As a survivor of a devastating case of influenza, ParaEquestrian Alanna Flax-Clark is no stranger to fighting a virus and coming out on top. Despite the interruption of Covid-19, Alanna is still in pursuit of a place on the 2020 (now 2021) US Paralympic team for Tokyo. Alanna and her Dutch Riding Pony, “El Paso,” are currently competing at FEI Grade 2, one of five grades included in Para Dressage.
Grades are designated by the movements required in the various tests. While Grade 1 competes solely at the walk, Grades 2 and 3 compete at the walk and trot and Grades 4 and 5 include movements at the canter. FEI assesses strength, mobility, and coordination in order to determine the appropriate Grade for each rider.
At Grade 2, Alanna and Taco are judged at the walk and trot in their Para Dressage tests and currently stand at 14th on FEI’s Para Dressage World Individual rankings for the level. Now, with the pandemic delaying the selection process until 2021, Alanna and El Paso—or “Taco” as he is known around the barn—are using this time to continue to improve and refine in order to be selected for the US Team.
Fighting to Live and Heal
Flax-Clark, now 37, contracted a severe case of influenza while living and working as a special education teacher in Boston twelve years ago. She almost didn’t make it out of the ICU. When she did eventually beat the virus, Alanna found she had been left with serious nerve damage that would force her to retrain her entire body—even her ability to speak.
While Alanna believes her stubbornness kept her alive, the long road to recovery was going to require help from some unlikely allies: the equestrian community. Alanna did not grow up with horses; however, her time in special education had introduced her peripherally to Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT). “It was the highlight of many of my former students’ weeks—going to speech, occupational, or physical therapy with horses,” remembers Flax-Clark. While rehabbing back at her parents’ home in Los Angeles, she approached a doctor for a prescription for physical therapy with the intent to pursue EAAT. The doctor said no, afraid of the risks horses can bring.
While those with experience with EAAT know how effective the therapies can be for a variety of conditions, it is not a familiar route for most doctors to take. The inherent risk of horseback riding can be a tough sell for even the fittest participants, let alone those with underlying medical issues. Flax-Clark, though, was stubborn and determined in her pursuit. “Even if you are the craziest person in the world or it seems like the craziest idea, if you are motivated it’s more likely to help you,” she remarks about her mission to get well and the out-of-the-box (to some) methods which she was pursuing. She was undeterred by the first “no”, and sought out additional opinions.
“Riding On” Towards Recovery
After receiving a doctor’s official O.K., Flax-Clark began her relationship with horses at Ride On in Chatsworth, CA and she fell in love. Still unable to speak, she found equine-assisted physical therapy more comfortable and enjoyable than traditional physical therapy methods that relied more heavily on verbal communication. She also found the gains were longer-lasting. “Even if I had to take a few weeks off, say I contracted pneumonia or something, all the skills that I had developed [through EAAT] stuck with me much more than other experiences I had had with rehab,” Flax-Clark recalls.
Eventually, she began to turn her EAAT progress into a career in Para Dressage. “I realized I wouldn’t need therapy forever, but didn’t want to lose the horses or the community atmosphere of the barn. When someone told me about dressage and the Paralympics, that was it, I was going to the Paralympics.”
She began taking Dressage lessons at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center and eventually purchased her first horse. Over time, she began competing and dedicated herself to continuing to learn and challenge herself. “When I get an idea in my head I go for it full-force,” Alanna affirms.
Taco ‘Bout a Good Team
Alanna attributes much of her success to Schmitt, Taco, and the community around her. She found a wonderful partner in Taco who has innate qualities that made him special to Flax-Clark from day one. “We found him off a video and we weren’t quite sure what we were going to get.” However, she was sold after seeing how calm he was around her wheelchair, which she mounts from. She remarks that Taco takes care of her. “Other people can ride him and he’s never bad, but he’s just a different horse when I’m on him.”
His connection with Alanna combined with his “spicy” nature made him a perfect fit. “People assume he’s dull because he’s so calm… he’s actually really forward.” There’s no need for whips with Taco—Alanna is able to use her voice and Taco listens.
They’ve spent a fair amount of time building up trust like this in their partnership. Her trainer, Schmitt, has helped them conquer the transition between riding at home and riding in the show ring. “Sarah doesn’t see me as someone in a wheelchair, someone with a disability that has different needs,” remarks Alanna. In fact, she is constantly challenging the team—even by having them train in the pouring rain and with golf balls flying around them. Knowing that both she and Taco have the ability to drown out the stimuli and focus on the show ring has been huge for the pair, not to mention that Taco is a bit of a show-off and really enjoys the competitive atmosphere.
A Level Playing Field
Flax-Clark enjoys the show environment as well where she is judged on an equal playing field. “I can go into a ring directly behind Sarah [Schmitt] and be judged by the exact same judges on the exact same test.” Alanna has tried a variety of para sports but finds Para Dressage unique as it providers her with the opportunity to be recognized by her ability—not her disability. “It pushes me to be the best athlete I can be,” says Flax-Clark.
Competitive dressage has also introduced her to a community of other dressage riders, many from her own barn, whom she both competes against and enjoys the support of. When asked when she knew that she and Taco had a realistic shot at the Paralympic team, Flax-Clark says she had never thought of it in that way. Instead, she really attributes a lot of her success to being surrounded by the right people. Flax-Clark is thankful to other competitors and equestrian friends who often offer to help her groom and tack up so that she is able to rest to have the energy to compete at 4 or 5 day long shows. She is much more eager to speak about the community she has enjoyed while pursuing her personal goals than about the goals themselves.
Coming Full Circle
Those personal goals have been thrown a curve ball with the COVID-19 outbreak, but Alanna has no plans to let it stop her. While she is being extremely careful with her health, she is able to ride nearly every day and has even begun to attend shows this summer to keep her and Taco fresh for their hopeful trip to Tokyo next year.
As if her Paralympic pursuits weren’t enough, she also works as the “Special Projects Manager” at Mane Stream, an EAAT center in Oldwick, New Jersey much like the one where Alanna was first introduced to horses. Her duties include social media and community outreach. She enjoys the fact that she has come full circle in some aspects and hopes that her position at Mane Stream can help to inspire riders, clients, parents, and the larger community by introducing them to her story and how much EAAT has brought into her life.
She believes this kind of community outreach is especially important during the pandemic. She knows she is extremely lucky that she has been able to continue training but is aware others are not as fortunate. In addition to her work with Mane Stream, Alanna maintains her own blog where she posts articles like “Technical Tuesday” that highlight her specific equipment to educate and promote awareness for Para Dressage and Adaptive Sports in general. She endeavors to keep both Mane Stream’s clientele and the community at large engaged, especially as Mane Stream and a variety of other equestrian programs had to suspend their services for the majority of the spring.
Despite the COVID-sized bump in the road for both Flax-Clark and Mane Stream, both are determined to keep going. As Mane Stream works on a phased reopening plan and begins to welcome back selected clientele, Flax-Clark is continuing preparations to compete at the National Championships in October at Tryon. The event has been upgraded to a 3* so that Alanna and other Para Dressage athletes may advance their chances at a place to represent the US at the Tokyo games. July marked her first horse show of the summer with Taco, where the team enjoyed a local competition at Red Tail Farm and scored a 77.5%—the pair’s highest score to date.