cover issue204Stefanie Putnam is very goal oriented. Before her accident, her goal was to compete in the Olympics in show jumping. Being chosen to represent the United States at the World Para-Driving Championships was a milestone in a journey that most of us cannot begin to imagine.

“Being able to be a part of a team is really important. And the sport allows me to be a part of a team. It is very empowering for someone like me because I have little control of many things in my life and when I am driving I have total control, and there is something there that truly helps me grow as a person.”

Unable to use her hands to hold the reins, Stefanie had to figure out how to use what limited physical ability she had to communicate with Shadow. She uses her shoulders and voice. Verbal communication is something Stefanie didn’t use when she was riding. "While I was riding, I didn't speak that much to my horse, but with Shadow, I had to. I had to learn what we would do for left and right. How would we stop? How would we slow down? What kind of cues would I give him for collection because I don't physically use the whip or the brake when I drive so my aids are very, very different, and they are very important, and I keep them sharp and tuned up.

"Getting ready for the dressage test for the Para-Worlds there were extensions and collections, and so it was important for me to find a way to differentiate the different gears of the trot. If want an extension I say “Work,” or “Shadow Work,” and with a staccato sound. Or, if it was to bring him back or to calm myself down, I bring my shoulders back as if I was riding and I give him little half-halt noises that I use. He's very reactive and very responsive to everything. He's molded himself around that for me.

“I say the most comfortable place for me in this world is when I’m sitting in my carriage seat. And with my reins and with my horse in front of me. It’s the most physically, emotionally and mentally comfortable place. Even physically it's the most comfortable place for me to be. And my body loves it and it's so fascinating because my medical problems and issues and anything that's going on with me just disappear."

When Stefanie was first embarking on this great experience, Gerard Paagman put her in touch with Jacques Poppen, from the Netherlands. Poppen is a paraplegic and veteran of several World Para-Championships. They talked on the phone, and Poppen taught her about driving. “He’s a real mentor of mine. He spoke to me as if I was another fellow driver and helped me at the first show figure out what things were, how to walk the course, and what cones were.

Stefanie loves the three days of competition. It's tiring, but she is very aware of not letting herself get run down. "I push myself, but it's not like I'm pushing myself when I’m with him. I love being a part of every aspect of horsemanship. It is really important to me.” She says she has to be “accountable, because if I don’t take care of myself and I get sick because I’ve let myself go, or I didn’t eat well, or I’ve gotten worn out, then I can’t go drive the horse. And the only thing that I want to do is go drive that horse.”

Stefanie knows that she is fortunate to have a team of people around her that make if possible for her to develop all these skills and connections with Shadow. "I don't think that I've ever had a horse that has had the capacity to connect on this level."

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