Chrissy Aitken’s Goal: Get to the FEI Para Driving World Championships

Thursday, May 25, 2023
Posted by Holly Jacobson



For Christina ‘Chrissy’ Aitken, taking on challenges, both ordinary and lofty, comes from a blend of circumstances and her own defiant character. 

An avid combined driving competitor, Chrissy is aiming high for a spot to compete on the USA team at the 2023 FEI World Para Driving Championships in the Netherlands in August.

While she has a solid team supporting her behind-the-scenes, the exorbitant costs of travel means Chrissy cannot take her horse partner, Prince Charming but would instead borrow a loaner horse and have roughly 21 days to train between the time the team is announced August 3rd and the actual competition August 23-27th.

Travel, lodging and training means raising funds is a necessary part of the equation.

Embracing Life

When Chrissy was five years old, a tragic overnight house fire claimed both of her sisters, along with her grandmother. Chrissy survived with 80 percent burns but lost both her hands and feet, along with enduring hundreds of surgeries over the years as she grew. 

Chrissy Aitken and Prince Charming in Dressage
Chrissy Aitken and Prince Charming in in the marathon ©

Although she looked different and used varying prostheses, Chrissy’s attitude, spunk, curiosity and humor kept her focus on looking forward to what she could achieve. 

“Why not try?” is her mantra.“Live life like tomorrow isn't promised,” is her mindset.

Chrissy has tested her physical scope with swimming, tandem skiing, and running. She has an associates degree in early childhood education and enjoys doing a variety of crafts, repurposing horseshoes using wire and beads is a recent project.

Horse Connections

Chrissy always felt a passion for horses but she didn't get the chance to be involved until her sophomore year of college. It all started with four riding lessons donated by Maple Crest Farm in Brecksville, OH, to a fire department’s burn survivor fundraiser. 

“Someone else won the fundraiser item and gave it to me,” Chrissy writes. “I didn't start out as a therapeutic rider necessarily. Horses in general are very therapeutic but that was not my initial intent.”

Meeting Stacey Giere, Maple Crest Farm’s owner and trainer, was one of those serendipitous intersections where the relationship between student and instructor really clicked. 

Not only is Giere a well-respected equine instructor and competitor, she also taught K-12 physical education and has a master’s degree in special education.“I’ve always wanted to help boost people with physical or mental challenges, I find it very motivating.” 

After a year of riding, Stacey suggested Chrissy try carriage driving. “I was hooked from there,” Chrissy says of their now 11 years of working together. 

“It was an eye opener to see Chrissy switch from horseback to driving, it was easier for her to balance with her symmetry challenge,” Stacey says.

Carriage driving opens the playing field for many para athletes, but the skill, timing and dexterity required are not always so apparent to spectators. 

Making It Work

“The hardest part of driving is the full body workout that is required,” Chrissy says. “Due to my limitations, I’m constantly having to shift my body to compensate for not being able to give enough with my arms to allow Prince to stretch. I cannot turn at my waist, so I am constantly shifting in my seat forward and backwards.”

Coming up with modifications has also been a puzzle because there isn’t much adapted equipment and each para driver has uniques needs.
Coming up with modifications has also been a puzzle because there isn’t much adapted equipment and each para driver has uniques needs. ©Mary Phelps 2022

Coming up with modifications has also been a puzzle because there isn’t much adapted equipment and each para driver has uniques needs.

Chrissy started with loop reins but the contact wasn’t ideal. She also tried robotic hands that slide on using biofeedback to open and close the hooks. While they worked okay during summer, the sensors failed in colder weather and they were heavy to wear.

They are now experimenting with a prototype of Velcro cuffs that weightlifters use for more finesse and control. 

Chrissy also needs to be conscious of feeling the pressure for braking through her prosthetic feet in turns for hazards and cones. But for Chrissy, the thrill is the action and harnessing the power of a willing horse.

“The most rewarding part is the freedom I feel when I get to drive and compete,” she says.

Willing and Able

“I’ve learned so much from Chrissy,” Stacey says. Everything from eliminating swivel snaps to make opening gates accessible, to her perseverance of tackling daily tasks.

