Riding had been a form of therapy for Colombia’s Daniel Valderrama until he met legendary Para dressage coach Clive Milkins. Riding, since then, has become his life.
The two met four years ago, when Valderrama attended a clinic in Uruguay. It was run by Milkins, a former trainer and mentor to Para dressage’s top athletes and multi-Paralympic champion Sophie Christiansen of Great Britain.
“Clive asked me if I felt a connection with the horse,” Valderrama recalled. “I told him that I’d been riding since I was two years old, so of course I felt a connection. But I remember clearly that he then gave me a couple of simple instructions about the buttons I had to push on the horse. I then managed to get the horse on the bit and connect with it in a totally new way.”
“That was so satisfying to me and, in that moment, I decided that Para dressage was what I wanted to do with my life.”
The once-in-a-lifetime encounter changed Valderrama completely. A grade IV classified rider, he dreams of representing his country at the Paralympic Games. Tokyo 2020 is not possible, but his mind is set on 2024 and 2028.
GETTING BACK ON A HORSE
Valderrama grew up on a ranch in the Eastern plains of Colombia, some eight hours from the capital, Bogota.
“I always loved riding, especially on the ranch, and I’ve always had a connection with animals,” he explained.
At age 12, he had a stroke that led to his impairment on the left side of his body. That was when riding became more of a means of therapy at a local disability centre.
“But therapy is therapy,” he added. “And I wanted to do something more than that, so I went to a college that had dressage and riding for the disabled. It all started evolving until I started Para dressage.”
He graduated with a degree in psychology, then went to Edinburgh University in Scotland to get his Masters in applied animal behaviour.
“You have to change how people think about disabled people riding a horse,” he said. “It’s no longer therapy or to rehabilitate people – it’s about sports so you have to use psychology to do that. We’re riding as athletes, not just because we have disabilities.”
RIDING FOR OTHERS
At the request of Colombian Equestrian Federation, Valderrama returned to his home country to help develop Para dressage. But his ambitions do not stop with Colombia, who are yet to send a rider to the Paralympics since its inclusion at Atlanta 1996.
While he wants to be that rider to represent his country, he also wants others to join him.
“My other goal is to develop and build a team of Para dressage riders in Colombia that can qualify for the Los Angeles 2028 Games. If you take out Brazil you don’t have any other Latin American countries that have the opportunity to go to international competitions.”
He and Milkins share the same ambition, which is what brought them together in the first place at the clinic in Uruguay, which was part of the International Equestrian Federation’s (FEI) Solidarity programme to develop all equestrian disciplines.
“There’s an exciting future for our sport in Latin America, and not just in Argentina and Brazil,” said Milkins. “Many countries there, have good therapy riding programmes and there are some really good pockets of Para dressage in these countries too.”
“Anyone that has a life changing condition at his age, and then a few years later goes halfway across the world to a Scottish university with English as his second language, and who then has the gumption to go to Uruguay to work with me. Well, if anyone can do it, it will be Daniel.
“Plus, he’s a natural rider and a natural horse man, like so many from his part of the world.”
The pair keep in regular contact, and Valderrama is clear of the impact the relationship has had.
“I think I always had what I needed somewhere inside me,” he said. “I just needed that ignition from Clive to start it. And that first session with him was just that.”