On Fridays at 6:30 p.m., junior Lydia Olmsted arrives at Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center and greets her beloved horse, Dar Ghazi, who she has ridden for about seven years. Olmsted said they share a bond, and she enjoys having the freedom to control and ride a horse independently.
Using an earpiece to hear instructions from an experienced volunteer, she expertly guides Ghazi around the arena, circling barrels and stepping over bars.
“[Ghazi and I] know each other well and can communicate well, and it’s definitely a really kind of loving relationship,” Olmsted said. “I’ve had a lot of other horses there, too, that I’ve kind of worked with, and they’ve all been really sweet and everything, but I feel like Ghazi is definitely one of the favorites.”
Karen Grindler, the founder and director of Cedar Creek and a self-proclaimed “stall mucker, mower, fence fixer [and] bathroom cleaner,” first met Olmsted when she was about two and a half or three years old, the first time Olmsted came out to the facility to ride.
Olmsted said she does not remember ever being scared or frantic about riding, even though she was young. While Olmsted has ridden a variety of different horses in her 13 years of experience, Grindler said there was an immediate connection between Olmsted and Ghazi when she first started riding him about five years ago. Grindler said she is glad Ghazi has “one good, really close friend,” since, at 28-years-old, he is nearing the end of his life.
“[Lydia rides] like anybody else that rides: content, happy, graceful, composed, beautiful. She rides that horse with finesse, and they’re definitely one when she rides [him] around the arena and trots or canters,” Grindler said. “He knows, I think he knows Lydia’s limitations, possibly, because he turns sometimes when we’re not there or paying attention at the exact moment to make sure she knows it’s time to turn. Of course, Lydia’s got our arena counted out, so she knows the space in her mind, but Ghazi seems to always just do the right thing, so it’s a great relationship.”
During the United Professional Horsemen’s Association Exceptional Challenge Cup at the American Royal held in Kansas City, Mo. a couple years ago, Olmsted placed as a top 10 finalist. Grindler said the staff communicated through a walkie-talkie with her so she could navigate smoothly around an unfamiliar arena. Grindler said Olmsted is “pretty much an impeccable rider,” a quality she attributes to Olmsted’s ability to focus on the movement of the horse and communicate with it more than the average rider would be able to.
Unlike the other competitors at the American Royal who Grindler said rode on fancy saddlebreds, warmbloods and other expensive horses, Olmsted competed on Ghazi. When he was younger, Grindler said, he was a “very fancy Arabian horse,” but, because he has aged, he no longer looks like the other horses in the arena. Because it is a horse show, Grindler said the judges critique not just the rider but the horse as well, which means with a competent rider, the “fanciest, most beautiful saddlebred” typically wins.
“The incredible thing about that day was that the first, second and third person were announced, and then the announcer said to the crowd that, ‘Our next rider is Lydia Olmsted, and I don’t know if any of you realized it or not, but Lydia just did that entire competition and she cannot see.’ And the whole crowd was like ‘Waah,’ and then he jumped out of the announcer’s booth and instead of interviewing rider number one, two or three, he ran up to Lydia and started interviewing her out loud to the crowd asking what her experience was like, how she felt, and it was a really incredible moment,” Grindler said. “And the same thing happened when they came out of the arena. The newspapers weren’t really so interested in one, two or three. They were interested in the girl who rode the horse that couldn’t see.”
After lessons, Grindler said Olmsted will stay after to hang out with Ghazi. He rests his head on Olmsted’s shoulder, Grindler said, and sometimes they will stay in an embrace for more than five minutes. Often, horses do not want people to grab onto them, hug them and hold them for an extended period of time, Grindler said, but with Olmsted, Ghazi is “as content as ever to hang out with her” for as long as she can stay.
“I think the first time I looked over the stall and saw them in an embrace for more than five minutes [is when] I realized that that horse really loved her a lot,” Grindler said. “I think the first time I saw that relationship and realized how special it is was [when] I said, ‘It’s time to go’ and started going into the house and doing a few things and coming back out 30 minutes later and seeing if she was anywhere near finished, or asking a barn manager if they could stay an extra 45 minutes so that Lydia could just hang with her horse.”
