By Britney Grover
Everything was in line with Margaret “Gigi” McIntosh’s big eventing dreams: Under the tutelage of Bruce Davidson, she had ridden in her first 3* event in 1997, followed by the 4* level in 1998. She was long-listed for the Pan Am Games both years, and had high hopes for her future. Everything changed over a single jump in spring 1999.
Most people would consider the circumstances of Gigi’s paralysis a disaster — but Gigi sees herself as lucky. “With the diagnosis of an incomplete spinal cord injury, I realized the first morning at the Good Shepherd Rehab Hospital what a great opportunity I had been given,” Gigi shared. “While initially completely paralyzed from my chest down, I had the prospect of regaining my strength and mobility through hard work, an outcome denied those whose spinal cord had been completely severed. Just knowing that I’d been spared eternal confinement in a wheelchair was all the motivation I ever needed.”
That motivation enabled Gigi to regain the ability not just to walk, and not even just to ride: She is one of the country’s top para dressage athletes, having competed in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and with her sights now set on the 2018 World Championships.
A Horse Crazy Kid
Though Gigi wasn’t born into an equestrian family, she was born wanting to ride. “I was one of those kids who chased the dog with a saddle!” she said. “I asked for a pony every Christmas and on every birthday. When I broke my arm, my father begged me to stop crying and promised me anything I wanted. My very next Christmas present was a lovely little Welsh pony.”
Just 7 years old, Gigi began taking riding lessons with the local riding instructor, a retired army captain named Elwood Geissler. Elwood was an avid foxhunter, one of the earliest dressage judges in the U.S. and very enthusiastic about the up-and-coming sport of eventing. “Our lessons with him included a lot of cross-country riding,” Gigi recalled. “Before too long, my brother and I were galloping around playing cowboys and Indians with Elwood’s daughter, Betsy.”
After her early lessons with Elwood and a summer course at Potomac Horse Center, Gigi had little riding instruction before 1968 when she went to Stoneleigh Burnham School in Greenfield, Massachusetts. “The school not only had horses, they hosted one of the earliest combined training competitions in New England,” she said. “After working really hard all winter, I rode in my first event at age 14!”
Stoneleigh gave Gigi not only her first eventing experience, but paved the way to her first job in the equestrian world. “Luckily for me, Denny Emmerson’s parents were headmaster and headmistress at Stoneleigh,” Gigi explained. “When May and Denny left the riding program to start Tamarac Hill Farm in Stratford, Vermont, I went with them and became their first working student, grooming, mucking, haying and riding every summer through high school and college. In that time, I rode through the Intermediate Level, including the long-format three-day event that would later become Bromont.”
Denny Emmerson and Bromont weren’t the only pieces of equestrian history that Gigi came in contact with as she pursued her dreams. Her first “real” job after college was with Gunnar Ostergaard, who had recently arrived from Denmark to train Ellin Dixon. “Working at Erdenheim, the Dixons’ farm, provided a unique opportunity,” Gigi said. “Mr. Dixon sponsored Michael Matz, a very successful show jumper who employed one of the best grooms of all time, Karen Golding. I learned everything I could about horse care and management from Karen, an invaluable opportunity!”
In 1979, Gunnar introduced Gigi to George and Inge Theodorescu, who gave her a working student position at their farm in West Germany. “I found myself living at Gestute Lindenhof riding three or four horses a day and grooming for George and his daughter Monica at all the big European shows,” Gigi recalled. “Reiner Klimke and Hubert Rehbein were still competing at that time and Jan Brink was a working student with me.”
Gigi rode under George and Inge’s supervision for three years before she met her husband, Brian, and moved back to the United States. Riding took a side position to family life for a short time — Gigi’s daughter, Charlotte, was born in 1985, and her son, Cam, in 1987. “I kept my horse in Green Hills, Pennsylvania, with Jane Beck,” Gigi said. “Jane took lessons regularly with Bruce Davidson and hosted his clinics at her farm. Cam was two months old when I first asked Bruce for help.”
It was while riding with Bruce that Gigi began to excel. She rode in her first 3* event in 1997, moving right up to 4* the next year with her sights set on some of the world’s largest events. But everything changed with one jump at Morven Park in 1999, when her horse took off too soon and his back legs caught over a ramp jump. The horse fell on his shoulder, and Gigi hit her chin.
Road to Recovery and Beyond
Gigi’s fall resulted in a cracked C6 vertebra, an incomplete spinal cord injury resulting in quadriplegia. She overcame the risk of blood clots and other life-threatening complications, making miraculous progress during her six weeks in the hospital and nine months outpatient care. “I was devastated,” said Gigi’s husband, Brian, “but the kids took it in stride.”
