Katie’s Road to Rio.

Katie and her beautiful gelding Marquis. photo credit: Katie Umback
Katie and her beautiful gelding Marquis. photo credit: Katie Umback

Obstacles, adversity and challenges are thrown at us in life for a reason and we have 2 choices: we can succumb to them and be defeated in our journey or we can overcome them, grow from them and go on to fulfilling our lives with whatever our heart and mind desires.”

Imagine this: you’re a professional horse trainer and national level rider in multiple disciplines. Horses are a massive part of your life and always have been. Now imagine that you’ve been told you may lose the ability to walk and certainly won’t be able to ride. This was the reality for Sydney Para dressage competitor Katie Umback. When Katie was in the prime of her life and career, she wasn’t able to ride for six years after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at age 32. She was ultimately given 10 years before she would completely lose the ability to walk and be confined to a wheelchair. After years of chemotherapy and several rounds of failed autoimmune medications, Katie decided it was time to take back some sense of the normality that she had known all her life and get back in the saddle.

“I had lost all my skills and physical abilities and the only thing I had left was my knowledge, so I had to teach myself how to ride a horse all over again.”

It took months of literally riding her horse around at a walk in her arena trying to get some remnants of her balance back before Katie was able to start trotting and after several spills and near misses, she was able to canter. Due to the aggressive nature of the Secondary Progressive MS that had destroyed Katie’s autoimmune system she now experiences numbness and loss of feeling in 70% of her body.

“Riding a horse now is very different to as I ever knew it, because of the lack of feeling in my body it operates very differently and the foot fall of the horse has become heightened to me, so now instead of riding with feeling, I ride to the timing of the foot fall of the horse, so I have become very good at timing and if my timing is out, my movement and my aid is out & it can get messy quickly.”

This hasn’t stopped her becoming the number one Grade 3 Para Dressage in Australia and gaining a spot on the National Para Dressage High Performance Squad for riders who are in contention to compete at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics. Katie and her husband will travel to Holland early next year along with her beautiful and trustworthy Dutch Warmblood gelding Marquis, to compete at the last few qualifying competitions in Europe. In order to secure a position on the Olympic Team, the duo must score in excess of 73% in the Grade 3 tests which is the benchmark qualifying score for her grade.

“I should be totally disabled by now but I never accepted that outcome for my life, I always stayed positive in my thoughts and everything I do and have never given up on myself or my dreams and now I’m living my dreams.”

Katie’s passion for riding began when she was just 3 years old; her father would lead her along on her old pony. By the time she was 7 she competed in Dressage, Show jumping and One Day Events. At 12 she made it to National level Pony Club, then qualified for State representative level in One Day Events at 16yo, but a nasty spill during a cross country round three weeks before the competition saw a tumultuous end to her illustrious show jumping career.

“In my early 20’s I broke in my first horse and began breaking and educating my own horses for the Dressage and Show ring, teaching people to ride and also taking on other people’s horses to break, train & re-educate and that evolved into a very successful business for the next 21years of my life until I was diagnosed.”

Once Katie had regained her riding ability on her old schoolmaster, it gave her the desire to get back into the competition arena and so she began searching for a more competitive dressage horse that would take her up the grades. After a year and a half of teaching herself how to ride again, Katie set herself the goal of competing Para Dressage and fulfill her lifelong dream of representing Australia Internationally and ultimately at the Olympics. In order to do so, she imported Marquis from Dutch-based Australian dressage rider and trainer Tristan Tucker, who had Marquis as a 3 year old and has since trained him to Grand Prix level prior to Katie purchasing him in 2013.

When preparing for competitions, Katie says that she is very systematic in her approach. She sets herself small, realistic goals that she feels are able to be achieved in a short space of time. Physically, this requires riding Marquis five times a week for an hour, including two formal lessons, as well as Pilate’s classes four to five times a week and plenty of walking but this will vary depending on how she is feeling from day to day. When preparing mentally, Katie has developed a very positive approach and credits her success partly to the positive attitude she has towards competing.

“… I believe the mind is a very powerful tool in our existence, so my thoughts prior to a competition (and in normal everyday life) are always very positive. I never focus on what could go wrong (because so many things can go wrong in the ring with horses), I just concentrate on everything that could go right and that gives me confidence in what I’m doing and it hasn’t let me down yet.”

Since their reasonably short partnership began, the pair have become both State and National Grade 3 Para Dressage Champion, as well as the highest scoring Para Dressage combination out of all four grades. Looking ahead to the future, which will always be uncertain for Katie given the unpredictable nature of MS, she has set herself a 5 year plan.

“Firstly, we have Rio Paralympics 2016, then we will focus on the World Equestrian Games on Canada in 2018, then finish off with Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Then I’m going to retire him from competition as he will be 17 then and I will probably retire from riding and forge a career as a Dressage judge.”

With such a focused and determined approach to life, and if past behavior is a predictor of future results, there’s little doubt Katie will achieve what she sets out to achieve. The best wishes of Australia’s equestrian community will be riding with her.

– Aiyana Levin

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