You might notice that Raleigh Hiler has a little bit of extra equipment on when she trots into the ring on Smitten 57. That’s because Hiler, 15, is deaf and wears a headset to allow her to hear directions.
She hasn’t let that stop her at all, however, as Hiler rode Smitten 57 to good ribbons in the low junior hunter division at the Pennsylvania National—incuding a win in the under-saddle—and is set to show in her first Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals tomorrow.
“I have about 75 percent of hearing in my right ear, and not much in my left,” Hiler said. “My hearing loss isn’t something new to me; I’ve been living with it my whole life. But there are definitely some little struggles in life—hearing people and the fact that I don’t have any directional hearing.
“In schooling rings, I get a little nervous. I can’t hear a horse coming up from behind me,” Hiler continued. “I am a very good lip-reader, but I can’t hear someone if they’re far away. And background noise makes it very hard for me.”
|In the ring, Raleigh Hiler feels like any other
teenager. Photo by Molly Sorge
Hiler had meningitis when she was 8 months old, which caused her hearing loss. When she was 1, she had surgery to put in a cochlear implant on her right side. A second implant on her left side was inserted when she was 3, but isn’t as effective because she was older.
Intensive speech therapy and the implants have enabled Hiler to live life much like any typical teenager, but she does have to compensate and her disability does make her feel insecure at times.
“I think riding has definitely given me more confidence. I’m not as insecure about my disability when I’m riding. I feel comfortable in the sport,” she said. “And I’ve learned a lot from my disability, just going through struggles in life and advocating for yourself. If I can’t hear someone, I’ve had to learn to tell them and make it work.”
Hiler, from Sudbury, Mass., caught the riding bug when she was 8 and took lessons at a local farm. Two years ago, she moved to ride at Holly Hill Farm in Marstons Mills, Mass., where Caitlin Venezia teaches her along with Cathy Grady, Patti Harnois and Erin Hastings.
“She’s improved ten-fold,” Venezia said. “Her natural ability just shines through. She might not hear, but that translates into her having great feel. Kids who have all their faculties, you take for granted that life is what it is. I don’t think a disability is a disadvantage, because your body makes up for it in other ways. And for her, I think it’s feel. Every horse she gets on, they love her.”
Hiler bought Smitten, or “Smitty” in the beginning of 2014. “When we started, he was only 6 and I’d never jumped three-foot in my life. But I fell in love with this horse. We’ve really connected,” she said. They spent a year in the children’s division and then moved up to the 3’3” junior hunters this year.
Raleigh Hiler and Smitten 57 showing in the low junior hunter division at the Pennsylvania National. Photo by Molly Sorge
Hiler and Venezia use a combination of microphone and headset speakers to communicate while Hiler is riding. Hiler has devices she uses at school, but they weren’t powerful enough to work in an outdoor setting. “We tried it and she couldn’t hear me if she was at the other end of the ring. So, finding something with range is an ongoing battle. And we’ve been in search for something a little smaller and less obtrusive,” Venezia said.
The headsets of course allow Venezia to teach Hiler, but they’re also a safety measure, since Hiler can’t hear much of what’s going on around her. “We’ve been in situations where a something comes up behind her and she doesn’t know it’s there. When he was a baby, she fell off him once because a water truck came up behind them and she didn’t know it was there and couldn’t prepare for a spook,” Venezia said.
And the headset is used strictly for ring instructions when Hiler is showing, i.e., informing her when the announcer calls for a transition in a flat class. “Most kids, you’ll give some tips as they pass you at the in-gate, but I cannot do that,” Venezia said. “I can only tell her directions. Last week at Capital Challenge, they had to stop the hack when a few horses blew up, and I can tell her to walk in that situation, and I tell her the under-saddle announcements, but I can’t say ‘More leg,’ or anything. She’s actually more limited than a kid who has good hearing. When she walks into the ring, she’s totally on her own.”
For Venezia, who is expecting a child of her own, it’s been inspiring to watch Hiler navigate her disability while learning to ride. “For teenagers now, it’s hard enough. Honestly, I’m glad I’m not a teenager now, with social media and everything. They have to deal with so much and so much pressure. And I think if you have a disability, it’s just that much more daunting,” Venezia said.