The Para Dressage Chronicles, vol. 1

March/April 2021

Sprieser Sporthorse and Clearwater Farms has been a thing of my dreams since I started my para dressage journey. In the very beginning, in May 2018, I met Lisa Hellmer through Sprout Therapeutic Riding Center. Lisa was then the assistant trainer at Sprieser Sporthorse. Since then I have occasionally visited the pristine barn and beautiful ring. Watching the spectacular horses and riders in their strategized, competition-oriented programs helped me formulate what it might take for me to ride at the highest level of para dressage of which I’m capable. 

And, here we are! Thanks to Lauren Sprieser, grand poobah of Sprieser Sporthorse; Amanda Fitze, Mason’s owner; and my incredible village who has made it financially possible, Mason arrived at Sprieser Sporthorse on March 4th, 2021. Ours is a new partnership. He is the principal in our dance company; the chaperone to my developing dressage education.  His CV includes upper-level training under respected names with pretty ribbons at a multitude of prestigious shows. He’s stoic, sensible, kid-friendly, food motivated, and oh-so-dreamy. Lauren; Karrigan, assistant trainer; Rachel, barn manager; Calah, working student; and Emma, working student have keen and exacting eyes on Mason and me was we “go to college” together.

Our first month was time for all of us, horse and humans, to get to know one another. At first, he was like an ascetic house guest, continually in a state of ready apology for any misgiving – we’re talking ultra-polite. Now that we’ve spent some time together, the shell is beginning to crack. A first order of business was to halter and bridle him from my scooter – each time two ears pop out from the crownpiece, I stuff a cookie into his maw. He now parks his nose in my crotch whenever he is remotely peckish – it’s quite unsightly. Many of the horses in the barn have taken a liking to the “cookie cart.” We have had zero miscommunications grooming or tacking up, it’s like someone has been picking out his feet from a scooter his entire life. 

Determining the best way and place to mount has been more puzzling for the people than it has been for Mason. The ladies who help me are beyond knowledgeable and capable and rival politeness with Mason. It is a bit presumptuous of me to ask them to shove my broken body aboard the horse they don’t know in a way that brings near strangers into close bodily contact during a time we’ve become accustomed to six feet of social distancing. All this intensified by my cries of, “Do it faster!” “Push harder!” and “You won’t hurt me.” Oy vey. They have been brilliant, and fortunately, I haven’t stuff treats into their mouths. Although, now that I think about it, some baked goods, at the very least, are probably in order. Again, zero mishaps mounting and dismounting thus far.

Mason has been doing more babysitting and, well, sitting, than working over the winter. I shouldn’t judge, I did a lot of nothing over our wet winter too. We have been getting in shape together. We started with walking in brief, 20-minute stints as to not exacerbate Mason’s old suspensory injury and for Karrigan, Mason, and I to get to know one another. Plus, when there are only two gaits in your tests, there is plenty to keep busy in the walk. The trot work came in short, uneventful bursts for a few weeks and now we are up and running.

Whilst all this getting-to-know-each-other was going on, we began the equipment assessment. Each horse (and rider for that matter) is a unique little snowflake, so the solutions that were magical for Robin haven’t been so for Mason. Tack has to be safe, effective for communication, and acceptable for competition. Problemo numero uno: reins. I have reduced grip strength and dexterity in my right hand. With Robin, looped reins worked like a charm. Thus far, we’ve eliminated those and Correct Connect reins (Velcro reins and gloves) from the list of possibilities. Finding what doesn’t work is almost as useful as finding what does work; also, walking the line between giving something a fair trial, but not chasing it down the rabbit hole. The current winner is thick reins with hand stops. I’m on the hunt for some rubber reins with hand stops like these ones. (PS If you’re reading this from a manufacturer or tack shop and you’d let us trial your reins, that’d be awesome!) Something we have decided on, at least for now, is that the elastic inserts in the reins work for us.

Saddle modifications to increase the stability in my contact and security for my seat have been in the works since October 2020 (remember that snowflake comment? Smh). I sent it off just two weeks after Mason arrived. We’re using my old saddle which isn’t optimal for either of us, but not hurting either of us either. Some truly ingenious work is being done and I eagerly await its return. Expect a full description of the whole story when its back!

