Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024

Holly Bergay Shows What’s Possible


Ask 14-year-old Holly Bergay, of Tucson, Ariz., about her future goals, and the answer is immediate and definite: “I want to go to the real Olympics.”
   
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Ask 14-year-old Holly Bergay, of Tucson, Ariz., about her future goals, and the answer is immediate and definite: “I want to go to the real Olympics.”
   
The “real” in this dressage rider’s reply clarifies her intent; despite being born with a left arm that ends a few inches below her elbow, Bergay’s ultimate aspirations aren’t focused on the Paralympics, although they’re certainly a step in her game plan. “Disabled or not,” she said, “I want to be the best.”

Readily owning up to her Type-A tendencies, Bergay explained that dressage appeals to her perfectionist streak, which is also manifested in her straight-A school transcripts. “It’s very empowering,” she said. “I think if you can ride dressage, you can ride almost anything.”

Until a little over a year ago, Bergay channeled her competitive juices through her now 22-year-old, gray Arabian, aptly named Ambition, who was originally her mother Mary’s horse.

“He bucked her off a couple of times, so she gave him to me,” explained Bergay, who was 5 at the time. “I tried everything with him—jumping, western—but he hated and still hates jumping, so I changed my mind and started in dressage.”

Starting out neck reining, Bergay quickly found other solutions that would allow her to advance her training. “At first we used a loop of leather keychained to a braided rein,” she said. “That’s now developed into a series of loops sewn onto the rein that I slip my arm through.”

Finding a trainer willing to look past her apparent limitations after she outgrew her first coach was a challenge, but four years ago they found that person in r-rated judge and U.S. Dressage Federation gold medalist Pat Baker-Hutter.

“I first saw Holly when I was judging, and I suggested a few things she might try in my judge’s comments. Her mom called and asked if I would take her on as a student, and my immediate response was, ‘I would love to,’ ” said Baker-Hutter, who is based out of M2 Sporthorses in Tucson. “I don’t see Holly as having a handicap. I see a student who has to work hard at doing her best just like anyone else.”

A Perfect Match

After riding the Canadian Warmblood mare, Soliloquy, for then owner Patty Keene, Baker-Hutter had a feeling the chestnut might be a good match for Bergay. “We clicked right away. I leased her for a year and in that year we moved up three levels. Her owner let us buy her a few months ago,” said the eighth grader. “The last show I did with my Arab, he won eight high-points at one show.”

“Her first horse was being ridden at first level, and when she started with ‘Lilly’ in December, she did her first third level tests that summer with great success. She started the FEI Junior tests in January, which involve movements near fourth level,” said her trainer. “She’s developed at an incredible speed.”

Last year Bergay rode in a clinic with Olympian Debbie McDonald, and the two have remained in touch since.

“It was really the first time I taught a disabled person. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. She has three loops in her rein, and she adjusts which loop she uses with her other arm depending upon whether she’s walking, trotting or cantering,” explained McDonald. “I was just amazed. When I finished that lesson, I never had the feeling that I was teaching a disabled person, and I never taught her [any differently] because she has such an amazing feel and she sits so well on a horse that you really don’t notice.

“If you think about what she’s able to do with what she has, most people aren’t able to do that with two arms,” she continued. “We all complain about things, and this girl, she’s never going to hear ‘no.’ She’s never going to have anyone tell her she can’t do it, and she’s a good person on top of that.”

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Though her immediate success with her new Hanoverian-cross might lead you to believe she’s being carted around by an obliging schoolmaster, that’s far from the truth. Though 17, the mare hasn’t mellowed with age.

“She’s not this quiet little horse you think you’d be putting a disabled person on,” said McDonald, who visited with Bergay at the Del Mar National (Calif.) in April. “She’s very hot, and if something sets her off, she doesn’t get over it. She’s a hot redhead.

“I kept saying to all my clients [at Del Mar], ‘I don’t ever want to hear you complain—watch that kid,’ ” she continued. “And that mare was being tough at that show; she was not wanting to participate.”

Bergay takes it in stride, however, and tries to view bumps in the road as learning experiences, an attitude McDonald has stressed to her as well. “I now have two complete absolute opposite horses. ‘Ambi’ is so lazy, and with him it’s always ‘go, go, go,’ and this horse is extremely hot,” she said. “It’s really good to ride that kind of difference in horses. It gives me good experience.”

An Inspiration

As her riding has progressed, so has her need for equipment that keeps pace. She uses a converter that allows her to operate a double bridle with one rein, but it took a lot of brainstorming to develop one that didn’t effect too much curb action. Despite her fiery nature, Lilly has been a stalwart partner from the beginning.

