Sydney Collier - A Young Para-Equestrian’s Journey is a Life Lesson
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
With pink streaks in her hair and cheerful poise, Sydney Collier lights up talking about horses. As the new USEF Junior Young Rider rep for Para-Equestrians, she wants to spread the word about the emerging junior para-dressage divisions so more younger riders can learn about opportunities, clinics and competitions. Despite dealing with a series of major medical issues, Sydney’s love of horses and passion to excel in the saddle keeps her smiling and highly motivated.
Riding since age seven, Collier’s focus was on eventing her Haflinger/Paint pony Spirit, aka Mr. Cellophane. “He’s totally clear you can't even see him,” she jokes.
But it was her own blurry vision at age eight that signaled a problem. She was diagnosed with an extremely rare life-threatening medical condition called Wyburn-Mason Syndrome, which causes vascular malformations (AVMs) deep within the brain and in Sydney’s case, along the right optic nerve.
Sydney underwent experimental treatment at Stanford University Hospital in Palo Alto, CA that entailed multiple CyberKnife radiation doses to her brain and eye to clear the AVMs. She has also had three brain surgeries.
Sydney completely lost the vision in her right eye and suffered a stroke that severely impairs the left side of her body. She had to relearn to walk and continues physical and occupational therapy to strengthen her left side and combat the effects of radiation.
Riding was a huge motivating factor and Sydney got back in the saddle quicker than anyone predicted. She regularly competes against able-bodied riders but when she heard about the High Performance Para Equestrian program run jointly through the USPEA and USEF, she wanted to learn more.
Sydney was thrilled to meet Jonathan Wentz, the youngest member of the U.S squad at 19 years-old, who has become a role model for many younger riders. A Grade 1b rider with cerebral palsy, Wentz is a dedicated competitor and working student for trainer Kai Handt at North Texas Equestrian Center (NTEC) in Wylie, TX. He attends Southern Methodist University and will spend this summer training in Denmark.
The Colliers were encouraged by George Halkett, the Director of Albion’s Equestrian Program. A Scottish native, he had seen the world class British para-dressage system and believes that para-equestrian deserves greater recognition in the U.S. “It’s about finding connections, networking for trainers, horses and sponsors. It’s talking to everyone, you’d be surprised what you find,” says Anna Collier.
The Accidental Knapstrupper Stallion
Sydney and her parents took full advantage of the Dressage Affaire CDI and CPEDI3* running together. From early morning to late afternoon, they soaked up the rides in Ring 1 watching para-riders from the U.S., Canada and Mexico followed by the likes of Shannon Peters, Jan Ebeling and Guenther Seidel.
Trainer Rebecca Cook responded 10 minutes later that she had one horse with the required national passport. Oakleaf tried the horse imported in 2006 by Patrick Truxillo and Diane Nilson of Baroque ’N Dreams in Anza, CA the next morning. “Even if it wasn’t going to work, I was going to make it work,” said Oakleaf who is a determined competitor. She uses full leg braces and a wheelchair for mobility as she deals with CIDP, fibromyalgia and treatment for lymphoma. “Horses are my legs now,” says Oakleaf.
With only a half dozen rides together, Pegasus and Oakleaf looked like a polished pair and earned two qualifying scores for the London 2012 Paralympic selection trials. “He went out there and put his heart and soul into each of those rides and we couldn't be prouder of him,” beamed Truxillo. The serendipity of finding a quality horse, willing owners, a brave rider, networking and persistence paid off not only for Laurietta who is extremely grateful for everyone’s efforts that allowed her a chance to compete successfully but Pegasus would also serve as Sydney’s clinic mount.
A Riding High
Sydney impressed trainer Rebecca Cook and Pegasus’ owner with her attitude.
“She came to the barn and spent time loving on the horse before she rode,” noted Cook. Truxillo thought Sydney was quite mature and capable for her age. “I'm certain that she's a normal kid when she's doing other things, but in this venue, she's definitely in a zone. Watching her excitement knowing that she was going to get to ride Pegasus at the clinic, and then actually seeing that happen will always be a highlight in my life. The way she and Pegasus looked out there in the clinic was moving and inspirational.”
It didn’t take long for the duo to get in sync and earn McDonald’s praise. “You have very good feel and focus, you just need to become aware of fixing little things. There is nothing you can’t overcome,” said McDonald in a confidant tone. As Sydney collected and powered up a forward, flowing, floating trot on the proud stallion, the small audience watched spellbound.
“Any trainer can have a Grand Prix horse in their barn, how many horses can do this?” Becky Cooper asked quietly, with her hand resting over her heart.
This is the special bonus of para-dressage. We all saw the harmony and trust bloom between horse and rider. In the sun, beside the dirt ring, we shared their joy and we all felt connected.
For more info - www.sydsparaquest.com
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