I can’t believe how much stronger I feel now that I’m riding five, six, sometimes seven days a week when I get to sit on Robin too. Everything seems to be a little bit easier – rolling over in bed, getting in and out of the car, getting my saddle up to the back or saddle rack. Sometimes I forget that this is indeed therapy for my body, not just my spirit. I’m getting used to the new routine – the little bit farther drive that takes a little bit longer, through fields of cows instead of highways. My heart pitter-patters when I drive down the driveway to see Mason greeting me through his half-door. Mason is still a little perplexed as to why this lady won’t just put her legs on his sides, the poor guy. He hasn’t faltered. He hasn’t taken one misstep. And now that I’ve jinxed myself on all counts, I’ll probably drop my saddle, fall off the mounting block, bust my reins, and Mason will spook at something, but if I manage to get both feet in the stirrups, it’ll have been a great day.

Welcome to the club.

It’s a big year. This year I will have had multiple sclerosis for as long as I didn’t. I was diagnosed in 2004 and 17 years later, here we are. It all started with some numbness on the left side of my face that migrated to my left ear and down my neck. An MRI revealed my “textbook” relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis with three brain lesions and seven spinal lesions. This diagnosis put the pieces together for some vision problems I had been having and a strange episode of back pain I had as a 15-year-old. 

My “Uncle” Mike was a big part of my life when I was a tween. When I was diagnosed, his wife, Rita, was the only person I knew of who had had multiple sclerosis. She was severely disabled by secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. She passed away due to complications of her disease before I met him. She needed help with almost every element of daily living. I had heard tales of how Mike made sure she ate first, she slept first, her needs were always his priority. He was completely devoted to her and her every need. When I was diagnosed, this was all I knew about multiple sclerosis. I couldn’t believe this was the same disease I had, I was 17.

For the first few weeks after I was diagnosed, my dad and I maintained a steady state of denial. Then all of a sudden, we would just be overcome with grief. I remember crossing paths with him in the dining room and he hugged me. We stood there sobbing, shoulders shaking, clinging to one another. For several minutes we cried together. Then he gave me an extra squeeze, we grabbed napkins to wipe our snotty and tear-soaked faces, and we continued on our paths. No words were spoken. To this day, that is the most healing hug I’ve ever gotten, but I know where to get another one.

My mom has a supernatural power that most physicians develop, they learn to compartmentalize and control their emotions. No matter how fierce the winds of anger blew or how water from tears of grief raged, she was the rock that was stronger than the storm. She instilled that strength in me – lovingly and tenderly and like a badass. This strength is at the core of my ability to see past a setback or a bad day with MS.

The best advice I received was ABSOLUTELY, under no circumstances should I Google MS right away. The Internet has zero reliability to provide helpful, moderate information. I quickly learned that setting the right mindset was paramount. I went to an MS Patient Awareness Day shortly after my diagnosis and it scared the hell out of me. I came away thinking that people with this disease became one dimensional: DISABLED. There were so many wheelchairs, canes, walkers, scooters, and sick people! It did not represent where my disease was at that point. I quickly learned to control my “mindspace” and am still incredibly cautious about what I allow in. 

I started a disease modifying therapy right away. I started a vitamin regimen to address a vitamin D deficiency, fatigue, and nerve cell health. Sure, they were daily reminders of MS, but they also made me feel like I was doing something about it. I clung to my horses for mental health and to continue physical well-being. I am an action-oriented person; making this plan was incredibly empowering. Every. Single. Day., I have a plan.

I can’t tell you how often I’m asked, “My [friend, aunt, coworker, nephew…] was recently diagnosed with MS. Would you be willing to talk to them?” I love this question because it makes me feel like my tenure with this illness has created something valuable to be shared with others. I hate this question, it means another person with this illness.  

But, of course, my answer is always, “Yes. Absolutely.”

To you, newest member of the MS Club, here is my advice to you. And to you, the person whose loved one just received this news, this is for you too.

Being diagnosed with MS SUCKS! I know that’s the thing you’re not expecting to hear. The fact is it *#!%ing blows! It’s ok to feel this and feel it hard. Remember though, you have MS, MS doesn’t have you. We live in an incredible time with support organizations, remarkable pharmaceuticals, therapy options, anti-inflammatory diets, natural supplements, and the Internet.

Absorbing this news is going to be a process for you and the people in your life. You may feel like you have to be strong, brave, knowledgeable, and assured while you ride the denial, grief, and anger roller coaster. If you decide that you will come to terms with it, you will. You are in charge.

