Schulz x Katie Jackson
For para-equestrian Katie Jackson, horses were a shining light in her darkest moment.
At the age of 35, Katie Jackson thought she had the rest of her life figured out. A devoted equestrian since childhood, Jackson was riding horses regularly while simultaneously running her own dental practice in Austin, Texas. Happily married, she could see herself working as a dentist while riding in her free time for the indefinite future.
Then, in 2015, Jackson noticed a marble-sized lump behind her right knee. When she ran or stretched out her leg, the lump caused her muscles to painfully cramp. The first doctor she saw diagnosed the lump as a Baker’s cyst, a common knee-joint condition, and told her, “Welcome to old age.” Five months later, and still in debilitating pain, Jackson went to see another specialist who ordered an MRI. The lump turned out to be a clear cell sarcoma, a rare and deadly form of cancer that arises in only 1% of sarcoma — or bone and connective tissue cancer — cases. To prevent the cancer from spreading, the diagnosis often leads to amputation of the affected limb.
A week after Jackson received the diagnosis, her doctor called to say that he needed to amputate her right leg. He said he could do the surgery the following week. “It was a blur,” Jackson says. “There are parts of your body that block out the experience as a protective measure.” Jackson asked him for two weeks, and in preparation, drew up a living will for her husband and family.
For an average person, the act of losing a limb at such a young age, and so swiftly, would have taken years to fully recover from. But Jackson is no ordinary person. Even as she was getting ready for surgery, she began researching para-equestrian dressage. She realized that not only could she continue to ride after the amputation, but perhaps, could even compete in the Paralympic Games. While her doctor prepared her for the worst-case scenario, Jackson remembers telling him, “I guess this means I’m making a bid for the Paralympics.”
“It was this shining light at this time when I was grasping for straws,” Jackson says. “It really kept me pushing.”
The first place that Jackson went after the surgery was the barn where she leased a horse. “My doctors don’t know about that,” Jackson laughs. Horses were her lifeline. Unable to work at her dental practice because she still had to learn to walk with a prosthetic leg, Jackson spent time in the pasture, feeding the horses carrots and following them around on a crutch or a scooter.
Photo credit: Rachel Spencer, Re Photography
“The horses have always been such a grounding force,” Jackson says. “[With them], I feel most at home.”
Just over three months after the surgery, with the assistance of Horse Empowered Learning Programs (HELP), a nonprofit that serves individuals disabilities in Austin, Jackson got back in the saddle again. Within six months, she had entered her first para-equestrian dressage competition. “It was like getting caught up in a tornado, and off I went,” Jackson laughs. She learned how to ride with just one leg — she doesn’t use her prosthetic leg while on her horse — while competing.
As long as she can remember, Jackson has been crazy about horses. Growing up in the countryside in Oregon, she was always surrounded by animals. At the age of 5, her grandfather bought a miniature horse whom he thought was pregnant with the intention of breeding her. It turned out that the horse just had hay belly, but Jackson fell in love with her. Taking care of the miniature horse led to riding lessons on a pony, 4-H barrel racing competitions, and eventually, riding dressage where Jackson, at the age of 8, showed real talent in the sport. After competing in the California Junior Championships, Jackson briefly considered pursuing a career as an equestrian but decided first to focus on college, and then dental school. “I loved the attention to details, precision, focus, and artistry that being a dentist required of me,” Jackson says. “Maybe it is why I love dressage so much, too.”
After graduation, Jackson opened her own dental practice in Austin. In her free time, she leased a Holsteiner Gelding, and began taking him to local shows. When she was exhausted from working, riding made her feel better. Even still, it was difficult to fit everything she wanted to accomplish into a single day. In a way, her cancer diagnosis allowed her to step back from all the stress and focus on living instead. “[The cancer] is very much a blessing and helps me to make choices of how I truly want to spend my time and energy each day,” Jackson says.
Three months after the surgery, Jackson hired another dentist to take over the patient care hours at her dental practice. “I wasn’t in a place mentally where I could care for people at the level I wanted,” she says. With the time this afforded her, she began training full-time as a para-equestrian.
Although there was much that was different about riding dressage as an amputee, the basics of the sport were the same. “Dressage at its essence is looking for excellence,” Jackson says. Every time she rode after the surgery, she learned something new about the passion she has excelled at since childhood. Often, the lesson was that dressage is, as Jackson puts it, “flipping hard.”
Jackson’s encounter with the unspeakable gave her the spark to compete at the highest level. Less than a year after her leg was amputated, Jackson qualified for the United States Para-Equestrian National Championships. At the championships, she was awarded with the 2015 Grade IV Reserve National Champion title — her grade is determined by her disability, which impairs one of her limbs — and was awarded the United States Equestrian Federation’s Annual Sportsmanship Award Trophy. In 2016, she was named the #1 Rider of the Year in the Grade IV Para-Equestrian league by the United Stated Dressage Federation. In 2017, she entered international competition, bringing home the win in all four Nation’s Cup competitions for Team USA. In 2018, she was the traveling first alternate for Team USA in the 2018 World Equestrian Games.
