BY REBECCA LEPAGE
Living in Royal Palm Beach, Florida, I’m currently a freshman at Seminole Ridge High School. As a teenager that rides horses in a beautiful, sunny state, life is pretty good for me right now. But it’s been a long road.
I was born with a condition called Hemiplegia, which is damage to my right side of my brain caused by a stroke. It affects the left side of my body with muscle weakness, balance issues and nerve issues. Physical therapy helped with this condition, but when I was five the seizures started.
They happened as I was falling asleep, and it was terrifying for the entire family. My mom constantly watched me with a baby monitor, and I also had an alarm under my mattress that would alert my parents. Sharing a room with my older sister, Jorja, meant she had to go through the seizures with me. It was hard for her to see me convulsing, but she was my guardian angel since there were many times she would let my parents know I was having a seizure.
Despite all of this, I live a pretty normal life for a fifteen-year-old. I take medication two times a day that has finally kept my seizures under control, but it wasn’t always easy. When I was younger, kids picked on me in school because of the brace I wore on my left leg and the way that I walked. I also had many seizures during that time, and it wasn’t easy being the odd kid in class when I saw that everyone else was more accepted. My mom told me, “Normal is boring! There is only one you, so be the best you can be.”
When I was nine, my mom signed me up at the Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center. It was the beginning of my journey with horses. Today, I have been riding and volunteering there for six years, working extremely hard along the way. I’ve volunteered at every single Special Olympics since I started at Vinceremos to help my teammates reach their goals at Special Olympics competitions. I cannot ride in those competitions, since you must have a cognitive disability (which I do not), but that didn’t matter to me. I was there to help my teammates.
What I can ride in though are the USEF Para-Equestrian events. I was introduced to this when I was ten when I began the transition from a therapeutic rider to a Grade IV Para-Dressage rider as well as competing in hunter/jumper shows.
No matter what arena I compete in, I have never let my disability become a disadvantage to me. Horses have taught me to embrace who I am, and realize that I can reach my goals with hard work and determination. Yes, my goals might be harder to achieve with my disability and epilepsy, but all of this makes me a stronger and more compassionate person. That is what the world needs right now.
Riding horses has been such an important part of my life and who I am today. They are amazing animals, and the most forgiving to their riders. When I get on the horse, my disability disappears. I feel free. The trust you have with the horse is so strong and pure. It’s my favorite place to be.
Volunteering at the riding center gives me a lot of opportunity to be around the horses despite not having my own. I muck, groom, feed hay and grain, blanket and hack them for exercise. My next challenge? Learning how to wrap correctly! I feel volunteering and learning from your peers is what makes a great horse woman. Anyone can hop on and ride, but it takes time and patience to really get to know them and how they work.
Riding so many different horses has taught me how unique and different they all are. No two are alike, and I feel the variety has made me into a rider that has respect and compassion for each horse. You have to adjust your riding depending on the horses capabilities, timing, and cues. I enjoy each horse I ride and love learning from them and they all teach me different abilities and most important to treat each one with respect.
As a Grade IV Para Dressage rider, I am currently riding with Williams Dressage located in Wellington, Florida with my trainer Noel Williams. Good dressage looks easy, but let me tell you—it’s definitely not! You really have to feel the horse’s movements with the smallest movements by the rider. Because I’m a para rider, I have special compensations. Rubber bands around my feet and the stirrup keep my feet in place and help with my weak left side. I also have looped reins and whip. As a Grade IV Para Rider I do walk, trot and canter as part of my test, which I am hoping to do this season.
Riding at hunter/jumper shows, I do not get any compensations. Though I love both disciplines equally, riding dressage has helped me immensely in the hunter/jumper ring. Dressage has taught me how to feel the horses movements by being patient in asking your horse to execute the movement you are asking. I think everyone should take dressage lessons as hunter/jumper rider.
Even if you’re a rider with a disability, don’t be afraid to go for your dreams. Your disability is not who you are. It is just a part of you, and you are made of many parts. Athletes with conditions like epilepsy are just as competitive, if not more competitive, than anyone else. I am living proof that you can do it.
Having Hemiplegia and Epilepsy can have a stigma attached—sometimes people can be afraid and uncomfortable. I want to educate others to treat us like normal people. Especially since young people can be so judgmental, especially with social media. But I’ve learned that with hard work and determination, you can do anything you set out to do.
Never let someone who has done nothing tell you how to do anything and judge no one—just improve yourself, and be humble.