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An inside look with para-dressage rider: Alyssa Cleland

Alyssa Cleland Para-Dressage Rider Highlight for Life Equestrian

As a rider we are all faced with obstacles, whether they are mental or physical. Together we can raise awareness to support each other through all of our own battles. I love Alyssa Cleland for a many reasons but the top reason is her outlook on riding and how much she is doing to conquer her dreams. I had the chance to learn more about the multi-talented rider, check out it out below.

Tell us a little more about yourself, where you grew up, when you started riding, why you started riding and where you ride now.

I grew up in sunny CA after being adopted from Ukraine at the age of 4! I was born without my right tibia and had to have my leg amputated. As a young girl, I have always loved horses and started riding when I was ten on an older mare named TB. She was awesome, but the facility saw me as a liability and basically told us to get lost. At that time, my cousins were both showjumpers and so I would ride their horses here and there, but nothing substantial. I eventually got my own horse, but we kept her on our property and she was just for trail rides and fun things like that! We let her out to retire after about 2 years since she was pretty old and had some arthritis, and I didn’t really ride again until I went to college. I would ride friends’ horses or ask around via facebook if anyone needed their horses exercised, and that’s kind of how I got along! By this point I was living in OK and moved to KS to work at a Morgan Show Barn, and while it was a terrible place to be, I learned a lot and found out about para-dressage and got in contact with the director which then led me to TX!

Alyssa Cleland Para-Dressage Rider Highlight for Life Equestrian

For over a year now, I’ve been riding with Kai Handt at North Texas Equestrian Center and completed my first show season! My current mount is NTEC Daytona Beach and she’s the bee knees! She teaches me so much and I’m so thankful to her for building up my confidence and showing me the ropes of the dressage world!

Being born with paraxial tibial hemimelia has put you through the test from a personal and riding perspective. I always like to make Lemonade out of lemons and you have done just that. How has this affected you to this day and what do you want to tell other riders about you and your journey?

Alyssa Cleland Para-Dressage Rider Highlight for Life Equestrian

Being born with a rare condition such as mine is going to have vast affects on your life. I’ve been bullied, teased, ridiculed by my peers, and the list could go on and on. I’ve tried so many different sports to find the right one for me, and it was failure after failure. I’ve learned a lot from having a prosthetic in that no one is going to help you better than you. You have to be your own advocate for the things you can and can’t do. When it comes to riding, my aids include a whip, a velcro strap that goes along my saddle, looped reins, and a lot of determination. The whip allows me to play pretend a little bit and it acts as my leg on right side. The Velcro strap keeps my stump from moving around too much, and it’s velcro so it can break apart in case I fall. I have looped reins because I have no hand strength whatsoever and when Daytona stretches down, coughs, or is looking for the bit, the reins come out of my hands very easily! Last but not least, determination! Here’s the thing with Para. A lot of these riders have been riding their whole lives, and became para due to an accident or diagnosis, so although they’re para, they’ve had ample experience as an abled bodied rider (most of them). I’m coming into this sport late, and very new. I thought I knew how to ride a horse, but I was wrong! In order to get where I want/need to be competitively, I have to up my game 1000% and work harder than ever.

Alyssa Cleland Para-Dressage Rider Highlight for Life Equestrian

How does your experience with PTH affect your connection with your horse?

I don’t think it affects it at all! Daytona is very forgiving and very aware that something is different with me! We have our own little things that are unique to us and my mobility around her. For example:

When I get on the mounting block and am about to hop on her (Literally), she swings her head over and looks at me kind of in a “are you going to be ok?” manner. She doesn’t mind the hopping, she doesn’t spook or do anything when I trip sometimes; she’s just very cool about everything! I think being able to have a horse like her is incredible, cause I’ve ridden some horses that didn’t like or understand what I was doing, and she’s accepted it very gracefully and like she’s been dealing with it her whole life!

How often do you get out to the barn and what is your typical routine?

I get out to the barn about 4 times a week! This however depends on my work schedule and how late I actually leave work and sometimes I just don’t get out 4 times every week.

My routine:

  1. Get all my tack for Daytona together

  2. Grab Daytona

  3. Brush her down, clean her hooves, give her too many kisses and brush her tail out

  4. Put the saddle pads and saddle on her and slowly start making the girth tighter

  5. Put on polos and bridle

  6. Tighten saddle all the way and lunge for 15-20 minutes to let her stretch and get warm up – because I can’t post while trotting it makes her more back sorer, so lunging her before I ride helps loosen her up and not be so sore afterwards

  7. Lesson time! – there’s a 99% chance that my trainer yells at me 2-3 times in any lesson! He’s spirited and such a good teacher! We get so much done in just 15 minutes with him vs 30 minutes alone; it’s crazy!

  8. Untack! If it’s warm enough I give her a bath and wait for her to cool/dry off!

  9. Put her to bed! She’s usually racing back to her stall cause there’s usually food waiting for her. And she’ll usually steal another horses hay or something if it’s sitting outside their stall.

What re your goals as a rider?

I really want to go to the Paralympics. I think that’s the goal of any rider going at this level with this much dedication. I think that the Paralympics are bit of a ways off, so for right now I’d just like to get more show experience and get more comfortable being in different environments and the stress that it brings.

Who are your favorite riders and how do they inspire you?

Laura Graves, Robert Dover & Katie Jackson. Laura Graves because she’s had Verdades her entire life and their just now making it to the top. She’s worked so hard with him to develop that trust and bond with him. I think it shows what years and years of dedication look like and that you can make it to top and be #1 in the world!

Robert Dover because… I mean hello. Does he need an intro?? He’s in the USDF hall of fame. What a guy! I think he rides beautifully and just his knowledge and expertise on this sport is insane and I’d love to pick his brain someday!

Katie Jackson is a Grade V Para-Dressage rider and one of the first I met! She trained under Kai but then started training in Wellington. But, she gave me a lot of tips and tricks when I first started and really helped me figure it out with aids, apparel and what worked and didn’t work as far as riding.

Follow Alyssa's journey and cheer her on to her to the Paralympics 2020 via Instagram @alcequine

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