Find your hug – the person who needs no words of explanation. The person who will be sad with you, wipe your tears, and move on with you. Find your rock – the person who will help you find your strength. Learn from her, absorb her strength, and develop your own. Make a plan – take action to feel empowered. Control your input – only allow the necessary information in at this time. The National MS Society has an informative landing page designed just for you.

I am here to tell you, this is not a death sentence. MS is just PART of who I am, but MS is just a part of who I AM. I am also a woman, a wife, and a mother. I am a horse lover, an equestrian, and an athlete. I am a cook, a writer, and an animal-lover. Welcome to the club, I’m here for you.

Note: (This advice is applicable to any diagnosis. Let’s face it, any diagnosis sucks, how much it sucks depends on how invasive it is going to be and how long it’s going to be around. This advice can help with just about anything, I think.)

“Why does she walk like that?!”

I’m going to rip this Band-Aid off. Here’s a video of me walking. The absolutely most difficult thing for me to share. I hate videos of me walking because it shows a disabled person and that’s not how I feel. For years, I have avoided having my picture taken with my scooter, canes, or walker because those were “temporary” tools and “I won’t need those for forever”. Newsflash: maybe they are here to stay. Disability is a strange thing. I may share a disability with someone, but not their diagnosis. Anyone affected by an outward disability hears the same unspoken question, “I wonder why she walks like that.” (And I’m sure it’s never phrased, “What’s wrong with her?”) Here’s my explanation on why she walks that way.

First, a 91-word anatomy and physiology lesson. Muscle groups sometimes work in pairs: when one side contracts, the other relaxes. Quadriceps straighten the knee and hamstrings bend the knee. Calf muscles point the toes and the shin muscles lift the toes. Sometimes muscles work as a group, like hip flexors that flex the hip during the swing of a step. The large and small muscle groups work together to control balance and locomotion. Voluntary and involuntary muscle action is controlled by the nervous system. This is a very simple explanation of an incredibly complex thing we call walking.

Second, a 75-word explanation of multiple sclerosis. “Sclerosis” means scar. Think of nerve cells like electrical wire. The wire, or axon, is what transmits the current; the coating, or myelin, creates a protected channel for the current. In MS patients, myelin is attacked by the immune system; think mice chewing on the electrical wire. The chew marks eventually scar. “Multiple” scars result in the nerve cells transmitting faulty or missing information. These scars are in the brain and on the spinal cord.

My mice have wreaked havoc on my electrical circuits. As a result, the signals to the voluntary and involuntarily muscles used for walking are all out of whack. Spasticity is when muscles get a strong message to contract, but not the same strength signal to relax. I am most affected by spasticity in the large muscle that extend my knees and point my toes. The muscle pairs begin to work against rather than with one another. The counter muscles can’t overpower the spastic muscle. To compensate, I swing my legs outward from my hips. The little muscles in the foot and ankle responsible for balancing are powerless against a flexed quad and calf and result in poor balance. Over time, unused or underused muscles become weak. Just like damaged electrical circuits, somedays my body works better than others. My circuits are more damaged on my right side. Upsides: it is not painful and I CAN walk!

I wrote this explanation because I overheard a lady say to her friend, “Why do you think she walks like that?” I found it strangely cathartic to write this for a person who will never read it. I also am not offended by her innocent curiosity. As someone who is disabled, I find myself wondering the same of others sometimes.

There are two kinds of disabled people: those who own their disability and those who let it own them. I’m the former. I can find appreciation in my circumstance. Walking this way is fatiguing, I have learned to pace myself. I am independent to a fault, so I am learning to ask for help (…sometimes, it’s a work in progress). I have learned to appreciate that I have lots of tools, from my canes, to my scooter, to a stranger’s offered arm. In the world where we can always use an uplifting story and it’s so easy to complain about the bad stuff, I’d like to share my good stuff and how I find positives in the bad stuff. We’ll see how it goes. 

A Tale of Two Horse Shows

Spoiler alert: this story has a happy ending, but it was a bit dicey getting there. Some of the lessons I learned are general to the world of dressage in the digital age and some are specific to para. Of course, I had no idea what I didn’t know and really bumbled through the process. There were several minor and one profuse apology along the way. 

Read on, PLEASE learn from my mistakes! In my area, there doesn’t seem to be any other para riders showing in para classes, so it’s unchartered territory for everyone. My horse show experience is almost exclusively in the hunter realm from 1994 to roughly 2012 where there were no ride times, digital entries, or emailing show secretaries! I am totally new to online entries and dynamic, digital show schedules and scores. I should have asked the following questions and taken steps early in the registration process to have avoided some snafus.

