By Skyler Wroblewski
My name is Skyler Wroblewski and I am a nationally certified Grade II Para Dressage Equestrian.
I was born 13 weeks early and almost died two days later. We were told I was the only baby at the hospital to ever survive a lung embolism. As a result of my premature birth, I suffered a brain bleed that resulted in me developing Cerebral Palsy. I am a hemiplegic, mostly affected on my right side.
I think my journey as a para dressage rider actually began at my first birthday party. I had a pony party, and my first ride. When I was three years old, I began therapeutic riding. My mom heard that therapeutic riding helps special needs kids develop balance and helps brain pathways connect through the walking motion of the horse. I rode Mac and Buddy. When I was ten, I told my mom I wanted to learn how to ride a horse on my own. We didn’t know where to go or who would actually be able to teach me. Fortunately, we went to a library program about horses and met a trainer who was willing to teach me.
I loved it! I rode Star. She became my legs. For the first time in my life, aboard Star, I could run and walk and not fear that I was going to trip and fall. At the barn, I had a place where I could be normal- a place where I belonged.
I had never heard of para dressage until a person at my barn showed me an article about a rider who had no legs. I began to think that this would be a better fit for me than trying to ride able-bodied. Para riders are classified and assigned a grade level depending on their physical abilities/limitations. There are five grades, with Grade I representing the most physically impacted, and riders in the same grade levels compete against each other. In 2015, I went to Wellington, Florida, and was classified as (at that time) a Grade 1b profile 14/15. (Several years later, Grade 1b was renamed Grade II. Those that were classified as a Grade 1a became a Grade I.) My para equestrian career officially began! I was super excited, but we had no idea how things worked or what to do. My team had to figure things out step by step. For example, we had no idea about accommodating aids, what they were, or how to get them. However, I just loved riding and never let these challenges stop me.
I have progressed from schooling shows to recognized shows. I currently compete in Region 2 at Waterloo, in Grass Lake, MI. To date, my highest Grade II Individual Test score is 70.147%, my highest Grade II Team Test score is 70.606%, and my highest Grade II Freestyle score is 73.333% and, in 2019, I was the National Grade II Reserve Champion. I have also qualified for the North American Youth Championships (NAYC) and was accepted into the USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program.
For all of these accomplishments, I have to thank my heart horse, Wall-E. He is a Thoroughbred Cross and the best horse I have ever ridden. I taught him everything he knows about dressage. Before me, he was a jumper. I bought him in 2015, the year I became classified, then we learned para dressage together. He is totally trustworthy and the type of horse you can go into the show ring with and not have to worry about him spooking. He taught me what it meant to be a Grade II Para Dressage Rider. We taught each other square halts, leg yields, serpentines, and the list goes on. We have ridden the Grade II Team, Individual, and Freestyle tests. My mom always says he has the cutest ears. What I love about him is his personality and his markings that correlate with his chestnut coloring: the white socks, white on his rump, and the white stripe down his face. Without Wall-E, I would not be the para dressage rider that I am today.
What anyone will learn in the sport of dressage is that, sometimes, your horse can only take you so far. That is a tough lesson I have had to learn with Wall-E. We have been through so much together, but I have outgrown him skillswise. He will only score so high in the show ring, and I’ve had to accept that. Yes, I could keep Wall-E and stay at the same level. However, I wish to advance.
My current mount is a black Friesian Cross mare named Willow, leased to me courtesy of Londyyn and Jamie Pachota. My current trainer is USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold medalist, FEI trainer, and International competitor Jessie Myers from Breakthrough Dressage in Saline, MI.
Through Jessie’s efforts, I was able to train in Wellington, Florida, during winter 2022. While in Wellington, I had the amazing opportunity to meet other para riders, including the Tokyo Paralympians. They kindly and generously invited me into their world and into their barns. I heard their stories, watched them compete, and saw their Paralympic medals. It was the experience of a lifetime – getting to have a lesson with Shayna Simon from Equidae Dressage Stables on Willow and also a lesson on Beatrice De Lavalette’s horse, Clarc.
The lesson I had on Willow was planned, but the lesson on Clarc was a surprise! Shayna knew that one of my main goals in Wellington was to advance my dressage career. (Living and training in Michigan, I felt isolated, like I was not really getting anywhere.) To advance in para dressage, you need to make connections and “get your name out there.” Shayna kindly suggested a photoshoot with Beatrice and Clarc after the March CPEDI3*. There was a chance I could ride Clarc, but I didn’t think it would actually happen. I arrived for the photoshoot and to my total surprise, Clarc was being tacked up for me to ride. I couldn’t believe it! I had Beatrice’s groom lift me up onto him. Riding Clarc was power underneath me. He was so talented and, with each stride he took, it became evident to me why he had made the Paralympic Team. Riding him made me feel special, especially because Beatrice was watching and taking pictures of us the entire time. Riding Clarc showed me I have learned many skills as a rider. It made me feel that advancing in my para dressage career was possible. I will forever be grateful to Beatrice, Shayna, and Clarc for this experience.
While there, I was able to participate in the advanced screening of theis documentary called Para Gold, a documentary that follows four para riders on their journey to qualify for Tokyo. I remember sitting in the theater and thinking how special it was that I was able to recognize all of these people and call them friends. Afterwards, we all were able to socialize at a nearby restaurant. I had such a fun time!
What was so special to me about being in Florida was being around other people with disabilities. Because of my disability, I never thought I’d fit in. Meeting the para riders that I have followed on social media for years made me truly feel like there was somewhere I belonged.
My current goals include finding my next level horse and competing at a CPEDI3*, getting a confirmed International Classification, and then transitioning from an Emerging Athlete to a Developing Athlete. Shayna told me that in order to score well in para dressage at shows and progress, the horse has to have an undoubtedly good walk and a good topline. This is the criteria I will look for when I get my next horse. My long term goal would be to make it onto the Paralympic Team.
I have always had the dream of going to Paris, and that dream has become more cemented now that Paris 2024 is around the corner. I want to stand on the podium. There was a CPEDI3* in March, and I got to see the para riders compete. I long to be in that arena with them and one day, I believe I will. It takes many steps to qualify for the Paralympics, but I think my journey has begun.
Beyond my personal goals, what I would like to see for the future of para dressage is more accessibility for riders… meaning, more competitions being readily available. Because the US is so spread out, it can be hard for people to connect. Living in Michigan, and having felt so isolated from the para community, I’m fortunate that Florida is just a straight drive down I-75. Wellington this year changed that feeling for me.
In closing, my advice for anyone beginning their para dressage equestrian journey would be to first understand that this is a long, long journey. You will probably have many horses and trainers along the way. Secondly, if you live in a state with a Center of Excellence (COE), begin there. COEs are places for emerging para athletes. If you don’t live in a state with a COE, try to connect with another para equestrian. The more connections you have, the better. Thirdly, I think that each state in the lower 48 states should have a competition venue that offers para dressage classes, so the sport can be inclusive to all para riders. Not everyone has the means to make it to these big hubs like Wellington.
How fortunate we are to be para equestrians, the best sport ever!