Olmsted relies on touch and verbal communication to connect with Ghazi because she has septo-optic dysplasia, a condition that affects one in every 10,000 newborns. She has nystagmus, which can make it appear to her as if lights are flashing and walls and doors are moving. While she can see light slightly and can tell if an object is blocking the light, she cannot perceive any specifics about the size, proximity or other aspects of the object. Along with this, Olmsted said she is deaf in her right ear and uses a hearing aid so she can hear out of both ears.
The sounds of St. Louis Cardinal baseball, though, she hears loud and clear.
“I enjoy just all of the [sounds], you know, the sound of the crack of the bat, the ball hitting the glove,” said Olmsted, who first learned of the Cardinals in 2012 while attending New Haven Elementary School after a classmate mentioned it one Friday.
She went home and asked her mother what a Cardinals’ game was. Her mother turned the game on, and the announcers were talking about Yadier Molina, the team’s current catcher. Olmsted was instantly drawn to the sport, and she knew she liked Molina. She had the chance to meet infielder Matt Carpenter, who she has been trying to meet for years, briefly at this past winter’s Winter Warm-Up in St. Louis. Whenever she sees Molina, who she calls “Yadi,” she said he will take a moment to say hello and give her a hug.
“I really enjoy a lot of things, like the [statistics and the] strategy of the game,” Olmsted said. “It’s kind of hard to identify a favorite part, but those are some aspects of the game I really enjoy.”
Junior Grace Dyer first met Olmsted in their fifth grade class at Mill Creek Elementary School. Dyer said. Olmsted is caring, easy to talk to and is good about finding commonalities between what she is going through and what other people are going through to make connections. She said everyone has grown a lot since fifth grade but that Olmsted has “always had the same sort of bright personality” and positive attitude.
“A few years ago I went to a Cardinals game with her,” Dyer said. “She’s a huge Cardinals fan, and honestly I’m not very into baseball and never really have been, or sports in general, but it was really fun.”
In high school, Dyer and Olmsted see each other on a somewhat consistent basis, but Dyer said when they do eat lunch together they use the time to fill one another in on how their days are going, talk about what classes are like and catch up on the important events in each other’s life. Even when something problematic is going on in Olmsted’s life, Dyer said, she does not let it “damper the mood” or take from her natural positivity.
“I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever heard her say something that’s not nice,” Dyer said. “She’s very caring, always asks how you’re doing. Very strong, like goes through a lot of inconveniences and stuff. Obviously a lot of stuff at school is harder, but she handles it so graciously.”
Because of her vision-impairment, Dyer said every day is harder for Olmsted than for people who do not have to deal with extra obstacles to access their education. Dyer said even though problems with technology are not always a teacher’s fault, Olmsted faces barriers to her education when they do not have the necessary materials ready and brailed.
“It’s technology issue after technology issue for her, and she never lets that get her down,” Dyer said. “She stays on top of things and is never complaining. She never makes the focus [on] bad things. [She’s] like, ‘Oh, it’s okay. We’re going to get this handled.’”
Since she first met Olmsted, Grindler said she has always been a “very bright child” and a “very polite, well-mannered young woman.” She said Olmsted has always been thoughtful, kind and appreciative of anything others do to help her. On days when Cedar Creek does not have lessons and when session is not going on, Grindler said Olmsted will come to simply be with her horse.
“They’ll send me a text to say, ‘Lydia’s had a crummy week at school. Could she come see her horse?’ Of course, I always say yes, and then they come out and she’ll just hang out, catch him, tie him, and they’ll just hang,” Grindler said. “She’ll brush him, talk to him. She doesn’t even have to ride him. She just wants to be with her friend.”
Grindler said Olmsted was a little quieter when she was younger compared to her more outspoken nature now. While she said most two and three year olds do not talk as much, from the time Olmsted was a young girl, she had the “vocabulary and the brain of a little adult,” making her an “interesting kid to listen to.” Olmsted is more than a rider for Grindler; she is her friend. Grindler said she likes to talk and hang out with Olmsted.
“Nobody describes things the same as Lydia because she’s describing them as a person without sight,” Grindler said. “So she has these adjectives and these adverbs that she uses that you hadn’t even ever thought of. This crunch of the gravel when you walk down to the barn from the horse’s foot. Things like that that she’ll bring up, and you’re like, ‘Wow. That is so cool.’ So I feel really lucky to have met and gotten to know Lydia and spend time with Lydia because she’s a really cool little human being.”