Focus And A Paralympic Mentor Helped Utah Teen Become World's Youngest FEI Para-Dressage Competitor

Dec 1, 2022 - 2:56 PM

Utah teenager Genevieve Rohner became the youngest Fédération Equestre Interationale classified para-dressage rider in the world earlier this year when, just 7.5 weeks after her 14th birthday, she traveled from her home in Park City, Utah, to Wellington, Florida, in March to go through the classification process. She made the most of the cross-country trip—funded by a Para-Equestrian Dressage Fund grant from The Dressage Foundation—by also competing in her first CPEDI3* while in Florida.

It takes a singular type of focus to progress far enough in dressage at such a young age to receive an international classification, where FEI officials assess a rider’s mobility, strength and coordination and designate the grade—on a scale of I to V, from most to least physically impaired—at which they will compete, to group them with riders of like abilities. That focus is something that her mother, a competitive figure skating coach with 25 years of experience, recognized in her at an early age.

“I’ve rarely seen it in kids 5 to 7 years old; I can count on one hand how many times I’ve seen that with a young, young child,” said Lexi Rohner. “And I saw it in my own kid.”

Genevieve was born at 28 weeks’ gestation, a micro-preemie triplet, and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy that affects her muscle tone, particularly on her right side. Her entry into riding came after one of her two brothers, who also was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, was enrolled in a 12-week clinical hippotherapy trial at 3 years old. While he didn’t show much interest in riding, Lexi thought Genevieve would enjoy it, so after the trial ended she enrolled her daughter with the California facility Ride On. By 5, Genevieve was competing in local shows hosted by Ride On, trying barrel racing, pole bending and other events, and her love of competition took hold. But dressage is definitely her thing.

2012 Genevieve age 4
Genevieve Rohner, shown here at age 4, got her start with horses at California-based Ride On, now a USEF Para-Dressage Center of Excellence and PATH International Premier Accredited Center. Photo Courtesy Of Lexi Rohner

“I used to do some jumping when we first moved to Utah about six years ago, and the jumping was fun, but then I decided that I liked dressage because it was more peaceful,” she said.

Genevieve has a sensory processing disorder, which riding helped tremendously, mother and daughter said.

“Immediately after she started riding, we noticed how much more calm and balanced she seemed to feel after she rode,” said Lexi. “And I thought, I don’t care where this takes her. This is worth everything.”

At 7, at a Ride On show, Genevieve met Paralympian Hope Hand, who founded the U.S. Para-Equestrian Association and served as its president until her death earlier this year. Hand saw Genevieve ride and asked to be introduced. She told the Rohners about the U.S. Para Dressage program’s Paralympic pathway. Genevieve was taken with the idea, telling her mother, as Lexi recalls, “I’m going to the Olympics.”

Stoking The Fire

In 2019, at 11 years old, Genevieve was awarded a youth grant from TDF that allowed her to travel to Wellington for the first time to train with and watch international-level para-dressage riders. There, she met U.S. para-dressage team member Kate Shoemaker, a 2018 FEI  World Equestrian Games (North Carolina) individual bronze medalist, 2021 Tokyo Paralympics team bronze medalist and 2022 Orifarm Healthcare FEI Para Dressage World Championship (Denmark) individual silver medalist, who since has become both a trainer and mentor to Genevieve.

2015 G-Hope Hand-Barbara Grassmyer
Genevieve Rohner, center, was inspired by U.S. Para-Equestrian Association founder and president Hope Hand (left) and two-time Paralympian Barbara Grassmyer (right), whom she met at age 7. Photo Courtesy Of Lexi Rohner

Genevieve received a Grade IV classification in March, putting her in the same grade as Shoemaker.

“I have quite a close bond with Genevieve, just because we have extremely similar disabilities,” said Shoemaker, a veterinarian. “And so for me, I can really understand the struggle that she’s going through, even though we have a different diagnosis, and we got there in a different way in our lives.”

The similarities allow Shoemaker to help fast-forward Genevieve through some of the trial-and-error process of finding aids that help compensate for physical impairments.

“I look at Genevieve, and I just see myself, and I was very quickly able to come in and be like, ‘Here, use rubber bands on your stirrups now so that we can work on your position, and you’re not fighting just to hold on to your stirrup,’ ” Shoemaker said. “Now we can work on effective aids on the horse because holding on to your stirrup is a different kind of skill when you struggle to move your ankle than it is when you’re just struggling to learn how to give effective aids to the horse. So if we can at least make some of that disability aspect reduced by using the compensating aids that we are allowed, and if that’s something that I can bring the table for someone, then that’s the kind of stuff I want to be able to do so that Genevieve isn’t having to figure this stuff sometimes on her own.”

At home in Utah, Genevieve works with eventing trainer Ingrid George, who said the teen’s unwavering focus and drive helped her make the leap from recreational to classified rider.

“I think the thing that’s the most outstanding about her is that she is so focused when she rides,” George said. “I mean, for a kid, it’s uncanny.”

Genevieve has been an astute student not just of dressage but of horsemanship and horse management, George said, learning to longe her horse, soak feet, bandage legs and perform other important horse-keeping tasks.

“Every time she does something she aims to improve it,” George said. “And her mom is also super helpful with this.”