Charlotte and Cam were in 9th and 6th grade at the time of the accident. “Brian had always been very involved in their daily lives and I had often been away with the horses, so that aspect was not unusual,” Gigi said. “They have been a great help through the years … wonderfully proud and supportive!”
Despite her optimism and determination, even Gigi had dark moments. “You know that feeling when you wake up, feeling great about the new day, then reality strikes?” she admitted. “Having spent the previous 10 years setting short- and long-term equestrian goals every waking moment, I faced a black despair right after my accident.”
Still, Gigi knew her life would be incomplete until horses were back in it. “Mindful of Brian’s trepidation at putting me back on a horse, I enlisted my physical therapists as accomplices in recommending hippotherapy as soon as possible,” she said. “Fortunately, my dear friend, Jane Cory, ran the therapeutic riding Cort Center at her Pleasant Hollow Farm with a string of lovely, very appropriate horses.”
With horses again part of her daily life, Gigi was well on her way to being herself again. “Jane struck a perfect balance between keeping my riding safe and interesting, without being patronizing,” she said. “My dear eventing friends provided two lovely retired Rolex horses for me to ride through my recovery years, Trans Am Aflirt and Idalgo. As I regained strength and developed a rapport with Idalgo, I expressed an interest in competing and Jane encouraged me to contact Missy Ransehousen, another event rider. More importantly, Missy was then the coach of the U.S. Para Equestrian Dressage Team. Early in 2011, when we decided to try out for the Paralympics in London in 2012, I felt like I was back to my true competitive nature.”
Back on Top
Competing on a borrowed mount, Gigi missed making the 2012 Paralympic team by a hundredth of a percent. Soon after, Gigi began an intensive search for a dedicated para dressage horse, a departure from the usual retired event horses. In 2013, she saw a video of a mare named Rio Rio online and fell in love. Since Rio was in Washington state, a long way from Gigi and Missy in Pennsylvania, it took many videos, communications and even friends test-riding Rio before Gigi and Missy finally flew to Seattle to ride and, two months after discovering the initial video, purchase Rio.
Rio ended up being the perfect partner for Gigi at the time. The two were Reserve National Champion and Reserve Champion at the Para Selection Trials in 2014. One of four equestrian women, Gigi competed at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. She could have stopped there. “I sincerely considered retiring after the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro last year, but Para Equestrian Dressage in the United States has come to a very exciting new place!” she said. “The new president of US Equestrian, Murray Kessler, has devoted his entire stipend to Para Equestrian with a promise to promote it during his tenure. Early this spring, the USEF hired the best para coach in the world to advise the U.S. riders: Under Michel Assouline’s direction, Great Britain has topped the world for the past three Olympiads.”
Michel’s wife, Mette, was asked to help the American riders find competitive horses, so with her next goal being the 2018 World Championship, Gigi traveled to Denmark in May 2017 with Mette and Missy. There, Gigi found Heros, whom she rode for six weeks in the U.K. over the summer before returning to the U.S. to place second in the 2017 National Para Equestrian Dressage Championship in Tryon, North Carolina.
“Since then, I have been training assiduously in Pennsylvania with Missy and her mother, three-time Olympian Jessica Ransehousen,” Gigi said, and her training is already paying off. Gigi and Heros traveled to Wellington for further training with Michel and the first of the World Equestrian Games selection trials. In the first week’s Grade I CPEDI 3*, held January 8 as precursor to the 2018 Adequan Global Dressage Festival, Gigi and Heros scored in the high 70s for a decisive first place.
Gigi is the first to credit much of her success to the help of others, from her early experiences with Denny Emmerson and Gunnar Ostergaard to Bruce Davidson and beyond. “Once again, with Missy and Jessica Ransehousen and the Assoulines, I have had the serendipity of having coaches at the top of my chosen discipline just when I most needed them,” she said. “All of them have been generous with their time and their knowledge in helping to make my dreams come true. How lucky is that?”
Understanding how important horses are to her, even though he must have been nervous about Gigi getting back on a horse, her husband has never wavered in his love and support. Gigi’s children have been by her side for the entire journey — even when it got frustrating. “Their one overarching complaint has always been how slowly I walk. ‘Mom, going anywhere with you is like standing in a line!’ Now, my grandson loves walking with my canes … given a set of kid-sized golf clubs, he promptly up-ended them into pretend walking sticks.”
Just as others have inspired her, Gigi’s success is an inspiration to others. When asked what she would choose to tell every rider, whether able-bodied or para-equestrian, she responded, “Henry Ford said it: ‘If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, you are probably right.’ And, never, never, never give up.”
Photos courtesy of Gigi McIntosh, unless otherwise noted