“She adjusted right away. They can tell a difference in their mouths with the converter,” said Bergay. “The biggest thing now is finding the right equipment. At this point, I always have to make little adjustments [to compensate for her left arm], but it’s very rare in a lesson that Pat has to say anything to me about it.”

Indeed, her trainer—whom McDonald also praised for her excellent job with Bergay—said she hardly ever notices the handicap, instead she sees an inspirational force for her and others.

“She’s inspirational in my life because of her work ethic and love of what she does. Holly loves horses, and she really loves Lilly,” said Baker-Hutter. “While all the adults find her inspirational, the other kids think of her as a possible winner in their classes!”

Even before her new steed came on the scene to help her win Arizona’s 2006 third level championship title, Bergay had caught the eye of the U.S. Paralympic Team and was invited to a clinic in Seattle, Wash., to learn more about them.

Initially she wasn’t interested, but the talent of current team members convinced her to add the 2008 Para-lympics to her list of goals. Just meeting the minimum age requirement of 16 that year, she will have to apply for an age waiver to ride in the necessary qualifying events leading up to the competition.

Until then, her short-term aim is to qualify for this summer’s North American Junior and Young Rider Championships (Va.) and later compete in Young Riders, with the ultimate objective being to follow in the footsteps of McDonald. She’s also pondering a career in motivational speaking because “I’ve heard I’m inspiring,” she understated.

“I absolutely love the people who have those dreams, because I’m not disabled and I’ve had those same dreams in my life. I didn’t get there until I was 50, but I didn’t give up,” said McDonald. “I think she has enough feel that, given the right situation, she truly could achieve her goals, and I think the most important thing in her life is for her to never give up trying.”

Rutti Draws Strength From Adversity

Holly Bergay isn’t the only young rider with her sights set on Olympic glory despite some formidable obstacles in her path. Cajal Rutti, 18, of Upperville, Va., hopes to channel the work ethic and determination honed from her years competing as a deaf jumper rider into success on an international level.

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“It was very intimidating to me at first when I was about 12 and often there were kids who were obnoxious competitors and were unkind to me. But what I did was brush myself off after their hurtful comments and actions and stand up stronger than ever,” she said. “Those experiences made me a very strong person.

“Stuff like that still happens, but I look at it as the norm that goes with all good things. The difference between then and now is that I now know what I am talking about and doing, and I am the one who is intimidating now because of my perseverance and determination,” she continued. “I push myself beyond the limitations that the community puts on the normal deaf person. But, frankly, I don’t want to be seen as intimidating, instead strong and confident and seen as an inspiration for many people, not just in the equestrian field.”

Left with bilateral profound hearing loss after contracting spinal meningitis at 6 months old, Rutti underwent cochlear implant surgery in March that has improved her hearing dramatically. “I am stone deaf without the implant,” she explained. “I can hear the bells [in the jumper ring] a whole lot better now, and it gives me one less thing to worry about.”

Now riding Level 3 jumpers after starting “at ground zero” and unable to ride while she recovered from the operation, she originally found her passion after an unsuccessful four years in the hunters.

“I did really badly in the hunters because I was too fast and rash. One trainer recommended that I go into the jumpers, which is more my style. I was able to go faster and be more risky,” said Rutti, who has since amassed a collection of blues and tricolors from A-rated shows.

Training with Argentine rider Francisco Zamudio, who works with Olympian Joe Fargis, Rutti has three horses and a 2-year-old German Shepherd named Django, who is in training to be her service dog. Illa is a 12-year-old Thoroughbred-Dutch Warmblood cross from Argentina who is transitioning into the hunters, while Umbro and Urban, both 6-year-old Dutch Warmbloods, are both Level 5 jumpers.

“These horses mean the world to me,” said Rutti. “[Growing up] I was never really that good with people, and I got along with animals a lot better. I got interested in riding because I was amazed at the harmony between the rider and the horse; I was enamored with their power, majestic nature and beauty.”

Rutti’s family has been a source of support in her riding and in dealing with her hearing loss, helping her to develop communication skills through “cued speech” techniques growing up and now to improve those skills with speech therapy in conjunction with her implant.

Rutti hopes for a major jumper win this year and plans to continue working hard toward her Olympic dream.

“I want to inspire people to follow their dreams and work hard for it, whether or not there’s something wrong with them,” she said. “My advice to kids would be: you can do anything you want to, always be determined and never let anyone put you down. If they put you down, that means that they see something in you that scares them, so they instinctively start being mean and jealous. Often the thing they see inside you is a source of potential greatness.”

Stacey Reap

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