I am Veronica Gogan and I am afflicted with two chronic diseases: multiple sclerosis and a lifelong love of horses. Fortunately, the second helps me to manage the first. I ride a once-in-a-lifetime horse, I am the mother of two beautiful boys, and I am married to wonderful man who puts up with all of the above. And I dream big…
I was a horse-crazed five-year-old and competed seriously from childhood through college with professional riding ambitions, fully expecting to be a lifelong equestrian. After a multiple sclerosis diagnosis at age 17, riding slowly became difficult, then rapidly became dangerous. After a perspective-changing fall, I reluctantly decided to love horses from the ground and quit riding altogether in 2013. Miraculously, therapeutic riding came into my life in 2018. I discovered and quickly converted to para dressage, a discipline for physically disabled equestrians with competitive opportunities all the way to the Paralympics. Suddenly, I had a new lease on being a lifelong equestrian.
Para equestrian athletes are classified into grades of similar (dis)ability; riders within each grade I (most disabled) to V compete against one another. In April 2018, I was classified into Grade IV. My classification took place during a CPEDI, an international para dressage competition, at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina. Witnessing high-level competition so early in my para dressage journey was formative. The quality of the riding, horses, and horsemanship was extraordinary and it demonstrated the seriousness of this niche sport. The riders transformed when they stepped into the stirrups – they became top athletes, role models, heroes. I also want that transformation and what it represents: defeating the odds, synergy with these majestic animals, and fierce competition. Things were looking good. I had my classification and was on the hunt for a horse dance partner when the worst happened.
I had a massive relapse in June 2018. An MRI found new MS lesions on my brain in areas of cognition. My right hand developed significant weakness that made it hard to hold onto a fork and use a computer mouse. I was clinging to the walls and to furniture to walk around the house. Aggressive treatment ensued, more than a week in the hospital, weeks of physical and occupational therapy, yet I hadn’t gotten back to my pre-relapse baseline. I refused to be beaten distraught, my boys and horses kept me positive and focused. My patience and perseverance were rewarded when I was reunited with old friends: Ann-Louise Markert and her wonderful horse, Robin.
I had ridden and shown Robin when I was a sophomore in college. Ann-Louise and Robin trained at the same barn as George Mason’s Equestrian Club and Intercollegiate Team for which I was the president and open rider. At that time, we competed in show hunters and equitation. He was brave, educated, and a blast to ride, just like he is now. In the fall of 2018, the three of us were together weekly for lessons aiming towards our first horse show. He was gentle and patient as I re-learned to ride with my dysfunctional body. Ann-Louise was patient too. In May 2019, I was back into the show ring, something I thought I had given up forever. Tears of joy rolled down my face as I turned down centerline to finish my first dressage test as a para dressage athlete.
In November 2019, I was reclassified into Grade II. By this time, Robin, Ann-Louise, and I were together several times a week. Robin and my partnership developed into a profound, mutually beneficial connection. Robin began to “reverse-age” as he developed muscle, fervor for his work, and purpose as a para horse. I began to transform into a dressage rider: taller, stronger, and learning more about the discipline every day. There are occasional whispers of riding fundamentals in my muscle memory: the feeling of sinking into my heels, posting, or wrapping my leg around Robin’s belly. Some days, my body is so tight and spastic, it is hard for Robin to understand or do what I ask. When I’m thinking, “I know my legs aren’t telling you anything,” he says, “Don’t worry about your legs, let’s use mine.” Joy, dedication, and purpose are the byproducts of this connection and our journey – it’s saving us both.
In January, we debuted as a bona fide Grade II duo and then the pandemic of 2020 quickly taught us to roll with the punches. We had planned for a busy show year with sights on year-end awards in our region. When show after show was cancelled, we used the time to hone my specialized equipment now that Robin and I were stronger, individually and together. The United States Para Equestrian Association offered virtual judging from an international judge. Our hard work was rewarded with some eye-catching scores. These scores placed us on the USEF Para Dressage Emerging Athlete list. Shortly thereafter, I was awarded the Jonathan Wentz Memorial Grant which allowed us to compete at our first rated show. This grant offers para dressage emerging athletes funds to compete at national shows. At this show, we earned qualifying scores for the 2020 Para Dressage Nationals. The foundational lesson I learned in 2020 is there are great opportunities amid extreme challenge and adversity. This all-encompassing metaphor for my para dressage journey has become one of my pillars.
One day, I will compete with an American flag on my jacket, the letters USA next to my name on the score board, and the words “Veronica Gogan representing the United States” announced as I enter the ring. This would be the ultimate culmination of my love of horses and daily fight with disability. Each time I step into the stirrups, I feel the awe and privilege of sharing space with these amazing animals and the obstacles I overcome with each ride, but doing it at the highest level would mean more to me than words can explain. The white boards of a dressage ring are where my joy and freedom live – no canes or scooters – just me and a horse who knows my disability but gives me his wings.
“Without dreams and goals there is no living, merely existing, and that is not why we are here.”Mark Twain