Catching Up with World Para Reining Champion Heather Smith Following Her Return from the Netherlands
After her great success during the team competition at the World Para Reining International Para Reining Championship in Ermelo, Netherlands, Heather and horse “Fifty” went on to bring home fourth place (after losing a tie breaker for the Bronze by ½ point!) in the individual competition! Heather was the highest placed individual Grade 2 rider and we could not be more proud of her here at Absorbine®. We caught up with Heather upon her return to get a final recap of the Championships and to check out how Heather spends her time when she is not jet-setting around the globe. Read on to learn more!
WPR Championship Wrap-Up
Absorbine®: If you could describe your experience at the Championships in three words, what would they be?
Heather: An awesome, diverse adventure. Meeting so many different people from around the world was an incredible experience.
Absorbine®: During the clinic prior to the Championship, as well as your warm-up on the day of the competition, what strategies did you use to prepare to ride Fifty, a horse that you had only just met? Did you make any changes in the way you rode between the team and individual days?
Heather: The first ride, I just tried to discover what our strong points were in the partnership. With that, I took our strong points and tried to make them as strong as I could for the competition. I didn’t worry too much about the weak points, I didn’t get stressed about them, or try to make him better with those weaknesses. Or make us better with those weaknesses would be more accurate to say. I want to do the best that that I can in the run, but I’m not going to make a horse that’s uncomfortable doing something try and get better at it when we only have a few hours to do it. I believe that it is best not to struggle with something difficult for the horse, but to play on the partnership’s strengths and excel in those areas. I didn’t have to make any changes between the team and individual days. I just corrected a few small errors that I as a rider made, but as far as Fifty, I let him do the same as he did. Lisa Coulter (Founder of World Para Reining) also recommended that I not change anything, and I always listen to her, because she knows what she is talking about. It’s always best not to fix something that isn’t broken, as they say.
Absorbine®: How did you handle the sudden change in horses with such equanimity? Your ability to adapt to the change so quickly showed impressive resilience.
Heather: I’m used to diversity. I’m used to trying to make the best out of every situation, because I find that it takes a lot more energy to harp on the negative than to focus on the positive. So in that respect, when something changes suddenly for me, I just try to roll with it. I was thankful for all of my experience with catch riding, which prepared me with the tools to make the quick change. I think that living with a disability also builds resilience. When I encounter access barriers, I have to look ahead to other opportunities, not focus on the problem. And since Fifty was a palomino and that is the color horse that I have always ridden previously, it was meant to be.
Absorbine®: We are so impressed by your attitude towards riding and how you have said that your main goal is to have fun, to learn new skills, and to inspire others to ride. How do you maintain this mindset during the pressure-filled atmosphere of a competition, especially one on the international scale?
Heather: I really try not to get stress about riding and competition, because I feel like the negativity and that sinking gut feeling you have when there is pressure to win, win, win, takes the fun away from the sport. That is why it has always been my top priority to maintain my positive mindset. I’ve been an athlete all my life, so I have experiences plenty of high pressure, competitive situations. I originally started riding as a form of physical therapy, and since then I have been able to keep the mentality of having fun. My life experiences have really taught me that things are what they are, not matter how much you stress about it. I find it much more gratifying to have fun and inspire others than to win.
Absorbine®: How did you get started with riding and specifically how did you get involved with reining?
Heather: I have Sjogren ’s syndrome, which is an autoimmune disease that causes me to have leg weakness. It was really expensive to go to physical therapy and for me, riding horses was more affordable and I actually got better physicality and a better therapy experience, mentally and physically. Sabrina Obremski, the barn owner here, really took me under her wing. She didn’t have a lot of experience working with people with paraparesis, like me. She thought the first lesson would be spent trying to figure out how to get me on a horse, but my upper body strength had me mounted within two minutes. Then we had to figure out what to do with the rest of the lesson, which was pretty entertaining! As far as getting into Para Reining, I had started competing in open shows against able bodied riders, and was having a lot of fun. Since I’ve been a competitive athlete all my life, I was really looking for that competitive outlet. I found it really gratifying when I could go out, have fun, and be successful, and that doesn’t necessarily mean a ribbon, it just means I improved over the last time I rode. I found World Para Reining on the internet when I was searching for Para equestrian opportunities. I was lucky to jump aboard with World Para Reining started off in its inaugural year in 2015 and discovered Lisa Coulter, who has been awesome as far as training and doing clinics. Reining isn’t a huge thing up here in the Northeast, so it’s challenging to find horses and instruction. I initially taught my old horse to do some of the reining maneuvers. Para Reining is a great group of people. Everyone has fun and cheers each other on.
Absorbine®: Do you believe that there is something special about riding that makes it a more accessible sport to all? What does riding mean to you personally as a Para Equestrian?
Heather: The horses, that’s almost the whole answer in one. There is something about horses, just standing next to one makes you feel better. They don’t care; they don’t know how your riding is wrong. They don’t know that walking, or being in a wheelchair, or using crutches is different. They don’t see the different in you. They just know that if you treat them well and you give them love, they’re going to give it right back to you one-hundred fold. Being able to feel like you are productive and able to accomplish something is so important. I went from being in a wheelchair most of the time to being up on the crutches most of the time. Riding gave that to me.
Absorbine®: Does your leg weakness make your aids any different from fully able-bodied riders? If so, what process do you use to train your horses to work in partnership with you?