Photo credit: Rachel Spencer, Re Photography
Even as she amassed accolades, Jackson remained in awe of the sport. In 2017, she rode in the Dressage Showcase Performance representing US Para-Equestrian Dressage at the FEI World Cup Finals in Omaha, Nebraska. While walking her horse, Royal Dancer, in one of two warm-up arenas, she stopped dead in her tracks. Edward Gal, the legendary Dutch dressage rider, was about to cross her path. “My coach was like, ‘Why are you stopping?’” Jackson recalls. “And I told her, ‘There is no way I’m running into Edward Gal.’” She was starstruck. At the end of the event, Jackson collapsed sobbing in her husband’s arms from the incredible rush of the event.
To train for international competition, Jackson works with three horses. Royal Dancer, who showed with her at the FEI World Cup in Omaha, is a “show off,” Jackson laughs. “If you’re at a lesson, and you use overhead speakers, he lights up.” Royal Dancer was made for the stage — he competed with Roxanne Trunnell, the highest ranked para-dressage athlete in the world, in the Rio Olympics in 2016. Atlas, whose nickname at the barn is “Avatar,” fits Jackson like a glove. “It sounds really cheesy, but being on him, it’s almost a spiritual thing, we’re that connected,” Jackson says. The newest addition to her equine family is Scrabble, a 15-year-old Hanoverian trained by Chrissa Hoffmann, a Grand Prix rider and renowned trainer. In the barn, Jackson’s team calls Scrabble, who loves apples, “The Professor.” “[Scrabble] asks the most of me, but in the fairest way,” Jackson says.
For the horses, the process of learning how to adapt to a rider with one leg is akin, as Jackson describes it, to switching back and forth between speaking two languages fluently. “It’s incredible how generous they are with figuring it out, and also, how smart they are,” Jackson says.
Photo credit: Susan Stickle Photography
Often, Jackson will execute an element of her dressage routine, and her coach will ask her how she did it. “I’m just like, ‘I thought it, and the horse did it, so let’s keep going,’” she laughs. When her trainers or coaches ride her horses, they use their right legs as little as possible to mimic the experience of carrying Jackson. “It’s amazing the horses understand it,” she says. Ultimately, Jackson notes, the horses want to please the rider, no matter the shape of the rider’s body.
Competing at such a high level is hard, Jackson acknowledges. “No one likes to talk about what it takes physically, emotionally, mentally and financially,” she says. However, for those looking to follow in her footsteps, she recommends, “Don’t give up on your dream.” She continues: “If it doesn’t seem to be working, or if you feel like you’ve hit a speed bump or brick wall, take the time, regroup, re-evaluate. Sometimes, what you want might not be in the cards for that year, but you’re still growing as a rider and a person being on this path.”
As the world slowly comes out of the pandemic, Jackson continues to train. Now a professional rider with numerous sponsorships, Jackson does what she can to give back to the equestrian community that has sustained her. She continues to fundraise for HELP, the organization in Austin that helped her get back on a horse. And she also works as an ambassador for BrookeUSA, a nonprofit that helps improve the lives of 1.7 million working horses, donkeys, and mules across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Jackson will not be competing in the Tokyo Paralympics this upcoming summer. Instead, she is focusing on developing the relationship with her two newest horses — Royal Dancer and Scrabble. “I am focusing on developing our trust, harmony, and my skills as an upper-level rider to be able to pilot these talented horses with the skill that they deserve,” Jackson says. She hopes to travel with them to the 2022 World Equestrian Games in Denmark, and if all goes well, to the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris, France.
Photo credit: Susan Stickle Photography
People often assume that the “para” in Paralympics stands for “paralyzed” or “paraplegic.” In fact, it stands for parallel. Athletes who compete in the game are no less impressive than their able-bodied counterparts. This is especially true in dressage, where the rider and the horse become one entity. A para-equestrian just melds with the horse in a different way.
“The more understanding we have of what Paralympic athletes are doing — just the amazing and intense level of competition and athleticism — the more mainstream the event becomes,” Jackson says. “And the more the support will grow and grow.”
Jackson will be watching her peers in Tokyo — and she hopes the rest of the world will be too. “Our United States para-dressage team is stronger than it has ever been!” she says.
In the almost six years since her amputation surgery, Jackson has achieved success she never could have dreamed of as an able-bodied competitor. Every day, she’s grateful. “I’m just learning and learning and learning,” she says. “It’s been an incredible and humbling experience.”
Horse Empowered Learning Programs (HELP), is an Austin-based nonprofit that serves individuals with physical and mental disabilities through Therapeutic Riding, Equine Facilitated Learning, and Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy.
BrookeUSA helps improve the lives of 1.7 million working horses, donkeys, and mules across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. By increasing the welfare of equine communities across the globe, Brooke's efforts simultaneously benefit human livelihoods, as healthy animals help individuals in developing countries work their way out of poverty.
Feature image by Rachel Spencer, Re Photography, Rachel-Elizabeth.com