Ride To Freedom
A Forces Wives Challenge
A Collaboration between Stephanie Quintrell and Rebecca Stephens
In the early summer of 2023, eight remarkable women rode up and over the Pyrenees, following Le Chemin de la Liberté, the Freedom Trails of allied service personnel and Jewish refugees escaping occupied France to Spain in the Second World War. The women are members of a social enterprise, Forces Wives Challenge, that brings together women with partners in the Armed Forces through challenge and adventure. One of these eight women, Steph, is dependent on a wheelchair and requires constant care to support her in her daily needs. As a team, the women are exemplars of vision creation, planning, training, mobilising, and executing. Skarbek could not be prouder than to have sponsored their endeavour, from which we all have much to learn. Read how empathy and understanding led to a shared consciousness and Steph’s disability ‘dissolving’ into the group.
In July 2019, life as Stephanie Quintrell knew it came crashing down around her. ‘Within 48hrs’, she says, ‘I lost the ability to walk.’ In just two weeks, she lost the use of the fingers on her right hand and was having seizures, exhausted and in constant pain. An ongoing struggle for referrals and treatment followed, for what turned out to be a rare neurological condition without hope of recovery. She is now permanently dependent on a wheelchair and requires care to help her with daily tasks.
Like so many military wives, Steph (as she likes to be called) had been fiercely independent, juggling a career and looking after her young son while her husband was often away. ‘For the first couple of years, I grieved for the life my family and I had lost,’ she says, ‘I resented the body that was letting me down, and I was bitter for my lost career.’ Exhibiting remarkable courage, however, in those two years she also learned to shift her focus onto her ‘new abilities’, things that she could do rather than things she couldn’t do. Her love had always been to ride and together with her beloved horse Bubba, she slowly started to get back into it again, with the help of her dedicated husband who would physically lift her into the saddle. Then she stumbled upon Forces Wives Challenge (FWC), a social enterprise that brings together women who have partners in the Armed Forces through adventure and challenge. ‘I was never going to be signing up to climb a mountain,’ she says, ‘but I felt an overwhelming pull to be involved.’ She took on an administrative role and, in her words, ‘discovered my new purpose in life. I felt useful again, and my confidence slowly grew’.
In business, as in life generally, nothing of any scale or significance is achieved alone. The women of Forces Wives Challenge understand this, their motto, ‘Together we can achieve anything.’ The first premise, though, is to know what it is you want to achieve; what is your vision. And that needs to be declared, maybe quietly at first, even as a whisper. In Steph’s case, it was a throwaway comment: maybe it would be possible to organise an equine challenge that would enable her to physically participate. From this kernel of an idea, a vision blossomed. Called ‘Ride to Freedom’, it was for a team of eight women to ride up and over the vertiginous paths of the Pyrenees, following Le Chemin de la Liberté, the Freedom Trails of allied service personnel and Jewish refugees escaping occupied France to Spain in the Second World War. It would be a challenge that would push the boundaries for each of the women as individuals and as a team, but more than that, it would showcase the incredible power that adventure can have on those living with physical disability, mental health conditions and chronic illness.
Vision To Action
The team initially comprised three people: FWC founder, Heather Sharp; Ronnie Sefton, who, like Heather, is ex-military and importantly a fantastic horsewoman; and Steph. It was always going to be Steph’s expedition, in that she created the concept, but it was recognised at the start that she would need two team members to physically support her and that leadership on the ground should be the responsibility of another. Showing generosity and humility, Heather, who not only founded FWC but led previous expeditions, chose instead to dedicate herself to being Steph’s primary carer, while Ronnie, who would play a supportive role to Heather in supporting Steph, would assume the role of expedition leader. Ronnie’s skills and experience gained in the military as well as a Forces wife served her well. In the early planning stage of the expedition, Steph would run ideas past Ronnie with confidence that she would listen and give considered feedback. ‘This honest working relationship built the foundations for a strong team that was carried through to the expedition itself,’ says Steph.
With the expedition defined, the right operator and guide in France selected, and the dates agreed, the next step was to announce the challenge to the FWC community – a task Steph admitted to being difficult. To summarise a vision and a plan to both inspire and inform others requires clear thinking and well-honed communication skills if it’s to succeed in getting the right people on board. The response was overwhelming.
Key criteria for selection were to be an experienced rider, availability for training, and a woman with a spouse or partner either serving in or a veteran of the Armed Forces, naturally. Beyond this, Steph looked to create a diverse team of women offering a range of experience, knowledge, and skills, with personalities that would work together and support one another as needed. Women were invited to submit a written application that was reviewed by an adventure approval committee – an entity independent of the Ride to Freedom team to avoid bias.
