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March 5, 2012

Road To The Olympics: Robin Brueckmann, Part 1

"It’s never like I said five years ago, ‘I want to go to London.’ This is what I do. All my energy and money goes toward preparing for major competitions like this.” Photo by Sara Lieser.

In this series, the Chronicle follows seven riders as they seek to fulfill their Olympic dreams in London in 2012.

Looking ahead toward London, I was really thinking outside the box. All of last year was spent preparing for getting my right leg amputated so I would be more comfortable. [Brueckmann suffers from reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a pain disorder. She was classified as a Grade IV para rider in 1998 based on the secondary paralysis in her right lower leg. RSD itself is not classifiable.]

I had to schedule that surgery for a period of time when I had three months with no competitive pressure. So I had the surgery on Nov. 2, 13 weeks before my first CPEDI***.

As a prerequisite to try out for U.S. team, we must have completed a CPEDI*** between Dec. 1 and June 1. The options open to me were two three-stars in Florida in January, one in Del Mar, Calif., in March, and one in April in Houston. I couldn’t get to Del Mar, and Houston’s a logistical nightmare. So I sent my entry in to the Wellington Classic Sunshine Classic. The organizer emailed me to ask if I was going to do the show the week before too, and I just laughed and thought, “No, I’d really better ride my horse first.”

The surgery went well, and I got my prosthesis in the middle of December and started riding my 3-year-old right before Christmas. I’d sent my competition horse, Radetzky, to Diane Ritz so he would stay in training. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to ride for a little while, and I wanted to be competitive when I stepped in the stirrup.

I went to see my doctor for a three-month follow up, and he’s thrilled to pieces. I'm walking without crutches and walking without a limp. It’s amazing. I’m more comfortable and more mobile than I was. I’m not yet willing to turn the horses out myself, because that’s walking 8/10 of a mile over hill and dale by myself, so I’m not doing that trek yet without a cane or crutches. But I’m great around the barn, and my pain level’s way down.

Starting eight days after surgery, I’ve been back at the gym every day. I do an hour of cardio plus weights. In addition to going to the gym, I am going to physical therapy. I start every morning at 5 a.m. with an hour of yoga. I’m not as fit I had been, but I’m getting better. All summer I’d been doing that and riding four a day, and now I'm riding two a day. So fitness-wise I have a ways to go.

It was a big adjustment getting back on after the surgery. It was a challenge keeping my leg from flying all over the place. But "Sasha’s" bigger than my baby horse, and Sasha holds my leg more. It was a huge change going from riding without stirrups to riding with stirrups. [Brueckmann had received special dispensation to compete without stirrups by the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Adaptive Sports Committee to accommodate her paralyzed leg.] On top of that, my boots didn’t fit, my breeches didn’t fit—nothing fit and nothing worked.

I visit my prosthetist about twice a week. The stump is changing shape as it’s recovering, so we’re tweaking angles and shape. I had him cut down the outside wing, because you have to turn your toe out to use your spurs, and the prosthesis didn’t follow me because the wing was preventing it. It’s new territory for him too. He’s never dealt with an elite rider.

I spoke with the international classifiers in Florida and got a new card to include my prosthesis, but I was already classified as a below-knee-amputee. I just wanted to make sure I’d covered my bases. I’d actually talked to very few people about the amputation before I did it; I just told them I was having surgery. At the time I didn’t think it needed to be everyone's business.

Getting Into The Swing Of Things

I picked Sasha up on Jan. 14, and he looked like a woolly mammoth, so I had to clip him, trying to stay on one leg. I took him to a schooling show in Pinehurst, N.C., and rode my championship and freestyle tests, then went to Florida for the Wellington Classic Sunshine Challenge. The first day of competition was the first day I’d worn spurs, and I was still trying to figure out the stirrups and length and get them to stay on my feet. I’m managing all these logistical details, and oh, by the way, I’m competing at a three-star and we’ve gone from freezing temperatures to 85 degrees.

