By Holly Lovejoy
I don’t know if I ever would’ve learned the meaning of life without a horse. Sure, no one really knows the meaning of life, but as a kid growing up in a situation that often proved to be stranger than fiction, this became an even more complex and frustrating idea. When I say stranger than fiction, I mean it; I was born at 29 weeks premature as the largest of a set of accidental triplets. I don’t know if you can really say that I was any kind of “large” at only 2lbs 13oz, but I guess my ego never got the memo. Not much came easily to me in childhood, but that is par for the course when you are born with spastic cerebral palsy. My early life is mostly memories of physical therapy in clinics that I never had much appreciation for, to say the least. Even as a toddler, I was hyper aware of my differences and inability to be independent. Despite this, I could never be quiet, or let myself go unseen. It was a challenge for anyone to get me to tolerate traditional therapies. Someone suggested hippotherapy (equine riding therapy) to my mother when I was barely two years old, and I guess that was the beginning of the end for my poor parents.To this day, my non-horsey mother remains in my riding life as my regular groom. I can absolutely say that the first happy memories I have happened on the back of a plucky pony. For a child who couldn’t stand unaided, there was an indescribable feeling of freedom and joy in being able to make a horse take a step from the sound of your voice.
I grew more aware of my disability in time, and of how society didn’t seem to know what to do with me, in a bigger picture kind of way. I can remember vividly the first time I saw the Paralympics on TV. I remember the excitement and curiosity of seeing something I could finally relate to, something more grand and thrilling than I had ever thought possible for someone with a disability. I’ll admit to feeling like something was wrong with me, and that is a thought I still battle with, something I am learning to heal from. Somehow, this whole Paralympics thing set right that wrong in my mind. I could feel equal, valued, and seen by the world. For a kid who had grown bored and frustrated even with hippotherapy, physical therapy on the back of a horse, this began a whole new world of ideas and dreams. I wanted nothing more than to go after gold, and I almost never imagined how those manic dreams would form into my current reality.
Kids never know their own limits. I was constantly aware of my own, growing up in the body that I have. Somehow, in the early years of my riding, I was convinced that I could someday jump the Grand Prix. I’m sure my mother was relieved when I discovered para dressage in a magazine. Something clicked in my mind when I learned that there truly could be a path to gold that was not only achievable for me, but designed particularly for people with physical challenges. I found my value in this new world, and became determined to put my life into it. It may be a slightly morbid motivation, but for a kid with mental health issues and a body that she didn’t want to accept or feel, “Olympics or death” seemed like a valid way to go about life. Years down the line, I see now how that Olympic dream has made my life come more to the forefront in ways that I never expected. That ultimatum is transforming into a motivation to capture every moment, and to keep achieving high.
The first time I felt truly suicidal, I was nine years old. The only way I knew how to fight that feeling, to find some validity or reasoning in the way my body worked was to ride my guts out. I could ride away from feeling my body, or feeling my mind spiraling out of control. I could ride to prove my worth to myself, to create peace in a world that I often only knew as being chaotic, judgemental, and painful. I found my identity further as I was classified as a Grade 1 Para Equestrian at age 13. Just like every other rider, I paid my dues on less than ideal lesson ponies, and with trainers who could maybe be described as toxic. Even with my classification being specific to my disabled body, I found a home in a sport where I could (more or less) have equal life experiences to anyone else.
Aside from my body, I live with a brain that sends me flying too close to the sun, like Icarus. Whenever I would crash, or fall into a spiral of hopelessness, the back of a horse was there to catch me and carry me forward. Being relentless to a fault has carried me through my darkest times, and has pushed me through highs that have become a dreamlike reality.
Dale Dedrick, a 2012 Paralympian who is now a para-driving athlete, was instrumental in changing my world again when everything felt like it was caving in around me. At the age of 18 (I am now 22), I had the incredible opportunity to purchase my current horse, Suede (Bardondales Ultrasuede). Suede has been my rock both physically and emotionally. He is my light in life when I feel as though I have no reason to see another day. I find my strength and power in my sassy little golden pony who holds a dream better than any reality. With the highs and lows in my brain, body, and life, riding is my ever constant path to a future; a dream that I wish to create.
I’m very fortunate to currently be in training with USDF Gold, Silver, and Bronze medalist Tracey Hill. Tracey holds me to the highest standards, to an equal standard. For someone who has never understood their place or value in the world until recently, this was eye opening and life changing for me. I still couldn’t tell you exactly what this incredible woman sees in me, or why she decided to take a chance on me. On Day Zero, without my horse there, I was already crying in the barn aisle, and spilling my guts and dreams to her (this is a semi-regular occurrence in my life, I’ll admit). I made sure she had witnesses, and told her that she would regret taking on my chaos within 30 days. Every so often, I remind her of this.
It’s surreal to see the transformation in my self esteem, identity, and accomplishments. I pinch myself when I realize how much my world has changed in only a year. I remember distinctly telling Tracey, “I never thought I would feel this way, but for once I want to live and do this so much more than I want to die.”
Within the past year, Tracey has taken me from riding a 20m circle and obsessing over the “disabledness” in the appearance of my riding, to an athlete who competed and truly felt equal in an able bodied National Championship. I am pushed to be accountable for my body and my mind at its very best, to problem solve, and to treat my body fairly. I’m pushed as much as I am loved and accepted. We figure out new ways to meet the FEI standard, and Tracey is willing to (at times, literally) carry me on my journey to be my best, most resourceful self.
Abled or disabled isn’t really the focus of the path to that 2021 West Coast National Pony Dressage Cup. For once, I found it in myself to enjoy the strength in my individuality, to show my true self to a community who values me, and to smile, laugh, and cry every step of the way with my golden pony, Bardondales Ultrasuede.
I recently told a friend, “All of it (life) became do or die for me. I’ve tried dying more than once, so I had to give ‘do’ a try.” As I’m doing more and more, I realize all that I have to be grateful for in life – a golden pony, a dream team, and a spirit relentless and resourceful enough to have me riding my way to Paris no matter what. In the coming months and years, I aim to manifest, plan, and ride my way to the international Para Dressage world. I never want money, mind, or medical happenings to hold me back from the pursuit of gold. I’m out here to show that no matter how much or how little you may have, there’s always a way to set the world on fire.