By Silvia do Valle
About 5 years ago, my life changed completely. I had a life-threatening accident while vacationing in Ireland that caused me to have complete paralysis from the neck down.
The Moment Everything Changed
I had gone on an inn-to-inn weeklong trail riding trek, something I had never done before as I have never been much of a trail rider. On the second day, the horse I was riding tripped violently, falling on top of me, at the beach on the water’s edge. Not only did I sustain an incomplete spinal cord lesion from C3 to C5, but I also broke four ribs, three thoracic vertebrae, and had a severe pulmonary contusion with some aspiration pneumonia.
I fell in the water, and I could feel it up to my ears while lying immobile with my head held still by another rider, who luckily was an experienced French army physician, waiting for the helicopter to airlift me to Galway University Hospital. Another French doctor rider, a cardiologist, also tended to me, and they saved my life, as the trail guide was insisting on moving me to a dry area as the tide was coming up, which could have killed me. At the level of my spinal injury, had it been complete – or made complete by moving me – I would not be able to breathe without machines, and being in such an isolated area, I’d have been dead.
I really wish I could somehow connect again with those people from the trek, the doctors who saved my life and my roommate Carmen, who nicely packed my stuff to be sent to the hospital, but the trail company refused to provide me with their contact information later when I asked for it. If anyone reading this story knows them, please have them contact me; I’d be very happy.
Recovering Physically and Mentally
After 3 days in the ICU, I had a spinal decompression and cervical fusion surgery. The surgeon was excellent and assured me I would walk again, but I would not regain much movement in my arms and I would still be very weak.
I spent almost 5 months in the hospital in both Ireland and the USA, and against medical advice I went home at least a month early. It was hard, living alone with four dogs, being very weak and unsteady (I used a walker for the first few months) and worse, unable to raise my arms above my waist, as I could barely move them then. My dogs were amazing healers though, and caring for them, as well as receiving their love, made me stronger. My best riding friends Gisela Ferraz (a top riding instructor from Brazil) and Alexandre Gadelha (an international jumper rider from Belgium) came to visit me, and both took me to ride my older horse Cat, who was 20 years old and semi-retired at the time, making her the perfect horse for me to ride since I’ve had her since she was 6.
I worked hard on the therapy exercises and finally was able to start equitherapy at Freedom Ride. It was so important to me, not only the exercise for getting back on a horse, but overcoming the PTSD I had developed. I was finally able to be around horses and not panic. Not good for a veterinarian to have panic attacks when around horses (or somehow also dogs, those I still have to this day, but they are under control for the most part). Originally being a jumper rider, I strive to overcome obstacles, avoid faults, and refusals are not permitted. I set high standards for myself, and I achieve them as fast as possible, even if often at very slow speed for me.
I kept on working on physical therapy, and moved Cat closer so my friend Tam Marshal could help me ride her. Cat had been my amateur owner jumper, and we had also shown some in dressage in Dover Medal classes. But she did not really like to walk, and would never stand still at the mounting block. Thanks to Tam and trainer Wendy Trocano though, soon I was riding her, and had to figure out many adaptations to help me ride. I read all I could find about para equestrian and competitions, because the potential to one day compete at the Olympic level was now a reality for me. I got my USEF classification in early 2020, as grade 4 (which seemed weird to me, as the profile given did not account for my weak arms, especially the right, but being my first time and totally clueless, I tried to train at the grade 4 level) and entered a walk/trot Training Level class at a show with Cat soon after, getting promising scores.
A Broken Dream
I had bred Cat a few years earlier and I had her baby, my dream-come-true horse, a gorgeous, sweet, super healthy, and superb mover, Carisma, who was at the trainer getting broke when I had the accident. I had to turn her back out to pasture as I could not afford any horses in training at the time, and a bit over a year later, she returned to a trainer that, this time, was able to finish her. Tam also helped start her over fences. Carisma was working very well while I was improving daily, and she went to a dressage trainer to get her ready for me. She was amazing, so sensitive, and I was so happy to ride her at our first and only dressage show together, at Training Level, since I could not canter well, or longer than a few yards. I wanted to fully retire Cat, or lend her to be a therapy horse, and dreamed of riding Carisma at international shows.
