Those in attendance at the recent 2018 Adequan® Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, FL, were witness to a special treat, a rare feat of training that combined the sensitivity and temperament of a special Trakehner stallion named Lord Locksley piloted by 15 year old David Botana, a Grade 1 rider competing in his first international contest that culminated with an impressive freestyle that scored a 72.8 to tie for third place.
It is a challenge to create and execute a compelling Grade 1 freestyle, which is all done at the walk by the most impaired level of riders of Grades 1-5 and to ask a currently competing Grand Prix stallion to contain himself in the stadium at Global is a very tall order.
But Susanne Hamilton, a USDF Gold Medalist, Grand Prix trainer and R judge, who has developed and competed the flashy gray Lord Locksley (Unkenruf x Enrico Caruso) owned Margaret Stevens, for nine years, it was a hunch that the match might just work. "Locksley is so sensitive,” Susanne says, “He feels every breath you take, so in that way, I thought he might accommodate David’s disability.”
David arrived at Susanne’s Crystal Spring Farm in Maine with his 12.2 hand Pony of the Americas, Rocky, who Susanne says is a great pony for learning, safe with smooth gaits but didn’t have the quality of walk to be competitive at the international level.
In November 2017, Susanne broached her idea to David and his mother, Susanne Botana, at the end of a lesson. “Are you kidding?” David thought. “Did she just say what I thought she said?” Susanne walked with the duo on a lead line and it was a definite leg up in terms of height and the view.
“My first thought was he is sooo tall and that his walk really covers a lot of ground in just one step,” recalled David. “Susanne asked Locksley to trot to see if he would listen to my aides and come back to a walk. With just the slightest pull back and use of my voice, Locksley quickly returned to the walk. After that, I realized that Locksley was going to take care of me.” David never stopped smiling aboard Locksley and that clinched the deal.
Susanne also has put literally years of walk miles on Locksley as part of his training. Bred by Tylord Farm in Benson, VT, she met him at a clinic at eight years old, but he hadn’t been off owner Meg Steven’s farm and tended to be naughty. After scoring a 52 in a training level test, Susanne prescribed walking, on the buckle, everywhere, to instill composure. Even today, her working students hack walk him for at least a half hour daily before she gets on. “If you are quiet, I know he will walk,” she says.
However, the last time he was in the Adequan/Global stadium, he was performing a Grand Prix under the lights. “He did try to help David a bit the first two days by anticipating a few higher level steps,” laughed Susanne. But by freestyle day, he understood how to exude his grand presence marching in stylish rhythm to Star Wars music and staying on task.
David loves riding for the partnership value and dressage for its technical aspects. “When I first saw dressage, and especially a walk only test, I thought it would be easy but it is actually very hard to be accurate, keep the horse In the frame, and maintain the correct rhythm.” David has high aspirations and is a cool cucumber under pressure. “He’s focused and a fierce competitor,” describes Susanne. “He ups his game in the warm-up,” she noted and has been impressed with his quick progress from the national shows to his poise in the warm-up ring in the CDI arena.
Michel Assouline, the USEF High Performance Consultant and Head of Para Coach Development, was enthusiastic. “A young star in the making, at only 15, he managed to get placed in his first international CPEDI3*! Lots of talent!”
New Kid on the Block
David hails from Chicago but found his love of horses living in LaPorte, Indiana as Western Pleasure rider.
“It isn’t hard to find someone selling a pony and my parents thought it was a great to grow up hanging out at a barn, having a ‘whole body’ activity and developing friendships through 4H, it’s a big part of the local community.”
Trainer Brenda Pagels and LaPorte EZ Riders 4H were very open to David riding with adaptive aides such as a western rein that was tied together as one, and any help he needed along the way with grooming and resting.
The Botana’s bought David his POA, Rocky, four years ago, when he was just three years old. He is a gentle, lazy pony and my best friend. I love grooming him, and his little smooth gaits are perfect for my body,” David says. “He has that pony mentality though, so it is also helpful to stay one step ahead of him.”
David has VATER Syndrome, which is a cluster of malformations that can occur early in development. He has vertebral anomalies, malformations of his trachea and esophagus, a single right kidney, and malformations of his radial bones.
His left arm is missing his radial bone altogether and thumb, he wears the splint at all times to hold his hand in a rigid position. His left arm is about a third shorter than his right. On his right hand, the radial bone is fused to the ulna bone so it’s stiff and lacks muscle. Scoliosis affects his shoulders and pelvis. A total spinal fusion at age 7 means David has a very short torso which won’t grow.
“David is healthy and stable but with a single kidney and malformations in his heart, he is a bit of a medical miracle,” says his mother, Suzanne.
Finding Magic in Maine
In 2016, David’s family moved when his father, Xavier, became the superintendent of schools in Portland Maine. Suzanne is a school psychologist in Yarmouth.
“Rocky was the first one in our family to actually secure housing,” David laughs. They picked Carlisle Academy in Lyman, ME after visiting several stables because they offered a competitive para track.
“I enjoyed showing my pony in Indiana and wanted to keep showing him here in Maine. Carlisle offered lessons that were taught by an internationally known para dressage coach, Clive Milkins.”
