Erin Alberda’s life with horses started just like many young girls’. She begged and pleaded her mom for riding lessons and once she started, she was hooked, spending all the time she could at the local stables. By age 12, she was not only riding regularly, but also volunteering at the Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center, a nationally-recognized program for disabled riders near her home town of Seattle, Washington.
Now almost 30 years old, Alberda’s passion for horses continues, but in a most different way than she could have ever expected. One of America’s rising stars in the sport of Para Dressage, hers has been both a full circle journey, returning to the therapeutic riding center where she volunteered as a teen, as well as an upward rise that seems to know no limits. In May of this year, Erin and her horse Delectari stepped onto the national stage when they won the final class of the National Para-Equestrian Dressage Championships at the Lamplight Equestrian Center in Chicago.
Erin is so articulate and thoughtful that there was no way we could put her story into any words other than her own. If you enjoyed learning more about the sport of Para Equestrian, we think you will find this interview with Erin to be an inspiring view of one of its top athletes.
Tell us about your early experiences with horses.
I was your typical “horse crazy” kid – I begged and pleaded until my mom finally enrolled me in a local lesson program when I was 9. When I was 12, I started volunteering at a local therapeutic riding center. I continued to take lessons as a teen, mostly hunters, and volunteering every weekend at the therapeutic riding center, where I think I really learned a great deal about horsemanship, community, and the power of the horse-human connection.
I eventually went to college back east – Sweet Briar College in Virginia, where I competed on the intercollegiate team. During my junior year (2000), I became very ill, which initiated a rapid progression in my disability. I did not get back on a horse until 3 years later, incredibly enough at the therapeutic riding center I had volunteered at as a teen.
What is your disability? How is it classified by FEI?
I have a neuromuscular disorder that is not yet fully understood. It has caused ataxia (poor coordination) as well as muscle weakness and loss of sensation in my legs. They are unsure if it’s something I’ve had all my life, and it just got amplified when I was sick in college, or if it is somehow tied into the illness I had.
Since my condition is somewhat poorly understood, it took two years of reviews & appeals to obtain my FEI classification (I was classified nationally). In 2008, they decided to allow me to compete based on all the medical evidence I had presented, but my classification status can be reviewed at any time.
I have competed as both a Grade 2 and as a Grade 3. Part of the classification procedure is undergoing a bench test where a PT or MD will assess your coordination, strength, and range of motion as it is applicable to riding. This bench test will allow the classifier to assign you a disability profile, which will then allow them to assign a Grade. Grade 2 competes at a walk and trot only in the compulsory tests, canter is allowed in the freestyle, as well as lateral work at the walk and trot. Grade 3 competes at the walk trot and canter, with lateral work allowed in the freestyle.
At what level are you currently competing?
I have mostly been focusing on the Para Equestrian tests for this year. The Grade 3 tests are comparable to what would be found in USEF First level in terms of the movements, but at the international level, the horses are usually going in a more 3rd level or FEI frame. I have been working with my new horse, Dylan, for just over a year now. We showed USEF 1st level last year. It’s been an intense year of training for us, but it’s all coming together. I hope to be able to take him out at USEF 3rd level by the end of summer or early fall. The Para Equestrian tests are most likely going to be revised for next year, prior to WEG, to include more work in collected gaits as well as lateral work, and I want to make sure we are well-prepared!
Tell me a little about Dylan.
Delectari or “Dylan” is a 11 year old Swedish Warmblood gelding. When I purchased him, he was going first level, but had schooled a lot of the movements for the higher levels. My trainer Jenny Nell and I spent the past year reinforcing the basics, and adding onto them when we could. He’s come a long way in a short time! We finished 4th overall in the Para Equestrian National Championships, and everyone seems excited to see how he will develop in the next year.
One of the best aspects of our partnership is how well we balance one another – he is a very forward, sensitive horse, which makes up for my lack of leg strength, and I am a pretty calm competitor which helps him stay confident instead of getting nervous. Previously I competed on horses that were owned by Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center – I was very lucky to have such amazing horses to learn on and compete with.
What do horses and riding dressage mean to you? How has it affected your life?
I gave up riding during college, because I was afraid. I felt betrayed and struggled with memories of my “able-bodied” self. When I started riding again, those memories played horrible tricks on me – during the first rides I often felt seasick, or as if the arena was spinning. I was convinced I would never be as good a rider as I used to be, because my physical abilities had changed so much. Over time, I learned to let go of that “phantom.” I now realize that I am a better rider and athlete now that I live with a disability than I ever was without.
Riding initially gave me an identity, besides being a disabled adult. It gave me a focus when I at times felt I had nothing. Riding, and specifically dressage, has given me back a sense of grace and elegance in a body that, removed from my equine partner, often leaves me feeling clumsy and awkward. When I ride, I no longer feel disabled – and that is a pretty huge gift indeed.
That is so well said, Erin. I think many of us can relate to riding as at least a temporary way of liberating ourselves. Dappled Grey and all our readers are rooting for you as you tackle your next goals. For readers interested in sponsorship opportunities, please contact Erin.
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