Issue: Spring/Summer 2015

A Journey of Listening

Wesley Dunham '87

It all started with my pony, Dolly, who knocked me off as a child by running under a low-lying branch. We had been at my parents’ new farm only a few days when I decided to go on my first trail ride. I had plans for an adventure discovering new lands in the forest beyond the horizon. As we approached the last of the apple trees before entering the woods, Dolly stopped, looked left, and turned to go back to the barn. I pulled with all my might on the right rein to try to turn her back; she happily took the right rein pull, flung all her weight into it, and turned left anyway.

With my bloody nose, scraped knees and teary eyes, I tore after Dolly, pleading with her to stop. She made it back to the barn much sooner than my little legs could take me. Upon reaching my once-trusted mount, we returned to the traumatic scene. I reassured her as I walked by her side into the woods and got back on once I knew she was listening to me. We went for hours exploring new territories. I loved the feeling of having my pony listen to and trust me. Since that experience, I have never been able to shake the desire to ride.

This desire continued with my first job after graduating from Houghton with a degree in physical education. As a physical education teacher at Randolph Academy, I began to think about how horses could be incorporated into a traditional physical education curriculum. I developed a physical education program that would become equestrian riding and horsemanship. Our alternative program quickly became one of the most sought after in our school.

My passion for horses eventually transformed my career as I transitioned to my current profession as proprietor of Woodstock Stables, an equestrian dressage facility in the Hudson Valley of New York State. My daily regimen entails managing every aspect of the farm from coaching and training to riding—from dawn until dusk.

It was God’s prompting in fall 2010 that turned my outlook and career upside-down. A client asked me to give a friend a dressage lesson. Her friend hoped to make the U.S. Para Dressage Team. The United States Equestrian Foundation defines the primary focus of “para-equestrian” as “providing educational and competitive opportunities for athletes with physical disabilities.” Para-equestrian events are highly competitive both nationally and internationally and include the World Equestrian Games and the Paralympics.

Donna Ponessa was my first para-equestrian. With her wheelchair and determination, Donna was unstoppable. We developed a plan and set out on a journey that took us to Australia, Mexico, and finally England where Donna represented the United States at the 2012 Paralympics Games. She finished fifth in the team competition, sixth in the individual, and eighth in the freestyle. I was so proud of her and my horse, Western Rose.

In England, para-athletes are superstars, much like movie stars in the U.S. They are hounded by the paparazzi and sought after for autographs by adoring fans. This inspired me to develop students and athletes in the hopes of changing our cultural perception of athletes with physical disabilities.

That same year, I was contacted by the Collier family of Anne Arbor, Michigan, about coaching their daughter, Sydney, who has Wyburn-Mason Syndrome. After much dialogue about her goals, Sydney and her mom moved to New York to train while the rest of the family stayed in Michigan. In my two years as Sydney’s coach, she has represented team USA at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France. She has won the Federation Equestrian International “Against All Odds” Award and was the 2014 United States Equestrian Federation Junior of the year.

In 2015, Sydney and a new rider, Lizzy Traband of Centre Hall, Pennsylvania, both hope to represent the United States in Kentucky at an international competition. With hard work and determination, I hope to bring them to my second Paralympics, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016!

Along with providing me with a diverse education, Houghton instilled within me an attention to detail and a spirit of empathy. Houghton’s strong sense of community and camaraderie and learning to let God guide the way through life has never been forgotten—even in the best of times.

My journey seems very short since the days of wandering off to the barn as an undergraduate at Houghton–yet it has involved decades of preparation, fine tuning, and a whole lot of determination heading toward my current profession.

It’s been a journey of listening—and trust.