 

It’s the most important part of what I do. I’m sitting on 3/4 of a ton of animal with its own mind that can do anything it wants whenever it wants. I have to trust them with my life and they in turn have to trust me. It takes time to build a really solid partnership but it’s totally worth it. I have to know what they’re thinking before they think it and they have to know everything about me and the way I move and communicate with them.

 

What did it mean to win your Gold Medals at London 2012 and how hard had you worked to get there?

 

Winning two Gold Medals in London was beyond my wildest dreams. Never did I imagine that I would go to my first ever Paralympic Games, at home, and come away with one Gold, let alone two, aged just 22. To do it in front of a home crowd made it extra special for me, the roar when we even entered the arena gave me goosebumps and it’s a feeling I will never ever forget.

 

I felt immense pride for JP and for everything we had achieved to get there. It was a relatively new partnership, we had only been together two years but already had two European gold medals under our belt. We had worked really hard together and were feeling confident going into London, but you just never know how a horse will react to that kind of atmosphere – it is like no other!

 

Tell us about your incredible successes at Rio 2016 and what it meant to claim your place among the equestrian greats?

 

I had a tough four years between London and Rio. The World Games in 2014 didn’t go quite as we hoped as JP got very nervous and spooky in the arena. We had three major blips and the final one cost us the gold medal. Although silver is still amazing with three mistakes, obviously I wanted gold!

 

So heading into Rio, although we were unbeaten for the whole of 2016, we needed to prove JP could still win and keep his cool. We had a close call the first day as he spooked just before I entered the arena so it wasn’t our best test but we managed to keep it together for a win. The next two days went a lot smoother and we managed to retain our Paralympic title which was unbelievable. Nobody from Team GB had won an individual Paralympic Gold before so to do it back to back in two games was amazing! I couldn’t have been more proud of JP and everything we had been through. I still have to pinch myself now, it feels surreal.

 

Natasha Baker

Natasha has travelled the world to represent Team GB.

What have been some of your other greatest equestrian achievements and where else in the world has the sport taken you?

 

One of my proudest moments apart from the Paralympics was winning a silver medal at the Europeans in 2015 with Sooki. Sooki came to me as a five-year-old and I trained her to international para level. She won two silvers at her first ever championships and she was the youngest horse of the competition.

 

My favourite competition venue was Al Shaqab in Doha. The horses were treated like kings and queens and even walked on red carpets! The arenas were huge and bright and air conditioned! Everybody was so helpful and it was a fantastic atmosphere, I hope I get the chance to compete there again.

 

Tell us about your work to inspire the next generation of Paralympic athletes and change the perception towards those with disabilities?

 

When I was ten was inspired to win a Gold Medal so if I can inspire one person like I was back then, that for me is as good as winning another gold medal! I love going into schools, giving talks, showing them pictures and letting them touch and wear the medals. I work with two charities, Riding for the Disabled Association and Dreamflight, both of which changed my life and made me into the person I am today. I did an 11,000ft skydive to raise money for Dreamflight a few years ago. The perception of disability has changed so much since London but still has a long way to go! I want to show the world that disability doesn’t mean inability. I always say ‘I may not do things in the conventional way but I do them in the Natasha way’ and that’s good enough for me – I do my best to spread the message that it’s good to be different.

 

How hard are you currently training and what competitions are you looking forward to in the coming months and years?

 

2017 has been a bit of a ‘gap year’ for me. I’ve bought a flat with my boyfriend and have enjoyed some time out of competing so I can focus on training my young horse Freddie. Since loosing my top horse JP earlier this year to a bacterial infection I have been looking for another horse to take over his position. Freddie is a long-term project, however, so I need something that will take me to internationals so I can qualify for the World Games in Autumn 2018. I have travelled the country and Europe trying to find my next dancing partner so I hope I find him soon so I can get back out there competing, I miss it now!

 

My goal next year is to compete at the World Games in the US and win a medal, preferably gold! Then I would love to retain my Paralympic title in Tokyo 2020 in memory of JP.

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