Heather: The horses just have to learn that my leg cues aren’t as strong. Some horses pick it up quicker than others. Gulli, my old horse, from the get go, he sat there and he waited for the smallest cue from my leg and then he would try to figure it out. Sometimes I use spurs to make my heel a little bit longer, so I don’t have to swing my legs as far from my hips. It can make it easier to ask the horses the right questions.
Absorbine®: You have personally done a lot of advocacy to raise awareness of Para Reining and to introduce Para Reining classes to the New England area. Please tell us about your work on this front.
Heather: When I contacted Lisa Coulter in 2015 to try to get Para Reining classes up here, she asked me to contact some of the organizations to see if anyone would offer a Para Reining class along with the typical Reining classes. It doesn’t cost anything through World Para Reining to approve a Para Reining class. I try to get the word out there through social media, and just my showing up at an event to ride brings added awareness. My attitude is that any show I can get in, I should go to if I feel confident. I’m really the only one in the area. There is one other Para Equestrian, near Boston. We ran into each other at World’s last year.
Absorbine®: Expanding Para Equestrian sports will have an important impact on the equine industry and make it so that more people can participate in riding and experience the magic of horses. What are your hopes for the future of Para Riding and Para Reining in particular?
Heather: I’m just hoping for it to grow. I hope to see the horse industry accept Para riders. I want to see able bodied riders and the big trainers out there recognize how beneficial all horses are to people of all abilities. I think the horse industry could use Para support, since it’s not as large as it once was. The horses are willing. They know how to take care of everybody. With continued growth, everyone can benefit from horses and the industry can become all-inclusive.
Horsing Around at Home
Absorbine®: Tell us more about your relatively new partnership with Digby, how you two were connected, and what your plans are for the future.
Heather: Lisa Coulter was contacted by a very willing owner who had a horse that she wanted to donate to the World Para Reining program. Digby has some trouble with his front feet and can’t be used in full lope patterns anymore, so really needed a Grade 1 or 2 rider where he would only walk and jog with some occasional lope work. Lisa thought of me because I’m used to horses with front feet issues. She connected me with Digby’s owner. He lived in Arizona and was born in Texas, so the weather up here is a big change! I am currently leasing him with the option to buy someday. Anne Dunnam (Digby’s owner) is phenomenal. We need lots of owners like this to help grow Para Reining by offering access to horses and giving us the opportunity to show what can be done. As far as out partnership, I hope to continue to grow and participate in more shows, including some Reining only shows in order to bring more awareness. He has been awesome. He took to me pretty quickly once he figured me out!
Absorbine®: What is your typical training schedule, a “day in the life” at your barn? Do you have any further competition plans for the rest of the summer?
Heather: We work a few days per week. Digby is so well trained, that I don’t have to do much on that front. I just go over my aids to remind him and keep up his training so that he is nice and sharp. I’m hoping to contact the Northeast Reining Horse Association to see if they would be willing to add a Para Reining class to one of their end of summer shows. I am also interested in trying some Western Dressage, which would be something new. I also want to increase Digby’s confidence on the trails, maybe turn him into a trail horse.
Absorbine®: How do Absorbine® products help you keep Digby comfortable and ready to ride?
Heather: Absorbine® products make my life easier. A lot of the Reining show pens are really dusty and ShowSheen® makes it really easy to dust him off with a brush and repels dirt and stains. The Bute-less Performance® has been awesome because he has some mild soundness issues. He is a 13-year-old reining horse, so he has some arthritis here and there. Bute-less Performance® has been fantastic in keeping him comfortable. The more comfortable he is, the more willing he is, and keeping a happier horse is important to me. I don’t push my horses. I don’t want them to be in pain. And because I’m in the AQHA realm, the Bute-less Performance® is legal, which is awesome. I also use UltraShield® fly spray, especially this time of year when there are flies everywhere!
Absorbine®: Do you use any Absorbine® Pet products with your service dog, Fernando?
Heather: Yes, I use the Missing Link® Once Daily chews for the dental and joint support. He loves them! Being a service dog and pulling my wheelchair, I think it helps keep him comfortable. The one thing that I fell in love with – and as a vet tech as well – was the Woof Pouf® with the soap beads in it. It’s great for giving a bath! It doesn’t saturate the fur with soap, but it cleans it at the same time. It’s so much easier than trying to rinse the soap out of their fur, which takes a long time. I think the dogs appreciate the quicker bathes too!
Absorbine®: Any final thoughts?
Heather: I can say that as a vet tech, I am really particular about products that I use on my animals. I don’t like following the popular trends, I like to take my time and research and try things out myself because I want something that is really going to be beneficial to the animal and improve their wellbeing. The fact that a product makes my life a little be easier is also a plus, but their wellbeing definitely comes first. I’ve been using Absorbine® for years and being accepted as an ambassador is really exciting because I believe heavily in your products.
Heather rides out of Lower Maple Crest Stables located in Granby, MA. LMCS is owned and operated by Sabrina Obremski, who is committed to offering riding instruction to all, no matter their age, ability, or socioeconomic status. Sabrina, a trained social worker, recognizes the great importance of horses as therapy for those struggling with physical or mental disabilities, mental health issues, difficult family situations and much more. She works with each rider’s individual goals and abilities, not industry standards or textbook goals. Her all-inclusive policy guarantees that the healing power of horses accessible to all who seek it.