They say some living things are "old souls." If that's true, then Sydney Collier is one of them. With her huge, earnest, round blue eyes and round rosy cheeks, the pint-sized Collier bears a certain resemblance to an oversized Raggedy Ann doll. (She even has the reddish hair, although hers is cropped close.) But the sixteen-year-old para-equestrian dressage rider's articulate speech and positive, thoughtful nature belie her young age.
Collier has lived with medical challenges for half her young life. At the age of eight she was diagnosed with a rare condition called Wyburn-Mason syndrome, which causes vascular malformations within the brain and causes other side effects, including one that befell Collier when she lost vision in her right eye and had coordination problems on the left side of her body. Then in 2009, when Collier was 11, she was undergoing one of the three brain surgeries she endured that year when she suffered a stroke. The stroke left her with hemiparesis (one-sided weakness) on her left side.
The disability ended Collier's career as a budding event rider. She'd begun riding at the age of seven, and she'd evented until the time of her stroke. The setback left her feeling "a little discouraged, like, 'Oh, I had a stroke, I can't be the best rider I possibly can be.'"
It was time for a little luck to come into Collier's life, and the lucky break took the form of a trip to Lexington, Ky.
In 2010, the year after Collier's stroke, the Kentucky Horse Park hosted the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games-which also happened to be the first WEG held in the United States and the first to include para-equestrian dressage. Collier traveled from her home in Ann Arbor, Mich., to Lexington to watch the competition.
"That was when it really clicked for me: Even though I have these physical challenges that make me have to do things differently, I still can ride at the level I want to ride," Collier recalls.
The 2010 WEG was also the site of the meeting that changed Collier's life. She befriended the young US para-equestrian dressage rider Jonathan Wentz, who "got me connected with the right people" and whom she calls her mentor.
Collier decided to pursue para-dressage, and she's never looked back. Of the sport, she says, "The best thing about dressage is there's always something to work on."
Collier's quest to reach the international levels of para-dressage has led to a vagabond existence. While the rest of the Collier family remains in Michigan, Sydney and her mother, Anna Collier, rent a house in Millbrook, N.Y., so that Sydney can train with FEI-level instructor/trainer Wes Dunham at his Woodstock Stables in Millbrook. Dunham also coaches para-equestrian Donna Ponessa, who rode Dunham's mare Western Rose in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
"Syd's ParaQuest," as Collier calls it (her website is www.sydsparaquest.com), next led her to Texas, home base of Kai Handt, the US para-equestrian dressage chef d'équipe. Collier was riding two horses based at Handt's North Texas Equestrian Center in Wylie, Tex.: NTEC Cuplee, a six-year-old Mecklenburg gelding owned by Patricia McIean Mendenhall; and Willi Wesley, a 14-year-old Hessen gelding owned by Victoria Dugan.
"It's been a lot of traveling for us the last few months," Collier says, referring to the trips to Texas to ride with Handt.
Collier competed with both horses at the 2014 U.S. WEG para-dressage selection trials, held in June at U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, N.J. Although she actually ranked higher (third) on the WEG short list with NTEC Cuplee than with Willi Wesley (sixth), "the selection committee selected Willi Wesley as my main mount."
"Willi Wesley has been to many international competitions, so he has a lot of experience," Collier explains. "The other horse I was riding is six years old and just starting out. He definitely has a bright future ahead of him. Both of them are amazing, and I could never pick one over the other. They have brought me so much happiness."
Collier's sunny attitude extends to her experience in Normandy, where she is competing in the Grade Ib division. Her first tests at a world championships haven't been mistake-free, but like any dedicated dressage rider, she is matter-of-fact about what needs to improve.
"I would like to work a lot on my center lines and get them as perfect as they can be," she says after her Grade Ib Team test, her first time competing in the arena at the WEG para venue, La Prairie Racecourse. "I also want to work on my geometry because I'm three-fourths blind, actually. It helps a lot when I have that extra time" to become familiar with the arena," she says.
Not Your Usual Dog and Pony Show
Collier has attracted a lot of media attention at these Games. For starters, she's the youngest para-equestrian here. For another, she makes for ridiculously easy photo ops because she's the only WEG competitor accompanied by a dog.
The white Standard Poodle at Collier's side is her service dog, appropriately named Journey. "He's the first dog ever to get credentials for the world championships," Collier says. "It was so funny when they gave it to him because it looked like he was getting knighted."
Journey "wears a harness and acts like my cane. If I trip, he braces his muscles. He opens doors; he can turn on and off lights; he can open and close cabinets; he helps me up and down the stairs. He can bark for help, which helps a lot if I fall, and he will find someone if I fall, as well. We do almost like old-fashioned texting: If I forget something, I'll hand him a note, and he'll take it to my mom. Then my mom will give him a bag with whatever I need, and he'll bring it right up to me."
In 2012, mere weeks after competing in the London Paralympics, Jonathan Wentz died unexpectedly and suddenly at the age of 22. Although the loss of her mentor hit Collier hard, she says she is determined to keep his memory and his para-equestrian legacy alive.
"He's always been a huge part of my story and journey," says Collier, who lifts the sleeve of her dressage show coat to reveal a rubber bracelet bearing the phrase JONATHAN RIDES ON. "I ride with one of his Paralympic pins, and I ride with a picture of the two of us in my pocket so I can always keep him close.
"A huge part of my journey is carrying on his story," Collier continues. "It's like I'm carrying on his hope to grow the [U.S.] junior/young rider para program. For me, it's so inspiring seeing all these other riders who have reached their goals.
"It's crazy to think about: Four years ago I was sitting in the stands [at the 2010 WEG], thinking, 'Maybe I could do this.' I hope that, through my story, I inspire other youths-or people of any age range-that they can achieve their goals, no matter what speed bumps might come up along the way."