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Corro Stories

How Horses Helped Paralympian Sydney Collier Conquer Adversity

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By Caroline Cochran

In the spectator stands at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, a young Sydney Collier had a revelation that would eventually lead her down centerline to represent team USA at the same event just four years later.

Sydney's meteoric rise to the top of Para-dressage is a story of a young equestrian with an unrivaled determination to pursue her passion for horses and conquer any challenge, including a life-altering diagnosis. We sat down with the Paralympian to hear her story and learn how her partnerships with special horses inspired her to chase her dreams.

 

Finding Hope With Horses

Sydney fell into riding by chance at the age of seven. Despite trying every other sport imaginable, nothing had ever clicked. So one day, she asked her mom if she could try riding lessons and never looked back.

"The minute I sat on the pony, I realized that this was my passion. I never set my goals low, so I decided right then and there that I wanted to go to the Olympics for eventing."

In a twist of fate, Sydney would learn that she had a rare condition called Wyburn Mason syndrome the very same year. She had lived a typical childhood but began losing vision in elementary school, so her family decided to bring her to an ophthalmologist.

"I was seven years old and couldn't comprehend what was going on. I was just excited about the possibility of getting glasses. But when the ophthalmologist looked behind my right eye, she turned sheet white."

Wyburn Mason syndrome is incredibly rare. Less than 100 people have the diagnosis, and Sydney was one of the first pediatric cases diagnosed before death. The syndrome involves arteriovenous malformations in the brain, which have a high risk of bleeding.

"The hospital told my parents, 'Take her home and pray she doesn't die of a massive bleed.' Thankfully, my parents refused to accept that advice."

Sydney began experimental treatment at Stanford Medical Center. Even though she had ticking time bombs in her head that could explode at any time, Sydney continued riding throughout her treatment and focused on her goal of going to the Olympics.

"My parents understood my pure love for equestrian sport, and they never limited me because of the risk. Instead, they encouraged having big goals and striving to achieve them, which is a huge part of my success. No matter what, I've always had a family that fosters my independence. They never coddled me because of my syndrome."

After a few years of radiation treatment, Sydney's doctors decided she needed surgery. She had her first embolization and woke up after her first stroke, unable to use her left side.

"All I can remember from that time is being in inpatient rehab and just thinking to myself, 'As long as I can still ride my horse again, I'll be okay.' That's what kept me striving to do better every single day in rehab, the love for the horses and the desire to be better and better."

Discovering Para-Dressage

When Sydney got back in the saddle, she realized eventing might be too much after her first stroke. She decided to shift her focus to showjumping, reasoning that the discipline must be far less dangerous than eventing. Not long after her switch, Sydney broke her right leg, which is the leg she still had control of.

After that injury, Sydney went through a dark period where she thought she would have to give up on her dreams of representing the USA at the top level. Then she found out that Para-dressage would be part of the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.

"I went and watched these super talented riders competing there, and I had a moment that normally only happens in movies. I was sitting in the stands at twelve years old, and I realized, 'If they can accomplish these huge things, so can I.'"

"No matter what disability they had, they were representing the USA at the top level, and they were conquering it. So, I decided that I could do that too. I wanted to be there. At the next World Equestrian Games, I'm going to be on that team."

Making the Team

Just four years later, she fulfilled that dream at the young age of sixteen. But how did Sydney go from discovering the sport as a spectator to representing her country on the international stage in such a short time frame?

"A lot of blood, sweat, and sacrifice. Throughout it all, my family has been the most supportive family I could have ever asked for. The other big thing is the horses. It's not just a rider, and it's not just the horse either. It's the relationship."

Sydney's first Para-dressage horse was a paint Quarter Horse named Chip. The pair enjoyed success at the national level, but Chip wasn't competitive enough on the international level. So for the first year and a half that Sydney was competing, she rode borrowed horses for competition.

"I would compete with horses that I had 3 hours of training on if I was lucky. But, honestly, I think my unique start in Para-dressage is a big reason I have such an adaptable mindset. It makes you think on your feet. To create a relationship in that high-pressure environment, you have to be able to listen to your horse."

Meeting Jonathan Wentz, a young, successful Dressage Paralympian who had cerebral palsy, at the World Equestrian Games in 2010 also significantly influenced Sydney's career. Wentz was a passionate advocate for bringing new people into Para-dressage, a mission that Sydney now hopes to carry on herself to give back to the sport that has given her so much.

"It means everything to represent the U.S. as a Para-equestrian. To me, it's about giving a voice to those who may feel voiceless or who may be voiceless. It's about inspiring the next generation to go after their dreams no matter how crazy society may try to tell them they are. To show that if you want it that badly, if you put in enough work, really anything is possible."

"That's what Para-equestrian is all about—inspiring others to know that no goal is too big. I mean, look at me, I've had multiple strokes. I'm blind in my right eye and half-blind in my left eye. I can't feel my left side, and I'm still able to do what I love."

"My passion is having these amazing relationships with the horses that empower me to live my best life and keep pushing myself to be better. It's all about finding what you're passionate about and never giving it up, no matter what adversity you face."

Becoming All In One With a Special Horse

Sydney's current partner is All In One, a Hanoverian gelding owned by Georgina Bloomberg. When asked to describe what makes him special, Sydney can't help but gush about her horse.

"If I had to sum it up, it would be every single thing. I don't ever think I'll have enough words to say what a special horse he is. Alle has the personality of a goofy puppy dog, but he's immensely talented."

