The 17-year-old para-dressage rider won’t let anything stand in the way of his dream: the 2020 Paralympics.
David Botana shouldn’t be able to do this.
Born with VATER syndrome — a condition that can affect the vertebrae, esophagus, kidneys and other parts of the body — David deals with severe scoliosis, has endured countless treatments and hospital trips and has every reason to believe that athletics just simply aren’t for him.
Yet the inspiring 17-year-old para-dressage rider has his heart set on competing in the Paralympics in Tokyo next year, and he won’t let anything stop him.
“I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that I shouldn’t be possible,” says David. “But I am. I’m possible.” “I’m living every minute of every day of every year. I’m doing great. I’m physically active, doing para-dressage. I’m academically motivated, getting into school. And I’m socially active with all of my friends. And it’s amazing.”
From Little Pony to Big Stallion
“It’s a bit of a crazy story,” David remembers when asked how he started riding. “My mom and I were volunteering at a soup kitchen. We started talking to this lovely lady who had beautiful horseshoe earrings. One thing led to another and the next day I owned Rocky, a tiny little Pony of the Americas.”
David discovered para-dressage when his family moved to Maine for his father’s job. David had tried several adaptive sports, but nothing clicked until he began riding at Carlisle Academy, a therapeutic riding academy, with his spunky pony, Rocky.
“I loved the sport from the beginning,” says David. “I loved horses, but I never really thought of bringing it to a highly competitive level. But after my first [para-dressage] lesson, I knew I wanted to take it all the way to the Paralympics.”
A Paralympic dream, of course, comes with a whole range of challenges, some larger than others.
“Rocky, my tiny little pony, wasn’t about to get on a plane to Tokyo,” David recalls with a laugh.
And so began the search for a horse that could become David’s international-level mount. The financial obstacles were immense until David met Lord Locksley, a flashy gray Trakehner stallion owned by Meg Stevens and dressage trainer Susanne Hamilton, who was giving David lessons.
“Sure, I’d seen the beautiful, gorgeous stallion prancing around in his open field,” David recalls. “Maybe I’d even said ‘hi’ to him once. But I never dreamed I would ever sit on him.”
But Susanne saw something in both her horse and her young student, and her intuition was spot on. From David and Locksley’s very first ride together, the connection was tangible. The two were a perfect match.
At 16.2 hh, Locksley was notably taller than David’s little pony — “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’m a lot closer to the trees,’” he says — but Locksley seems to know he has to take care of David, and in turn, David says he’s never felt safer on a horse.
“He is the most calm, steady, bombproof horse. He’s calmer than most people I know,” says David.
Dialed in and Disciplined
In March, David achieved a huge milestone: He was selected for the U.S. Para-Dressage Team. “It felt amazing to do that,” says David.
And although David is technically a senior in high school, he’s already completed all his high school credits in order to prepare himself for the Paralympics in every possible way.
“Every morning, I wake up around 7 a.m. and do my exercise program to maintain symmetry in my body and help correct my scoliosis,” says David. Then, it’s either off to school or off to Susanne’s barn, a 90-mile trek, to ride Locksley.
Because David already has all the work completed to receive his diploma in May, he attends public school only every other day. And in December, he’ll stop attending entirely so he can embark on his newest adventure: spending the winter in Wellington, Florida, to ride and train full-time with Locksley and Susanne.
As focused as David is on the Paralympics, he’s also preparing for college, where he wants to study biomedical engineering. He’s made sure that all the colleges he’s applied to are willing to work with him as he trains and competes. He’s confident he can make both his dreams come true.
“My passion in life is to give people the tools they need to live a physically active life,” David says. “I’m going to study biomedical engineering so I can work on synthesizing organs, tissue, muscle and limbs so I can ideally give people physical capabilities. I want people to be able to do any kind of physical activity they want without restrictions from accidents or the way they were born or really any kind of physical disability.”
David believes the personal challenges he’s faced will serve him well. “I’ve spent so much of my life in hospitals and therapy. I’ve gotten to know the medical system as well as the limitations of a lot of treatments. And I think I’m in a really good place to help advance the field.”
Opening Doors for Others
David is also passionate about creating pathways for more young people in the competitive para- dressage arena.
“It’s predominantly not a young sport. I’ve seen a lot of younger athletes that are in the therapeutic riding programs but not on the competitive side,” David says. “And it’s such an amazing sport. … I really think that by making the International Team and then making it (to the Paralympics), I could really open up the sport to other young athletes.”
David is well aware of the financial challenges that often seem insurmountable to many young riders and their families. So he’s grateful for the people who have supported him over the years — and for people like you, who generously support the United States Equestrian Team Foundation!
“Over time, I’ve found amazing supporters who have helped make my dream come true,” David says. “Without their support, this couldn’t happen.”
But as David Botana continues to show, anything is possible.