“Chrissy is willing and able to the grunt work that goes with horses. She’ll toss hay, clean and fill water buckets, turn out, whatever chore needs to be done. Can’t doesn’t exist.”

Of course, a sense of (dark) humor is appreciated, though Stacey adits Chrissy catches her off guard at times. Teaching in miserable four degree winter, Stacey complained she couldn’t feel her fingers or toes. Chrissy’s reply was that she didn’t have that problem.

Giere highlights the message, for anyone, able-bodied or not, no matter what your challenge or how difficult it appears, you can do something. Let nothing stop you, put yourself out there.

I can, I will is the attitude that gets you places. 

Competitive Side: Enter Prince Charming

Under Stacey’s tutelage, Chrissy started driving competitively six years ago. There are two grades for Para driving and Chrissy is classified as Grade 1.

She started learning on lesson horses, signing up for farm and local schooling shows. Using more experienced loaner horses for two years to compete was the next step.

Chrissy Aitken and Prince Charming in Dressage
Chrissy Aitken and Prince Charming in Dressage ©

Seeing her dedication not only to the craft but her willingness to learn all aspects of horsemanship and stepping up for chores inspired a donor and four people associated with the farm to form a sponsorship to help Chrissy find a driving partner.

Enter Prince Charming, a 17 year old Hackney, standing 16.2, selected by Casey Zubek, in IL, from a former four-in-hand team. Described as honest, steady and presentable, Prince has lived up to the billing. Hackneys are a rare breed currently in the US, only numbering around 200.

For Chrissy, Prince has opened the path to build a bond with a special horse, as an equestrian, and a caregiver, according to Stacey. She notes he is very empathetic. “Sometimes he senses her mistakes and accommodates in forgiving manner.”

In September 2022, they competed in the Indiana CDE in Intermediate, and in 2023, a busy schedule included Ocala’s Spring Fling, Grand Oaks, Black Prong, and Live Oak, all in FL. They attended The National Drive in May held annually in IN.

Through her sponsor connections, Chrissy has been fortunate to be able to train and compete in Ocala, FL the last three winter seasons. Chrissy has a roster of four talented drivers: Diana Beardsley, Tracey Morgan, Kristin Whittington, Hannah Paulson for coaching while in Ocala.

“I absolutely love Prince Charming’s Hackney athleticism and willingness to work with Chrissy,” writes Tracey Morgan, a multiple USEF Champion driver and FEI competitor. 

She first met Chrissy at a Maple Crest clinic working with Kristin Whittington and Stacey. “Their positive ‘can do’ attitude is demonstrated in everything they do.”

When Chrissy is in the driver’s seat, it is game on. “She is fierce and focused,” Stacey says. “She wants to improve.” 

Morgan echoes that Chrissy’s desire makes her fun to be part of her coaching squad. “I’m impressed with her brave and determined style of driving in challenging competitions.”

Stacey flys in for the FL shows, but home demands limit time away from Maple Crest Farm, a seventh generation working farm.

The quality of their student-trainer, coach-friend runs deep. “It boils down to communication, trust in each other, trust in the horse,” Stacey describes. “It’s communicating the next skill set, knowing when to push, saying you need a stronger core.” It’s the multi-faceted aspect of building the triad relationship and making progress that captivates Stacey.

In an ideal scenario, Giere wishes they could take their unicorn overseas but the financial burden is reality. The lease option for Europe will prove a quick learning curve but Stacey is thrilled by how many people have reached out already with offers of horses to use. 

The team selection is announced August 3rd, 2023. “If Chrissy is named, we jump on plane, make all logistical arrangements and have 20 days to train, stay healthy, mentally sharp.” 

As Chrissy would say, “Why not go for it?”

*A series of upcoming fundraisers include one May 27 at Rookies Sports Bar and Grill in Parma Heights, OH from 5 p.m.-8 p.m. Donations can also be made through Maple Crest Farm.

Stacey Giere

Maple Crest Farm
6530 Miller Rd.
Brecksville, Ohio 44141