Hanging in Cindy Screnci’s home are signs that read, “Everything happens for a reason,” and “Just Believe.” She’s used these mottos to power through challenges, including a broken ankle and subsequent infection that left her with limited use of her left leg. But she’s also allowed the accident to open a new world of possibilities.
“It was the worst thing that ever happened to me, but also, in a lot of ways, the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Screnci, of Boca Raton, Florida. “[My daughter] Lia and I would take off every summer and go to horse shows and be gone for weeks at a time, and I have a son, Bradley, who would mostly be with my husband, Stephen [Screnci]. [After my injury] I was in and out of surgeries for about three years there, and I got to know my son in a way that I didn’t even realize I didn’t know him, and our relationship has changed completely.
“It’s just something that changed our lives together,” she continues. “I guess the long and the short of it is that sometimes the worst things that you go through can turn out to be the best things you go through and can change your life in a positive way.”
While her jumping days are behind her, she’s discovered para-dressage where she can aim even higher. “I like to have fun. I try to keep things always positive,” she says. “That’s how I’ve always lived my life. That wasn’t going to stop.”
Growing up in Warwick, Rhode Island, Cindy participated in western pleasure, barrel racing and gymkhana.
Her mother, Judith Lennon, was a single parent who scraped together $800 to purchase Cindy her first horse, Shannon. Lennon, a professional seamstress, made Cindy’s shirts and chaps and sold them ringside at shows.
“She’d literally sell it off my body while I was in the ring,” Cindy recalls. “I’d come out and be like, ‘Yay! Mom, look at this blue ribbon,’ and she’d be like, ‘Great, take the chaps off.’ ”
Adult responsibilities drew Cindy away from riding for years, but she returned when Lia took up the hobby, trading her cowgirl boots for tall boots.
Then in 2015, her life changed again. On the final day of the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida), she fell from her horse and broke her ankle. After surgery, her doctor assured her she’d be back in the tack in 12 weeks. Hoping to shorten the recovery time, Cindy took to the pool for exercise, but she contracted a bacterium that led to osteomyelitis, a severe bone infection. Undeterred by the 26 resulting surgeries and the now limited use of her left leg, Cindy returned to the jumper ring in June 2016.
But after another fall resulted in a broken knee, Cindy decided to stop jumping, partly due to her family’s concerns. She turned to para-dressage at the suggestion of her friend Nataly Leibovitz. Cindy knew nothing about the sport, but after watching a clinic she was hooked.
“I fell in love with not just the sport but with the people,” she said. “It’s just an incredible group of people. You look at Roxanne Trunnell, and you look at Rebecca Hart and Kate [Shoemaker]. They overcome, and they succeed, and they never quit. I sort of jumped in with both feet.”
More Of A Challenge
Cindy, 54, has replaced the thrill of jumping with what she calls the cognitive challenge of dressage.
“Every step means something,” she said. “I was so cocky when I got into para-dressage. I was like, ‘I’ve got this. I’m not going to fall off!’ I’m like, ‘Oh, shoulder-in is shoulder-in. I’ve got this!’ Oh my God, I cannot believe how wrong I was. Everything you do is judged, and it matters, every movement. There’s so much more involved with it. In my opinion, it’s so much more of a challenge.”
Cindy bought Eragon VF, a 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood (Don Romantic—Ujinja, Fidermark), with hopes of making the Paralympics or world championships. When she realized how steep the learning curve was, she focused on studying the sport, watching as much as she could and relying on several trainers, most recently Rebecca Waite. She also works with former U.S. Dressage Chef d’Equipe Robert Dover, who U.S. Para-Equestrian Association President Hope Hand introduced to her.
U.S. Para-Dressage Team Chef d’Equipe Michel Assouline says Cindy’s drive makes her an excellent student.
“She’s very focused, and she’s always a pleasure to coach because she’s very responsive,” he says. “She’s got a lot of feel with the horses, and therefore when you coach her you can see a quick result transferring onto the horse, which is always nice. But I also like her enthusiasm. She’s a very outgoing, positive person, which is always nice because it transfers to the horse nicely.”
Her peers recognized her at the 2020 Adequan/USEF Para-Dressage National Championship (North Carolina), where Cindy received the Lloyd Landkamer Memorial Sportsmanship Award and won the Grade V championship aboard “Danny.”
“Laureen [Johnson, USEF director of para-dressage] said it was 100% unanimous, which meant so much to me,” Cindy says. “I am amazed by my fellow athletes, and to be given that award by them was incredible.”