  1. Do memberships, Safe Sport training, horse recordings well in advance of registering for horse shows. The memberships take a few days to be official and if there are errors, they can be caught and corrected early. Get coggins and vaccines in PDF format.
  2. Find USDF-sanctioned horse shows offering para on the USDF calendar. Check the prize list as soon as it’s posted online. Am I planning to ride more than one para test? Are there two para TOC classes listed on the prize list? If not, can accommodations be made?
  3. Send the show secretary USEF classification/dispensation and blank tests after getting answers about para TOC classes. 
  4. Ask about ride times, can I request riding back to back early in the process?
  5. Bring hard copies of all documents submitted online to the horse show. Also, have digital version available for easy emailing from my phone.
  6. Use the digital tools! Check ride times early and often on the online platform.

There were two rated shows sanctioned for para still standing on the USDF website after all the cancelled shows due to coronavirus. Snags from the beginning! I created an account on EquestrianEntries.com and went to register – oh, no! The classes I wanted to enter weren’t there. I emailed the show secretary and got the following response, “We aren’t offering para. We had it on our prize list for years, but never had entries.” I was devastated because USDF had listed them as being sanctioned for para. I sent a pleading response and she offered to ask show management. Eureka! They agreed. I kept plugging away on the entry – what?!  They only offered one para test of choice (TOC) and one musical freestyle (MFS). I needed two TOC classes; again, emailed the show secretary, she said, “Just register for the MFS and I’ll correct it later.” Phew! Ok, all ahead go. (This was a hard lesson learned later!) As the show approached, we still had outstanding items: Ann-Louise’s Safe Sport certificate, vaccinations, sending dispensations. Once the entries were submitted through the website, all corrections were sent directly to the show secretary via email. I finally got the clearance that everything was done. Now it was horse show time. 

In the COVID era of horse showing, there was a very socially distanced check-in process and *gasp* I didn’t have my membership cards with me. I didn’t think I would need them because I had put all of that information into the system when I registered, whoops! Fortunately, they were able to look them up on the spot. Then I had an outstanding late fee (because of all the stuff I had turned in late) which I paid with Venmo. God bless technology! The show manager tracked me down and said some incredibly encouraging words and conveyed they were so pleased to have someone entered in the para classes.

As a Grade II rider, my tests are ridden in a 20 x 40 ring. At this facility, there was room for an entire ring and warmup space for me. My tests went great. The judge loved Robin. We got scores that qualified us for Nationals. All was well.

Seeing as the first rated show went so well and we now had Nationals on the horizon, Ann-Louise and I thought we should get another big horse show under our belts. (Robin didn’t weigh in, but I’m sure he would have been in favor.) I dutifully logged into the online platform thinking this time would be a breeze. I had all the memberships done, waivers signed, vaccines, coggins, and Safe Sport. I double checked their online prize list. Yup, para TOC and para MFS were both listed. There was only one TOC, so I signed up one para TOC and one para MFS with my grade and test choices. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom I was feeling like maybe I had the hang of something. WRONG! The show secretary said I could not enter the MFS as a second TOC. Also, there was a discrepancy between Robin’s USEF card and my online entry. I hastily replied that this is what I had done at my other horse shows (of course omitting the fact that “my other horse shows” included two schooling shows and one rated show). She quickly informed me that this was not common and I should not have presumed that I could swap classes. Also, the discrepancy was not to be brushed off and that needed to be dealt with ASAP. She, of course, was right. My best course of action would have been to contact her ahead of time to see if two TOC was an option. I had assumed that because the first show had handled it this way that it was common practice. Unfortunately, my eagerness and inexperience came across as presumptiveness and arrogance. Enter my immediate, profuse, and very sincere apology. How could I possibly have made such a blunder? I was a wreck and contemplated scratching all together! I tried to be calm; technically, she never said it couldn’t happen and I not-so-patiently, but quietly waited for a response. I contacted USEF to get Robin’s registration fixed in the meantime. I had been the one to register him, so it defaulted to me as the owner rather than Ann-Louise. USEF graciously corrected the error without charging me the transfer fee. Then, to my amazement, the show secretary responded that they would make accommodations so I could ride both tests. Good! I was still feeling very sheepish about my gaffes, but was now focused on horse showing. 

