Donna Ponessa’s Paralympic Equestrian Dressage Dreams
A member of the 2012 United States Paralympic Equestrian Dressage Team, Donna Ponessa will compete in the London 2012 Paralympic Games, which begin August 30th, riding Wes Dunham's Oldenburg Mare Western Rose, or "Rosie.”
Donna has Multiple Sclerosis and is paralyzed from the chest down and breathes with a ventilator. Read the story of how she continues to overcome her disability to ride in an excerpt from For the Love of the Horse, Amazing True Stories About the Horses We Love, Volume IV by Ann Jamieson.
Donna Ponessa. Photo credit Lindsay Y. McCall.
Donna Ponessa’s love affair with horses began when she was nine years old. Trading riding lessons for work at a local barn, she soon progressed to riding and showing horses for others, and competing in the hunter/ jumper divisions.
In 1982 Donna was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She continued her education, graduating and beginning work as a Registered Nurse. Donna also purchased a horse of her own, Remington Steele. She discovered Remington in a field, and he was at the time so ugly that his nickname became “Ugh.” Later on, though, he morphed into “an absolute swan” and his nickname became simply Remy.
Sadly, Donna’s MS progressed within two years to where she was in a wheelchair, and found herself hospitalized every six months for treatment. Unable to work, she was forced to sell Remy. That, says Donna, “was a really, really dark period, one of the darkest periods in my life.”
In addition to not being able to afford Remy, she was also unable to ride him. A cold-backed horse, it was very difficult for him to stand still long enough for Donna to mount. He was also unable to deal with her inconstant balance, and Donna found herself hitting the dirt far too often. The decision to sell him was heartbreaking, “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
Donna didn’t believe she would ever ride again.
A year later, she was able to return to work. Throughout her life Donna had been an athlete, and kept herself fit and strong. Although she would have loved to ride again, her perception of riders with disabilities was that of the ones she had seen in therapeutic riding programs. The riders were led around the ring with side-walkers on each side. “That’s not riding,” she thought. She wasn’t interested.
Since riding wasn’t an option, she looked for an outlet for her competitive drive. She found it with competitive wheelchair tennis, achieving a national ranking of #2.
By 1993, Donna needed a power wheelchair, a tracheostomy to breathe, and had had to undergo aggressive chemotherapy to slow the disease process. The chemo was used in order to eradicate the white blood cells, which contained an abnormal protein. The hope was that when new white cells were produced, they wouldn’t be as abnormal. Donna’s severely compromised health meant she could no longer play tennis.
In 2001 she was able to return to work. A few years later, Donna saw some photos of “para-riding,” and thought it looked cool. She made a deal with herself. If she got herself off the ventilator, she would let herself ride again.
A Goal to Ride Again
It took her two years to get off the ventilator enough to go back to riding. Donna’s diaphragm has severely limited function, so she needed to develop other muscles to help her breathe. By constantly working out she strengthened her back muscles and intercostals (those that surround the rib cage) so that she could use them to breathe. Meanwhile, her nurses took her off her ventilator a little at a time, for short periods, so she could develop the ability to function without it.
Donna attributes her ability to return to riding to a combination of very aggressive treatment, and her commitment to being in great physical shape. She was so strong, that she was able to endure a lot of things that would knock other people out. Although many people who live with MS are advised to take it easy and rest, Donna knows that she has survived her illness because she has always kept herself fit.
When she finally got back on a horse, Donna says, “It was surreal. I couldn’t believe I was actually there. I just wanted to make time stand still. I can still recall all the details: the smell of the barn, what I was wearing, the horse, the instructor, the ring…”
Donna rode with Susan Stegmeyer, who initially walked beside her before letting her walk unassisted. Then she let Donna trot a little, with the horse on a lunge line.
Although that first ride was “like a celebration,” after that, “reality set in. Riding now was very, very different.”
