Forces Charities

Forces wives to follow challenging WWII freedom trail for military charity

Watch: Each one of the Ride To Freedom challenge team has personal reasons for taking part.

Eight military wives will horse ride across the testing terrain of the Pyrenees this June, to demonstrate the power adventure can have on those living with a physical disability, mental health conditions and chronic illness and raise vital funds for The Armed Forces Equine Charity. 

The Forces Wives Challenge (FWC) Ride to Freedom team will follow remote mountain passes close to the Second World War Freedom Trail (Le Chemin de la Liberté), which enabled allied service personnel and Jewish refugees to flee to safety from occupied France into Spain. 

Of her preparation for the challenge, FWC team member Steph, who became disabled three years ago, said: "The minute I was back in the saddle I felt like a spark had been ignited within me again and I felt there was more for me than sitting in a wheelchair – the FWC Ride to Freedom is a huge step." 

BFBS, Forces News' parent charity, has sponsored the team on their challenge.

Each one of the Ride To Freedom challenge team has personal reasons for taking part.

Still, this fundraising challenge and act of remembrance is particularly significant for Steph who joined FWC with a determination not to let her disability prevent her from adventuring. 

Steph is permanently dependent on a wheelchair and created the Ride to Freedom challenge to inspire others to never give up hope.

Listen: Why is Steph taking part in this year's Forces Wives Challenge Ride To Freedom?

Forces Wives Challenge is a social enterprise of nearly 1,200 members worldwide that unites women who have partners in the Armed Forces through adventure and challenges which lead to long-lasting friendships, boosted confidence and increased resilience. 

The community has raised more than £63,000 for military-related and other charities and conducted 20 expeditions and challenges across the globe such as summiting the world's highest volcano in Chile, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya, retracing the Heroes of Telemark route in Norway and climbing Ben Nevis.

Forces Wives Challenge member Steph Quintrell on horseback during a training week at Larkhill CREDIT Forces Wives Challenge
Forces Wives Challenge member Steph on horseback during a training week at Larkhill (Picture: Forces Wives Challenge).

From 26 June until 2 July, the women will spend five to seven hours a day on horseback for five days, covering about 80 miles (the distance between Cambridge and London), mountain trekking up to 2,200m and sleeping under canvas at times. 

Most importantly, they will work together to support Steph to achieve what she believed to be impossible – freedom from her wheelchair and ultimately, freedom from disability. 

Steph said: "In July 2019, my world completely collapsed when I suddenly became very unwell and was subsequently diagnosed with a neurological condition. 

"Within 48 hours, I had completely lost my ability to mobilise and became dependent on a wheelchair full-time. 

"I have lost all function in my fingers on one hand and I also live with regular functional seizures, chronic and acute pain and cognitive issues."  

The keen horse-rider and mum had to relocate 180 miles away to be with her husband in his current military posting – ending her career and putting a stop to her passion in life, horse riding.  

She said: "My health changed so quickly and my complete loss of independence stripped away so many parts of my life. 

"It literally felt like the ground had been pulled from beneath my feet."

Forces Wives Challenge Ride to Freedom team during a training week at Larkhill CREDIT Forces Wives Challenge
The Forces Wives Challenge offers a support network to wives, fiancées and cohabiting partners of serving or veteran British Armed Forces personnel (Picture: Forces Wives Challenge).

Eighteen months after her diagnosis and with encouragement and support from her husband, Steph began horse-riding again and is now training hard for the forthcoming expedition.

She said: "The FWC Ride to Freedom is a huge step. 

"I will be doing this without my husband's physical and mental support, but will instead be relying on my fantastic teammates, who are all forces wives like me."  

Listen: Why is Vanessa taking part in this year's Forces Wives Challenge Ride To Freedom?

And Steph isn't the only one to be moving out of her comfort zone.

Vanessa's husband serves in the Parachute Regiment and is on a two-year posting to Iraq which means the mum of two is solo parenting.

Like thousands of military spouses, Vanessa juggles her career and a family of two children. No easy task when you factor in seven military moves in 10 years to places such as Cairo and Washington DC.

However, she also craves adventure and sharing her life with other spouses who are living similar lives, often very different from their civilian counterparts.

She said: "I've seen my husband go off and do all sorts of amazing things – skiing, sailing across the Atlantic and I thought, I've never had a chance to do these things and I really want to have that team feeling, really develop myself, develop my confidence and my resilience.

"I feel like I've got quite a lot now after having looked after the girls for so long on my own as well, but this kind of challenge, it brings out a whole other side to you.

"It's so special to have that relationship with other women who have a shared lived experience with you and I think that's an amazing thing." 

Listen: Steph talks about why the Forces Wives Challenge was founded.

The resounding message from the group of FWC women is that together they can achieve anything, including overcoming life's obstacles such as disability, infertility, anxiety and depression. 

For team member Kate, the challenge is a chance to rediscover a sense of self again after experiencing a number of miscarriages and failed IVF attempts. 

She said: "I've felt quite lost over the last decade. 

"I've spent a number of years fighting my way out of a dark hole of grief and trying to come to terms with the different direction our lives have taken. 

"My experience has had such a deep and long-lasting impact on me, including losing my self-confidence and feeling like I had no purpose. 

"But, I'm ready for this to change and for my life to move forwards with positivity and with a sense of adventure."  

Kate is part of the Forces Wives Challenge Ride To Freedom team CREDIT Forces Wives Challenge
Kate is ready for the Ride To Freedom challenge to help her "move forwards with positivity and with a sense of adventure" (Picture: Forces Wives Challenge).

Kate joined FWC last year and took her first steps into adventuring on a couple of hill walking events. 

She said: "The feeling of achievement and the camaraderie was awesome and being part of something bigger and an inspiring team of women continues today with the Ride to Freedom challenge. 

"We haven't even reached the mountains yet, but I'm leading a much fuller and happier life. 

"This is what we want to show – adventuring can really help your physical and mental health. 

"It doesn't need to be a grand challenge in a far-flung place; it can simply be going for a walk, riding a bike and enjoying the outdoors, or achieving a small personal goal. 

"It's there for the taking and it's worth stepping out of your comfort zone to give it a go. 

"We're just a group of normal people. 

"We have busy lives, we're parents, we're wives, we have careers – but together we can achieve anything, we just have to find a way to make it happen." 

Donations can be made by visiting the Ride To Freedom's JustGiving page.

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