But destiny had other plans for me. Carisma was found dead in her paddock last August, struck by lightning. She was only 7-years-old. I was devastated. I could not even talk about her then, and still can’t really now. It was a shock and a tragedy, and I keep asking myself, “What have I done so wrong to deserve all of this? My baby is gone, and with her, all my future riding options and the Olympic dream.” I was shattered. To make matters worse, she was very underinsured, as I had not yet raised her premium since she started winning at rated shows. The insurance company sent me a check that I could not even look at, and that sat in a drawer for many months.
When I finally started again looking for a horse to buy I could not believe how expensive they were. I would not be able to buy anything like her ever, especially with her health and bloodlines. I spiraled into depression. It was frustrating how overpriced dressage horses are. I started looking at eventers, and good moving, calm horses from other disciplines, mostly jumpers and hunters. And still, nothing was really young enough to be worth it.
A New Quest
I was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and my sister Isabela do Valle Arenzon is a very successful professional dressage trainer in São Paulo. She started a quest for my horse there, as lower level horses can be a bit cheaper there. I really wanted a mare but most dressage horses in Brazil are Lusitanos (Brazil is one of the top breeders of Lusitanos in the world) with very few Brasileiro de Hipismo (Brazilian Sports Horses), as those are mainly trained for show jumping. Lusitano breeders rarely train the mares; they are used only for breeding. The few mares I saw in videos were very nice but also green, and the one I liked best, although still green, was quickly sold for a lot more than I could afford. Luckily, my sister had good connections with a few renowned Lusitano breeders, and they found a prospect for me.
Gauguin had been bought together with his half brother Gatão as a pair, having successfully competed in combined driving. But his new owner quickly realized that his farm was way too hilly for such sport, and once Gatão was sold, sweet, calm Gauguin became his little daughter’s trail horse. He also started dressage training. His owner, Coudelaria Vila de Sagres Farms, was sure he was a good fit for me, and sent him on trial for my sister in São Paulo to train him specifically for me.
I used all my airline miles and took a plane to Brazil. Traveling during the coronavirus pandemic was not easy. But it was a chance to see my family again too. As I landed there, I was invited to participate in a free clinic with Paralympic medalist Rodolpho Riskalla, sponsored by the Brazilian Equestrian Federation (CBH) that same weekend. I rode Gauguin for 3 days, and then went to the clinic. I don’t usually ride daily as I get very tired and painful, but I had no other option. The day before it, we drove 2 hours into the countryside to get my classification. It was extremely thorough, and lasted almost 2 hours. I was given grade 3, due to a combination of profiles that accounted for the weakness, spasticity, and decreased range of motion in all 4 limbs and neck, with my right side being worse.
Finding My Groove with Gauguin
The clinic was amazing! I had to overcome many difficulties; I rode in my sister’s saddle, which is not proper for a para equestrian, even though I had brought my stirrups and all kinds of straps that I use to help me ride. Coming from driving to dressage, Gauguin was still being ridden in a curb (which is allowed in beginner level dressage competitions in Brazil), and I had never used a curb before. My sister trained him in a double bridle but I can’t hold four reins anymore. Rodolpho is amazing; not only a wonderful trainer, but also a great communicator, and very charismatic. He suggested I try split reins, and told me his were custom made right there in Brazil. He seemed to like us, and I learned so much in those two memorable days.
