The Unbreakable Spirit

Photo by Elizabeth Ruiz: Shannon with her two boys, Ozzy and Luar, who helped earn her bronze medal.

We are celebrating Plus Size Riders as our July Featured Riders of the Month on YourDressage!

Here, a Region 7 rider shares about suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and how her love of horses helped her overcome the physical and mental impacts of it.

By Shannon Lafaille 

Although there may not be a typical entrée into horses, it often starts when a child meets a horse and falls in love with everything equine; my story started very differently. I had no interest in horses. It was my mom, wishing to realize a childhood dream, who introduced me to the sport by purchasing Deke, a 20-year-old Quarter Horse. Then, the riding lessons began. Deke was a saint. A been there, done that horse. But, I was indifferent. Mom soon realized that she was the one in love with horses and that while I was riding Deke, she was doing all the work. After discussing this state of affairs with my trainer, it was decided that, if I wanted to ride, I would assume responsibility for Deke. It was at this point that I fell in love with him and with horses. 

My love affair turned to obsession. I joined 4-H, Pony Club, and the North American Trail Riding Conference (NATRC). I spent hours trail riding with my mom. I started jumping, and thus moved into the hunter/jumper ring, where I stayed until I was 20. While in my twenties, I began endurance riding with my dad. We completed several 25- and 50-mile rides. In 1994, we rode in The Tevis Cup; a one hundred mile, one-day race. 

In 1999, I gave up horses to focus on family and raise my two sons. Fifteen years later, my son was raising and showing turkeys at our county fair and my wonderful, insightful husband observed how happy I was when around animals. It was he who thought it was time for me to begin riding again. In the fifteen years away from riding, I had gained a considerable amount of weight and was unsure whether it was feasible for me to actually ride. After some research, and talking with others in similar situations, we set off to buy a horse. 

In May of 2015, I purchased Uptown Girl, “Daisy”, an inexpensive bay Warmblood mare with a naughty streak. We spent time getting to know one another and trying to determine where to place our focus, and a year later, I discovered dressage and took my first lessons. Daisy and I were soon competing at small schooling shows and, thanks to a local endurance trainer who incorporated dressage in her trail riding, my confidence began to grow. I began to feel that, despite my absence from riding, my age, and my weight, I could actually succeed. For two years, I took three to four lessons a month and continued to participate in small schooling shows. 

On January 24, 2018, the unexpected happened and I had a terrible, life-changing accident. That morning, ominous clouds filled the sky. Despite being tired, I pushed myself to get in one last ride before the rain began. Daisy was acting defiant and restless, but I managed to get her to settle. While working on our canter, I noticed a deer out of the corner of my eye. I thought nothing of it, as we are accustomed to wildlife where we live, but this time would prove different. I was in the court, riding toward A from K, when I asked for a canter depart. The next thing I remember is waking up in a pool of my own blood. Daisy had spooked and I’d come off. I would spend the next part of my journey recovering from injuries, with a lifelong impact. Although I suffered many significant injuries, by far the most dreadful was a traumatic brain injury (TBI). The next eight months were spent in physical, occupational, and speech therapy, where I focused on relearning the most basic of skills…the very same skills we often take for granted in our daily lives. 

The road back was filled with setbacks. My doctor said that roughly 90 percent of people recover in the first few months. I was not so lucky. My everyday life became an ongoing struggle to function as I once did. I could no longer go into the grocery store without enduring severe panic attacks. Loud noises or groups of people elicited a visceral reaction. My life changed dramatically, and it was up to me to adapt. 

One thing never changed, and that was my love of horses. As a matter of fact, I credit horses, Daisy in particular, for helping me recover. My love for her pushed me forward. I never blamed her for the accident. My doctors strongly recommended I never ride again. That, however, is like asking me not to breathe. As soon as I could, I began to go outside and work with Daisy. Before being able to ride, I focused on what was missing in my horsemanship toolbox. I found Micaela Love, a natural horsemanship trainer who helped me learn the importance of groundwork and the simple basics I had been missing. It took a long time to get to the point where I could ride, but the moment I could, I got right back in the saddle. Unfortunately, Daisy was no longer sound, therefore I leased a horse and began riding again in November of 2018. 

