Equestrian Kim Decker competed on hunter-jumpers before a 1986 traffic accident left her in a coma for more than three months.
The Centreville, Va., woman underwent five years of speech, occupational and physical therapy after suffering the traumatic brain injury. Then she spent 12 years relearning how to ride horses before she was able to return to competition.
Decker, 42, is one of 14 riders with disabilities nominated to represent the United States in para dressage at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games — the first time the event has been part of the Games.
"It's thrilling," said Decker, who will ride Dasher. "The whole world can see what people with physical disabilities can do."
In dressage, the horse and rider gracefully perform a series of set movements not unlike the school figures ice skaters used to perform in the Olympics. Ten horses and riders will be named to the final slots on the U.S. team Sept. 30.
Each of the nominated para-dressage riders has a compelling story of overcoming physical disabilities to pursue a passion for riding. In addition, some have overcome more mundane problems, such as having to raise money to transport their horses or themselves to the Games. Or having to borrow a horse on which to compete because theirs was injured.
Like many equestrians, they expertly use Facebook and their Web sites to raise money, and some aren't shy about letting you know what they can do.
Take Philippa Johnson, who lives in Belgium but is representing her native South Africa and won two gold medals at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Hong Kong. Spectators who have preconceived notions about para dressage are in for a surprise, Johnson said in an e-mail message: "They may think para equestrian is a bunch of cripples wobbling about on horseback, but they are hugely mistaken," said Johnson. "People will see riding, talent and courage like they have never seen before."
Johnson, 35, who is expected to compete at WEG, lost the use of her right arm and suffered severe weakness in her right leg following a car accident in 1998. Because she rides with one hand, she uses special reins an occupational therapist helped her develop.
Equestrians in the para-dressage competition ride tests suited to their level of impairment and compete against riders at the same level.
The competitors are assessed on the basis of their mobility, strength, coordination or eyesight to determine their classification. The most severely disabled athletes ride tests in which the horse only walks; trotting and cantering are included in the tests for those less impaired.
Riders can use compensating aids such as special saddles, adapted reins, elastic bands or two whips if they need them.
The entire para-equestrian discipline has grown from 60 riders in 1991 to more than 650 riders and drivers from 38 countries, according to the Fédération Equestre Internationale Web site.
For WEG, 106 para-dressage riders from 19 countries have been nominated.
Like any other equestrians, para-dressage riders can find themselves in need of a new mount when theirs gets injured.
Jennifer Baker, 46, who lives outside Cincinnati in Loveland, Ohio, qualified for a chance to compete at WEG on Duel. But last month, Duel was injured, and she had to withdraw him.
Then Akiko Yamazaki, wife of Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, lent Baker her horse Kranak, who had competed in Grand Prix, the highest level of dressage, but was retired in May.
Years ago, Baker's mother, Nancy, trained Yamazaki's coach, Shannon Peters. Peters told Yamazaki about Baker's problem with Duel.
Borrowing a horse, said Baker was "like getting in a car and putting a blindfold on .... not knowing where the ignition was or the light switches were."
But Kranak, Baker said, "is very patient, and he is teaching me a lot. I feel confident that he will be a great partner."
Baker competed in equestrian events until 2001, when she was severely injured in a motorcycle accident. Titanium rods now run from her left hip to her ankle.
She raised more than $30,000 to cover her WEG expenses, but with Kranak in the picture, she is now trying to raise an additional $4,500 to transport the horse back to California after the Games.
On June 8, the U.S. Para-Equestrian Association and the Horse Radio Network held a two-hour Webathon that allowed supporters to call or click to donate to help the U.S. para-equestrian team get to WEG. The event raised $10,000.
And Kentucky Equine Research, a company specializing in equine nutrition, research and consulting, will host the U.S. athletes before and during the competition, providing accommodations at their facility in Versailles.
Jonathan Wentz, at 19 the youngest member of the U.S. para-dressage team, said in an interview last week he is $9,000 shy of his personal fund-raising goal of $15,000. But he plans to travel to Kentucky anyway.
"We'll make do with what we've got," said Wentz, a student at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
Wentz has cerebral palsy, a condition that affects his balance, flexibility, and muscle tone.
He said physicians think one reason he can walk is he has been riding horses since he was 2.
Two years ago, Wentz approached North Texas Equestrian Center owner and trainer Kai Handt and asked for his help to earn a spot on the U.S. para-dressage team for the Games.
Handt did more than that — he lent him a Shire cross named NTEC Richter Scale. In June, Wentz qualified for WEG and earned top awards at the USEF Para-Equestrian Dressage National Championships.
"Jonathan is a really hard- working guy and Richter Scale has really responded to him," said Handt, whose center is in Wylie, Texas.
While there are no Kentucky riders on the U.S. para-dressage team, there is a Kentucky connection through the horse Robin Brueckmann, 52, will ride.
Brueckmann, who developed a painful condition called reflex sympathetic dystrophy 16 years ago, will compete with Raison d'Etre, a horse owned by Elly Schobel of South Carolina and bred at Lexington's Dreamtime Farm.
Brueckmann, whose condition limits the use of her right leg, competes against riders who are in the least disabled category.
Said Schobel of Brueckmann: "Robin is an exceptionally intuitive rider, which is one of the reasons why she has been so successful. ... Together they have the 'it' factor — elegance, confidence and know-how."