Newly minted as a Para Dressage rider, Meghan Benge is no novice when it comes to competition. She represented the U.S. at two FEI Para Driving World Championships, collecting a Team Bronze in 2002, and earning Team Silver and Individual Gold in 2008, in Greven, Germany. Now she’s piloting one of her harness ponies from the saddle as a Grade 3 rider and says it’s definitely a new challenge, along with some nerves. Miranda Cadwell is her driving trainer and Amy Hoffield is her riding coach.
How did you start with horses?
I grew up in the country on a farm in Texas, although we did not always have horses. My mom started me in therapeutic riding when I was around six. Luckily, we were able to bring our ponies home after it became apparent that we were hooked for life. Now I live just outside Aiken, SC.
When did you start driving?
My mom had our first pony started driving and I gravitated toward that after I had major back surgery. In the beginning, I mostly liked driving just around the farm. But as I gained confidence, I enjoyed doing combined driving because I could compete on an equal playing field with everyone else. I started competing at age 15. There is no actual "para driving" here, so with the exception of the two World Championships that I did, all of the driving is regular shows.
How did you decide to try competing in para dressage?
I had been riding my friend's pony a little bit and had just had my current pony, Zoey, started under saddle to help make her better for driving. When my friend sold her pony, it had become obvious Zoey would be quite good riding, so I decided to see how far we can go with it.
Tell us about Zoey, where did you find her?
Zoey is a 2007 Welsh Section C, 13.2. My driving coach, Miranda Cadwell, bred her and raised her but Zoey only grew to 13.2 and was too small for her pair at the time. She drives also and has competed with me at FEI Level in my pony pair. Zoey is a total princess! She loves her food but is particular about treats - no peppermints or sugar! She tries really hard to do what I ask and generally takes care of me.
You attended a para clinic at Carlisle Academy in Maine, how was that helpful?
That was the first time I have ever done a clinic specifically for para, so the information and ideas were particularly useful. Additionally, the encouragement to keep pursuing our goals was nice! Carlisle was also the first place I met any other para riders and it has been fun to keep up with them and their riding.
What modifications do use on your equipment?
My saddle is custom made to me, so the flap is really short. I also use rein loops. My carriage has a false floor, and I use rein loops to drive as well.
How do define or describe your 'difference' to the world & how does it make riding and driving challenging?
Since I am 4 feet tall, my difference fairly obvious. I have some orthopedic issues with my hips that sometimes makes riding difficult, especially since Zoey is, ahem, quite wide. Driving am really mostly affected by the length of my arms and grip.
What do you enjoy most about equestrian sport?
I love the horses because it is not about strength, it’s about finesse.
Interests outside horses?
I have a degree in photography and graphic design, so do a lot of freelance work for that. I love drawing and painting and traveling. Most recent trip was taking photographs at the FEI Pony World Driving Championships in Mineden, Germany in August, so that includes horses. Europe is fun but I would love to go to South America.
What are your goals heading into your first USEF Para Dressage Nationals?
My big goal was just to get to Nationals so am trying not to have unrealistic expectations since it is our first FEI show in the Para Dressage. But I am also a competitive person so would definitely like to score and place well. I actually have way more nerves riding than I have had driving! More of a confidence thing I think. The mental part is kind of the same. Do 100 things but look like you are doing nothing!