The former jumper rider who was used to hot horses, tiny saddles, and using her legs and hands for communication now had very little sensation below the breastbone. She had no way to communicate with her legs. Sometimes she felt like “a head bobbing in the air above the horse. It was extremely frustrating, not at all like it used to be.” Although glad to be riding again, Donna says it was “a little bittersweet.”
Donna would think her body was doing one thing, but when she looked in the mirror, “It was totally different.” How do I communicate now, she wondered? I have no use of my legs. Later on, Donna’s research on the Internet revealed that the communication of the legs is replaced by using two whips.
Donna’s grief over losing her former ability to ride was helped immensely by Susan’s advice. “You have to enjoy the journey. Just keep your eyes on the prize.”
Susan encouraged her to pursue dressage, but at first Donna didn’t get it. “What was so exciting about riding around in circles?” she wondered. She didn’t see the point.
But she was addicted to riding again, and very excited about the para-equestrian path. When she heard about a para-equestrian camp to be held in glorious San Juan Capistrano, California, she immediately booked herself a spot. There she met a group of other aspiring para-equestrians. Until then, Donna had been unsure about whether she wanted to just ride for pleasure, or become a serious competitor again. The event confirmed in her mind that she wanted to be competitive, and compete in dressage.
A Motivating Experience
The feedback she got from the camp motivated her. Told she had “tons of raw talent, a great seat, and good, independent hands,” she was hooked. She knew she had to go for it. Looking back now, though, she admits, “When they said I had raw talent, I had no idea how raw they meant.”
Although the 2012 Olympics were approaching, and every serious competitor seems to aspire to the Olympics, Donna had no idea of the amount of work required. “Now,” she says, “I know!”
At the time, Donna had an off-the-track Thoroughbred mare named Belle of the Ball that she was riding. She took Belle to a dressage show at Windy Hollow Hunt in Florida, New York, competing as a disabled rider in an able-bodied show. In the Introductory Level, she and the mare won all their classes.
However, the mare and Donna parted company far too often, as the mare couldn’t tolerate Donna’s imbalance. In addition, she was a “mareish” mare. After a bad fall put Donna in the hospital for two weeks in intensive care, Donna stopped riding her. Although she kept the mare, others at the barn began riding her.
Instead Donna began riding Kristi and Sue Niblo’s horse, Otto. It was a perfect fit. Donna and the Niblos tease that Otto is short for “Autopilot.” Otto is just the Steady Eddy that Donna needs, unperturbed by her changes in balance. “He is my world, he gave me my confidence back, he’s so steady and sweet, such a tryer.”
The match worked out so well that when Kristi went off to college (she plans on becoming a veterinarian), the Niblos, who had planned to lease Otto out, free leased him to Donna.
In June, Donna showed Otto at Training Level against able-bodied riders. They placed second out of 16 horses! In March, 2011, they traveled to California for a CDI. That didn’t go too well, with scores running in the 50’s. While other judges were more tactful, the Swedish judge told Donna, “You have to go home, and learn the art.”
Donna did just that. Returning home, she went in search of a trainer. FEI rider and instructor Wes Dunham of Woodstock Stables in Millbrook, New York, was the result of her search. Wes, who trains Sue Niblo as well, is “the reason I’m a dressage rider,” states Donna. “He makes Lendon Gray look easy. He’s the toughest instructor. I’ve been an athlete all my life, but he really pushes me.”
It was at this point that Donna realized what everyone meant by “raw” talent. When she demonstrated to Wes what she thought was a good extended trot, he responded with, “Now you’re finally showing me a trot.” He wasn’t referring to an extended trot, to Wes, it was a good working trot.
Now Wes couldn’t be more proud of Donna. “She’s been a real inspiration to my entire barn, myself included. She never complains. She gets out of her wheelchair, we help her on the horse, and she goes out and gives it her all. Her determination is remarkable and her drive to compete at the top level is phenomenal.”