Alle came into Sydney's life in the summer of 2019. From the moment she first sat on him, she recognized his talent. Alle and Sydney seemed destined for each other, as they aptly named gelding had a unique feature that made him exceptionally compatible with his rider.

"He's blind in his left eye, and I'm blind in my right eye. So we're literally, All in One."

"He's certainly not the easiest horse to ride, but he definitely challenges me every day to become the best dressage rider possible. And that's what I think dressage is all about—finding those horses that push you to be the best rider possible. It's turned into a desire for mastery. "

During their journey together, Sydney has remained focused on enjoying every single step along the way. Traveling to Aachen as the reserve for the 2020 U.S. Paralympic Team was a monumental moment for their partnership.

"Getting to take a horse that I have spent so much time training and building a relationship with was something so special to me. He really blossomed over there."

During Sydney's previous team experiences at the 2014 WEG and 2016 Paralympics, she was always riding borrowed horses. With All In One, Sydney can share these experiences with a horse with whom she has a deep and long-standing relationship.

What it Takes to be a Top Para Horse

Some people may be surprised to learn that top Para-dressage riders need horses of the same quality as able-bodied international Grand Prix horses.

"Since my tests are all at the walk, the highest quality walk possible is what you really have to search out and find. And you have to find a horse who enjoys the walk because it's a ton of walking."

In addition to looking for quality gaits and consistency in the bridle, a top Para-horse must be willing to tune out the background noise a Para-dressage rider's body may produce.

"My left leg spasms, and since I can't feel my left side, sometimes I misuse my seat bones. So basically, Alle has to learn to tune out the incorrect little things that my body does on accident."

"A top Para-horse has an adaptable mindset and overwhelming quality. Finding these special horses is a bit like finding a diamond in the rough."

Building Relationships and a Strong Support Team

The relationship between horse and rider is a vital component of Para-dressage. Para-riders cultivate that relationship with a lot of time in the saddle and a little creativity.

"The time on the ground and in the saddle is so important for building the trust necessary for a strong partnership. It's been so exciting to experience that with Alle because he's the first top-level, really talented horse that I've been able to ride consistently."

Sydney also credits her dressage trainer, Katie Robicheaux, for helping her and Alle along the way. In Para-dressage, the trainers can warm up the horses for the riders and help train the horse to react in the correct way to things the rider's body might do.

"Katie has been absolutely amazing. We came to her in the winter of 2020, so it was a lot of pressure asking her to take me on right before the Paralympics. Her approach to dressage clicks so well with Alle and me, and it's a mastery approach. We don't drill the same things day in and day out. It's all about keeping him interested."

Sydney also stays in an apartment above the barn where Alle lives on her trainer's farm and jokes that she has a very short commute in the morning.

"I feel so fortunate to get to work with her and to have the team that I do. I feel like every little bit helps form me into the best rider and the best person I can be. That's the big thing. It's not just the rider and the horse. It's everyone around them, all of the people behind the scenes help make these partnerships a success."

Sydney's experience as the traveling reserve for the 2020 Paralympic Team gave her even more perspective on the importance of teamwork in the Para-equestrian community.

"It helped me grow so much as a person, and I'm so grateful for the overall experience. It's helped me realize my intense passion for the sport and the people involved. The people are a huge part of my sport, and I'm so excited for the future."

Giving Back to the Sport

Sydney isn't just a fierce competitor determined to succeed on the international stage, and Para-dressage isn't just a sport to her. The community and horses in the Para-world gave Sydney everything, and she's passionate about giving back.

"Horses bring light to my life that I don't know I could find without them. The sport brings a partnership that I've never experienced anywhere else. It keeps every single day interesting, and the people and horses within the para-equestrian community foster so much independence and give me so much to keep striving for."

Para-dressage gives Sydney a reason to wake up in the morning and put in all the hard work day after day. It's what inspires her to be better and better every day. And when she's not working on her own training, she's often working on sharing that inspiration with others through public speaking and volunteer work.

"I hope what people take away from my story is that anything is possible, that no matter what adversity you're going through, you can get through it and come out on top. When I have time, I volunteer at therapeutic riding centers to help riders learn more about the sport of Para-dressage and encourage more people to get involved."

Not only does Sydney balance her charity work with a competitive career, but she manages to do both while completing a degree in communication at DeVry University on a full scholarship from the U.S. Paralympic Committee.

What's Next for Sydney Collier and All In One?

Sydney is determined to keep striving towards her goals with her eyes sharply set on the 2022 World Equestrian Games. She plans on keeping the positive momentum gained from her Paralympic campaign moving forward into the next year and beyond.

"Alle feels the best that he ever has, all thanks to Katie, the grooms at our barn, and our whole team. I feel confident that we can continue striving towards WEG 2022. Alle is recouping with a little R&R, and we're excited to get back to work here soon."

Sydney has a tremendous amount of gratitude for the sport she grew up in. From watching in the stands as a child to competing for her country on the world's biggest stage, her journey serves as an inspiration to everyone that anything is possible. And at the center of that journey is the love for horses that started it all.

"My passion for Para-dressage has gotten me through hard times and allowed me to meet amazing people that made everything possible. I couldn't do it without my sponsors and my family. It really does take a village. The sport has given me so much to strive for, I'm so proud of how team USA did in Tokyo, and I can't wait for all of the exciting things to come."

Corro is excited to support Sydney Collier in her journey as a Corro Team Rider. To learn more about Sydney, check out her website, sydsparaquest.com.