By Bryanna Tanase
They say to never give up on the thing you can’t live without; for me, that thing is the horse. Horses have always been a source of hope and joy for me. There’s nothing else like forging a partnership with an animal bigger and stronger than you.
I am a lifelong horse lover, and my fascination with horses began when I took a field trip to a farm in preschool and fell in love with a palomino pony there. From then on, I spent as much time as I could learning about horses through books, movies, and video games. Pony rides at the zoo and vacation trail rides were some of the only experiences I had with horses during my childhood, but I jumped at the chance to participate in it all.
I discovered the sport of para dressage at age 11, when I searched the internet to see if there were riders with disabilities out there, and to my pleasant surprise, there were. I watched riders like Rebecca Hart and Roxanne Trunnell give their all in the ring with their horses. I was already a huge fan of able-bodied dressage, and dressage as a whole is my favorite discipline, so I knew I had to be a part of para dressage, too.
I wasn’t able to start riding and being around horses regularly until I was 17 years old, when my parents got me a voucher for four lessons at Quantum Leap Farm as a Christmas gift. I had waited 17 years for a chance to chase my dream after persistently asking my parents for lessons, and I was so excited.
I still remember my first day at Quantum Leap Farm like it was yesterday and meeting the first horse I was fortunate enough to partner with, an Appaloosa x Quarter Horse cross named Sonic. He was the horse that showed me that chasing my Paralympic dream was possible. With lots of hard work, I rode Sonic independently for the first time in December 2016, and that was when I knew there was no looking back.
Sonic taught me all of my riding basics, and we were an inseparable team until he retired in 2019. He was the first horse I built a relationship with, and my first heart horse. Every moment we had together was treasured. While I rode other horses sometimes, he was always my favorite. Because I hadn’t been around horses consistently for most of my life, I wanted to give myself time to get used to caring for them and riding. Sonic was there for it all. He showed me the joy of giving your heart to a horse.
As much as I missed Sonic and did not know how I would reach my goals without him, younger me knew he wouldn’t want me to give up. So, in March 2019, I rode in a dressage saddle for the first time ever, and what once seemed impossible, started to feel real. I went through a few short-term partnerships at Quantum before meeting my next long-term partner, an American Paint Horse named Shane.
Shane helped me along my para dressage journey in more ways than I can count. He taught me how to leg-yield, collect, and ride circles, learned the Intro para-dressage tests with me, and celebrated with me when I received my Grade 1 para classification. We were on the news together, were featured in the Kerrits Inclusivity Project, and earned a spot in a spread in US Equestrian highlighting diversity in equestrian sports.
Shane was also the first horse I competed with. In December 2020, we submitted a test to the USEF Virtual Judging Program and received a 55%. Although our test was far from perfect, getting to go down centerline with Shane is one of my favorite memories from our partnership. One of my goals towards achieving my Paralympic dream is to qualify for the Emerging Athlete’s List, which requires two scores of 60% or above at a USEF-licensed/USDF-recognized show or through the Virtual Judging Program. Shane and I were so close! As soon as we had feedback, we set to work practicing to improve our skills. Giving up was not an option for us.
Unfortunately, before we could film the test again, Shane’s health and arthritis symptoms worsened. After suddenly developing laminitis, he was laid to rest on February 28th, 2022, surrounded by the souls and spirits of all who loved him. My partner for the better part of three years was gone. I was devastated, and I still miss him every day. The world lost a truly special horse.
My journey with Shane taught me to enjoy every moment and not take any time you have with your horses for granted. Time is the one thing you can never get back. He taught me patience and hard work, and he supported me through hard times. He gave me a reason to smile when I felt like I couldn’t. I would give anything to spend more time with him.
After Shane’s passing, I persevered on. Again, giving up was not an option, and I know he would not want me to quit either. I’m now partnered with a Quarter Horse cross named Griffin, and although we are still getting to know each other, he is helping me pick up where Shane and I left off. We hope to film the test again before show season ends. To help improve our skills and technique, we participated in a clinic with Jeremy Beale, a two-time member of the British Equestrian Team and a USDF Gold Medalist.
Griffin is an energetic and very smart horse that always has places to go and people to see. He is helping me get used to asking for half halts. He is a fun change from the more laid-back horses from my past and proof that every horse has something to teach you. I love getting to learn with him.
The staff and horses at Quantum were instrumental in building my riding foundation and continue to support me in whatever way they can. I am so grateful for everyone there and hope that we can continue working together for a long time to come.
In addition to riding at Quantum Leap Farm for 6 years now, I started taking lessons at Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center to have more time with horses and in the saddle, as well as to improve my position and dressage technique. There, I work with a Welsh x Thoroughbred cross named Cappy. He and the staff there are helping me learn to have a stable seat, develop separation of the aids, and ask for what I want from my equine partner with precision.
Cappy has also helped me gain experience in the show ring. In March 2021, we entered the Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center Virtual Dressage Show, and won our class with a 69%! This was my first show with Cappy, and my first blue ribbon. Our perseverance and patience with each other paid off.
I have improved dramatically as a rider since becoming a participant at Emerald M, and I am so glad I made the decision to join their program when I did. Working together with the staff and horses from both facilities has been wonderful and has skyrocketed my growth.
As you can probably tell from my journey so far, pursuing para dressage takes a village. I would not be able to do what I do without the support of everyone in my corner, or the partnerships I have with the horses I get to work with. The saying “team work makes the dream work” is always true when it comes to the world of para equestrian sport.
