By Lexi Rohner
Meet the Youngest U.S. Classified Para Equestrian – Genevieve Rohner. She is a Grade IV Para Equestrian based in Park City, UT.
To say my daughter’s life in the equestrian world ‘has been’ a journey is not correct, as that implies something has ended. In fact, the journey is still unfolding.
She is a triplet, born at 28 weeks. They are considered micro-preemies. As a premature infant, her underdeveloped nervous system led to a diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy, Sensory Integration Disorder, and her right leg bones being in the wrong position. Later she was also diagnosed with Amblyopia. One of her brothers, Cole, had a stroke at birth, also resulting in Cerebral Palsy and several other diagnoses.
At four, Cole was in a Hippotherapy clinical trial with Ride-On Therapeutic Horsemanship, a para-dressage Center of Excellence, when Genevieve was invited to try riding as well. As a lifelong figure skating competitor and coach for 25 years, I had the kids skating for fun and therapy. I figured Hippotherapy could be useful, so I registered her for a session. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve seen a small child who just had skating in their soul, and watching Genevieve connect with the horses was the same. It was a privilege watching her fall in love. Cole hated it and Genevieve immediately owned it as though she had been wandering on earth, patiently waiting for us to realize this was her place.
During the next couple of years, we saw her go from daily screaming fits and physical difficulties to a child who would begin to consider being social. We had tried all manner of traditional therapy (PT, OT, speech, even sensory-specific OT), with minor results. Then, one day, this beautiful little girl we couldn’t figure out how to help, sat on a horse.
Over a period of five years, she progressed from Hippotherapy to Therapeutic riding to Para-dressage, discovering not only a love of horses, but a love of competing. As a coach, I knew that progression could mean competition, and so was not surprised when Megan McQueeney inquired if Genevieve was interested. At Ride-On’s annual Cal-Net, Genevieve entered seven events, and was thrilled with whatever ribbon she received. I knew that energy once again and wondered where this was going.
She looked forward to each opportunity, the connection between horse and rider providing a sense of calmness and freedom of movement that fed her system in a way nothing else had. It was life-changing for our family dynamic. This little girl who had once said, “Friends are bad”, began developing into an accomplished rider. She rode every horse in the barn and I wondered when she fell off for the first time, if she would get back on. It came at a Ride-On camp when she was five. They assured me she had fallen, cried a bit, and jumped right back on. Then I knew, this was no mere hobby.
Though we sadly moved away from Ride-On, we have had clinic opportunities through Megan, including several with Michel Assouline, USEF Head of Para-Equestrian Coach Development and High-Performance Consultant. Under the hot California sun in 2017, Genevieve dutifully performed whatever maneuvers Michel requested of her, prompting his surprise when he assumed she was a small 14-year old and discovered she was only nine. She was allowed to be classified and began a more focused pursuit of her goals.
With a wall full of ribbons she is proud of, and an overarching purpose of her own making, she often schools us on horse breeds and equipment, and when not riding, draws horses, plays with toy horses, and creates courses in the living room. My husband and I were both competitive athletes, though chose not to push this on our children. We require them to do a sport, and finish what they begin. We were thus surprised at Genevieve’s drive. Her goals began very young and surprised us as well. When she was five, we were watching the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and she suddenly looked at me and stated, “Mommy, I am going to the Olympics”. I told her she would have to spend more time on the ice, miss a few parties and playdates, etc., to which she stomped her foot and emphatically declared, “No Mommy, HORSES”.
In 2018, she competed in California in her first recognized shows. The only para rider and two to five years younger than all her competitors, she also trained on an older Quarter Horse in Utah and competed on a Prix-St. Georges Morgan in California. She qualified for the California Junior Championships, California Dressage Society (CDS) Regionals and Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships at Training Level, placing 5th and 6th overall in each competition and earned a CDS Top Ten placement. In 2019, she began competing at her FEI grade level tests, scoring a high of 69% on Chelsea Sharer’s generously donated 19-year old Arabian-Saddlebred, Fame’s Rising Star.
Genevieve has never wavered from her goals, and I often ruminate about parents that push their children into a sport/activity. It’s work enough when your kid truly wants to do something. It seems like even more to insist. I have always upheld that I will not want this more than she does. My job is to open doors she is unable to and support her through them.
Currently training with Prestige Dressage and Sydni Peterson in Utah, Genevieve has developed into an accomplished rider with her heart set on representing the U.S. at the 2024 Paralympics. She is passionate about and naturally intuitive with horses and we see her living her commitment and drive daily.
Sydni progressed Genevieve from Training to First and Second Level in their first 10 months together, and this year Genevieve was named to the USEF Para Emerging Athletes list. Her short-term goals are pursuing her USDF Bronze Medal and competing in the USPEA sponsored open events at the 2020 Para Dressage National Championships in Tryon, North Carolina.
Sadly, we have to give up Star soon, as Genevieve is in need of a high-quality team horse. It’s exciting to be looking for the right equine partner and taking yet another big step toward the longer-range goal.
Currently, Genevieve is the youngest U.S. classified para equestrian. Her aim is twofold: make the 2024 team and be the youngest ever globally to compete in the Paralympics. Ironically, the current record-holder is Britain’s Sophie Christiansen, who was under the tutelage of Michel Assouline, as Genevieve may be in 2024. Genevieve discovered that Sophie competed 55 days before she turned 17 and Genevieve would compete roughly four months before her 17th birthday. Her assertion to me is always, “There’s no guarantee I’ll make the team or medal, but someone will, so why not try?”
The only competitive para rider in Utah right now, she is also usually the only child at shows. With little dressage in Utah and no high-level athletes who are competing, she is determined to make Sydni, Megan, Utah, and Michel proud and become the next one. Grateful for having horses in her life she sums it up best with this, “My brain feels better when I’m with horses”.
Read more about Genevieve here: https://www.grparaequestrian.org/