Fiona Howard’s body was collapsing. Now she’s a world-ranked para dressage rider aiming for the Paris Olympics

Perched at the entrance of a stadium in Ocala, Florida, in mid-March, Fiona Howard takes a breath and coaxes a large, dark bay gelding with a gash of white down his face into a smooth trot.

She and the horse, an 11-year-old Hanoverian called Diamond Dunes, have only known each other a week. But their first competition together in dressage — the equestrian discipline sometimes referred to as “horse ballet,” in which riders and their mounts complete a sequence of choreographed movements to accumulate points — has been an auspicious one. After earning top marks for two previous rides at the weekend-long event, the pair enters the rectangular show ring for their third and final outing, a “freestyle” routine set to the thundering film score of “Avatar.”

In time to the music, they move seamlessly from figure eights to lengthened trots and a sidestepping sequence. Howard sits tall and straight; the horse’s long limbs seem to float just above the dirt. They finish in first place. “He went out there and crushed it,” Howard gushes about Diamond Dunes in an interview a few weeks later. “He’s really talented, with a great brain.”

The performance is impressive on its own; even more so because Howard, 25, has almost no control of her body from the torso down.

A 2021 graduate of Northeastern University, Howard has become one of the world’s top-ranked riders in para dressage, a style that accommodates physical disabilities, since taking up the sport three years ago. She was an accomplished equestrian in her youth, but a series of catastrophic health problems left her hospital-bound for much of her teens. She has since competed for the United States in elite para dressage competitions in Qatar, Europe and Australia; she divides her time between the U.S. and Germany, training with the top riders in the sport.

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Photo courtesy of Fiona Howard