A meeting of kindred spirits took place between former professional event rider Charlotte Bathalon (nee Merle-Smith), a 2002 NAYRC gold medal champion turned para dressage rider and Courtney King Dye, the well-known Olympic rider beside the warm-up ring during the WCM Gold Coast Opener at the Jim Brandon Center in late January. "I just rolled up to her and introduced myself," explained Charlotte. “I told her I understood head trauma. Although, not at her level, I knew what it felt like to have been a professional and the frustration at not being able to ride and train.” Charlotte, a rising talent, had won the 1998Bit of Britain Young Rider Scholarship to train with Phillip Dutton at age 16. In 2003, at Radnor**, she finished on her dressage score. At Morven Park, she finished second behind her coach, Jan Byyny in 2007, before an ATV mishap left Charlotte in a coma with severe head trauma, broken vertebrea in her neck, cracked ribs and her spine crushed at the T12/L1 area, leaving her an incomplete paraplegiac.
Charlotte’s recovery is remarkable in that her spirit, focus and phenomenal humor remain intact and undeterred. It’s not surprising that Charlotte and Courtney hit it off, sharing both humor and their unique perspective. “People ask me how I can be so positive going from an Olympic rider to not even being able to trot on my own, and Charlotte and I had a good chuckle over that,” said Courtney. “We agreed that it wastes too much energy to complain. She doesn't lament what she cannot do; she celebrates and enjoys what she CAN do. Charlotte is the epitome of all good things in this sport.”
Irish Sport Horse Remedy
“I also got past the therapy horses quickly,” Charlotte told Courtney. For a couple of years, in fact, Charlotte turned her focus to other sports like sled hockey “Go Vermont Sled Cats!” while her two semi-retired event horses lived turned out at her home. In 2010, she decided to see if her three-day star could acclimate to para dressage duty. In 2011, they started picking up qualifying scores in Grade II, which brought the pair to the two CPEDI3*s held at the Jim Brandon.
Courtney related the familiar paradox of riding therapy horses. “They're trained to not be sensitive for safety, and here I am expecting them to listen to me. It just seems unfair which is so unsatisfying.” When she told Charlotte her regular mount was out of commission and other horses were not appropriate, an idea started brewing.
Charlotte’s horse, Sportsfield Twist, aka Ben, was stabled at the Vinceremos Therapuetic Riding Center in Palm Beach between the two shows, where coincidentally, Courtney rides when she’s in Florida. When Charlotte offered her trusted partner and former event mount to Courtney to ride, Courtney politely declined, until Charlotte in her typical bold manner insisted, “You Have to...no, you Need to do this!”
Charlotte picked out Ben in 2001, when he was eight during her stint as a working student for Paul Donovan and Carol Gee of Sportsfield Event Horses in County Tipperary, Ireland. Her Aunt and Uncle, Rosemarie and Grosvenor Merle-Smith, of Virginia Field Hunters, foxhunting connections helped her get the job. “I have to say, Ireland is not known for their dressage training so, Ben’s flatwork was lacking,” said Charlotte. She described him as 17 hands of furry when it came to “aiming” him at the jumps.
The journey with horses requires great patience, knowledge and trust. Charlotte counted on her long relationship with Ben to make their transition. He can still get revved up but she says he so knows. “When I was able bodied, I used to never be able to get Ben to stand still at a mounting block, but now, when we ask him to stand at the mounting ramp for me to climb onto his back, he doesn’t move a muscle.”
Ben’s size, especially from the mounting ramp, prompted Courtney to say “Whoa, he's big!” After first led with side walkers, then turned loose, Courtney immediately started playing with Ben’s repertoire. “I could do shoulder in to haunches in, half pass zig zags (all at the walk, of course), and when they led me in trot, it was so big my flopping head made me giggle so much I nearly fell off! I realized that what I actually missed when I rode the therapy horses is the sensitivity to the rider,” said Courtney. Charlotte's saddle also has a handle bar on the pommel for stability which Courtney hadn’t tried before.
“After an injury of that proportion, trust is a difficult thing to come by and I am so, so happy CKD trusted the random wheelchair girl and then big Ben,” recounts Charlotte. “I am not a crier but, after the walkers turned her loose and ten walk steps later Courtney started doing lateral work, the tears started. I knew exactly how Ben was making her feel and it was awesome.”
Yet is a small word. For both Courtney and Charlotte it means a lot.
The Future Hasn’t Happened...Yet
Courtney, classified as a Grade 1b para rider, is now even more excited to find her ideal mount. One of her clients has generously offered to fund the purchase. She is eager to spread the word that she is now on the hunt. Dressage is all about connection with the horse and the power that connection creates but horses also connect people, whose shared love and purpose build bridges that are just as powerful.
Charlotte's mother, Susan Merle-Smith, an event rider herself, commented on watching the process unfold. “It was special to see her happy, not because she is Courtney but because a horse made someone happy, and that's what they do for all of us. Isn’t that why we all do this?"