With Danny laid up with an injury, in the spring of 2021, Cindy embarked on a whirlwind trip to Germany to try Sir Chipoli, a 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood (Sir Donnerhall—Vivalucienne, Carabas). They competed at the Mannheim CPEDI3* (Germany) and earned third in the Grade V freestyle.
“He walks into Mannheim all three competition days, doesn’t blink at the big stadium and the flags,” says Cindy. “It doesn’t even faze him. We made the podium in third place. It was an incredible feat. I think we rode him for five solid days before we went to Mannheim. He’s just such a quality, incredible horse. I’ve never had such a bond. I love Eragon, and I have a bond with Eragon, but ‘Chip’ is different. It’s super cool, super exciting.”
All In, All The Time
As focused as she is now on her riding, for years Cindy poured that passion and energy into her career. She entered the apparel industry, in part by accident, when Stephen’s career as an attorney crossed paths with hers in real estate. One of Stephen’s clients was searching for a manufacturer for her clothing line, and one of Cindy’s owned a factory, leading Cindy into a new career, selling for the Quacker Factory on QVC.
Inspired, Cindy launched her own brand, Cynthia Bradley (her maiden name). But the constant travel—and a desire to show more—helped her close that chapter. Her next venture married her interests, as she launched equestrian apparel lines, one English (The Wellington Collection), one western (The Performance Collection), and later horse-themed hoodies for Dover Saddlery.
Following her accident, Cindy left the apparel industry and turned her focus primarily to her riding. She’s channeled her creativity and energy into the U.S. Para-Dressage Foundation, an organization she created to promote and support para-equestrians at all levels.
“I’m really hoping that the more we get out there, and the more people realize this is an amazing opportunity and it’s something you should be proud of and proud to be a part of,” she says, “then hopefully that’s how we see our programs grow. [So they are] not something that comes out of the woodwork for somebody like me who went through such a terrible time, not knowing if I was going to be able to ride and not knowing if I was going to be able to compete and do the things that I loved. It was such a depressing time in my life, and then to have this opportunity open up for me is an incredible experience.”
In 2021, Cindy rode Chip to the Grade V championship at the Adequan/USEF Para-Dressage National Championship (North Carolina), and she’s bringing that momentum into 2022.
In February she traveled to Doha, Qatar, to compete in the inaugural CPEDI at CHI Al Shaqab aboard Lauren Asher’s East Side, whom she borrowed for the competition. While East Side became nervous, and her scores weren’t what she’d hoped, the U.S. team finished second, and Cindy kept spirits high.
“I’ve never known her to be in an off mood or whatever,” said Assouline. “She’s always very positive. She’s always very appreciated by her teammates because she’s very jolly, likes to make jokes, laughs a lot. She does bring a good feeling, which is important because it’s all well and good to be very serious and very professional, but you need also a little bit of fun and a fun spirit like she has. If it’s too serious and too focused sometimes it works against you a little bit, but she’s the perfect person to break that up and make it fun. I think she’s really, really liked by all her teammates.”
Her second team experience—the first being at the CPEDI held in conjunction with the national championships—made Cindy appreciate what the U.S. riders have accomplished.
“One of the things I learned in Europe training was how fortunate we are and how amazing the U.S. team is,” she says, pointing out that the U.S. has a significantly smaller pool of para-dressage riders than many European countries. “To achieve what we have with such a small base, it’s really incredible and shows the dedication, not only of the riders and coaches, but [the U.S. Equestrian Federation] and USPEA has had to really bring such a small group to such a high level. I’m hoping now with our recognition [following medals at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics] we’ll see what we’re able to accomplish.”
In Chip’s first outing of this season, March 10-13, they won all their tests at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival 9 CPEDI3* in Wellington, Florida.
“We’re really focused on really working on, not our basics, but on our relationship and communicating better and working through the different levels,” she says. “He’s got so many buttons, and it’s almost like we have to get to know each other. The ultimate goal is potentially Paris [2024 Paralympics].
“I think unfortunately we try to rush ourselves into things,” she adds. “My personality, I’m so Type A. This time I’m really going to make sure I take the time to really understand and bond and know my horse and have all of our communication as best as we can be before we present ourselves [for a championship].”
In addition to CPEDIs, Cindy plans to compete in open dressage competitions to get more ring time, and she hopes Danny will return to competition soon.
“One of the advantages of being in the upper grades is that we’re able to compete able-bodied, and not enough of us do,” she says. “It’s so important to work up through the levels as well as getting all of that ring experience. The thing about para is we have essentially two tests and a freestyle, and we almost get stuck doing the same tests. But when you’re trying to get the ring experience it’s great to work up through the levels and ride able-bodied tests and have a better understanding.”
This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse‘s April 2022 issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked.
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