Wes didn’t have to change his training methods in order to work with Donna’s physical challenges. “I still teach the basic concepts of dressage, but we use different tools to compensate.” Since Donna doesn’t have the use of her legs or seat, the horses she rides have been trained to respond, both forwards and sideways, to a whip on either side.
Donna isn’t the only athlete in Wes’ barn who stays fit. Wes insists that all his riders work out. “They’re athletes; they have to train and be fit. You can’t expect the horse to be an athlete and compete if the rider isn’t an athlete as well.”
Practice and Patience- What it Takes to Compete
Understanding the magnitude of her goal, Donna’s daily routine begins before sunrise. Five days a week she is in the gym before beginning work at Putnam Independent Living Services. After work, she heads to the barn to train until after dark with Wes. Then she's homeward bound to review what she's learned, complete paperwork, and research and apply for funding opportunities to finance her quest.
Donna’s initial resistance to dressage is long gone. At first, she didn’t understand the beauty of it, and didn’t think it was enough of a challenge. Still grieving over the rider she’d been, she finally started to understand that dressage is much more than making circles. Donna read Xenophon, and Alois Podjasky (at one time the director of the Spanish Riding School, and an Olympic medalist in dressage), and began to see the light. And the beauty. Dressage was about becoming one with your horse.
The turning point for Donna came when she competed at a dressage show at HITS in Saugerties, New York. A hunter/jumper show was taking place at the same time, so she wandered over to watch. She found it interesting, but, enamored now by dressage, she discovered she no longer missed jumping!
Donna’s job at Putnam Independent Living Services enables her to give encouragement to other people with disabilities and their families. Donna coordinates a program that works with residents at nursing homes to enable them to transition back into the community. Although with all the budget cuts in the state it can be frustrating at times, “when it happens, there’s no better feeling.”
Her disability also stands her in good stead in her position. Seeing Donna, who looks quite disabled, come to their houses, work with them, and then leave to go ride her horses, gives people with disabilities and their families a pretty good idea that there are a lot of possibilities available to them.
Donna gets them thinking, and thinking out of the box!
Donna also enjoys doing demonstrations for 4-H groups, planting seeds, helping kids to understand not to judge someone’s abilities by their appearance. She finds those demonstrations “very gratifying.”
As well as Otto, Donna now has another superb mount. Wes lets her ride his eight-year-old mare Western Rose (Rosie) as a back up horse. Donna earned qualifying scores for the Para-Equestrian National Championships at Saugerties on both horses.
She went on to take the Championship on Otto, followed by only .3 of a point behind on Western Rose for the Reserve. Para-riders are classified according to the degree of their disability, and are required to have national and international classifications in order to compete. Donna competes in the Grade 1A division: for the most severely disabled.
Right after Nationals, Donna was one of eight riders selected to train with Robert Dover at USET Headquarters at Gladstone. She was thrilled! An opportunity to train with Robert Dover! How good does it get?!
Robert asked Donna how she and Rosie did at the National Championships. Donna replied that they were Reserve Champions. When Robert asked her what the champion did better than she and Rosie had done, Donna replied, “She rode another horse.” Donna then explained to Robert that she and Otto had taken the championship, and that Otto had “been steadier and we had displayed better harmony.”
Donna “loves Rosie to death and I know we’re going places. I just smile from ear to ear when I’m talking about her. We’re starting to make a connection, to develop a bond.”
Donna Ponessa on Rosie. Photo credit Lindsay Y. McCall.
The Road to London's Paralympics
One of the most amazing moments of Donna’s life was when she got to represent the United States in Mexico City for the CPEDI*** (the Para-equestrian version of a CDI) in November, 2011. Donna rode a borrowed horse, Gecko, for the competition. At first she thought, “Oh great, I’m a quadriplegic, and I’m gonna catch ride. I was terrified.”