At the end of the clinic, the Brazilian federation para equestrian director announced that the São Paulo area para dressage observatory for the team would happen in a month. Two other observatories would follow, in other parts of the country, with the same judges. The top three riders would then be picked to train in Europe, and show at a CPEDI 3* to try to qualify for the 2022 World Equestrian Games in Denmark, along with the two current team members from the Tokyo Paralympics, Sergio Oliva and Rodolpho Riskalla. Everyone insisted I should try it. It would be very complicated – having to take time off, the flight expenses, not to mention riding a horse I barely knew at a national show. Meanwhile, Isabela kept training Gauguin, who was doing wonderfully. So I returned, but miscalculated the show days and ended up arriving just the day before the show instead of three days ahead, and could only train the day before! Yes, I am crazy!
I had nothing to lose, and this was to be a test for me to decide if Gauguin was the one for me.
The Rainbow After the Rainstorm
The forecast for the show was heavy rains, but the day started sunny. As I warmed up, a few sprinkles started. The show started with rain, which made my new split reins very slippery, as I can’t really wear gloves – they make my hands cramp more and are very difficult to fit. Two horses before our turn, the rain became very heavy, and we were told to go wait at a covered arena as they stopped the show. Soon the storm came down with anger, blasting the covered arena’s roof with the largest hail I have ever seen, for over 40 minutes of torrential downpour! Gauguin was unaffected. I was super nervous, but also glad that he was so calm. Under light rain, and two hours later, we entered the ring for the grade 3 Team Test. We scored almost 61% and got 2nd place out of 5, but the required score was set at 65% by the CBH. I barely slept, studying the videos from our ride together with the judges’ score sheets, trying to identify the weak spots and figure out how to improve them in less than 24 hours!
The next morning, the day was gorgeous! I had to work harder to get better scores, as today was the decisive day. We entered the ring for the grade 3 Individual Test much more confidently, and with more precision and vigor than the previous day. This time we nailed it! We won the class, and at 61.9% we won the whole observatory above all other grades too! What a feeling! It’d been a long time since I had won anything on horseback, being away from showing jumpers for so long. I got a very nice trophy (which was heavy and cumbersome to fly with!), a medal, and Gauguin got a beautiful silky rosette with the CBH metallic emblem. With lots of help I climbed the podium. I gave an interview to Adestramento Brasil, the Brazilian dressage news website. Gauguin did it. I closed the deal on him and immediately started making arrangements to bring him to Orlando.
Bringing Home My New Dream
It took over a month for Gauguin to arrive in the Miami quarantine. Meanwhile, my sister transitioned him to a snaffle and was able to get him easier to respond to my type of commands, strengthened his topline, trained him to stand at the mounting block for me to get on and off, and put a few pounds on him. The quarantine was a week long, only on hay and without pictures. What a torture. But finally he arrived at WB Equestrian, where I ride with Marcelo Barros and Hilda Donahue. I used to train with Hilda when I was still jumping with Cat, and when I started riding again after the accident, I had a few lessons with her on Cat. Hilda is fantastic, as she is an accomplished eventer with a solid dressage background, but she has also competed successfully in endurance. Now she concentrates on teaching dressage but still gives clinics all over the country. Her help is invaluable!
Gauguin is perfect. He is nuclear bomb proof. He hardly ever spooks, and when he does he only slows down a bit. He is super sweet, and tries very hard to please and do things right. He loves cookies! I am currently working on learning to canter on him; it is very hard for me to canter on any horse, except for Cat, who is now retired. She has a great collected canter and was always super sensitive to the aids. Besides, knowing me well, all I needed to do was think canter and she would. She knew how to make it easier for me too. I mostly cantered her in 2-point position, even in a dressage saddle. But I have tried on many other horses, and cantering is difficult. I did it on Carisma but just for a few yards at a time. Even with the school horses, I have difficulty cantering. Gauguin, though, has a beautiful canter – I really need to get strong enough to do it. We are also working on more complex movements.
Last week we entered our first US show, at the Grand Oaks Resort. I could not show at grade 3, since in the US I am still classified as grade 4 which includes cantering (I have been trying to get a reclassification for almost a year now), so we showed at Training Level, and our scores were around 68%. Not bad for only a bit over a month of partnership!
