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Where Have All the Para-Riders Gone?

Where Have All the Para-Riders Gone?

Recently I was called “handicapped” on social media by someone who didn’t know me. 

My friends were quick to come to my defense. I have a thick shell and honestly wasn’t offended by the comment. Being an amputee, I’ve been called far worse, but I wanted to take a moment to teach this stranger what that word meant to me. It is an antiquated perception based on appearance, that because I am different, that I must not be able to do the things people who aren’t different do. Anyone who uses this word, I invite to come watch me ride. Or better yet, check out the FEI Para Dressage Nationals. There’s nothing “handicapped” about them.

Para-athletes – athletes that have physical, visual, or intellectual “disabilities”- are on fire right now. I’ve seen them in athletic gear advertisements and cardboard cutouts in grocery stores. But have any of them been on a horse? Not that I’ve seen.

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I was introduced to the idea of para-dressage at the age of 18, at my first recognized event. The judge stopped me after my dressage test and told me I should consider riding for our country at the Paralympics. Honestly, I’d never even heard of it. My mom, being the fierce supporter that she is, looked it up.  Turns out, it’s just dressage, and at that point in my life dressage was the thing I just got through to get to the jumping.

I’d shied away from these tests my entire life, trying my hardest to prove to all the bullies that I didn’t need ‘special’ tests. I could compete with everyone else, and I could win. 

Fast forward a few years and I’ve actually done some research. I rode my first para-test, not where I could be judged or earn points, but because I wanted to make a statement. I was ready to show the world that even if I was classified as “different” that I wasn’t “handicapped”. I’d shied away from these tests my entire life, trying my hardest to prove to all the bullies that I didn’t need “special” tests. I could compete with everyone else, and I could win. 

Truth be told, these para-tests are no joke. At what would be my “classification” level, the intro tests are the equivalent of first level. 

Thank God people took note of the message, my magical unicorn of a horse (that was just 30 rides post-track, mind you) and our tear-jerking performance. An article about us in the Chronicle of the Horse connected me with literally thousands of people from all over the world who had been bullied, or could identify with my story. Most importantly, it introduced me to my very first USEF classified Para-dressage rider. How could I not have heard of her? Why wasn’t she on the cover of Chronicle of the Horse

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Photo by Justine Ungaro

My second introduction (I seriously only know three!) came to me via Off the Track Thoroughbred Magazine, through an article we were both featured in. Erika Wagner lives not more than three hours from me. She used to exercise horses at the track where I bought mine from. She’s very good friends with some of my friends.  Yet I had no idea she even existed.

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I’d thought I had role models before, people I’d admired, but this girl is my literal hero. One year she’s been classified. One year she’s been competing and she’s winning! She’s already been invited to compete at Nationals. Her ultimate goal is to represent our country. She doesn’t let her spinal cord injury hold her back or affect her outlook on life.

I have absolutely no intention of going to Paralympics. There are, however, insanely talented riders that working hard toward this goal. I invite everyone to check them out. Find them on Facebook or Instagram.  Let them inspire you. Then share the heck out them, please! Let’s let the world see that there isn’t an obstacle on this planet that will keep us from our horses.

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