The Tuesday before the horse show, the ride times arrived in my email. I had one ride before the lunch break and one ride after the lunch break. This was a fairly substantial hiccup for me. Conserving energy is one of my main focuses in life, not just in the riding sphere. My tests had always been back to back and I had no idea how it would go to ride an hour apart. I had not thought to ask for back to back ride times. This meant I had to reach out to the show secretary again, something I was not so keen on. I was afraid she was going to think I knew how to better schedule the rings (this couldn’t have been farther from the truth!) With a little encouragement from a friend (apparently most riders don’t want to go back to back), I emailed the show secretary again, this time very, very humbly, and asked if I could ride back to back. She said she would find out, but it indeed needed to be truly back to back. I assured her, I would come out of the ring for a few words from my trainer and march right back in. I waited and waited and waited for a response. It was Friday night, my ride times were 15 hours away with no word! I finally caved and emailed her again. About 30 seconds after hitting send, I remembered the ride times were posted online. DUH! I quickly checked, yup, my ride times had been rearranged back to back. I shot back another email telling her I found the updates and sorry for wasting her time. Goodness gracious, I felt like such a buffoon!

By show morning, I was a nervous wreck. I was so embarrassed to go face “these people.” This was a horse show where I knew more people, felt like I had more eyes on me, and I had been such a bumbling idiot through the whole registration process. I had let all of this get in my head and really lost sight of how much I love taking Robin into the show ring. As I drove to the barn, I was thinking, “If this is what big horse shows are like, I’m not sure I want to do this.” Then I saw Robin’s sweet face. Then we were at the horse show. Then I was warming up. He felt like a million bucks. Then I was in and out of the show ring. And yes, in fact, I love to do this more than anything else on the planet! 

These were some important lessons learned – from when and who to email to the confirmation that I really love this – now we’re even more ready for the next horse show. To reiterate again: get stuff done early, check the websites and prize lists early, ask questions early and humbly, have digital and hard copy documents at the ready, and use the online tools. Maybe there’s some way to let horse shows know that para riders need two para TOC classes. Maybe I’ll save that for my next series of blunders…

My MS mindspace.

This blog was originally titled, We All Enter At A, which is a paradressage euphemism for “we all put our pants on one leg at a time,” because all riders, disabled or able-bodied, start a dressage test by entering the ring at “A.” I stunted this blog by constricting it only to horses and my conversion from able-bodied hunter/jumpers to paradressage. The title MS Mindspace is literally both the space for my brain, where my MS resides, and also where my mind and identity dwell, harboring my ever-changing id, ego, and superego.

I adventure to emulate a New York Times blog I love. I admire its scope and rhetorical nature. The motif is food, but it wittingly promotes literature, music, people, and movements the author, Sam Sifton, finds worthy. Its appearance in my inbox is always cause for celebration.

Over the weekend, I spectated at a dressage show at Morven Park. It was a glorious day for a horse show. Spring is unveiling – hymnal birds, impending blossoms, life-reviving sunshine. Nimbus, my mobility scooter, and I rattled along the gravel drives and parking lots, anything but subtle. Presumptuously, I parked myself with the indoor ring steward and watched from the ingate. The rides were delightful; precise and stoic upper-level tests and lower-level tests which were clumsy, yet jubilant, in comparison. Eagerly, I envision myself bumbling through Intro A next month, my jaw already sore from the grin.

IMG_6357

Morven Park has attempted to make the grounds handicap friendly. I was elated to see a ramp mounting block for paraequestrians. However, a four-inch step to the ramp for the indoor arena’s viewing area is not accessible for wheels. The number of times accessibility efforts fall short is astounding, not that I condemn anyone for it, it just doesn’t occur to most able-bodied people. I sent an inquiry via Morven’s website and hope to get an apologetic and action-promising response. I encourage you to do the same if you ever observe a similar oversight.

It’s almost garden planting time! I am vaguely aware of necessities like watering and weeding, but only just. Last year’s yield from our raised, micro garden (so named for its dwarf crops, not its acreage) was less than plentiful, nourishing mostly the wildlife. I have hopes for this year’s plot, equipped with my in-laws’ rototiller, high fences, and an automatic water. Is that basil I smell?

A coconut cream pie, fajitas on the grill, and an Easter egg hunt are on the docket for this weekend, I’ll let you know how those go. Hopefully by next week, the kids will be ear infection free and the rain will have stayed away. Humor as promised: Does February like March? No, but April may.