Lizzie Bennett was born in Essex, England in 1990. She grew up in a tiny village with two big brothers and an assortment of animals. As a child, she loved horses and eventually the family bought their first horse, Rocky, when Lizzie was 12. Lizzie and Rocky had just over a year together to enjoy hacking out in the extensive countryside available. Although they were unable to travel and compete, Rocky taught Lizzie a huge amount: how to canter through a river, how to ride on the road safely, how not to stop a bolting horse, how to jump cross-country fences, how to race a train, not to do yard work in flip flops, how to persuade a horse to take the bit, how to fit a martingale – and so much more!
Unfortunately, at the age of 13 Lizzie broke her back in a gymnastics accident. She fractured several vertebrae down the middle and completely crushed the discs in between. Owing to Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) – a painful condition which masked the pain of breaking her spine – the injuries were not picked up on until an MRI six months later showed the damage, by which time more harm had been done, causing permanent pain, weakness and spasticity in her lower back and legs.
As Lizzie has grown older, EDS has caused her health to deteriorate further. Worsening pain and fatigue combined with repeated and dangerous falls have meant that over the last few years she has become dependent on a wheelchair for all but the smallest distances. EDS health is very unpredictable so she now has a bevy of wheelchairs designed for varying energy levels!
Education and Career
Lizzie studied at Chelmsford County High School for her GCSEs and A Levels, also attending Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London on Saturdays for music tuition. Her Sixth Form studies were greatly disrupted by illness and hospital admissions, meaning she had to give up her place at Junior Guildhall, but she successfully interviewed for a place at the University of Cambridge and matriculated at Peterhouse in October 2008. Her original intention to graduate in 2011 and pursue a musical career was amended when her father died very suddenly of a heart attack in February 2011. Instead, she stayed an extra year in Cambridge and graduated with a degree in History and Music in June 2012.
For the academic year 2012-13, Lizzie undertook a variety of part-time and temporary educational posts whilst also resting before attempting a postgraduate course. In 2013-14 she studied for a Masters in Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, which she achieved with a Distinction. Following her Masters, Lizzie began work on a fully-funded PhD project based at the British Library and Royal Holloway. Unfortunately, in 2015 her ill health made it impossible to continue such intensive research and to manage the travel required from her home in Cambridge into central London, and she had to resign from the project. She then worked part-time as a Teaching Assistant for SEN children at a secondary school in Cambridgeshire, and continued to earn small amounts of money (and larger amounts of free food) by singing in Cambridge’s chapel choirs.
In January 2017 she began a new part-time post at a local primary school, working with vulnerable children to ensure that they are comfortable, happy and successful at school. Due to excessive fatigue and pain, she is unable to work full-time but hopes to balance restrained working hours and compensatory rest with the considerable physiotherapy benefits she achieves from exercise.
Para-rowing and wheelchair racing
Whilst studying at the University of Cambridge, Lizzie became involved in rowing and subsequently was classified as a para-rower. She still spends some time in boats but worsening hand function means that she now rarely competes. Instead, since January 2015 Lizzie has been a wheelchair racer and has seen significant success competing at events ranging in distance from 100m to half marathons, and in level from private club events to regional championships and even the World Half Marathon Championships.
In September 2014 Lizzie revisited her earliest love – that of horses. She joined the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) and despite initial scepticism that riding would still be too painful, her first session was very restrained and after slowly rebuilding strength she is now able to ride regularly. The RDA helped not only with training but also with helping to provide equipment. Lizzie rides with one-handed reins as her left hand is too weak to manage conventional reins, and she also has capped stirrups to prevent her feet from sliding through them, since she cannot feel her legs properly.
In September 2015 Lizzie successfully trialled for the Intermediate Team of the Cambridge University Riding Club, and so was able to train and compete regularly alongside able-bodied riders. In particular, this meant she was able to ride under the tutelage of dressage rider Fiona Peck, whose influence has made a huge impression on Lizzie’s riding.
In 2016, Lizzie first tried equestrian vaulting and has never looked back. The sport combines gymnastics and riding and has numerous therapeutic benefits as well as being a lot of fun! Lizzie now has multiple national titles in the sport (the first of which was won mere months after first having a go) and is always aiming to push herself further and further. To find out more about her involvement in this unusual sport, please click here.