Genevieve, who also participates in U.S. Pony Club, has expressed interest in riding in open dressage classes, which George has encouraged.

“[I tell her] I think you should, you absolutely should get your scores towards your bronze medal and then towards your silver medal,” George said. “She rides well enough to do those things.”

Finding The Right Partner

Genevieve developed as a dressage rider aboard her own horse, a Hanoverian gelding named Don Erré, but when she got serious about riding internationally, she and her coaches decided “Donut” wouldn’t be competitive at the FEI level. If Genevieve truly wanted to make a name in para, she would need to look elsewhere.

2021 G & Donut 2 (Deborah Hickey-GlideFar)
Genevieve and “Donut,” who helped her develop as a dressage rider. Deborah Hickey Photography Photo

For her classification trip to Wellington in March, she networked through Metropolitan Equestrian in New York City to get the ride on Phoenix Gwyngalet, a 24-year-old Lippizaner cross owned by Sam Bartlett. Another para-dressage rider, Mika McKinney, had campaigned the mare before her death from osteosarcoma in 2019.

When Genevieve and “Phoenix” turned down the centerline at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival CPEDI3* in March, it was the first three-star for both—and a realization of McKinney’s own goals with the mare.

For her second international competition, the Spring Benefit Show CPEDI3* (California) in May, she changed horses again, borrowing Patty Mayer’s Grand Prix schoolmaster Cato. She used a freestyle originally created for Donut and practiced it on Cato for five days. Their freestyle scored 70.16%—a personal best for Genevieve—and qualified the young rider for the USEF Para Athlete Developing list.

In October, Genevieve got her first team selection, being named to the Adequan U.S. Para Dressage Team for the Perrigo CPEDI3* at Tryon Fall Dressage 3 (North Carolina). For the occasion, she was given the chance to ride a veteran team horse—Solitaer 40, Shoemaker’s world championship and Paralympic partner. While Kate has allowed other students to ride “Soli,” Genevieve was the first to compete him.

2022 G & Soli  (PC Sharon Packer)
Genevieve rode Kate Shoemaker’s Paralympic and world championship partner Solitaer 40 for her Adequan U.S. Para Dressage Team debut in the Perrigo CPEDI3* at Tryon Fall Dressage 3 (N.C.) Sharon Packer Photo

They trained in Florida for about a week before heading to Tryon. Their team and individual tests went well enough, scoring in the mid-60s, but they hit a bump when they attempted Soli’s freestyle, which Genevieve had learned the day before.

“Soli felt amazing that day, but he was very excited about his freestyle because he knows his music, and he’s like, ‘That’s my music!’ and I failed to half-halt during a medium canter, and he started to get excited, and he went around bucking for a minute,” said Genevieve, who was excused from that test. “But then I went back in the warm-up after, and he felt amazing still. So it was just a good experience overall.”

Lexi said she was terrified watching the bucking to the theme of “Jurassic Park,” but proud of how Genevieve reacted, agreeing with the international judges who told her she’d handled the situation with grace.

Thanks to Shoemaker’s skill at finding suitable international prospects, the Rohners have purchased an 11-year-old Oldenburg gelding named Kaspar, who they hope Genevieve will begin showing next year.

“[Shoemaker] has helped me a lot, not only with finding my horses, but I’ve gotten the opportunity to go and ride a couple of her horses in Florida and work with her,” said Genevieve. “And she has helped me improve my riding so much, and I’m really grateful for that.”

Dreaming Of Paris

Experiences like Tryon remind Genevieve that reaching the Paralympics in 2024 is a lofty goal, and that it’s important to set other goals as well.

“For younger people wanting to accomplish something, just make sure to set goals along the way,” she said. “So if your main goal doesn’t work out, then you still have something, and you’re not going to be totally lost.”

Shoemaker supports Genevieve aiming for Paris 2024, but for a different reason:

“The thing that I … tell Genevieve and others is that you try to make the team every cycle. You push, because that’s what’s going to make you better,” Shoemaker said. “You don’t get that growth by staying home and say, ‘When I’m ready, I’ll come out.’ You grow because you put yourself out there, and you keep trying, and you keep stretching, and you stay in that growth zone.”

Shoemaker said Genevieve’s efforts to make a team will make her that much better as a rider.

“I keep encouraging her saying, ‘Hey, yes, it’s a long shot, but we were all a long shot on one day until we made it. Just keep pushing,’ ” she said. “The common factor between everybody that makes a team is that they just keep going, and they don’t give up.”

Genevieve returns to Wellington on Jan. 18, the day after her 15th birthday. She hopes to compete in two CPEDI3*s while there and, possibly, travel to Europe to compete abroad for the first time to give herself and her new horse international experience.

She wants to finish high school early so she can move to Florida, become a working student, and train full-time with Shoemaker.

“We call Kate our ‘fairy horse-mother’ because she’s just done everything possible to help Genevieve,” Lexi said. “She is Genevieve’s main competitor in the U.S., and she coaches her.”

One thing’s for sure. Genevieve needs horses in her life.

“I don’t really know exactly what it is, but like when I’ve been away from the barn for too long, I get like genuinely unhappy, and I just need them in my life,” said Genevieve.

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