On the first day, Clive said let’s see what this kid can do. David took a short lesson and there was an instant connection with his new coach. “I was so excited to continue. With Clive there was magic,” David says.
After Clive changed jobs that December and Carlisle’s winter program slowed down, Director Sarah Armentrout and the Botanas felt it best to find Rocky a full-time training program again.
Sarah referred them to Becky Reno, Paralympian Annie Peavy’s mom and Becky referred them to Susanne Hamilton, where the magic continued in April 2017 under Susanne’s tutelage. “Rocky thrives on work so Susanne has training students who ride him and put him through all of his gaits (trot and canter) to keep him fit and happy for me to ride.”
For Susanne, it’s David’s positive inner spirit and drive along with her own curious nature that prompted the Lord Locksley experiment.
“With all of his challenges, David takes college classes, they drive an hour and a half to my barn for lessons, he struggles with fatigue and pain, but for David riding and competing is an utter joy,” she says.
“It’s fun journey to help David figure out how to work with his asymmetry to communicate the aids,” especially with the stallion she knows so well. “I absolutely love this beautiful horse with his amazing spirit!” It is truly a project of love between both humans and horse. Certainly, few horses can pull double duty competing at the Grand Prix level and Grade I para dressage. David’s 30 minute lessons work well as a warmup for her own ride but the horse has to accept the very different requests of his two riders.
“I watch Locksley’s ears go forward and back. What does David need do to make straight centerlines, bends, circles, leg yields? We can figure out the nuances to raise the scores.”
“It’s hard to always hit that centerline and I’m working on more strategies to ‘see it’ because it’s hard for me to turn my head on my neck due to my scoliosis but I’m learning,” David says.
He explains the weight of the horse or pony with connection to the bit tires his arms and hands out a lot. “When I don’t have that solid frame, I am more likely to break gait, so I really have to ride core forward.”
David uses loops on the reins but riding in the cold is also a challenge, so the opportunity to train in Florida with Susanne is ideal.
“Susanne is always positive and creative in working through some of my challenges. I will always be grateful to her, and Meg Stevens, for giving me the opportunity to ride Locksley and train my pony.”
David says he relishes the challenge of dressage and putting it to the test. “I like competing against myself, and seeing how I measure up to others. Para is great because I can compete with my compensating aides, and at the walk.” The focus is like an adrenaline rush. “At the last salute, I am relieved and hopefully proud of what we were able to demonstrate.”
David was able to take time over the holidays into January to train with Locksley for the CPEDI3* in Wellington. “When I see myself on him, I think I look amazing and small!” David details. “Locksley is a very handsome horse and I love him. Rocky is still an integral part in all of this for me because it is very tiring to ride Locksley and I need quite a bit of supervision. Rocky is fun, Locksley is professional.”
Road to Tokyo 2020
As David is a newly minted noted international dressage competitor, selection for the 2018 WEG in Tryon is a long shot, but already has his sights set on the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. To make this happen, sponsors and financial support will be needed, as we all know how expensive equestrian sport is, especially at the FEI level. Added costs for lower grade athletes are travel for personal attendants and able body riders to
keep their mounts tuned and in shape.
“Susanne is committed to doing all she can as well to make this happen. All we can do is keep working hard,” says a highly motivated David. A sophomore in high school, he is taking classes over the summers to finish his credits to graduate early and devote time to training as a top priority. His future plans include attending a highly selective university to maybe study medicine. “I think about the possibilities of fixing a body like mine, maybe grow bones, a spine, organs, or work on a cure for cancer. My grandpa and a friend died of cancer and I am motivated to help finding a cure,” he says. He also likes the idea of becoming an anesthesiologist and helping patients with pain.
“I like math and science and am interested in stock market investments too. I’m not sure what direction my studies will go yet.”
Besides horses, David has a passion for all adaptive sports, and enjoys adaptive skiing at Sunday River with Maine Adaptive. “I love cooking and baking and try to cook something each week for my ‘crew’ at school,” David says. Reading, writing, and video games are also high on the list.
He’s also a big canine fan. “I have two German shepherds and they are great but I would like to get a little dog. He dotes on Susanne’s dachshunds at the farm. “I think I may have a lot of dogs when I am on my own.”
David is a poised, thoughtful teenager with a ready smile and gentle presence. He has already proved to be a serious and gracious competitor, the first to give a hug to winner of his division. “I love cheering all the riders on as they are also working real hard on accomplishing their goals,” he says enthusiastically.
Following his CPEDI3* debut, David learned he has been named a recipient of the 2018 Christian Kennedy Future Stars Scholarships for a month of free training with the United States team coach Robert Dover.
David Botana is a deserving young man who I personally hope can attract others to share in his goals and support his journey forward. In para dressage, you can often get the privilege to witness that triangle intersection of spirit matches between horses, riders and trainers that bring ability, elegance, the power in motion into focus and ‘disability’ to recede. We all have strengths and weaknesses but the horses make those ephemeral moments of harmony a beautiful thing we can all share in and celebrate.