Time pressure is a common problem for many people, Forces wives no exception. So for practical reasons a decision was taken to schedule only two weekends into people’s busy diaries to train face-to-face before the event. Aside these weekends, the team was built entirely through a virtual platform. This might have seemed inconceivable prior to lockdown, but today there are people who specialise in building teams virtually, and it just happened that FWC had such a person in its community. ‘It required a lot more thought and planning than it would have done meeting face-to-face,’ says Steph but, perhaps because of this discipline, ‘was probably one of the reasons our team turned out to be so effective and competent.’ The virtual team build facilitator ensured structure: time well spent, with purpose, while still allowing time for participants to speak freely and learn from one another. They explored various topics such as team values, active listening, and dealing with conflict – each topic led by a different member of the team.
Among the topics explored was psychologist Bruce Tuckman’s recognised stages of team development: forming, storming, norming and performing. An awareness of this natural journey in the development of teams helped alleviate anxiety for those who weren’t familiar with working in teams or felt uncomfortable with conflict. Although interestingly, when the women reflected on their expedition in hindsight, they unanimously agreed that they had leapfrogged ‘storming’ and moved effortlessly from ‘forming’ to ‘norming’ and ‘performing’.
Performance Beyond Self
On the expedition, eight women on eight horses rode 80 miles over high passes of 2,200m, for a period of five days, camping under canvas at night. The terrain was steep and at times difficult, the weather sometimes unkind. And yet the team never failed to function like a well-oiled machine. The women had prepared and trained well. They had risk-assessed every possible eventuality and put safety measures in place. Each had approached the expedition with a positive attitude. But something unexpected happened in the mountains, something way beyond the straightforward accomplishment of a successfully achieved goal.
Steph explains, ‘When the ladies applied to be part of the Ride to Freedom team, they did so for their own reasons. There was never any expectation that they should focus on supporting me to get through the week…but this is what the common goal naturally became.’ As the women witnessed and grew to understand Steph’s needs, their collective purpose quickly became to ensure her safety and well-being to be able to enjoy and complete the expedition. This common purpose became the glue that bonded the team, each member showing selfless determination to do whatever was needed, even on the toughest of days and with the hardest of challenges to overcome – and as each day passed, the team became closer.
On the first day, for example, when Steph needed to dismount, there would be chat among the team to ensure the process ran smoothly. One woman would assist their guide, Govan, to untie Steph’s wheelchair from the pack pony and assemble it, while another stepped in to take this helper’s horse, and yet another prepared to assist Steph off her horse and safely into her wheelchair. By the start of day 3, Steph recounts, ‘No words were spoken during this process; the communication had become completely non-verbal as the team settled into fulfilling whatever role was needed in that moment.’
Arguably, just in time. Later that same day the weather turned wet and cold, and they were riding against the clock to reach camp before an expected electrical storm. On arrival – at 2,200m, the highest point on the route – the rain was torrential and the wind chilling. Because of Steph’s health condition, there was a serious risk of her falling ill if her body temperature fell below a certain point and, acutely aware of this, the team fell into its now well-rehearsed pattern, but with speed and urgency. With Steph safely dismounted, a shelter was assembled and a member of the team helped her out of her wet kit into dry, warm clothes. Another sorted the horses and others set up camp – all at speed, without a spoken word.
The personal challenges that Steph faced over and above her mobility challenges – medications, personal care, and so on – all demanded routines on a daily and sometimes hourly basis to be managed effectively. At home, her husband was her carer and the psychological leap of faith it took Steph to travel without him cannot be underestimated. Considerable planning and preparation went into making this step as manageable as possible. Heather and Ronnie were always close at hand to help, but the unexpected, and heartening fact, was that all the other women, without exception, stepped in as well. ‘On several occasions, different members of the team mentioned how their new-found empathy and understanding of the difficulties I faced was a big factor in their ability to focus on helping me throughout the week, as opposed to focusing on their own struggles. This selfless commitment,’ she adds, ‘was a driver that kept the team performing as a team.’
‘On Day 4,’ she continued, ‘I had a sudden and somewhat shocking realisation that I no longer felt these daily challenges were mine and mine alone, but that instead these were team challenges that we tackled together. My daily medication, for example, became part of our routine. When it was time for me to take my medication each day, one of the team – whoever was near me – reminded me. My health and mobility needs weren’t separate from the group, they were a part of the group. It felt as if my disability and chronic health problems dissolved into the group. Where once I may have felt the ‘odd one out’, different because I am disabled, I realised at this point that I felt just as everyone else in the team felt – a valued member. And in any team, isn’t this what all of us want to feel?’