Deaf teen rides in horse show

Sunday, October 21, 2001

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Cara Phelps couldn't hear the announcer's commands when she was riding in the ring, but she still placed in several events at the American Royal Classic Quarter Horse Circuit Show this weekend.

Phelps, 18, watched her mother, Darlene Phelps, and horse trainer Donna Bales, who used hand signals to help guide her.

Phelps, a senior at Raymore-Peculiar High School, was born with a genetic hearing impairment -- her hearing loss is in the 85-90 decibel range; 100 is considered deaf.

She relies on the gestures of family members and friends to notify her of the announcer's commands when she's in the riding ring. One finger means walk, two means trot, three means canter. Two palms facing forward means stop. Two fists smacking together signals a type of gallop. Arms stretched out like an airplane tells Phelps to line up her horse.

And clapping means she won a ribbon.

"Some people are surprised to find out I'm hearing impaired, and it impresses them that I can ride even though I have a disability," said Phelps, who is a master lip reader. "It takes patience and practice."

Tough competitions

Deaf exhibitors at the Royal are rare, said Stacy Maher, assistant manager at the American Royal Quarter Horse Show, which began Thursday and runs through Sunday. This is true especially in quarter horse shows, where riders are judged on their ability to execute the announcer's commands rapidly.

"What she does is outstanding, because quarter horse shows already are such tough competitions," Maher said.

Phelps definitely is at a disadvantage, trainer Bales said.

"She might not get as quick a start, because she's looking at me or her mom or someone else to tell her what she needs to do," Bales said. "And then she might not be concentrating as hard on what she's doing because she's focusing on us and what we're telling her."

Last year at the American Royal, Phelps was scratched from a competition because she didn't know to come to a stop.

"Sometimes it's frustrating," Phelps said. But she refuses to quit.

It helps that the 10-year-old gelding Phelps rides, nicknamed Eddy, understands her, she said.

"He knows I'm hearing impaired," she said. "Like if a car is coming or another horse is coming, he'll alert me."

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