As a rule, para dressage athletes are fierce and passionate. We love and care for our horses just as much as, if not more than, other equestrians. We persevere to be in our sport, even when our bodies are working against us, and the barriers seem too high. Our sport is not boring, and even though it may not look like we are doing much compared to Grand Prix riders, it means so much to us and the people and horses we are fortunate to work with.
Being a para dressage athlete is not for the faint of heart because there are a lot of challenges that we face due to our disability and the inaccessibility of the industry that continues to exist. Even though para dressage is slowly gaining the visibility and recognition that is comparable to able-bodied dressage, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Ableism, or the favoring of able-bodied people over the disabled, persists in equestrian sport, and the horse industry as a whole. The majority of competition venues are not accessible, forcing athletes to come up with their own mounting solutions. Some barns are so inaccessible that those that use mobility aids like wheelchairs and scooters cannot get through the aisles to interact with the horses. Some professionals still turn away riders with disabilities due to their own biases or insurance issues. Sometimes, no matter how much someone wants to help, we have to give up the possibility of working together because there are too many barriers in the way.
In addition to these logistical problems, there are financial barriers as well. Many para dressage riders, especially Grade 1 riders like myself, require level-headed and well-trained horses to ride safely. The more training a horse has, the higher it is priced.
We have to pay for national classification into one of five grades before we can compete in para dressage classes. The classification process is a physical exam where riders are tested on range of motion, coordination, balance, and other factors, through a series of exercises. A classifier scores each of these exercises to give riders a profile, which is used to determine their grade. The grades are used so that riders of the same ability compete against each other, ensuring fairness in competition. Grade 1 is for the most impaired, and Grade 5 is for the least impaired and is the most similar to able-bodied dressage. The grades also determine what compensating aids can be used in competition.
Although I do not own a horse yet, I know that when I do I will need to hire help to care for them properly because there are some care activities I cannot do on my own, like picking out their hooves. Owning and competing a horse is already expensive, but it becomes even more so when you have a disability. There are likely more costs that I did not mention here.
Since I have mentioned all these difficulties, you have probably been wondering why I continue to pursue horses and para dressage at all. The answer is that horses are my passion; there is nothing else that I love more in the world. Horses have been my guiding light for years. They have become such a large part of my identity that I would feel something is missing without them. Yes, I could pursue something more affordable and accessible, but horses fill my heart and light a fire in my soul.
I was born with cerebral palsy, a developmental disability caused by brain damage before, during, or after birth. However, I was not diagnosed until I was 11 months old. There are many types of cerebral palsy, and varying degrees of severity. I have spastic diplegia, which results from damage to the motor cortex and affects muscle tone, coordination, balance, and more. Because my case is more severe, I cannot walk or stand without help, am a full time wheelchair user, and need help with all of the activities of daily living. I also have a complete spinal fusion due to scoliosis.
When you have a disability, people are quick to remind you of your limitations. Horses, on the other hand, remind me that I can still succeed in spite of these limitations. Horses are my legs, and allow me to see the world from a new perspective. They have given me opportunities to speak and a community of people that love and support me. My physical, emotional, and mental health has improved because of horses. They have given me so much that I feel compelled to share them with others, whether they have a disability or not. I use my Unstagram @bt.paradressage, as well as my Facebook page, to share my equestrian journey, information about equine-assisted therapy and para dressage, and the disability experience with the world. I also hope to increase representation and visibility in the media and equestrian industry at large.
In March, I was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Florida 2022, and am using my platform, The Power of Horses: How Equine Assisted Therapy Benefits People with Disabilities, to increase awareness of, and participation in, equine-assisted therapy and para equestrian sport. I will compete at the Ms. Wheelchair America competition and share my platform speech with the country while competing against women from 30+ states for the national title.
It would be great to see US Equestrian, the United States Dressage Federation, and the United States Para Equestrian Association work together to include para dressage test of choice classes. This would not only increase access to para dressage, but would also provide para riders with more competition opportunities.
If you are a disabled person interested in pursuing equine assisted therapy, search Google for therapeutic riding centers near you. If you are already involved in therapeutic riding and want to transition to para dressage, visit one of the USEF Para-Equestrian Dressage Centers of Excellence if you live nearby to meet the staff and learn how they can help you make the transition into the sport and begin your journey. If you do not live near a Center of Excellence, consider contacting Laureen Johnson, USEF’s Director of Para Equestrian, about scheduling a national classification, and work with your coaches and the resources you have at your disposal.
You can also contact Lisa Hellmer, Para Dressage Development Coach, for help on your para dressage journey. She is a Silver USEF Para Dressage Coach who earned her USDF Gold Medal and has a wealth of knowledge about the sport. I had the opportunity to meet Lisa in 2019 when I first started in para dressage, and I still hope to ride with her one day. She is extremely kind and wants to make sure everyone has a great experience, regardless of ability.
Even when things seem grim and I feel like I am not making any progress, horses show me that not everything has to be perfect to be wonderful. At the end of the day, they will always be waiting for me. I have come too far to give up and will continue to work hard to reach my goals and beyond. Horses, and the love I have for them, give me the strength to persevere through everything.
To learn more about equine assisted therapy and para-dressage, you can visit the following resources:
United States Para-Equestrian Association
USEF Learning Center: Pathway to Para-Equestrian Dressage
USEF Para-Equestrian Dressage Centers of Excellence
Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH)
My Personal Instagram: @bt.paradressage
My Ms. Wheelchair Florida Instagram: @mwfl2022bryannatanase