Rider aims for the big stage

Stephanie Ross sets her sights on qualifying for the Paralympic Games

Stephanie Ross and her horse

On her own, Stephanie Ross struggles with her movements.

She can walk unassisted, but there is a limp and a slight shaking motion.

But when Ross is atop her horse, she feels different — liberated and independent.

She no longer thinks about her cerebral palsy, which impacts her ability to run and jump like most people her age.

“It is amazing to be able to move with a horse and just be one (with it),” she described. “She can do things that I can’t on my own because I don’t have very good balance.

“I can’t run very fast, but on her, my disability goes away.”

Ross was referring to her horse, Wiese, a Hanoverian warmblood mare, which she has ridden for the past three years.

Ross first rode when she was two years old.

As is often the case for people with cerebral palsy, therapeutic riding lessons are used to help a child cope with their physical difficulties.

Cerebral palsy results in the brain being unable to adequately control the body. It can result in varying degrees, ranging from some people being wheelchair-bound, others need assistance to walk, and some are able to move on their own.

Riding horses is effective because it accomplishes several things: improving core strength; stimulating circulation and muscles in the legs; achieving balance; improving posture; and improving muscle strength.

Ross, who graduated a year early in 2009 from Langley Fine Arts School, tried her hand at plenty of sports growing up, playing basketball, soccer, volleyball and track and field.

And she still keeps active, spending her spare time downhill skiing, wakeboarding and boating.

But horses remain her passion.

Three years ago, Ross, who turns 18 in April, began competing in Para-equestrian dressage competition.

Last summer, Ross won two gold and a silver medal at the B.C. Summer Games.

And following the successful 2010 competition season, Ross was ranked ninth by Para-equestrian Canada, based on her performances in specific tests at certain competitions.

The top eight are referred to as being on the short list, or senior national team riders, while those below are long-listed or development riders.

Ross is listed as a Grade 3 rider, meaning she is able to walk without support, but only has minimal use of her limbs.

The riders are aiming for the goal of representing Canada at not only the major competitions of the next two years, but specifically the 2012 Paraympics in London.

Ross is thrilled to be so close.

“When I found out (I was on the list), it was so overwhelming,” she said.

“It has always been my dream to go to the Paralympics (but) never did I think that I would have the ability.

“I know I am close, but still so far away.”

“I am working so hard to hopefully get there and it is exciting to be so close and know my hard work is paying off,” she added.

Leading the list is a pretty significant name in local riding circles, Aldergrove’s Lauren Barwick, who won gold and silver at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.

Surrey’s Ashley Gowanlock, another rider with Paralympic experience, is ranked fifth.

Ross considers both as inspirations in her own quest.

“I always wanted to be like them, and now that I am riding with them and at shows with them, it is just so cool,” she said. “It shows how far I have come.

“It wasn’t that long ago I was like ‘oh, I wish I could go to those shows.’”

It hasn’t been an easy road to get to this point.

“It has always been a challenge,” she said.

“Every day, little things that most people won’t even think about are challenging. It is the little things that are such a pain, but it has made me who I am.

“You can’t let the little things stop you, you have to keep going and push through the challenges.”

Ross will get her first taste of international competition in early March as she heads to the Dressage Affair in Del Mar, Calif.

One of the challenges Ross is facing in taking the next step is financing her dream.

So far, local businesses, friends and family have been great in supporting her, but with more major competitions, and further away, her expenses are going up.

She held a fundraiser night at Jimy Mac’s Pub on Wednesday.

Anyone interested in supporting Ross can email her at MissTsTwilight@shaw.ca or call 604-837-0604.