By Jennifer M. Keeler
For 26-year-old Elizabeth Fera of Evergreen, Colo., some days the pain is so bad it’s a struggle to get out of bed, let alone climb in the saddle and practice a Third Level dressage test. But still, somehow she finds the strength to ride. “Many people ask why I continue to ride and show if it causes me pain,” said Fera. “But dressage is my passion and I just refuse to give up. I want to persevere even through the pain.”
Starting when Fera was a teenager, family members would tell her to sit up straight and friend would ask what was wrong with her back. What began as an inflexible spinal curvature progressed to a visit to an orthopedic surgeon and a terrifying diagnosis of kyphosis, which would require a spine fusion. So at just 15 years old, Fera had her first 10-hour back surgery. “I was fused T1 to T12 with 2 rods and 28 screws,” she explained. “My surgeon wanted to eventually remove the hardware because it can be painful to have, so a year later I had surgery again. They thought my spine was fused and would hold on its own.”
A lifelong horse lover, Fera had been showing her young Belgian/Paint cross gelding Mr. Bojangles in jumping and eventing, but after the surgeries she was forced to switch gears. “I started doing dressage,” Fera remembered. “I left the showing world for a few years while I was recovering, but I returned as a Young Rider and in 2014 Bojangles and I won the Great American/USDF Region 5 Championship at Training Level.”
Unfortunately, Bojangles began getting ringbone and was retired from the competition arena, so Fera had no horse to show until an unlikely prospect came into her life. “My mom and I were looking for a very affordable broodmare because we wanted to have a foal and bring it up through the levels, with my mom training it and me showing it,” Fera explained. “We found Gipsy Rose (Gigi), a now 15-year-old Hanoverian who was being advertised as a broodmare because of an injury. We bought her for very cheap and bred her, but she aborted the foal at about three months. At that point we thought we’d try riding her instead of rebreeding her, but it turned out she had a lot of behavioral issues. Not only was she always a nightmare to catch, but when riding her, if there was any pressure on the bit she would rear up and if she was confused she would immediately start passaging or piaffing. But my Mom is amazing in retraining horses and she was able to help me produce what is now an incredibly kind and hard-working mare that has excelled in the show ring! Gigi is completely sound now with no maintenance and you would never know she had an injury. She is a dream to ride and even catch now!”
But as the pair progressed, Fera sensed something was wrong. “About three years ago I felt the curve in my back was returning and something looked ‘off’ and I was having quite a bit of pain,” she said. “I was working as a nursing assistant full-time and I could barely walk to my car by the end of my shift. I went back to my original surgeon who decided there was nothing to be done although now my lumbar spine was severely curved in, so I accepted it and continued on for about a year and a half thinking that this would be my life.
“But in 2018 my mom grew increasingly concerned so we sought out a second opinion from Dr. Evalina Burger at University of Colorado, who is a top spinal surgeon in the country,” Fera continued. “I was then diagnosed me with Scheuermanns disease, a rare disease when your vertebrae do not grow correctly in teenage years and form wedge shapes, creating an unstable spine, causing kyphosis, and in some cases lordosis. She warned me I had a very difficult road ahead but without a third surgery I could be paralyzed because my T12 vertebrae was rotating and was close to compressing my spinal cord.”
In July of 2018, Fera endured another 10-hour back surgery where surgeons placed 3 rods and 20 screws from T5 to L2, performed an osteotomy at T12 and a cage, and had a spacer at L2 put in to stabilize the fusion because the whole hardware apparatus was at risk of failing. After two weeks in the hospital and three blood transfusions, Fera wore a brace for six months. Almost unbelievably, when the brace came off, Fera’s surgeon said she could start riding again if she felt up to it.
“I immediately climbed back on Bojangles who had already gotten me through the recovery of two other back surgeries, and it was so emotional to be riding again but it took a while to get my balance back,” Fera explained. “I started riding Gigi about two weeks later and immediately had my eye on showing.
“But make no mistake, despite my enthusiasm, it is very hard for me to ride,” she added. “I am very stiff and movements like the sitting trot and the half pass feel impossible some days. Other than my neck, I only have three unfused vertebrae in my lumbar area so I essentially have no rotation of the spine. Gigi takes very good care of me and it’s almost like she knows the days I am in a lot of pain. I am also very lucky having my mom, because she rides Gigi for me when I am having too much pain or if my limitations are getting in the way of training. At this point it is unknown if I will require more surgery, but for now I am happy to just do my best and keep pursuing my dreams.”
And the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® is one of those dreams Fera is intent upon pursuing.
“After I won my first Region 5 title as a young rider it was definitely my goal to qualify for the US Dressage Finals, but I had to put it off for quite a while,” she noted. “Even this year, I wasn’t sure if it was realistic to think about because I only started riding again in January, and I was having so many pain problems this summer. But as Regionals got closer I really wanted to try, and it was an amazing experience to return after not getting to go for such a long time. I love the Colorado Horse Park, and this year there was some really tough competition.”
Fera’s perseverance and belief in herself and her mount paid off: she and Gigi were crowned as Reserve Champions in the Third Level Adult Amateur division at the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Region 5 Dressage Championships (held September 19-22 in Parker, Colo.), successfully punching their ticket to Lexington. “I am SO excited to finally attend,” she said. “It sounds like a really great experience to show at the Kentucky Horse Park, and beyond that I think it will be wonderful to compete against all the regions’ best riders, plus it gives me the chance to experience a larger show atmosphere. It is my goal to continue up the levels and to keep showing at larger shows so this will be a great opportunity!”
With help from family and friends, Fera will soon be packing her bags for the long drive to Kentucky. “It was hard at first to commit because money is definitely a barrier for me, but I was very happy to be able to make it work,” Fera explained. “Gigi will be getting commercially shipped with a few other horses from Region 5, which is definitely made possible because of the help from the USDF travel grant. I will meet her there in Kentucky, and some region 5 riders that have attended in the past have been helping me since I don’t have a ton of experience with an endeavor like this, especially long-distance shipping. It has been great to have the support of other riders from my region!
“Ultimately I have to thank my mom, who not only is my trainer and cheerleader, but is a huge part of my journey and almost never left my side for the two weeks I was in the hospital. And of course also my husband Michael, who takes care of me when I am in pain, and none of this would be possible without him. I can’t wait to come to the Finals and share this incredible experience with both of them.”
The US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® is a unique national head-to-head competition which offers a wealth of championship titles and over $100,000 in prize money, all while showcasing adult amateur and open riders from across the country in Training Level to Grand Prix. This year’s event will be held November 7-10 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky. Don’t miss your chance to compete – entries close on Monday, October 21st! Submit your entry today at www.usdressagefinals.com. To learn more about the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, download competition information, declare and nominate for the Finals, and sign up to receive news and updates, visit the official event website at www.usdressagefinals.com.