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Paralympian Dale Dedrick: Driving It Forward

Sunday, March 14, 2021
Posted by Holly Jacobson
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Dale Dedrick’s lifelong passion for horses and an intense love of learning has kept her in the game and carried her through a series of death-defying physical trials.

Cover Photo: Debuting her first CDE, Dedrick with coach Sara Schmitt, ace the dressage phase. ©Pics of You.

Still a thrill to compete and complete her first CDE event at the Florida Horse Park’s 2021 Spring Fling. Anna Coopman helped out as the navigator for cones.
Still a thrill to compete and complete her first CDE event at the Florida Horse Park’s 2021 Spring Fling. Anna Coopman helped out as the navigator for cones. ©picsofyou.com

As a young teen growing up in MD, she saved her babysitting money for her first horse, an OTTB named Hardly Hasty, who turned into a great all around mount who loved to jump.

She sold that horse to help pay her way at the University of Maryland, where she continued on to medical school. Her two year internship matched to University of Michigan but while she loved learning, the grueling hours left her drained. She needed a horse outlet.

Her First Mentor

Local trainer Chuck Grant, known as the father of American dressage, instilled a love of dressage and riding the balanced horse. Dale has fond memories of Sunday group lessons that were often a mixed bag of beginners to Grand Prix riders that Grant orchestrated seamlessly focused on the basics. “We had a mowed grass area, no ring or even markers. We used to do tempi changes in the corn rows in the fields.”

Dale rode through her residency, buying, with Grant’s help, a Grand Prix Saddlebred named Serenade. Grant pushed her from Second Level to show Grand Prix over the span of a year. “It wasn’t pretty at first but I got better,” she confirms.

It was all done a shoestring, she couldn’t afford hotels and shared a stall with her mare. She sewed her own dressage coat with a Velcro closure in lieu of buttons.

“It all worked, there was no great plan,” she recalls. However, it reinforced you didn’t need fancy accessories, just learn to ride, take care of your horse and go test yourself.

A Medical Career Sidelined

Dale’s intense focus in medicine led her to become an orthopedic surgeon at University of Michigan when few women took that route. Then suddenly, a stroke and diagnosis of Lupus ended her career early and nearly her life.

Barely able to walk or ride, she said Chuck Grant remained encouraging in his blunt, no nonsense way that helped her focus on the small things she could do with horses. She bred three foals out of Serenade and rode in exhibitions when she felt strong enough.

Bad luck struck again in 2003 when Dale was run over by car in a parking lot that left her legs badly damaged. Due to the immune suppression meds she took for Lupus, an infection took hold that required open heart surgery. Septic again in 2004, a second surgery to rebuild her heart took an immense toll with almost two years of immobility, wheelchairs and deteriorating joints.

Perseverance Furthers

Finally, in 2009, now mobile with a four prong cane, Dale fantasized about horses again. She approached a past fellow dressage competitor she admired, Rosalind Kinstler, who agreed to help. Together, they discovered FEI Para dressage that included Grades for walk-trot that were impressively rigorous. “When Dale and I first met, our goal was simply to see if she could actually ride again,” Kinstler says. “The first show was simply could she complete her test?”

In a twist of fate, Carole Grant (Chuck Grant’s ex) had contacted Kinstler about a smaller, quality Hanoverian named Bonifatius, aka Erik, who needed to step down a bit.

Yet another obstacle, this time breast cancer, forced Dale to take a hiatus. She opted for a double mastectomy as the chemo she endured for Lupus had already left her bone marrow damaged.

Handling so many physical challenges with so little complaint is a Dale hallmark, however unfair, but many simply marvel at her fortitude. “Dale is practical, but totally focused and driven to achieve her goals. Her confidence that she can find a way has always been her best strength,” Kinstler adds.

Making the U.S. Team

Dale Dedrick competing at the 2012 London Paralympics on Bonifatius. Photo: Lindsey McCall.
Dale Dedrick competing at the 2012 London Paralympics on Bonifatius. Photo: Lindsey McCall.

At their first USEF/Para Dressage National Championships in Saugerties, NY, Dale took the Reserve title and consistent scores in Palm Beach and Gladstone landed them on the U.S. 2012 Paralympic Team bound for London. “It was such an incredible honor to ride into that stadium, representing the United States,” she says. “ I was naughty, I just had to look up at myself on the jumbo screen!” The friendship forged for the Michigan trio of Dedrick, Kinstler and Megan Szarek from the Midwest to Florida to Gladstone to international competition grew way beyond rider, trainer and groom. “We still talk and get together frequently,” Dale says.

As Dale’s hands became weaker, she swapped horses for another warmblood, Mr. Bockman, who she showed successfully in Wellington for two seasons. But after her third open heart surgery, with a valve replacement she and Kinstler downsized to a steadier 15 hand crossbred mount, Barcondale’s Ultrasuede. “He was great to rehab with, kind, easy to handle, a comfy sofa to ride,” she says. With Suede, Dedrick completed a CPEDI*** and rode a memorable rocking freestyle in the main arena at Equestrian Villages just ten months after that last surgery.

But the riding comeback was short-lived. Dale began to get lightheaded with any physical exertion. Passing out in the saddle proved a scary option and she was forced to call it quits on her long-loved riding career. Coming to Wellington the following winter with her Shitzu Kodee to cheer on other riders and friends, able-bodied and para alike, but with no horse herself she admits felt quite depressing and empty.