The Complications of Classification
Next, hopefully I will get reclassified in the US so we can compete at my grade. It is a waste of money and time to keep competing at Training Level; unfortunately, the para equestrians have this extra barrier to deal with. An able-bodied athlete has so many difficulties, physical fitness, financial constraints, time limitations, transport, training, veterinarian, show and federation fees, etc. For us para riders, it is way worse! Aside from dealing with all of the able-bodied rider problems, we often have way fewer financial resources, due to our disabilities and not being able to work as much or as well as able-bodied people can, and spending a whole lot more on medical issues. We also need extra people; as I cannot physically groom and ride my own horse, I need assistance getting on and off, even putting the saddle away is too much for me.
Traveling is the same, as I cannot trailer my own horse, even if I had the finances for it. Then I need extra time, for dealing with all the health issues that come with disability, plus massages, hot packs, stretching, and I need more sleep than an able-bodied person. Additionally, para equestrians depend on their classifications to compete. And there simply are not enough classification opportunities. The sport stalls because of it. Without knowing your grade, the athlete should not train using the dispensations that won’t be allowed in shows. And then she needs to know what grade to train for, since each grade has different tests.
It is primordial that everyone starting in para equestrian get classified. Then you can train for what your tests will be, and try to achieve that level. The type of horse you will need can also vary. To get classified, the athlete must request it at least 6 weeks ahead, submitting several forms and countless medical documents. Sometimes that is not enough and they ask for more which, in this country, means you will not make it in time to participate in the classification, as the doctors usually will not book your appointment in less than 8 weeks. Classifications occur only 3 times a year or so, in a couple of areas of the country. Then if you start showing well and want to get to a CPEDI 3* or above, you need to get classified again, this time by FEI, with similar requirements. Again, with few chances in a year.
This system is very complicated, and I don’t think my friends, family, or other riders understand it. I think classifications need to change; they need to be streamlined, more standardized and computerized. It needs to be accessible for all, early on. Personally, I do not agree with the process, as once you are on a horse everything changes. For example, I will get very tired with repetitive movements like maintaining my leg position, because they will cramp. And the right foot never stays in the stirrup, but if I use rubber bands to tie the foot to the stirrup, I cannot stretch it when it cramps. During a classification assessment, they check only peak strength and range of motion. My neck is very stiff and doesn’t turn much, setting the whole horse off balance, but that doesn’t count either. Not to mention the difficulty in the whole process, waiting for a long time after sending documents then blowing up deadlines.
I hope one day the classification can be initially made by video with a local physical therapist unknown to the rider. All documents and video should be uploaded to a website, and then evaluated by a panel of physical therapists or specialized doctors, along with a video of the athlete riding. Then at competitions the final classification would occur, already appointing the FEI grade, so we wouldn’t need to do it again. Every athlete could have a reevaluation in 3 years regardless of issues. At least, this is what I can propose to improve it. I know there is some research being done to improve the classification process, and I hope they come up with an easier system soon.
It was my plan to compete at Tryon’s CPEDI3* (and hopefully qualify for the World Equestrian Games) but it will not be possible because of classification issues. So for the future, my plan is still to make it to Paris 2024. I am not sure if Gauguin will be ready, or if I will be healthy enough either. We can only continue training, for now, and hope that the FEI classification and USEF reclassification will happen soon. As for goals, if possible someday, I’d love to have a training farm where we could help other para equestrians as well as able-bodied people, in dressage, jumping, barrels, endurance, and maybe even driving (I have a driving horse, after all!). I worked as a riding instructor for a few years before becoming a veterinarian, and it can be very rewarding. The para equestrian sport is growing exponentially all over the world, and it is what keeps me getting better, each day, even if too slow for my taste.
Like my physical therapist said; “baby steps, baby steps”.