Back in the saddle… Alpharetta equestrian overcomes hearing loss, pursues passion.
When Alpharetta’s Robin Chisolm-Seymour first lost her hearing, the affliction took much more than just her auditory sense; it took away her passion.
Having ridden horses since she was 8 years old, Chisolm-Seymour had turned her equestrian interest into more than a hobby. Throughout her life, she would win several regional championships as well as a national championship for saddle seat riding.
Despite an equestrian career of accolades, there were “bumps in the road.” The eventual loss of all hearing — and subsequent, initial stripping away of her favorite hobby — was a significant one.
Her message, though, is one of hope for those who experience partial or total hearing loss: that it’s tough at first, but it’s going to be OK. Chisolm-Seymour found hope when she got implants to help her hear and discovered a trainer who helped her regain her balance while riding horses.
Chisolm-Seymour first began gradually losing her hearing in her 30s — in the 1980s. While working in a psychiatric hospital, she noticed she wasn’t hearing the facility’s overhead speaker system while others apparently could.
Upon Chisolm-Seymour getting it checked, a doctor recommended hearing aids. Her auditory senses continued to diminish over the next couple of decades, and it would affect Chisolm-Seymour on a very deep level.
“With all this terrible hearing loss, my balance went to heck, and I could function in life, but I could barely walk at times,” she said. “I tried to ride horses, but I couldn’t ride anything but a beginner’s horse. I got on the horse, and I felt like I was on a boat. I had to learn to ride again.”
She credits fitness instructor Cindy Bickman of Chattooga Gym in Marietta for getting her back in the saddle.
Bickman specializes in dance and gymnastics courses, as well as coaching athletes for Special Olympics.
Using a neuromuscular exercise system, Bickman was able to help Chisolm-Seymour.
“When I first met Robin (Chisolm-Seymour), she could barely walk and trot on a (beginner’s) horse, and this is someone who had shown and won at Madison Square Garden,” Bickman said. “She was very unsteady, her balance was really off, and her right leg didn’t respond to commands … we started her on a program to try to get her body responding to what her mind told it to do.”
Added Bickman: “And, from there, she’s gone on to (riding show horses) again.”
Chisolm-Seymour said Bickman gave her hope “when I didn’t have much.”
She said the other thing that got her through rough times was the cochlear implant she received in February 2010.
Unlike the hearing aids she’d become accustomed to, which simply amplified sounds, cochlear implants bypass damaged portions of the ear and stimulate the auditory nerve.
The implant generates signals, which are sent to the brain.
Following outpatient surgery to implant the device, Chisolm-Seymour “got all emotional, because prior to that I was hearing nothing and being scared and worried about being deaf.”
She said with the implant, it was a learning process.
“People ask me, ‘Does it sound mechanical?’ And, yes, at first it does. I call it Minnie Mouse on helium … that’s when you first start hearing it, but your brain is amazing. It adapts. It adjusts. I recognize voices now. I can listen to the radio now, and all of it sounds very normal to me,” Chisolm-Seymour said.
After receiving her first cochlear implant in February 2010, Chisolm-Seymour started some informal get-togethers with other implant recipients in the area to share information and experiences and help support one another.
“Having a master’s degree in counseling psychology, a career in the mental health care field and being very passionate about hearing loss, I wanted to use those skills to help others who were struggling with hearing loss, including others who received cochlear implants,” Chisolm-Seymour said.
Cochlear Americas later asked her to become a volunteer upon hearing about her group, and the first Cochlear Community Support Chapter in the Atlanta area began. It currently has about 40 participants every quarterly meeting.
Several years after getting an implant in one ear, Chisolm-Seymour received the same kind of implant in the other, so that she now “hear(s) stereo.”
“It’s been a process, but a miracle — an absolute miracle,” she said.
Chisolm-Seymour said her husband, Stuart Seymour, has been “very supportive throughout my years with dealing with hearing loss and my cochlear implants.”
These days, she can hold a conversation with anyone without feeling the way she used to: embarrassed about not being able to hear them.
And she spends time nearly every day riding her Arabian gelding, Jabez, on a 5-acre farm at her Alpharetta home. She also has a National Champion Arabian named Blockbuster.
“Riding horses … has always been such an intense part of who I am,” Chisolm-Seymour said. “When I would lay in bed during the down times, during the toughest parts of this hearing loss, I would think of quitting.”
Added Chisolm-Seymour: “But the idea of getting back to doing what I loved best — the thing that keeps me feeling young and motivated and excited — that hope kept me positive and helped me get back to riding again, despite these bumps in the road.”
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