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Para Equestrian Dressage Reflections - View from a Sports Psychologist
"An athlete is an athlete. Having been one all my life, I never expected to experience sport and competition like I did at the World Equestrian Games." Dr. Jenny R. Susser joined the South African Para-Dressage Team at the Alltech/World Equestrian Games for support but gained a deeper appreciation than she expected from both the human and equine athletes. Susser will be a presenter at the 2010 Adequan/USDF National Convention & Symposium, Jacksonville, FL, Dec. 1-5. You can visit her website at jennyrsusser.com.
“You will never be the same again!” Everyone on the team said this to me at one point or another, always in a joking manner. The consistency of this comment was uncanny, until that is, I left the horse park to head back home.
Three months before the WEG, two very tall, kind and soft-spoken women arrived at our barn, Willow Tree Farm, in Riverhead, NY, with a quiet and seemingly overwhelmed girl in a wheelchair. The South African team had contacted us through Laura Scherr-Spilhaus, U.S. para-equestrian team physiotherapist, looking for horses to borrow due to the quarantine issues from S.A.
Chef d'Equipe Sharon Boyce and coach Beverly Franklin tried Majestic (United We Stand) and my schoolmaster, Coriall. They looked good on the big horses with their long legs. Coriall, however, spooked at the chair and they chose Mette Larsen's horse for their grade IV rider. Who knew that Majestic, a 2001 KWPN black gelding by Gribaldi, with the relaxed manner and studly attitude, would fit the bill.
Emails, Skype, faxes, more emails and the details took shape. Excitement was visible at the barn; we had a horse going to the WEG! And Majestic just knew and the change in him was astounding. He walked around the barn with palpable pride and his work ethic seemed to double.
Then a woman with a leg and a half arrived with heavy luggage, immeasurable energy. I couldn’t understand a word of her “English” for three days. One word captures her spirit and it is “happy.” After a day and a half of travel, the first thing Cathy Lloyd must do upon arrival is meet Majestic. He sniffed her up and down, and waited for a carrot. Upon receipt, he decided she was okay and then he waited for a few more, which she wisely gave him. She fit right in, immediately. It was the most seamless entry I have ever witnessed. With all of the things to “overcome,” she simply ignored them and went right to work. Majestic’s face was incredible during that first ride. His ears, more active than ever, flicked towards each communication she delivered. It marked a wonderful start.
For almost two weeks, the two were inseparable. Coffee each morning, followed by thumping around upstairs on the exercise ball. Then, weird words screamed into the Skype as Cathy chatted with the other continent. Rides and long grazes everyday; the spoiling of this animal brought to a new level. Her easy-going, joking manner filled with love, generosity, and a child-like excitement of this ever so serious event. “Peg-leg” is intoxicating and inspiring to be around, be involved with and to watch. I feel complete even before they leave me behind for Kentucky.
Two visitors arrive to check in on Lloyd on their way to Pennsylvania for their own preparations. Now I meet Grade II rider, Anthony Dawson, a beautiful young man, half in control of his body and with a personality big enough (and loud enough) for an entire town. Eventually, he will mock my “accent” as the staple to our relationship. He is fun and I know I will enjoy my time with him. The coach’s visit confirms that Lloyd’s ass has, in deed, landed in butter. Off they go on the bus, to the train, to the barn where Dawson’s loaned horse awaits him.
It takes an entire day to pack Majestic’s trunk, how is that possible? Did I forget something? What else might he need? Will he be okay…I’m like a mother sending a kid off to college. Off Cathy goes with her heavy luggage and squeaking peg-leg. Off he goes with two giant sacks of individually bagged food, too many buckets and a trunk that weighs more than her suitcase! I don’t sleep at all that night.
When the chef found out I’m a sports psychologist, they hire me to assist the team at the Games.
Two days of cold, wet weather to start but the Kentucky Horse Park is like a palace decked out for every country…and the horses, oh the horses. Everywhere I look, there is one more gorgeous horse than the next. Bay, chestnut, gray, black, big, draft, little, cowboy, but each one spectacular. The Dressage lasts a week but not nearly long enough. We watch every moment of every ride and drink it in as deeply as possible. Many cannot wait to go home and ride and practice for the next one…
I felt an emptiness as I sat on the front steps of the hotel waiting for my taxi and wondering what the next week would be like. I must admit I was a bit worried…a team I didn’t know at an event that couldn’t be bigger or more important. I wished I were religious in that moment because I might have prayed. Instead, I took a nap and went for a run. Then, I went to find the team that would be my “home” for the next nine days.
Our first meeting felt great, what a generous group. Looking back you wonder why things ever felt awkward given how comfortable they ended up being. They were set up well for me and for what I had to offer; the chef had obviously said the right things because they were all so attentive. Support emerged as the theme of the World Equestrian Games. I’m not sure I would have expected that but it didn’t surprise me either. Each one said it differently but each one felt that was what they could give and what they needed in turn.
I was blown away by the connection of this team after only being together a week or so. That is the wonder of being on a team; something magical happens when a group of individuals get together like that, all with a long history of hard work, high highs and low lows, tremendous sacrifice, tremendous support, and a common commitment that is greater than anything that could possibly get in the way. Now add a physical disability. Man, I hate that word, disability. Now that I know them, it does not begin to capture what this group deals with. I guess from a purely Latin standpoint, it’s appropriate, but from a human one, it is entirely incomplete. The remarkable thing about it is that I never felt any different from anyone there. I never heard a complaint or whining (except from Anthony but that seems to be as normal as his eyebrows…part of his charm). I heard less excuses from this team than any other I’ve ever worked with. It was really beautiful.
