Overcoming Disabilities Horse back

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Twenty years ago, an Illinois trail rider named Dawn Weber formed a special bond with a 3-day-old Quarter Horse colt, later named Admiral. Dawn saw a fiery spirit in his eye that was much like her own. It was a classic case of love at first sight.

Dawn broke Admiral herself, and the two logged many trail miles both in endurance competitions and for pleasure. When Admiral turned 6 years old, they rode in the One Horse Gap Ride in Southern Illinois' Shawnee National Forest; it was their first week-long, organized trail ride. This September ride offers fall colors, blue skies, and unusual rock formations.

One fateful day, the riders visited Garden of the Gods, known for its especially striking rock formations. Riders tied their horses, then ate lunch and explored the area on foot-hiking paths intertwine the rocks, providing awesome views. Dawn's adventuresome spirit led her out onto rock ledges for the best view. Then tragedy struck: After one wrong step, she flipped over backwards onto a rock and began slipping backwards into a dark crevice.

A rock climber who happened to be passing by grabbed her legs, saving her from possible death in the crevice below. But-not knowing she'd broken her back in the fall-he inadvertently severed both spinal cords in the process. In another twist of fate, an emergency doctor and nurse were also nearby; they tended to Dawn until a helicopter arrived to whisk her to the hospital.

Imagine 200 nervous horses as the rescue helicopter hovered overhead, looking for a place to land. It was clear the horses needed to get off the hill before another accident occurred. Ride promoter Bob Buchanan quickly tied his reins to his trusty mount's saddle horn and slapped his rear. The other riders followed the riderless horse-Hustler-toward camp, 10 miles away. After Dawn was safely loaded into the helicopter, Bob mounted a borrowed horse and caught up with the group about halfway back.

Back in the helicopter, Dawn had no detectable pulse or heartbeat. The only clue that she was alive was the fact that she talked the whole way to the hospital. The accident had left her paralyzed from the chest down. After her hospital stay, she was moved to Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. There, the focus was on getting Dawn back in the saddle again. She learned new ways to accomplish what she desired in life and adopted a "can-do" attitude.

In the meantime, Dawn's friends at Delshire Stable in Pekin, Illinois, spent hours teaching Admiral to accept a wheelchair. He also learned to lower his head for bridling.

Eleven months after the accident, Dawn returned home-then headed to the barn. Admiral, by now used to wheelchairs-took everything in stride. When she opened the stall door for the first time, he placed his head in her lap. Seven people assisted Dawn on her triumphant first ride, for which she'd worked so hard.

That June, a benefit ride was held at the One Horse Gap Ride to raise funds for a special-needs saddle for Dawn, so she could ride independently. They chose Randy Bird of Randy Bird Custom Saddles to craft the saddle-his first for a trail rider. A pickup wreck in 1986 had left Randy-a former rodeo cowboy-a paraplegic. He'd made his first saddle for himself, so he could ride again.

Dawn, mounted up in her new saddle, retrained Admiral to move forward with voice commands. The forward-moving attitude he was born with made him perfect for this sort of training, yet he also quietly accepts her legs tapping his sides. His stocky Quarter Horse build helps him to quickly adjust when Dawn leans sideways. Surefooted on even the rockiest of trails, he carries her safely.

The harmony between Admiral, now 20, and Dawn enabled her to attend the One Horse Gap Ride again after only four years since the accident. They rode every day and even returned to the Garden of the Gods. Dawn was the one riding up front, her long hair blowing in the breeze and a permanent smile on her face. Being around Dawn is like being around sunshine.

Since that first fund-raising ride, several Dawn Weber Handicapped Rides have been held. Dawn insists that the money be donated to local handicap riding programs. She's learned to live independently and wants to help others.

If you ever ride with Dawn, you'll soon notice how her abilities outshine her disabilities. Riding near the front of the Gap ride, you'll hear her call, "All clear Bob?" Then you'll see her and Admiral sailing through the air on gossamer wings as the pair jumps a downed tree. The jump will be punctuated with an "Eeeee haw!" and a fist held high.

This story is dedicated to Dawn's late father, Carl Weber, her biggest fan. For information on the One Horse Gap Ride, call (618) 683-RIDE, or visit www.onehorsegap.com. For more information on Randy Bird custom saddles, call (903) 513-6108, or visit www.randylbird.com.

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