I died at birth, so I don’t have a birth certificate. A weird sentence, huh? It doesn’t seem to make sense but it is true. My mother had what was then called toxemia but is now called gestational diabetes. The medical staff determined that I had no heartbeat, so they focused on saving my mom. In doing so, they pulled me out and handed me to a nurse who was told to take me to the morgue. Morgue tables are frigid. When I hit that cold table, I gasped. Not dead yet, to the ICU I went. Over the next weeks, my heart stopped again and again but I was as stubborn then as now, I guess, because by week 3, I was mostly out of the woods. That’s when the extent of my disabilities were determined.
Born with Erb’s Palsy, my left arm is about 6 inches shorter than my right, I can’t lift or straighten it, and I have little feeling there. One side of my brain was crushed in the birth process, so I also have neurological problems affecting my lower legs, my balance, strength, and, to a much lesser extent, my right arm. For 56 years, I wasn’t aware of the severity of my disabilities until my international reclassification in March, 2014 when I was downgraded to a Grade III para-dressage rider. I’m still shocked and devastated because I feel stronger than ever.
I grew up a world away from a horse life. New York City was home to my big, extended Italian-American family. Other children were put off by my weirdly shaped arm so I learned to entertain myself. I constantly used the bookmobile for stories about animals but what I really loved were horses. The Girl Scouts had a horseback riding program: I sold Girl Scout cookies out of my locker through my senior year of high school just to keep riding.
As a single mom with 3 daughters, my mother struggled financially. Especially in my teens, things got tough. I buckled down, won a full scholarship to the University of South Carolina, and was the first in my extended family to go to college. I’d never been to the South before I got on the plane to move there but fell in love with the South. It’s a vastly different lifestyle from New York, but I was meant to be here. I have lived in Georgia for the past 31 years where I founded and ran a healthcare business for 22 years (which I sold in 2014) employing as many as 140 while raising my own three daughters. I now live my dream with horses, a goat, a mini-donkey, dogs, and cats on a small “farm” of my own.
Three months after my last daughter was born, at 37, I bought my first horse. Soon enough, my daughters were old enough to ride and the barn got bigger. No matter how badly I feel or what pain I’m having, nickers and the smell of hay always make it better.
My daughters are all equestrians; our time spent together riding horses is the mother-daughter experience that every horse-loving mother hopes to have. We still try to show a time or two together each year but that gets harder and harder as they follow their own paths.
A few years ago, my first horse turned 22 and retired to pasture. I bought a three-year-old Arabian gelding to start the fun again. Little did I know, this new horse would lead me on an equestrian adventure into the world of Dressage. Dressage was definitely off my radar. When Melanie Mitchell, my incredible dressage trainer, first saw my new gelding’s gaits, she said “He is a freak of nature – an Arabian dressage pony.” I explained that I didn’t ride dressage. “You will,” she said. She was right. In June of 2013, I showed my first Novice Para Tests. Simply put, I was hooked.
When I started dressage, it became apparent that I could no longer hide or ignore my disabilities. Dressage demands finesse, and I had none with normal reins. Melanie encouraged me to consider my para-equestrian options; it was news to me that options existed. So, I “came out” as a para-equestrian rider and now use adaptive reins listed on my Dispensation. I wish I had known about USPEA, Dispensations, and adaptive equipment earlier. Now when people ask me about being a para-equestrian, I enjoy answering every question. It’s surprising how often I’m asked about it! I also seek out other riders who may be as clueless as I was about this incredible opportunity to ride competitively, yet safely. There is no reason why anyone else should struggle as I did when help is readily available.
I might have found horses and dressage later in life, but that won’t stop me and shouldn’t stop anyone else from pursuing this great sport. I’m humbled to have friends who recently entered the riding world because they figured that if a para-equestrian can do it, they could, too. I love sharing horses, dressage, and riding with others. It’s the best therapy there is – para-equestrian or able-bodied.