From tending to COVID patients to volunteering in dressage, Nancy Bryant never shies away from a challenge
By Kim MacMillan
Reprinted from the March/April 2021 issue of USDF Connection magazine.
While most of the world was hunkered down in 2020 weathering the COVID-19 storm, one Midwestern equestrian had a critical job to do in the fight against the virus.
Registered nurse Nancy C. Bryant spent long hours wearing personal protective gear in a regional affiliate of the Detroit, Michigan,-based Henry Ford Health System, caring for a ward filled exclusively with novel-coronavirus patients.
Early in the days of the pandemic, the Detroit area was especially hard-hit. Despite extreme cautionary measures in place at the hospital, one of Bryant’s coworkers died of COVID-19. Several other colleagues got it, too, and Bryant herself contracted the virus in mid-April and required two hospital stays. But a month and a half later, she was back at work.
“I don’t really think about it. I just go to work and do my job,” Bryant says.
She hopes that her experience—she’s still not 100%—will serve as a cautionary tale, prompting others to take the necessary measures to minimize the spread of the virus.
“My first hospitalization was due to an excessive headache and temperature, which are two significant COVID-19 symptoms,” she recalls, and sure enough, she tested positive for the virus. She was released from the hospital four days later, but then four days after that, during her self-quarantine period at home, she experienced respiratory difficulty and had to return to the ER, where she was admitted for the second time.
“The recovery was difficult,” Bryant says, “and I am still working on regaining my pre-COVID-19 respiratory status. I am normally an active person, but with the virus I was suddenly short of breath after doing things like washing dishes or vacuuming. I needed a nap after simply taking out the trash or showering. That was when the seriousness of the illness hit home. I couldn’t even stand for 10 minutes without my muscles shaking from fatigue. I was off work a total of six weeks, but as a front-line worker I at least had a job to go back to.”
2020 Piles on: Heartbreak over a Heart Horse
The effects of the COVID pandemic were frustrating, to put it mildly, for the avid dressage enthusiast who’s an active rider and a stalwart volunteer for her USDF group-member organization (GMO), the Midwest Dressage Association (MDA). And 2020’s challenges started even before Bryant herself contracted the virus.
With Michigan on lockdown during the early days of the pandemic, Bryant, like many equestrians across the country, was not allowed to visit the barn where her horse was stabled. The result was that her stress level, already sky-high because of her high-risk job, was amplified by her sadness and distress at not being able to spend time with Handsel, the 1998 Trakehner gelding she calls her heart horse.
Bryant’s partnership with Handsel had been a long and successful one. She purchased the gelding (Advocate Ps – Helga, Ethos) as an unstarted four-year-old stallion from his breeder, Loon Creek Enterprises in Indiana. With guidance from her longtime trainer and friend, Judy Kelly of Topline Dressage in Clarkston, Michigan, Bryant brought Handsel up through the levels. The pair competed successfully through Prix St. Georges, and Bryant earned her USDF bronze and silver medals along the way. Handsel attained the American Trakehner Association (ATA) Performance Bronze designation (Pb). At the time of his retirement in 2018, he was only one score shy of his ATA Performance Silver.
In a sad coda to an already disastrous year, Handsel developed kidney failure in September 2020, and Bryant had to say goodbye to her 22-year-old equine partner. He is buried at Topline Dressage next to her first dressage horse, an Anglo-Trakehner gelding named Lanson’s Ransom.
Although Bryant didn’t discover dressage until she was in her twenties, she’s a lifelong horse lover. Born in Alexandria, Virginia, she’s lived in the Detroit area from the time she was seven, but she didn’t begin riding until she was 16, when she joined a Girl Scout drill team coached by two retired US Army cavalry officers.
With her first horse, an off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding named Associate, Bryant competed on the local hunter-jumper circuit until Associate’s untimely death from an injury. Shaken, she stayed with leasing horses for a few years until she purchased a six-month-old, three-quarters Thoroughbred filly named Rough Cut. She trained “Julie” to ride and drive, eventually breeding her to Iron Spring Farm’s Trakehner stallion, Lanson. The resulting foal was Lanson’s Ransom.
Along the way, Bryant acquired additional equestrian experience through a stint grooming driving ponies at Cary Kennedy’s Windrise Farm in Metamora, Michigan, and traveling with Kennedy to shows on the East Coast. Furthering her dressage education, she’s a graduate of the USDF L Education Program.
A member of the MDA since the mid-1980s, Bryant (who describes herself as a “born helper”) has been one of the GMO’s most loyal volunteers. She has served as the club’s secretary, vice president, and president; and she has been a member or the chair of numerous MDA committees.
Bryant learned early on that getting involved is the best way to effect change.
“You know how it is when you have ideas and would like to help to make improvements in an existing organization?” she says. “The first thing they say when you speak up is, ‘Well, join the board and have your ideas considered.’”
Currently, Bryant is a MDA board member, chair of the club’s Education and Nominations Committees, and the GMO’s historian. She organized a series of USDF instructor workshops in 2020, which will conclude with precertification and final exams for six area instructor/trainers this spring.
“Nancy is a passionate, devoted, driven person,” says MDA president Will Davis. “She goes above and beyond. She is continually putting other people ahead of herself. It’s not uncommon for her to sponsor a number of junior members to MDA. She doesn’t know the meaning of ‘not possible.’”
Her volunteer efforts have taken Bryant far from home—with her most ambitious stint yet to come. She has scribed at several Great American/USDF Regional Championships, and she’s volunteered for a local therapeutic-riding program. She volunteered at the 2017 FEI World Cup Finals in Omaha, Nebraska, and at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games in North Carolina. And she’s planning to work at the rescheduled 2020 Olympic Games, to be held in Tokyo this summer.
New Hope, New Horse
Her mother’s advice to pursue a nursing career because she would always have job security has proved correct for Bryant, 64, who’s been an RN for 20 years and counting. When she’s not on duty at the hospital, she enjoys spending time at home in Oxford, Michigan, an hour or so north of Detroit, with her two rescue cats, half-Persian littermates born July 4 and appropriately named Liberty and Justice.
In mid-December 2020, Bryant and her coworkers watched as the first doses of Pfizer’s novel-coronavirus vaccine arrived at their hospital, carried “in an armored truck with helicopters flying overhead.” She planned to get the vaccine herself soon—and urges others to do the same, with their doctors’ blessing.
In another happier note, last summer Bryant found love again in the form of the 2009 Hanoverian gelding Rich Rousseau (by Rousseau).
“Having ‘Ritchie’ has helped during these difficult few weeks,” Bryant says. “He definitely came into my life at a critical time. Whether Ritchie or I show or don’t show, I’m not sure at this point, but we are enjoying each other and will continue our training with Judy.”
Some might not want to trade jobs with Bryant, especially now, and no one wants to contract COVID-19, but she still considers herself lucky.
“I am able to do what I love on a daily basis,” she says, “and I get to spend more time than most with my furry family.”
“Nancy is one of the most compassionate people I know,” says dressage trainer Judy Kelly. “She cares about all creatures, whether they have two legs or four.”
Kim MacMillan is a freelance photographer and writer based in Indiana