It became apparent that I needed another horse of my own, and I began the arduous task of searching for a new mount. I met Danielle Cassalett, an FEI trainer who earned her USDF Gold Medal at just 22 years of age and, just a few weeks later, she’d found the perfect horse. We made the twelve-hour drive to meet Marseille, ”Ozzy”, a bay Belgian Warmblood. Ozzy was an FEI eventer owned by Lauren Billys, who had purchased him as her reserve horse for the Rio Olympic Games, but a career-ending injury meant retirement to lower level work that didn’t include jumping. Oz and I connected, and I knew immediately that he was the perfect horse for me. He came to me, on trial, in April 2019 and that’s when my dressage journey truly began. 

Danielle invested herself in our partnership. She knew the difficulties and frustrations of a TBI, as her father had suffered one, and the day after Ozzy arrived, she was at my house giving me a lesson. Just two weeks later, we competed in a schooling show at Training Level. The judge cried happy tears after our ride, and confirmed I had indeed found the perfect horse. 

Danielle continued coming to my house weekly, for nearly a year. She understood the impact of my brain injury and worked with and around my limitations. I spent that year getting stronger both physically and mentally. We continued competing in schooling shows, earning the Pacific Equestrian Center Series championship but, sadly for me, Danielle’s military husband was transferred out of state. 

I then began working with Stephanie Schauer, a talented trainer who grew up at DG Bar Ranch. Stephanie started by refocusing our attention on the basics. I set a short-term goal to ride at the California Dressage Society (CDS) Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC), and a longer term goal of earning my USDF Bronze Medal. The restrictions imposed by the pandemic made qualifying challenging. But, I competed in my first USDF-recognized show on July 5, 2020 and, in addition to qualifying for RAAC, I earned my First Level scores toward my USDF Bronze Medal. My short-term goal was realized when I competed at the RAAC for the first time, but I continued to show and, by fall, Stephanie pronounced us ready for Second Level. I was terrified, but trusted my trainer. We scored in the mid-60s our first time out and earned our Second Level scores. Ultimately, we ended the year with an average score of 69.298% and with a number of championships to our name. 

While continuing to work on the Third Level movements, Ozzy sustained a suspensory injury, which required an extended rehab. During this time, my trainer suggested I consider leasing a horse she had in training. So, in September 2022, Luar, a young, well-trained Lusitano, and I began our partnership. Over the next six months, Luar and I formed an unbreakable bond. 

I continued to ride Ozzy, but decided not to push him up to Third Level. Instead, we worked on developing a Second Level Freestyle, which we debuted in Spring 2023. At this point, I was riding both horses, taking four lessons per week, improving my riding, and had lost 100 pounds. 

I entered Luar in a Third Level class at a schooling show, and although only his second show and first time at Third Level, Luar proved up to the task. I went on to enter both horses for the next show a few weeks away and, while I didn’t feel ready, I agreed to ride the 3-3 test to support an ‘R’ Judge Program my friend was running. I joked that we’d provide lots of fodder for the new judges. On April 14, 2023, I rode my first Third Level test at a USEF-licensed/USDF-recognized show, and exited the ring with a score of 67%. As I turned down centerline, I began to cry. I was overjoyed that Luar and I had not only ridden a Third Level test, but ridden it well. A few hours later, I rode the 3-3. I knew it was a stretch, but I trusted Luar. We earned 63%, completing the scores necessary for my USDF Bronze Medal. The achievement was made all the more special when the CDI and ‘R’ Program judges all gathered to pin a Bronze Medal on my coat. 

After this show, I decided Ozzy deserved to retire. He taught me so much, and he had earned the chance to hang out at home with me and just be a horse. I look forward to saddling him up for short trail rides, where I can whisper to him my gratitude for all he taught me. 

As for Luar, we qualified for the RAAC with my husband, parents, son, and friends in attendance. Not long afterward, Luar came up for sale and it had become clear to me that he was the perfect horse with which to continue my journey. I look forward to building on our partnership, with the goal of now earning our USDF Silver Medal. 

I share my story in hopes that it encourages others. So much good has come following the accident that changed my life. My son decided to pursue a career as a neuropsychologist, based on what we experienced as a family, which makes my heart swell with pride. 

I’m grateful to every horse who has graced my life and helped me on my journey, and feel especially blessed by the two wonderful horses in my short dressage career, as well as the many incredible people. Additionally, I am grateful for the support and encouragement of our entire dressage community. 

Don’t let anything hold you back.

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