Alyssa Cleland • Overcoming The Odds & Fighting Through Adversity
What a fun guest-blogger to introduce today! Say hello to Alyssa Cleland, a fellow Region 9 dressage representative who is the epitome of total badass. Alyssa is talented para-rider who became a good friend via the world of Instagram. I've seen her at local competitions, more recently at regional championships back in October, and have held her in the highest regards of inspiration for a while. Naturally, I knew I had to have her write up a post for the blog! I'm excited to share an insight into her world via my platform, and I hope you enjoy what she has written up. Cue Alyssa!
Hello TB&TB fam bam! My name is Alyssa Cleland (@alcequine on Instagram) and I am so honored and thrilled to be writing today's blog post! I’ve been following Maddie for quite some time on Instagram, seen her compete at shows and have loved reading her blog posts! She and Leah are a force to be reckoned with, and I can’t wait to someday hang out with them outside of showing! I think it’s so amazing how we can get to know people over social media and become great friends with them while we swoon over our common love for horses! Maddie has asked me to write a post for her blog and I couldn’t be more excited. Although I don’t write as beautifully as her, I’m excited to share my thoughts and hopefully inspire you all today!
To better share my thoughts on today’s topic, I suppose a little background will be helpful! I was born in Ukraine with a super rare congenital condition called Paraxial Tibial Hemimelia which in layman’s terms means that my right tibia (large lower leg bone) did not develop and I couldn’t walk. This particular condition only happens to 1 in 1,000,000 people! WOW! I’ve only met two other people with this condition – each a different degree of severity. Eventually, I was adopted by a wonderful family at the age of 4 and brought to the U.S where I was able to receive the medical care I needed, and got my leg amputated so I could start wearing prosthetics. I LOVED finally being to walk and have my freedom. From that moment on I was unstoppable, even though I would continue to face to immeasurable odds, continual backlash and discrimination.
My love for horses started at a young age, I was definitely that crazy little horse girl that never outgrew the phase! I got my first riding lessons as a Christmas (or birthday??) gift from my sister and I could not have been happier. I remember the first horse I rode was an older bay mare named TB. My other older sister (I have 5 siblings), Mikaela, also got lessons and she rode a white gelding that didn’t like to listen to her... TB was the best, even though we never got past the walk, but who cared! All my dreams had come true, and I was so excited to finally be able to ride these magnificent beasts I had been adoring from afar. While I was so thrilled to finally get to pursue my equestrian dreams, it was short lived as the facility said they would no longer offer me lessons; yes, just me. They claimed I was too much of a liability because of my prosthetic, and they turned me and my family away. I did not ride much after that except for when we would visit my cousins who were show jumpers; I'd get to ride their ponies.
My life aside from horses became very complicated and very hard. It’s not something I like to go deep into as it’s very personal, and was a dark time that I’d much rather not relive. In short, when I was 10 years old, I went to go live with my aunt and uncle because my parents had some issues and decided they no longer wanted me. My aunt and uncle lived in Temecula on a good piece of property that had it’s back to a large field with miles and miles of horse trails. We lived in an “equestrian” community (not quite as nice as Wellington), this is where I got my first horse, Jojo!
Jojo was a rescue that we got from a friend of ours, and she was a Quarter Horse, Tennessee Walker cross. She was on the older side, had arthritis, and had been mistreated before she became ours. It took a long time for her to trust me, but it got the point where I was the only one who she’d allow to ride her! She taught me so much about what owning a horse is like, what a bond with a horse can look like. Her presence really got me back into loving the horse and all it they had to offer. I ended up going back to live with my parents when I was 15 after a huge court battle, and I had to leave Jojo behind... It was one of the hardest days of my life! She was retired, becoming a pasture pet. I don’t know if she’s still alive, but I’m positive that she lived out the rest of her days surrounded by love.
After graduating high school, I ended up moving to Oklahoma for college, and I was on the U.S Women’s Paralympic Sitting Volleyball Team, training full time. Living in OK, I rode friends’ horses here and there, but nothing substantial. After 2 years, I figured out that I’m a terrible team player, and was no longer enjoying my sport, so I quit. I ended up moving to KS to work at a Morgan show barn where I ran their summer camp program. I learned a lot and got to ride quite a bit, but the job was not as described, and the management was terrible. However, while I was there, I learned about United States Para Equestrian Assosciation (USPEA), and how to get involved with para-dressage. Off to Texas I went! (I was quite the nomad!)
I ended up training at North Texas Equestrian Center with Kai Handt, which I had heard many, many things about as he was the Paralympic coach. I was just starting to ride competitively and was very hopeful about my future, however it would be a trialing time. I’d soon leave NTEC for new opportunities. I first leased a horse named NTEC Cappi, and while I loved her very much, she was not fond of me. I honestly can’t remember a time that she didn’t throw me off while I was riding her. I remember being at a show, in the warmup ring outside, and she threw me off, and ran back to her stall. By the time they caught her I had to go perform my test. After 4 long months with her, I started riding NTEC Daytona Beach who was previously owned by a Grade I rider. Daytona was very patient, teaching me a lot about pushing through and working hard until you get the results you wanted. While she did not do the best when we trained/showed in outdoor rings, and disqualified me a time or two, she was truly one of the best horses I’ve gotten the pleasure of knowing! I truly believe that she is my heart horse, and I am so sad that she did not end up with me.
If you’ve made it all the way to the end, congratulations! I know I’ve written a lot, but I’m still not done!
I’m currently in Rockwall, TX, training at Black Star Sport Horses a mere 10 minutes away. I’m focusing on growing my social media presence and finding sponsors that can help me get to the next level (feel free to send them my way!). I’ve been through an immeasurable amount of pain, discrimination, and hardship. A lot of people ask me if I would want it differently and honestly, I could not imagine my life without my prosthetic! I would not be the person I am today if it were not for my condition.
Now, as I’m slowly training for the Paralympics, I just want to be able to show everyone that people with disabilities can kick ass too. I’m so humbled by what I have, and the opportunity to share my story. I hope that I’m able to inspire you to go for what you want in to life, to not settle for anything less than you deserve, and to chase after your passions – even if it takes years! I had no idea when I graduated high school and moved to OK for college that I’d be in TX riding horses for a living.