James Dwyer doesn’t remember a time when there were not horses in his life. “My dad always had horses, ponies at home, so I started riding, I suppose I was five or six. I was riding at a pretty early age. We all rode. We went to the gymkhanas and we used to show jump quite a lot.” It was an all-horses-all-the-time childhood in the Irish countryside, idyllic and peaceful. But in 1987, everything changed for Dwyer. Just shy of 17 years old, he was diagnosed with cancer.
“I had my 17th birthday in hospital,” he says. The cancer was in his leg, which the surgeons tried to save. “They took the bone out and took out my knee and put in an artificial knee and a bar into my ankle bone,” he explained. “Afterward they sat me down and they advised me not to ride.” Discouraging news, certainly; but compared to the pain he suffered for years afterward, riding horses was the least of his concerns.
For ten years, Dwyer struggled with pain, frequent infections, multiple surgeries and more time in hospitals. The bar which replaced his bone was a problem almost from the beginning. And yet, as he reflects on those ten painful years, he is remarkably placid.
He recalls in vivid detail repeated attempts by doctors to relieve his pain and help him get on with life. “Because they had to take out a lot of muscle in my leg to get the bar in, there was a lot of fluid that was forced out of my skin, and that led to infections. Over the ten years I had several operations to deal with the infections.” In the end, he says, he realized that the way forward for him was amputation. After yet another hospitalization, followed by a few relatively pain-free months, the pain returned. “I knew what was coming ahead of me,” he says. “I remember saying to my mother, ‘I think I’m going to get it off.’”
“The Best Day of My Life”
“That was probably the best day of my life,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting to feel that way. But when I woke up from the anesthetic, I felt so good.” Pain-free, and eager to get on with his life, Dwyer was soon looking at horses again, wondering if he’d be able to enjoy riding as he had before.
He had friends from England who had just bought a house in Ireland. They had an Irish hunter, and asked him if he’d like to try riding again. “I tried, but it was quite awkward with the artificial leg that I had.” Still, he was intrigued, and eager to get back in the saddle. “I remember seeing the Irish Field (a newspaper covering equestrian news), and reading about the Paralympics.” He says that the paper reported that Ireland was forming a team and preparing to go to the European championships. “I called the team secretary,” he says, “and asked her about it and I actually wanted to know if they were going to do jumping. She said ‘why don’t you give Dressage a go?’”
Dwyer recalled his younger days at the equestrian events when he and his siblings would look down on Dressage, thinking it was boring. “I went to a clinic in January 2000 with the Irish team trainer, who told the secretary after the clinic that he’d like to work with me. The Dressage bug got me. It wasn’t boring any more. I kind of realized it was more than a bunch of circles,” he says.
Getting Serious About Dressage
Once bit by what he calls “the Dressage bug,” Dwyer began to focus on becoming part of the Irish Paralympics team. His family history with horses helped him overcome some—but not all—of the start-up costs associated with his goals. “The friends from England let me come and ride their hunter until I bought my own horse,” he says. “Since we had our own farm, I was able to keep him home. It wasn’t like as if I was coming into it brand new. We had horses, and we had equipment, so it wasn’t totally a new thing for me.”
As he progressed in Dressage, he started looking for new challenges. “My trainer in Ireland was very good, but I just felt I wanted to go away and learn more. A lot of the jumper riders would go to Europe.” Several people suggested he go to Germany for Dressage. He turned to his brother for advice. Patrick Dwyer trains show jumpers, and is currently working with Kevin Babington in Blue Bell, PA. “My brother said there are a lot of good riders and trainers over here.” Patrick talked to friends and associates, looking for a good Dressage program for his brother.
One of his friends, an eventer, knew Missy Ransehousen very well, and suggested that James give her a call. “I called Missy in 2001, and told her who I was, and at that stage she had just become the coach of the Paralympics team. I didn’t have to explain a whole lot. She understood that part. I said to her I’d like to come over for a couple of weeks and see how we get on.”
The Trip That Changed Everything
Dwyer says that he was so focused on coming to America and hoping to find the perfect trainer that he didn’t realize how life-changing that phone call would be. As coach of the United States Paralympics Equestrian team, Ransehousen has devoted much of her career to helping her students excel at every level of Dressage. She and her mother, Jessica Ransehousen, make a formidable team. Jessica Ransehousen was one of the world’s top Dressage riders, actively competing through 1999. Both mother and daughter have competed in the highest levels of their disciplines, and together they’ve brought students to the top echelons of equestrian sports. Their Blue Hill Farm in Unionville is home to champion competitors in Dressage and eventing, in addition to the country’s Paralympics equestrian team.
“The funny thing was I didn’t even know who Jessica was when I first came over,” Dwyer says. “When I stayed those first couple of months, and started meeting a lot of her friends and a lot of people, I realized how much she had done for Dressage over here.
“I'm very lucky to have come to this place," he says, considering how little he knew about Missy Ransehousen and the program at Blue Hill Farm. "It worked out very well."
Very well is an understatement. In 2008, Dwyer competed in six Prix St. George tests; he won three and came in second twice All six tests included competitors without handicaps. In 2009, Dwyer’s winning ways continued, as he moved up to Intermediate I level, and won his first show at that level. Then at the Para Equestrian Dressage National Championships, he won all Grade IV tests.
He is representing Ireland at the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Kentucky, and is hoping to compete in London in 2012.
A Willing, Forward Horse
Dwyer soon outgrew his first Dressage horse, King, and with Missy Ransehousen, he began looking for a new prospect. In a whirlwind trip to Holland, he found Orlando, also known as Ben…or Benjamin Bear. “He seemed to be a very willing horse. One of my major difficulties would be a half-pass to the left because I don’t have that leg. When I rode him and asked him to half-pass, he just went ahead and did it. Even at that stage he was willing.” Dwyer and Orlando have become a winning team since 2006, and recently warmed up for the WEG, competing in Morven Park’s Autumn Dressage Show in mid-September. “He was a good boy. He got a 71 in his freestyle and 72 in his individual.” Translated, that means Dwyer and Orlando placed first in both tests.
Dwyer is enjoying life at Blue Hill Farm, and happy that he took a second look at Dressage. “I love it over here. Where I am in Unionville is very like home. It is very much out in the country here, which is what it is like at home.” He recognizes that, in the end, nobody achieves anything alone. And he’s grateful to be a student and a part of the Ransehousens’ extended family at Blue Hill Farm. “I’ve made a lot of very good friends over the years. I couldn’t do this without them—without their help.”