Margaret McIntosh and Heros at the USEF Para Equestrian Dressage National Championships. Photo credit: Lindsay Y. McCall
Margaret McIntosh of Reading, PA, an incomplete quadriplegic, is making her mark as a para-equestrian competing in dressage abroad and at home.
A promising rider, competing at the international level in three-day eventing, McIntosh broke her neck during the cross-country phase of an eventing competition in 1999. She was 44 and initially, she was completely paralyzed.
“You can imagine how lucky I am. I spent six weeks in the Good Shepherd Rehab Hospital in Allentown. At the end of that time, I could walk very haltingly with a walker. At this point I can walk with two feet but I use a wheelchair for walking distances. The one good thing is I can still ride,” McIntosh, age 62, said. “Having ridden my whole life, it was pretty devastating at the time.”
With the goal of regaining as much of her mobility as possible, McIntosh has worked hard in the saddle and on the ground. “I think having been given a chance to regain a lot of my mobility, that in itself was an incentive,” she said. “When you’re in rehab, a lot of people will never leave their wheelchairs. Having always had the horses and having a goal, that gave me a boost.”
McIntosh’s husband Brian was worried about the idea of her returning to riding, but her desire to get back on a horse as soon as possible was not going to be deterred. “I was very lucky, one of my best eventing friends had a therapeutic riding program running at her farm, so she had all the perfect horses to start me with,” she said. “I really laid the ground work with my physical therapist. After about 6 months I was able to start riding with Jane Cory at what used to be the CORT Center for Therapeutic Riding at Pleasant Hollow Farm in Quakertown. She had the perfect horses for me to start out with and walked with me every step of the way.”
McIntosh, the mother of two, is able to ride with the help of adaptive equipment. “I started out with a bar across the front of my saddle that I could hold on to; I no longer use that,” she said. “My feet are actually tied to the stirrups and the stirrups tied to the girth because with my spasticity, my legs tend to shoot out straight. That’s not very conducive to riding. My hands are not very strong so I use reins with loops in them.”
Core Strength Key
Building the strength needed to ride takes exercise on the ground as well. “Core strength is one of the most important aspects of riding. As a para-equestrian, I’ve worked really hard to develop my core strength,” McIntosh said. “Some of the best para-equestrian riders have very little purchase other than a very strong core.”
McIntosh credits her growth in core strength to the work she has been able to do at a local facility, Chris Kaag’s Corps Fitness, which provides cross-fit type training, plus she does spinning classes.
Over time, Cory encouraged McIntosh to contact the US Paralympic Team Coach at that time, Missy Ransehousen.
Paralympic competition in dressage is structured in five levels, or grades. McIntosh competes in Grade One, which is for riders with the most limitations. Tests are limited to walk only, but riders must still be accurate in their transitions, the shape of their figures, and the rhythm of the horse.
“Your coach is allowed to warm the horse up for you, to get them all ready and to walk around the outside of the ring. Once you enter the ring, you’re absolutely on your own,” McIntosh said.
Riding a dressage test at just a walk is not easy. “It’s quite challenging actually. As an able-bodied rider, you use transitions often to balance your horse or re-engage them and focus their energy. When you’re in there walking, you don’t really have a chance to do that,” McIntosh said. “It’s all about communicating with the horse and figuring out how to communicate with that horse on any level.”
McIntosh has had many successes as a para-equestrian and was a member of the United States Paralympic team in Rio de Janiero in 2016. This summer, she traveled to Europe to train and compete in Para-Dressage competitions.
“The whole paralympics movement started in Great Britain,” she said. “They’re years ahead of us in their methods and their competition. The depth of competition in the United Kingdom is exponentially ahead of the United States. We have 20 athletes that compete in para-equestrian; in the United Kingdom there are hundreds in their very well-developed system.”
For the Paralympics last year, McIntosh’s mount was her mare Rio Rio. “She was a very talented horse who was being competitive in able-bodied competition as well as the paralympics. I actually sold her to an able-bodied rider after the competition. She was much too special a horse to just do walking competition for the rest of her life,” she said.
During her stay in the UK, McIntosh was able to work with former British Paralympic team coach Michel Assouline and his wife Mette.
“They have a very well-established system. I was lucky enough to be able to stay at his stable and get help not only from him, but from his wife, who is also very accomplished. She actually found the horse I’m competing right now for me,” McIntosh said.
Her new mount is a 13-year-old Danish Warmblood mare named Heros that has competed at third and fourth level. “She has a beautiful walk and seems to have the same heart of gold you always look for in paralympic horses. Their first job is to keep you safe as well as being competitive,” she said.
Riding Heros, McIntosh took part in the Bishop Burton CPEDI3* in Yorkshire, England July 25-29 where she took fifth in the Grade I Team Test with a 63.964%, was third in the Grade I Individual with a 64.536%, and placed second in the Freestyle with 68%.
As Pennsylvania Equestrian went to press, McIntosh was preparing for the USEF Para Equestrian Dressage National Championship, September 14-17, at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Tryon, NC.
“I really don’t know what to expect. We had a very good showing in Great Britain, but since then Heros has been imported to the United States. She spent three weeks in quarantine, she has had to make a lot of adjustments. This will be a brand-new venue for her at the end of a ten-hour van ride,” McIntosh said. “I’m hoping just to get a good score. The real competition for the World Equestrian Games will take place at this time next year in Tryon, North Carolina.”
Editor’s note: McIntosh was Reserve Champion at the National Championships, with an overall score of 70.747%. McIntosh and Heros won the Grade I FEI Team Test on Friday with 70.476%. They placed second in the Grade I FEI Individual Test with a 70.475% and first again in Sunday’s Grade I FEI Freestyle Test with a 71.833%.
“This was a leap of faith coming here. Heros improved with every test and has been a model of exemplary behavior. This was an old freestyle that I have ridden many times with my last horse, so coming into the ring to ride it felt like putting on an old shoe,” McIntosh said. “Heros just fit into the right place and seems to enjoy the music a lot.”