This week, we caught up with Alyssa Cleland, an amateur well on her way to a professional career in para-dressage. Alyssa competes with NTEC Daytona Beach, a 16.2hh, 16-year-old Westphalian, who Alyssa says "lives for treats and loves to get groomed on and be waited on."
Alyssa began her riding career when she was 10. She has had quite the introduction into the riding world, which she goes into detail about how she really got started. "I rode an old mare named TB- she was the best! It was hard to find places that would give me lessons because of my prosthetic, so I just rode my cousins’ horses when I could. I eventually got my first horse Jojo (a Tennessee Walker Cross), and I absolutely loved her! She tried to throw anyone and everyone else who rode her, and we just had the most magnificent adventures since we had a lot of trails behind our house. I stopped riding until I got to college and got back into it. I was playing volleyball on the Women’s Paralympic Sitting Volleyball and decided it wasn’t for me anymore and moved to KS (from OK) and worked at a Morgan show barn and it was TERRIBLE. While I got a ton of riding experience, not my favorite job. Someone had told me about para-dressage and I called the director of USPEA (Hope Hand) and ended up going to a clinic in Texas. I moved back to OK and would drive to Texas every weekend to take lessons, and eventually ended up moving to Texas a few months later! I leased a horse, but we didn’t really get along, so I got introduced to Daytona and we’ve been together for about 6 months now! She’s absolutely incredible and teaches me so much!"
She's proven herself to be committed to her training regimen. Beyond her riding lessons, Alyssa usually rides on her own. "I’m at the barn 4-5 days a week depending on my schedule. When we don’t have a lesson I just work on some personal things with Daytona i.e. a lot of right-side work since that’s my weakest side with my leg not being there."
And, given all the time and work that Alyssa has put into her riding career, she also has had quite influential horses come through her life, each in their own way. She says, "They’ve all been influential, just in different ways. TB kickstarted my love for horses, Jojo taught me what it’s like to own a horse and responsibility, and Daytona has been my rock for these past few months. I know that life can get really shitty sometimes and it’s nice to have a partner that knows you and that you can lean on. I know Daytona is just a horse, but I’ve had a ton of conversations with her, I’ve cried on her, I’ve relied on her so much and she’s always been there for me." Don't mind us -- cue all the feels -- we totally know what you mean, Alyssa.
Speaking of relatable, Alyssa also tells us about what she believes to be her biggest life lesson that she's learned from horses. She says, "Patience. Oh my gosh. If you drive with me, you’ll see that I have very little, I’m always on the go! When we’re working on specific movements or trying our different aids, Daytona doesn’t always understand, and she gets frustrated. And while we’re learning all this new stuff, I’m ready to move onto the next step and move even further, but I can’t because I can’t do it without my partner. So, some things have taken a little bit longer to learn and we have to work really hard, but Daytona is so willing to learn and figure out what I’m asking of her and we’ve gotten pretty good at nailing somethings down. It takes a lot of time, and she’s taught me how to slow down and that everything will happen in due diligence."
Her advice for other competitors is to "Remember to breathe. I get so weird at horse shows. I always tell myself that I’m going to be cool and calm and just go with the flow. But the second we get there I feel like I violently struggle against the flow. Being in that arena is the most stressful 3-7 minutes of your life, and I can’t keep up with it. I just kind of freak out and think about all the worst possible scenarios. The thing that helps me is counting while I’m riding Daytona. Counting the steps, figuring out when we’re supposed to do our next move and how many steps that is. After the test, I’m perfectly fine and really chill because I know I gave it my all and so did my horse and that’s all I could ever ask for."
Alyssa is full of wise advice. In this sport, we know falling off is inevitable. So, we asked her what her advice is around how to react when falling off, and she gave us this: "Try not to cry! The horse I leased before Daytona threw me off every chance she got. Oh my gosh. My landings got so good because of her. I remember we were at a show warming up before our test, and she threw me off and ran off! I landed on my feet (foot??) because I wasn’t about to get my white show breeches dirty, but they had to catch her and by the time they brought her back we had run out of time and had to do our test! We got one of our highest scores together, but that was the end of the line for me and that’s when I switched over to Daytona. Not that we haven’t had our share of falls, but it’s been a much smoother ride! But besides trying not to cry, I’d say land on your feet, or as close as possible!"
And, while we all know that riding is a tough sport to stay involved in, Alyssa is motivated to keep coming back each day because she just loves it. "I think it’s the feeling you get when you’re cantering or the way you know your horse like no one else does. I want to be the best version of me for my horse. I want them to know that they are loved beyond measure and that they’re the reason I’m doing this. When you add another living, breathing bring into the mix, it changes everything. They become like your baby and you only want the best for them! So, I guess it’s Daytona that brings me back. And the subtle need to keep my competitive side happy and win EVERYTHING (even though I don’t)."
Feeling inspired by Alyssa and her amazing attitude yet? We are in awe of this incredible rider! Alyssa, thanks for chatting, and best of luck with your bright future!