Friday, Apr. 19, 2024

Ringside Chat: Paralympian Syd Collier Digs Her New Bell Bottoms

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Sydney “Syd” Collier made her presence known in the dressage world when, at age 16, when she was named to the U.S. Para-Dressage Team for the 2014 Alltech World Equestrian Games (France) and was the youngest competitor at those championships. Two years later, she made her Paralympic debut in Rio de Janeiro—again as the youngest competitor in the field—riding Western Rose, a mare she also earned the USEF Para-Dressage National Championship on that year.

The Grade I athlete, now 25, hasn’t been on a senior championship team since then, but she’s been working diligently to find a partner who can shine on the increasingly competitive international stage and work with her body and abilities. Collier was diagnosed with Wyburn-Mason Syndrome through a routine vision screening shortly after she started riding at 7. The life-threatening condition caused arteries and veins to grow together, forming vascular malformations deep within her brain. One behind her right eye affects her vision and the left side of her body. During a risky brain surgery in 2009, she suffered a massive stroke. It was thanks in part to meeting the late Jonathan Wentz, a para-dressage rider who would become her mentor, at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, that she was determined to get out of her wheelchair and back onto a horse.

In 2019, Collier upgraded her horsepower with the help of grand prix show jumper Georgina Bloomberg and Going For Gold LLC, who purchased All In One. With the now-14-year-old Hanoverian gelding (Abanos—Dauphina, Dauphine), she was named reserve champion at the 2022 Adequan/USEF Para-Dressage National Championships (Illinois).

Sydney Collier and All In One earned the 2022 USEF Para-Dressage Reserve National Championship during the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions (Ill.). Lindsay Berreth Photo

Just last month, with help from her current trainer, international dressage rider Devon Kane at Diamante Farms in Wellington, Florida, she upgraded again. Bell Bottoms, a 9-year-old Oldenburg mare (Benetton Dream—Issandra), was purchased for her by Bloomberg and Devon’s mother, Terri Kane, again through Going For Gold LLC.

We caught up with Collier—no small feat, as she not only rides but is pursuing her MBA from the Keller Graduate School of Management on a full scholarship from the U.S. Paralympic Committee—to learn about her new horse and get an update on her goals. 

Hey, Syd. Let’s start with asking about your new ride. Why did you get a new horse?

At the end of the Wellington 2022 show season, the competition results and comments from the judges basically said, with the way international para-dressage has evolved and how I’ve grown as a rider, that it was time to find a horse with more medal potential.

Alle is a very talented horse, but he requires me to be more able-bodied than I am. He holds me to a standard of perfection which is really challenging in the show ring, because every little mistake shows, and it was time for him to shift into more of a behind the scenes role for me. Also, he’s 17.2 hands, which makes putting him together sometimes a bit challenging for a 5-foot, 1-inch, one-handed rider.

You spoke about the changes in international para-dressage. It sounds like it’s become a more exacting competition with specific horsepower. Could you explain more about the changes in the sport?

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When I first started in para-dressage, when I was 12, the sport was much different than it is today. You could still ride borrowed horses in competition, and that’s actually how I got my start. Now, it really is a race to find a horse that is international medal quality but also has a mind that can wrap itself around your body not working the same as an able-bodied rider. 

It took you a year to find the perfect horse in Bell Bottoms. What were your criteria?

I need a horse that can walk like a metronome for five minutes, because my tests are all at the medium walk, which is really hard to find. And another big thing for me is, being a one-handed rider, I needed a horse that was easy in the contact—that was not heavy, but also not too light or behind the vertical in its connection, and could go in a snaffle rather than a double [bridle].

It was funny because we were looking at geldings and mares, and Devon kept saying, “I don’t know what it is, Syd, but I really want to see you on a mare. They’re going to want to take care of you and be accepting of you.”

Sydney Collier (center) and her new horse Bell Bottoms with sponsor Trixi Marienau (left), Bell Bottoms’ co-owner Terri Kane, and service dog Logan. Israel M. Photo

And you found that in “BB”?

Devon was so spot on with that. BB is so motherly with me, it’s kind of crazy. Whenever she hears my voice, her ears just perk up and the time on the ground with her is so cool. She’ll take her lip, not her teeth, and she’ll take my left arm and nuzzle it to try to get my left arm to move. It’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever experienced. 

Even if there are people around her, her focus and her energy are just 100 percent on me. My mom tried to get a video of her doing her motherly thing with my left arm and BB was like, “Nope, that’s our personal time. You can’t get that on video.” 

There’s no shortage of things to love about Bell Bottoms; she just shines like a copper penny. Everyone has these negative stereotypes of chestnut mares and I said, “OK, BB, we’re going to shatter these stereotypes.”

With her, it just gets better and better; every day she builds on what we did the previous day.

After the Rio Paralympic Games, your parents told you they could no longer finance your riding career and you were going to have to retire or find sponsors. What did you do?

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Giving up was never an option for me, so I set out to find the support to allow me to ride and continue my advocacy to promote para-dressage. I had gotten to know Georgina right before the 2016 Paralympics, so I got in touch with her once again, and I totally went out on a limb. I said, “Georgina here’s the situation I’m faced with: I want to continue striving for these goals and showing other people that anything is possible as long as you work hard enough. Is there any way that you might be interested in joining this journey with me?” She came back to me and said, “As long as I can be there to cheer you on along the way.”

Our friendship has blossomed ever since. Honestly, I wouldn’t be here without her and without her helping me to find Alle. Then believing in me enough to continue the journey with Bell Bottoms, and then connecting with Terri Kane and starting training with Devon.

Sydney Collier celebrated her para-dressage reserve national championship with trainer Devon Kane during the 2022 U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions (Ill.). Lindsay Berreth Photo

I also have some new incredible members on our team named Trixi Marineau, of BM Dressage, and her husband Mike, who joined as sponsors following the purchase of Bell Bottoms. 

It’s just mind-blowing to see so many people join behind me to allow me to continue following my goals. I want to thank all my sponsors and horse owners and everyone on this journey with me. I feel so honored to represent them, and we’re going to make them so proud.

What is Alle doing? Has he been sold?

Alle is doing fantastic! I still train on him behind the scenes five days a week, along with training on BB. He’ll be helping me stay fit and active behind the scenes; he just is no longer my competition horse.

You ride two horses, five days a week, and are in graduate school to get your MBA. It sounds like you are in constant motion. What else are you doing and what are your plans for the future?

I work out four days a week and I’m writing a book about my childhood and finding para-dressage with the help of my awesome co-author. I want to use that as a catalyst to get people to strive for their own goals no matter their circumstances. 

My plans are for BB and I to really get to know one another and to get out there into the show circuit. I’m working on shifting how I ride because [she’s] so different from Alle. He needs a lot of micromanaging, whereas BB is a very subtle ride. Ideally, we want to make the team for Paris [Paralympic Games] in 2024. I’m just so excited for what the future has in store for us.

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