Dale has always kept busy and pursues many interests. She volunteers on several USEF committees where she is valued for her rule knowledge and honest insight. She loves to mentor young women starting their careers and guiding new para athletes. She is also a compulsive quilt maker, even with her barely functional hands. She enjoys her Zoom Bible study group and takes various classes online, geology is a favorite at the moment.

A Chance Carriage Encounter

FVFP Regal Enforcer, aka Chip, takes to the marathon water hazards with enthusiasm.
FVFP Regal Enforcer, aka Chip, takes to the marathon water hazards with enthusiasm, with Sara Schmitt cheering her on. ©picsofyou.com

Curiosity to accompany a friend (confession, this writer) to a behind the scenes reunion with photographer and website maven Mary Phelps who was demo driving her Gangster ponies at the Big Dog Rescue Fundraiser in 2018 peaked Dale’s interest. Mary’s enthusiasm was contagious as she raved about the fun she had with her matched Shetland pony pair, Al Capony and Bugsy Malony. Dressage rider, trainer, judge and FEI driver Sara Schmitt was also on hand as the announcer at the event. Schmitt offered Dale a future driving lesson if she was interested.

Always up for a new challenge, Dale accepted and excitedly called me after her first test drive saying her heart didn’t mind in the slightest because she was seated. Lessons with Sara continued and when Dale returned home to MI, she promptly looked up a small pleasure driving barn Odyssey Training Stable, 20 minutes from her home.

There she found a young Morgan for sale named FVFP Regal Enforcer, aka Chip, recently started in harness and shown in-hand by Odyssey owner, Anita Alden. Bred by Larry and Jane Olney of Mason, MI, Jane never realized her dream to do combined driving having concentrated on breeding. Dale had a new project to get herself and her young steed up to speed.

Dedrick knows how to condition horses with longeing and using cavalletti. Her dressage reflexes on the reins were a distinct advantage, but she quickly realized there was a lot to learn about combined driving.

At only four years old, Dale turned Chip out for the winter and continued lessons with Sara in FL, while delving into driving manuals and videos. Chip’s first winter in Wellington 2019-20, proved fruitful. “He finally got to eat more because he was in real work and building fitness,” Dale said.

Sara Schmitt Does Double Duty

Schmitt knew he had right temperament, especially for a para or new driver. “Chip is forward but never more than you ask,” she says. “Being slower gives Dale time to think and she’s not fighting a hot horse.” Schmitt has experience coaching para dressage riders and FEI drivers and trains for each individual’s needs while getting the horse to go best to its ability. “Chip can’t be heavy for Dale in her hands, he has to carry himself in balance.” Voice is great added cue allowed in driving.

Glowing with dapples, Schmitt drove Chip at his first event in Ocala in 2020, where he did everything right.

He also took a turn at the Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, with Schmitt’s working student Lillian Mickulski, where his Training Level scores improved each day.

“I want him to have skills, variety for his mind and body, and exposure to different settings.” He took the show rings, judges’ huts, sights and sounds all in stride. “No one realized he was a Morgan,” Dale chuckled.

Scheduled for her first official CDE in Southern Pines for in April 2020, the COVID19 pandemic abruptly halted plans. With her numerous health issues, Dale stayed cautious. Dale and Chip returned to Michigan and focused on just keeping fit over the summer and through fall.

“Without Sara, I had to learn to hold the whip myself,” Dale described. Lupus affected her hands, she has mostly plastic joints with very little strength. She uses tacky gloves, and reins with stoppers that are soft with age.

On their one outing at the National Drive held in Indiana, Dale arranged to get a few pointers from Stacey Giere Maple Crest Farm in OH, on getting in and out of water, some cones, a bridge, and walked through a marathon obstacle. “I figured I better get some idea of where all this was going!”

Ready to Roll

The third phase of cones proved technically tricky. “They come up fast!” Dale reported.
The third phase of cones with Anna Koopman proved technically tricky. “They come up fast!” Dale reported. ©picsofyou.com

Dedrick loves competition as a test of training, and methods, is horse ready and understanding what you ask? Can you bring out the best efforts under pressure? The camaraderie of many helping hands adds to the purpose and makes it fun.

At the ADS Spring Fling held at the Florida Horse Park February 18-20th, Dale drove her first long awaited event and put it all together for the near perfect storybook ending (or really beginning). With Schmitt as navigator, Dale led after dressage, surprised herself by leading after the marathon and then came the cones. “I’ve never memorized a cones course, it’s hard, they came up really fast.”

She laughs that the other drivers were taking bets on how many cones she would wipe out after pulverizing several in the warmup. But she notes with satisfaction, she sailed through all the skinnies and hard turns, but missed two approaches and had to circle, which added time penalties. So they dropped to third place but still a thrill and feat to boast about.

Schmitt was pleased. “We surpassed expectations, but Dale did get a little cocky after acing the dressage and marathon. Cones are very technical!” The three combined driving phases can be overwhelming, but both Dale and Schmitt agree you learn what you need to know by competing. “Dale has a competitor brain, she’ll figure it out fast,” says Sara.

Energized by the experience, the slight woman who walks with a cane, who has tackled three open heart surgeries, cancer, and lives with daily toll of Lupus, has a newfound passion for the sport of driving. Dale described the feeling as a flashback.

“Driving cross country between the obstacles reminded me of galloping through fields as a kid, I could relax my hands and let Chip go. You’re doing something the horse is excited about. He was dragging me through the water. I can hardly wait to do the next one!”

She’s already ordered official competition cones to be delivered to the pleasure barn at home.

Never count out a determined horsewoman. Now in the driver’s seat, Dale Dedrick is savoring the view.