Robert Bezzeg came into riding later in life than your average horse-obsessed child, but it’s become a passion that he’s able to share with his wife, Lisa Bezzeg.
Although he didn’t start riding until his 20s, Robert’s learned to event, foxhunt and compete in dressage, all without his left hand, which he lost in an industrial accident before he started riding.
This year Robert earned several top ribbons in para-dressage and open dressage classes, most recently at the Tryon Fall Dressage 2 CPEDI* (N.C.) on homebred Thoroughbred Bedroom Pal.
“I got married into it,” he said. “My wife went to Lake Erie College [Ohio], and I met her there. We met playing pool at a little bar. She was taking a therapeutic riding course at Lake Erie, and I saw her riding, and I said, ‘Well I’d like to do that,’ and she said, ‘I’ll teach you!’ That’s how it got going. She was doing eventing and dressage and evented up to intermediate.”
Before long, Lisa had Robert up on a horse learning the ins and outs of riding. Before tackling any jumping or cross-country, Robert spent time making sure he was comfortable in the saddle. “At Lake Erie College they had dressage shows, so I first did that. It took me a while to feel secure,” he said.
Robert lost his hand in 1973 before he met Lisa. A Merchant Marine straight out of high school, Robert eventually made his way to a plant that manufactured welders, where he stayed for 20 years before retiring.
Since Robert lost his hand before he ever started riding, he didn’t know anything other than riding with one hand; he felt like he was learning to ride just like anyone else. “There was never an adjustment. It’s always been the way it was,” he said.
Most of us who ride English rely on both hands to use the reins. Lisa got creative and found a way to rig the reins in such a way that Robert could use them with his forearm. “It was like the rein from a German martingale that had snaps on it, and then we put another snap on a loop. So if I was doing dressage I could do it longer, and if I was jumping I could do it shorter.”
This system helped him have a secure feel on the reins, but there was no adjustment possible. He couldn’t lengthen or shorten the reins. “You just had to be there,” he said.
As he began to ride more and more, he realized how much riding was helping him cope with his accident. “I suffer from post traumatic stress from [the accident]. You really can’t think about anything else except staying on the horse. You can play golf and think about a million different things, but when you’re riding the only thing you can think about is riding,” he said.
As Robert got more and more comfortable, the dressage shows led to a few hunter shows, and then some foxhunting. “Once I got really secure with foxhunting in the saddle, I did eventing. I think I did novice because when we first started we didn’t have baby novice,” he said.
Robert competed to preliminary with help from coach Holli Adams on a special off-the-track Thoroughbred mare, Leap Of Faith II (Noble Nashua—Queen’s Boudoir, Roman Reasoning).
When I asked him to tell me about his horse at the time, he handed the phone to his wife. I gathered it was hard for him to talk about the mare. “’Nina’ was the one,” Lisa said. “We got her as a 3-year-old off the track in December of 1992. We named her Leap of Faith II because of that. She was dark brown—just a big, dark brown mare. She took very good care of him. She loved him, and she did whatever would make him happy. You name it. She was wonderful and they were very successful.”
Robert and Lisa knew what a good thing they had in Nina, so they chose to breed her to Loyal Pal. Robert competed her son, Bedroom Pal, or ‘Joey,’ for many years through the novice level, which also included many wins all over the southeast, including a top-10 finish at the 2010 Land Rover /USEA American Eventing Championships (Ga.). “He’s 16 now, and he’s the same color as mom, dark brown, and he looks just like her. When jumping him looking over his ears, it looks like I’m looking over his mom’s ears,” Robert said.
Robert never had anything but positive responses from fellow competitors or volunteers when they saw him eventing with one hand. “People would be surprised, but were always positive. One time when we were checking in for dressage, and my wife said, ‘He lost his hand,’ and the poor woman started to look for it! Things really were no different for me. I certainly don’t get out of chores; I shovel a lot of shit!” he said with a laugh.
At 65 years young, Robert has retired from eventing competition and focuses mainly on dressage with Joey and their dressage coach Hokan Thorn. They successfully competed at fourth level this year with a casual eye on Prix St. George for next year.
“He competes as an able bodied competitor against regular people,” Lisa explained. “He was doing the Para last year as a Class 5 disability, and they have their own tests. But in talking to the [team] coach he really needs a true Grand Prix horse if he wanted to continue at that, and we’re just not going to do that. Because, to be competitive against the Europeans, they’re all competing Grand Prix horses at the Class 5 disability level.
“He was going for [Team USA]. He was doing the tests, and he was doing well and scoring in the mid 60s, but they need scores in the 70s and you know a Thoroughbred horse—he’s a good horse, but he couldn’t quite do it at that level,” she continued. “[Joey] is a homebred. [Bob] loves the horse. And he’s just going to the things that that horse can do.”
Both retired, Robert and Lisa live on a 40-acre farm just over the border in South Carolina in the Tryon area with 10 horses that have homes for life. He still jumps a little with Adams to break up the dressage training, and he and Lisa make sure there’s always time for a hack. “Lisa and I just hacked out for 45 minutes this morning!” he said. “We ride every day. Not the same horses, but we ride every day. If we don’t, then it must be too cold or too hot.”
When I asked him about goals and what’s next, Robert replied, “Well, I think I’ve already done everything I want to do. I’ve never set out goals in riding. It’s always just been for the love of it.”