Paraequestrain Elizabeth Pigott
Elizabeth Pigott was in middle school when doctors told her she likely would be in a wheelchair by the time she was 35.
Now a 23-year-old biomedical research assistant from Downingtown, PA, Elizabeth has arthrogryposis, a rare congential condition characterized by contracted joints and muscle weakness.Born with dislocated, contracted hips, clubbed feet and milder joint contracture in her hands, Elizabeth’s condition has meant a lifetime of surgeries, chronic pain and physical therapy that began almost at birth.
One fateful day in 1992, she was introduced to therapeutic horseback riding. “I had a childhood friend with cerebral palsy who loved it,” Elizabeth says. “I went to watch her ride once and said, ‘I want to do that’.”
Her doctors and therapists were against the idea initially, worrying that she would get hurt. But Elizabeth was a precocious 7-year-old who was getting bored with the conventional physical therapy she had received all her life. The horses inspired her, and she and her parents agreed that she could give this new type of therapy a try.
For months, even sitting on a horse was a challenge: muscle tightness and painful bone-on-bone contact from Elizabeth’s dislocated hips made it nearly impossible for her to sit astride.
“It took about a year and a half of stretching to get me into a saddle. For that time, I used a (bareback) pad and surcingle, with my legs sticking out to the sides,” she says. “Even then, I could only take the pain for 15 minutes or so.”
PLEASURE IS WORTH THE PAIN
Because of the issues with Elizabeth’s hips, pain – to a greater or lesser extent – has remained a constant companion in her riding career. But it’s a tradeoff she’s willing to make for the benefits.
“The natural movement of the horse helped things move and swing, and just moving with the horse as it was walking around – the back and forth, constantly adjusting so you don’t fall off – my parents say it made the biggest improvement in my balance,” Elizabeth says. “Once I was able to sit in the saddle, able to walk and trot and do functional movement, I was able to start building strength and actually learning to ride.”
Elizabeth spent years in therapeutic riding programs, but over time, the focus of her lessons gradually changed from physical therapy to learning to ride.
As a high school freshman, she competed in her first show. Specially designed for therapeutic riding students, the competition involved a dressage test, a trail class and an equitation class. She won grand champion, earning her the chance to ride in a special class at the Devon Horse Show, a major annual hunter/jumper show in Pennsylvania. At Devon, she was introduced to Hope Hand, a former U.S. Paraequestrian Team competitor who helped scout for talented disabled riders to get involved in the program.
The experience whetted Elizabeth’s appetite for competition. For a girl who could never participate in school sports, being able to compete -- to be an equestrian athlete -- was as emotionally therapeutic as anything riding had done for her body.
“As a 7-year-old little kid running around on the playground, I couldn’t keep up. On a horse, I was like any other kid – I could compete with able-bodied kids; it evened the playing field,” she says.
Elizabeth began taking lessons with U.S. Paraequestrian Team coach Missy Ransehousen and, with the coach’s input, ultimately bought a competitive dressage horse, Mr. Darcy, an 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood trained through Third Level.
“Elizabeth came into the program with the bare basics: knowing how to walk and trot, how to make correct transitions and circles,” says Missy. “Now she’s putting it all together, really learning the art of dressage and how to be more competitive in the show ring and put together a good, accurate dressage test. She’s got tremendous drive; such a drive and desire to be better that she’s sometimes almost too hard on herself.”
Getting serious about competitive horseback riding also meant making some serious life decisions for Elizabeth, who had planned to pursue medical school and a career in pediatrics after college. “The summer before my senior year of college, I sat down with my parents and said, ‘This is what I want to do’,” she says. “We don’t really know whether (the arthrogryposis) is degenerative, though I was told in middle school that I’d be in a wheelchair by age 30 or 35. So there was a timing issue of whether my body will hold up – if I went to medical school now, then residency, I might not be able to ride by the time I got done.”
Around the same time, she decided to undergo double hip replacement surgery, a somewhat controversial surgery to address her arthrogryposis-related hip problems.
“Riding was the influencing factor in getting the surgery,” she says. “Riding did help loosen my hips at first, but over time, the bone-on-bone contact was wearing them down. I could deal with pain in my daily life, but when it interfered with my riding, I had to do something.”
The recovery took 1.5 years. For a year of that time, as Elizabeth regained her strength and flexibility, she rode her new horse on a longe line. Mr. Darcy was highly trained and a big, athletic mover – which meant Elizabeth had a lot to get used to.
“Mr. Darcy was very different from the calm therapeutic-riding horses I rode in the past,” she says. “They were very tolerant to legs that don’t move the right way. I’ve never ridden a horse like Darcy, in terms of talent and athleticism. The suspension in his trot looks really pretty but it’s really hard to sit.”
After months of work at home with Ransehousen, Elizabeth made her competitive debut last summer, winning classes at her first two shows. Paraequestrian riders are divided into four classifications to compete against others with similar degrees of disability. Elizabeth is classified at Grade II, which generally includes riders who use wheelchairs or have limited mobility.
She’s now aiming for a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team for the 2010 World Equestrian Games – to be held Fall 2010 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, KY -- and the 2012 London Paralympics.
“There’s something about the freedom of movement when you are sitting on a horse...I walk slower than the average person; riding is different,” says Elizabeth. “When I’m on a horse and he’s round and he’s going really well, it’s addicting to me.”
A Day in the Life
U.S. Paralympic Team coach Missy Ransehousen works from Blue Hill Farm, a training operation in Unionville, PA, that she runs with her mother, former Olympic dressage rider and chef d'equipe, Jessica Ransehousen.
Several paraequestrians, including Elizabeth, keep their horses at Blue Hill Farm and train full-time with the Ransehousens, while others trailer in or take lessons on Blue Hill's horses. Missy also travels frequently to clinics and training sessions to meet and coach current and hopeful paraequestrians around the country.
Along with her work with the U.S. Paraequestrian program, Missy coaches able-bodied dressage riders and three-day event riders. A successful international-level three-day event rider herself, Missy and her current partner, an Oldenburg/Thoroughbred cross named Critical Decision, finished third in the 2008 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event and completed the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials in England last fall.
For more on Blue Hill Farm and Missy Ransehousen, see www.bluehillfarmpa.com
Melissa Wright is a longtime newspaper editor turned freelance writer living in Kennett Square, Pa. An amateur three-day event rider, she is a student of Missy Ransehousen's and competes at the advanced level with "Hal," an off-the-track thoroughbred she was given 12 years ago.