By Lindsay McCall
Donna Ponessa from New Windsor, New York catapulted onto the international para-equestrian scene in 2011. Her determination led to her earning a spot on the 2012 USA Paralympic Equestrian Team in London alongside Jonathan Wentz, Rebecca Hart and Dale Dedrick.
“There are not enough adjectives to describe what an amazing experience it was to represent the USA. There is no greater honor than being selected to represent your country at an Olympic event,” Donna said. “I still get goose bumps and my heart races when I think about it. When I entered the dressage arena, I remember seeing the banner with the white writing’ London 2012’. I took my hand briefly off the reins, patted my horse, Western Rose, and said to her, ‘Well, girl, we did it, we really did it.’”
Donna’s success did not come without obstacles. Her story as an equestrian living with a rare form of Multiple Sclerosis called Devic Disease, working full-time and competing at the FEI level is unique. Her unwavering competitive nature helped Donna to reach for her dreams. Donna continues to work toward the 2014 World Equestrian Games while juggling work, her fitness and riding. Sidelines caught up with the amazing para-equestrian to find out more about her life, and don’t miss her great answer to the question “Do you have a favorite horse show story?” ,
What is going on in your life right now?
I had some major health issues over the winter and spent almost three months in the hospital between ICU and then inpatient rehabilitation. I am still working to regain some of the function I lost during the illness – especially respiratory-wise and dealing with the total loss of vision in my left eye. As far as horses, my current mount is PG Ganda, a 19-year-old Danish Warmblood on loan to me from Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center in Florida. He was my back-up horse at the 2012 Selection Trials and the first alternate for the London Paralympic Games. I am also trying some younger horses as alternates; the big thing is that I need a horse with a phenomenal “10” walk and that can be difficult to find. I am now training with Carol Seaman who is based out of her facility, Outfoxed Farm, in Chester, New York.
How do you compete at a high-performance level with Devic Disease?
To do it effectively, it is a lifestyle commitment combined with a leap of faith. I am fortunate to have access to a talented support team, as it isn’t possible to do it in a vacuum. Because of the extent of my disability, I need to make sure the parts of my body that do work function at optimal capacity and are as strong as they can be. To accomplish this, my days begin around 4:45 a.m. and I am in the gym by 7 a.m. at least six days a week. Because I breathe primarily with accessory muscles and not my diaphragm, I am constantly trying to improve my cardiovascular fitness. After my gym workout, I head off to my job as a program coordinator for an independent living center. Once done with work, I head off to the stables to train with my horse.
How did you learn to ride without your ventilator?
It was around 2005 that I decided that I wasn’t going to live forever and wanted to return to riding. Because I don’t have use of my core muscles, and with the lightest of ventilators weighing about 20 pounds, I couldn’t maintain my balance out of the wheelchair without support. So if I wanted to ride, I’d have to learn to breathe without it. About a year into my training to breathe off the vent, I was speaking to a friend who was getting into free diving – deep sea diving with a snorkel and mask. He was telling me that the best free divers in the world train themselves to function in oxygen-depleted environments. That’s when I began incorporating anaerobic exercise into my training routine. By 2007, I was breathing well enough to be off the vent for about 20 minutes and that’s when I began riding.
What are your goals?
To remain healthy, fit and strong enough to be considered a “high performance para-equestrian.” While it was a lifestyle commitment to get to the 2012 games, it was my proudest accomplishment to date. It would be the ultimate honor and privilege to again represent the USA at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy and I like to think that I’ll be healthy enough and have an ideal mount to eye the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil.
We heard you have a very entertaining horse show story. Will you share it with our Sidelines readers?
At the Para-Equestrian Nationals, because I didn’t have a groom, I’d get to the barn about 6 a.m. to feed my horses and start their morning routine. Arriving shortly after me was a person I swore could be Olympic dressage rider Debbie McDonald’s twin. She’d start grooming and caring for a few horses each morning while I was caring for mine. I didn’t think it could be Debbie because in my mind I didn’t think anyone of her caliber and accomplishment would ever be doing basic horse care. A few days later she was trying to hang privacy drapes and I mentioned that I thought zip ties would work. She agreed, said she didn’t have any and asked if I did. Because it was hard for me to get over the lip into the tack stall, I told her where they were and asked if she’d mind getting them herself. She said “no problem” and proceeded to go into the tack stall, got them and hung the drape. Afterward, another of the riders asked me how it felt to have Debbie McDonald right next to us and I told her I hadn’t seen Debbie yet but there was a person working next door who could be her twin. She laughed and said it was Debbie. When the “Debbie McDonald twin” came into the barn, my friend called out, “Debbie?” and the person answered. I was mortified that I didn’t recognize it was Debbie and we went over to her to tell her the story. She laughed so hard that she said she was going to burst. Later that day, she came over with a beautiful signed photo of Brentina that said, “To Donna – Best of luck from the groom next door – Love, Debbie McDonald.”
About the writer: Lindsay McCall is a lifelong hunter/jumper rider originally from Ohio. She is a talented photographer and makes it her career to advocate for the equestrian sport through photojournalism. Lindsay works with multiple equestrian organizations and is the Public Relations Manager for the United States Para-Equestrian Association. Lindsay and her family own many horses in multiple disciplines and she enjoys spending her free time with her husband, horses and Labrador Retrievers.
All photos by Lindsay McCall