The team’s staff consisted of three but operated as one. In addition to Sharon Boyce, the Chef d'Equipe and coach Beverly Franklin, add coach Tracy Cummings, a third bundle of energy and love that cared for and protected the riders as her “babies.” Not that they needed a mother, but being a half a world away, the comfort was welcome. What a dance this operation had to perform; sometimes with music and sometimes without, and mostly without choreography. How to navigate the American waters, prepare and propel the riders, and find a piece for the self was the feat they happily fought for throughout. Interestingly, you never found one of them without a smile.
Before arriving in Kentucky, I would have sworn that I couldn’t love, admire, respect, adore or marvel more at the animal the horse is. I watched the Grand Prix Dressage and saw athletes perform the most difficult movements with grace, power, and perfection. I fully appreciated their physical effort and the obvious relationship with the rider they carried.
I was unprepared for the horses that carried the Para riders. Words cannot even capture my feelings watching the grade 1a horse and rider tests. I watched a young girl with such spasticity, I wasn’t sure how she stayed on. I could see the seriousness with which this horse took his job and took care of her. And the rider was brilliant in her performance, jostling with full effort yet complete control, turning her bobbing head in the direction of each new turn with more intention than I’ve ever seen. As the crowd erupted at the end, the horse began to trot in his excitement. She never lost her cool and methodically slowed him back to walk, reached down and caressed his neck with her crinkled and uneven hand, and walked gently out of the ring.
I was overcome by the connection between the two, by the seriousness and completely professional ride by this completely “disabled” girl, and by the spirit of this animal that just knew what to do. I left the arena to go outside and sob, not wanting to disturb the next ride with my weeping. Upon my return, Cathy joined me to watch. As we looked at each other with tears streaming down our faces, she said these riders humbled her. That just about said it all.
I felt constantly humbled all week, and I am not an overly proud personality. I heard each team member’s story as the days went on, each one with a bit of devastation. Making lemonade was all I thought of. Life had thrown some serious lemons at this motley crew, but you would never know it now. Grade IV rider, Phillipa Mary Johnson, the “leader” and most experienced of the bunch was a marvel to watch. Completely comfortable with the weight of a continent on her slanted shoulders, she was a machine—focused and relaxed and never missed a beat. On her horse twice a day, everyday, working hard and exposing the even harder work that lay behind her. Her support was devoted yet relaxed, completely part of the bigger process that was the Games for the team. So new was her horse to her that the dating phase of the relationship was clearly still in process. It’s obvious that marriage will be the result, and the proposal was apparent when she “brought it” in the Kur and did what she came here to do.
Hard work was also a theme represented by Cathy Lloyd on Majestic. Without the experience, she had to work twice as hard and that she did. With two tough rides down and one hopeful one to go, she re-vamped, re-focused, and re-invented herself in three short days, pulling out a big one on the last day. Relief covered both their faces…as well as the entire team’s. Support was certainly abundant that morning.
The young man in control of half his body operated the other half like a puppeteer, carefully sometimes and carefree at others. Once on the horse, all comedy was left on the ground and only the seriousness of competing and winning were visible. Horses have no “poker face” and neither did Anthony…win was all it seemed to say. The free walk was my favorite to watch him perform. There was a purity and delicacy that was indescribable as he sat up in the saddle, surrendered his reins to the horse, and quietly glided across the diagonal in an extended movement. Symbiotic, that might begin to capture it.
And there was an old soul in a not-so-old body who was just a pleasure to be around. Having been to the world stage with water carrying her instead of a horse, Grade II rider Wendy Moller competed with a mastery and finesse that are rare…no matter what level or ability you have. Her matter-of-fact style seemed to calm not only the others, but the horse, too. I have never seen a free walk quite like these two…plenty of Grand Prix riders would wish for that relaxation and effort from their mount!
Then there was the seemingly overwhelmed girl in a wheelchair who was not at all overwhelmed. Marion Milne’s quiet and even suspicious manner might lead one to think that she was not up to the task at hand, yet every time the Grade Ib rider got on her horse, the job was done and quite beautifully. Her legs are there but not there, now just something to be tended to. Sitting on a horse, she looked elegant and “normal”, one might not know what is missing watching her ride. As I fumbled to help her from here to there, she patiently laughed at me so as not to let me feel so useless. Wasn’t I there to help her feel better?
One day, I ended up on the top of the ramp with her next to the horse, which stood like a soldier waiting for her to mount. As I lifted her onto him and helped secure her legs, I looked down onto the horse and the ground from over her shoulder. She was so high up. I was stunned in the moment just trying to get my head around the incredible courage this must take, from each and every one of them. She has to control the whole catastrophe—her legs without life, her body, her arms, the horse, his movement, gaits and direction, the confusion in the ring, not to mention the test. It was I who was overwhelmed.
An athlete is an athlete. Having been one all my life, I never expected to experience sport and competition like I did at the WEG. I had a professor tell me once that everything is relative and not just mocking Einstein’s theory. Each body that graces my presence and “couch” as a shrink has distinct ability and disability. I fully understand that now.
When I returned home and climbed easily aboard my horse for the first time, I felt several new sensations. One was the lack of complaint—about my ability and especially about his. His heart and soul were what I sought to feel and expose as I tried to be worthy of his efforts. Another was the much bigger picture of gratitude for what I have been blessed with and those who have touched me so deeply. It might have looked like the same ride we had two weeks ago but I promise you it was not. Because as you see, I will never be the same again.