Wes rode the horse first, and then gave her the lowdown: how much seat, whip, and half-halt the horse needed. Donna watched intently as he rode. Even after watching him, when she was getting a leg up on the horse, she was so nervous she thought she would be sick! But Gecko, a former show jumper and experienced para-equestrian horse, proved to be a star. In addition to winning Team Gold, Donna won the individual gold and freestyle in Grade 1A.
She says, “Wow! It was amazing. Such a sense of pride. To be up on the podium, with the American flag flying on the top pole and the national anthem playing. Sitting up there, thinking, ‘I am so proud to be am American right now!’
There’s an overwhelming pride and the satisfaction of representing your country and doing the best that you can. It was another moment when I wished time would stand still.”
The following month she was off to a CPEDI*** in Melbourne, Australia. This time Donna experienced another dream. Her favorite dressage stallion was the legendary Donnerhall. In Melbourne Donna got the ride on Don Armani, a grandson of Donnerhall! As soon as she saw Don Armani, she thought she recognized his breeding, and her instinct proved correct. Don Armani was “just magnificent! Riding him the first time I felt omnipotent; he had presence! So this is what a dressage horse feels like, I thought.”
For the first time in her life, Donna scored in the 70’s. Wes, normally stone-faced and unemotional, saw the score, and came running over, pumping his fists in the air and yelling. Throwing his arms around her, he said, “You did it! You got your 70!”
One of the hardest parts of the sport is the fundraising. Donna is excited that Marshall and Sterling Insurance recently came on board as her first major sponsor. She has a sponsorship page on her website and the local papers have helped spread the word. Donna sends letters to businesses to promote herself. She is so grateful, especially in this economy, for all the people who send her $10 or $20 to help her towards her goals.
Photo credit Lindsay Y. McCall.
A local 4-H club, “Whinnies and Neighs,” which came to watch her ride, is holding a tag sale to raise money for her. Wes, who is “extremely proud to be part of this journey,” doesn’t charge her for lessons or coaching her at all of her shows. And a local public relations firm, Bang and Collins, has donated their services to helping her raise the needed money. In addition, the Niblos have been huge sponsors.
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes one to send a para-athlete to the Paralympics. Donna counts herself very lucky. “I have so much talent to tap into. I am so fortunate to have my village. I always let people know how indebted I am to them. I am so lucky to have so many great people behind me.”
She always keeps in mind Susan’s words of wisdom. “Whatever the outcome, make sure you take the time to enjoy the journey.” Although it’s a struggle to live with MS, Donna would be reluctant to give it up. “My disability has allowed me to meet people and do things I would never have been able to do otherwise. I’m loving the journey!”
Excerpted from For the Love of the Horse, Amazing True Stories About the Horses We Love, Volume IV, to be released shortly. Available on Amazon or at www.loveofthehorsebook.com.
Learn more about the United States Para-Equestrian Association (USPEA). Learn more about Donna Ponessa.
About the Author: Ann Jamieson is a United States Equestrian Federation judge licensed in hunters, jumpers and hunt seat equitation. She is the author of the popular book series For the Love of the Horse. The books are amazing collections of true stories about horses which have received rave reviews from readers and reviewers. The stories cover all breeds and disciplines, and everything from back yard ponies to Horse of the Year winners. Ann particularly enjoys showcasing rescues. Several rescue horses (Chester Weber's Jamaica, top show hunter Monday Morning, and Boyd Martin's Neville Bardos, all rescued from slaughter) have gone on to become Horse of the Year!
Ann shows her own horse, Fred Astaire, in hunters and First Level dressage and enjoys retraining off-the-track Thoroughbreds for new careers. Fred Astaire is a grandson of Secretariat, and very proud of it!
Ann lives in Kent, Connecticut, and shares her home with two very entertaining Ocicat kittens. She also keeps and breeds tropical fish. One of the fish she bred won “Best of Show” (yes, they do show fish!) at her very first tropical fish show.