The heat was a big factor for both of us. He wasn’t quite as fit as I usually keep him, and my skin hasn’t adjusted to the prosthesis yet, so I had to keep stopping, taking it off, and pouring sweat out of it.

But I was happy with how everything went. I knew we wouldn’t be at our best but that we had to go anyway. We improved quite a bit every day (61.45 percent in the team test; 63.17 percent in the individual test; and 66.91 percent in the freestyle).

One of my friends commented that she thought I was riding cautiously, but really I was working my guts out! I was doing the best I could do, and I did get better and more confident as the competition went on, and I felt like I could ask for more brilliance. I felt like I made tremendous improvement between the day I got there and the day I left; I was really getting into the swing of things.

I don’t like going into a competition feeling unprepared, and I knew going in I wouldn't be prepared this time around, and it was unavoidable. We both still exceeded my expectations.

A Special Mount

Anne Gribbons found Radetzky as a 5-year-old in Sweden, and I bought him sight unseen on her recommendation. He showed up barely broke, and I couldn’t get him to steer, couldn't get him to canter, and I’d paid house money for this horse.

But he was very talented, and he trusted me, and before long he’d do anything for me. He’s been wonderful at dealing with my body through the years, just fabulous. He went to Hong Kong when he was under saddle with me for just two years, and he played with the big boys. Now he’s four years older, more mature and more confirmed.

Watch Brueckmann and Sasha perform their freestyle at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong.

Sasha's very bouncy and very timid. He likes to be told what to do and reassured that everything’s OK. He's quirky and complicated in that I have to tell him everything. It’s not that he doesn’t know what to do, he just doesn’t know what to do right now, and after I tell him he’s like, “Thank you, I appreciate that.” He’s very talented, with super changes—the easiest horse I’ve ever done ones on. He does all the Grand Prix movements but passage. He knows how to do passage but doesn’t know how to be asked for it yet.

We pretty much just do open competition, and I’ll do two or three shows a year that are just para. [In 2011] he won the USEF Performance Horse Registry reserve championships for Intermediate I and Intermediate I freestyle. He knows a lot more now, so I’m really looking forward to competing this year when I’m feeling a bit more prepared. I have stirrups now, so people fear me!

The USEF has not announced the date or location of the trials yet, so it’s tough to plan out my show schedule without that. After the trials, all the competitors will get ranked, and the top four will probably end up on the team, unless there’s a soundness issue. The team must also include at least one Grade I or Grade II rider. We have fabulous Grade Is and IIs, so someone at that level will be in the top four anyway. The rest of the team can be from any level.

To prepare I’ll just keep going to shows in North Carolina—I have March Magic in Williamston, N.C., at the end of March. I’m going to keep working on getting stronger and getting my horse out. The Grade IV tests that I do for para competition are equal to third level, and at shows I’ll be competing at Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire I. But it’s fine. It’s always easier to drop down rather than jump up.  

I’m not getting a deer in headlights look because I’ve done all this before. That gives me a huge advantage. People who are new to the experience of trying out for a team can find it very intimidating. I can pick up, having ridden my horse just five times, and go do a three-star. Even if I’m not prepared, it’s not news. We’ve both done this before.

Fast Facts About Robin Brueckmann

Age: 54

Horse: Radetzky, “Sasha,” an 11-year-old Trakehner gelding (Pyatt Charly—Ronja, Mago XX).

Farm: Robin Brueckmann boards at Flintrock Farm in Reedsville, N.C. “I’m gone 40 to 45 weekends a year, and I’m very happy being a boarder,” she said.

Trainer: Kai Handt

Family: Husband Bill Brueckmann

Pets: A Bengal named Coda and several giant goldfish.

A Trick Up His Sleeve? Radetzky loves to hug barrels by putting his foot over a barrel that’s on its side and pulling it in. He also bows and holds his mouth open wide whenever he sees horse cookies.

Non-riding vocations: Brueckmann teaches a full slate of dressage students and is a registered Yoga Alliance yoga instructor. She’s also a U.S. Equestrian Fedreration "S" dressage judge and an "R" eventing judge, and she officiated at 18 shows last year.

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