After Jenn Crawford suffered a devastating riding accident on December 26, 2018 that shattered her L1 vertebrae, she was told she would likely never walk again, let alone ride.
“It became about me challenging myself,” she says. Six weeks after the accident and surgery that followed, she was in spinal cord rehab, pushing herself to get stronger and determined to ride again. Six months later, she was back in the saddle, with a few modifications. As she can’t squeeze her legs or use her seat, she had to use her voice to get her horse to move and use magnetic stirrups so her boots didn’t slip out of them.
“I was the only para rider I knew at the time. It was really hard as I didn’t know anyone who could help me. I had trouble finding a coach,” Crawford, 30, says. She took things slowly, only walking and trotting for a year. Once she mastered cantering, “I decided I want to start jumping again, but a lot of coaches don’t want to deal with the liability.”
Based on her experiences and those of other para riders, she founded Equestrian for Everyone, and is holding a clinic on June 24-25 at CW Highpoint Farm in Blandford-Blenheim, Ontario. At the clinic, para and non-para riders alike can learn from, and be inspired by, equestrians and trainers.
“I wanted to create an event that would be interesting to watch, and where riders can network with other para riders in hopes other people don’t have to struggle as much as I did,” she says.
Late in 2022, she floated the clinic idea on a Facebook group. “I got an overwhelming number of donations, in auction items and money.” Crawford is a full-time graphic artist and designed the signs for the event.
Clinicians include legally blind American show jumper rider Wren Zimmerman, founder of Para Show Jumping North America; Canadian dressage trainer, coach and international competitor Maya Markowski and Canadian Paralympic dressage rider Jody Schloss. Giving demonstrations will be para jumper riders Jack Goldberg, Zoe Gottwald and Gianna Trotter. Rider strength and conditioning coach Nardine Oakes will lead a stretching and strengthening class.
While some dressage competitions in Canada offer classes for para riders, the same isn’t true for show jumpers or hunters. Crawford competes in the regular jumper ring against able-bodied riders. She is one of only three para jumping riders in Ontario; the others are Goldberg and Gottwald. Although she has a letter from Equestrian Canada stating she can use her voice and adaptive equipment, she has been questioned about it at some shows. She would like to see para classes introduced at Canadian hunter-jumper shows as she believes more para riders would show if there were classes specifically for them.
Crawford started riding at age five when her mother arranged for her to take riding lessons. Her first discipline was dressage, but by 10 she was riding hunters and jumpers and was attracted to difficult, high-energy horses.
In late 2017, she was working with a friend’s horse and spotted an emaciated gelding in a stall at the barn where her friend boarded. She learned that a young girl had purchased him, then stopped coming or paying board. He was drastically underweight and his feet were in terrible condition.
“I saw him on Saturday and took him home on Wednesday,” she says. Crawford found out the gelding had come from an Amish farm and had received poor training. She named the horse Beau and after letting him have six months on pasture to regain his health, she started riding him. Although the Percheron/Hackney/Thoroughbred cross gelding is only 15.2 hands, he has a huge step, and while he was green, she found he had a talent for jumping and envisioned their future in eventing.
On Boxing Day 2018, those hopes were dashed when Beau took a simple side-step and Crawford came off, landing in a sitting position with both legs in front of her. She couldn’t feel her legs, and Beau refused to leave her as she was prepared for transport by air ambulance and screamed in agony until losing consciousness. After surgery and rehab, she was determined to continue riding Beau.
“I’ve had Beau for five years and he’s the best horse I can ever wish for,” she says. “He never refuses. But he needs to trust you and that took awhile. He responds to voice commands. I roll around on a stool to pick out his hooves and cluck and snap my fingers to get him to move over. He’s the sweetest horse.”
After a long struggle to find a coach, Lisa Wright took her on as a student last summer and helped work on basics. She is currently coached by Heather Boyko.
Crawford shows at Angelstone against able-bodied riders, where she says Beau helps her find the distance to jumps and takes care of her. Initially, she competed in para-dressage, but often was the only rider in para classes. At her first show, someone told her she wasn’t allowed to use her voice – she is, but it was uncomfortable for her. Now that she is jumping, people often ask her what’s wrong with her and tell her it’s dangerous.
“It doesn’t make sense to people why I’m allowed to jump, which is unfortunate,” Crawford says. “There aren’t many coaches with a knowledge of how to teach someone with a disability. It’s not that different and I understand there are risks.”
This year, she’ll start in .7 metre classes, move up to .8 and hopefully do .9 by the end of the season. “I’m not there to win. I’m doing it more to have fun and raise awareness about para riders. If I can spread that awareness, I’ve won.” Still, she’d love to see a para division so she and others aren’t judged the same way regular riders are.
She hopes the first Equestrian for Everyone clinic will be a success and plans to hold more in the future. Participant tickets for dressage day (Saturday) are sold out, but auditor spots will remain open until June 19. Jumper day is open for participants and auditors, with a deadline of June 17. Participant tickets are $150 and auditor tickets $45 (auditors can also participate in the Strong Rider exercise and stretch class).
For information, visit HERE and click on ‘Shop’ to access tickets.