Paralympic dreams are helping the para-dressage rider, who lost her leg to cancer in 2015, find new inspiration to soar.
Four years ago, Katie Jackson’s life changed forever when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of soft tissue cancer, leading to an above-the-knee leg amputation. For many, it would have been a crushing blow.
But Katie, with her equestrian talent and the spirit of a champion, was inspired to pursue her wildest dreams: representing the U.S. Equestrian Team on an international stage.
As a lifelong equestrian growing up in a small town in Oregon, Katie has been horse-crazy for almost longer than she can remember. “For my sixth birthday, I begged and pleaded for riding lessons,” she says. From her first ride, being led around an arena at a local barn, Katie was hooked. For the next three decades, she pursued horses as a hobby.
“As a kiddo, you dream of being an Olympian,” she says. “But then you realize at some point that maybe that’s not in the cards for you.”
She went to dental school and founded her own practice called Northland Dental Studio in Austin, Texas, where she now lives and works. She competed at local shows from time to time and visited the barn after work. “It’s my happy place,” she says.
But being a competitive rider wasn’t Katie’s major focus… that is, until 2015, when she received the cancer diagnosis that would alter the course of her life.
“For whatever reason, I knew as soon as I got the diagnosis that I would ride again,” Katie remembers. And so, just three months after her amputation, she was back in the saddle, at a local therapeutic riding program located in Austin.
Still, there have been challenges along her journey as she’s learned to ride with a disability. “The biggest thing for me is the weight difference,” she explains. “Making sure I’m centered in the saddle.” And it’s been an ongoing process to find her confidence again.
Katie had help in her incredible competition partner: Diesel, a spectacular black Oldenburg gelding. The two were a powerful — and successful — duo. They were chosen as the first alternate for the 2018 World Equestrian Games team and received the Grade V Rider of the Year award from the United States Dressage Federation.
Diesel was retired earlier this year, and Katie is on the search for her next partner. When it comes to finding a horse for para-riders, the search process can be especially complicated. In addition to having the high caliber of gaits needed to compete at an international level, “it has to be a horse that wants a close partnership with their rider,” Katie explains. “It takes a special combination.”
“I still have my sights set on being part of one of our teams, whether it’s for Tokyo or a World Games in the future,” Katie says. “Finding the perfect fit for my new dance partner is never an easy thing, but I’m very ready.”
Although Katie hasn’t been able to compete much this year since Diesel’s retirement, she’s been keeping fit by training and riding with her coach, Catherine Haddad Staller. “Catherine’s teaching has helped me to really communicate and help my horses learn,” says Katie.
“As someone who became disabled as an adult,” Katie shares, “it’s really been my silver lining to have this door open up and be able to say, ‘I could be an Olympian.’”
She credits the para-equestrian community as her biggest inspiration. “I’ve seen so many incredible athletes who have overcome huge hurdles to be doing the things that they do,” she says. “It’s an amazing opportunity for a lot of riders to develop as athletes and compete in an elite sport.”
For Katie, the theme of support rings true in all aspects of her life — especially when it comes to supporters like YOU! “To the supporters of the USET Foundation, thank you,” she says. “When they say it takes a village to support our athletes and our teams, it truly does. The more opportunities available just means that our country is going to be that much more competitive and successful. What we do wouldn’t be possible without them.”