Riding Dressage with a Service Dog

A rider with grand mal seizures continues dressage thanks to her service dog.
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Credit: Peter Tenzer Photography
Judith Wright with her horse, Gillian, and service dog Connor.

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When avid dressage rider Judith Wright heads to the ring, she brings not only her helmet but also her dog, Connor, for safety. 

Connor is Judith’s seizure-alert service dog. Judith has grand mal seizure disorder and typically experiences a loss of consciousness along with violent muscle contractions. These types of seizures are caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain, which can be due to epilepsy or even a stroke or traumatic head injury.

 Connor, an 8-year-old Irish Setter, helps to make Judith’s life as whole as possible in spite of the lingering threat of an unexpected seizure. She says that without Connor by her side she would not be able to shop, ride her horses or be safe anywhere. Connor does the job that no human can do: He possesses the uncanny ability to predict her seizures hours before they occur. This is especially important to Judith as a rider because a seizure while in the presence of her horses could be disastrous. Although riding is a risky sport in itself, Judith, her doctors, her husband and her family put a tremendous amount of trust in Connor. “The consensus is that the dog takes care of everything,” she says. 

Judith had her first experiences with horses when she was a child. But before she became a serious rider, she had high hopes in a competitive figure-skating career. By the time she was 17, she had had at least 19 concussions, and in 1979, she was involved in a car wreck where she was hit head-on by a drunk driver. 

There are no concrete explanations as to how Connor is able to predict seizures, but it is theorized that dogs are able to pick up on a specific smell or subtle changes in vocal ability that are associated with seizures. Some say that they sense minor changes in a person’s movement, such as small tremors that would go unnoticed by the human eye.

In a study conducted by Adam Kirton at Alberta Children’s Hospital in Canada, nine out of 60 dogs (15 percent) were able to predict a seizure and expressed their warnings by licking, whimpering or standing next to the affected person. The dogs that did predict seizures were able to detect them 80 percent of the time with no false reports. Amazingly, the dogs in this study were not trained and simply began predicting the seizures spontaneously within a month of moving in with their owners. Although some dogs are naturally inclined to predict seizures, dogs like Connor must meet very specific training requirements in order to be considered service dogs. Connor was trained according to the strict guidelines of the U.S. Justice Department and the Delta Society, an organization that seeks to improve human health through therapy, service and companion animals.

Connor has proven himself as a worthy service dog on a number of occasions. One day when Judith was riding, he barked at her in an attempt to alert her of an oncoming seizure. Judith was distracted and she did not notice his warning barks. To gain her attention, Connor proceeded to repeatedly throw his body against the side of the barn. Judith noticed his behavior and jumped off her horse, only to have a seizure shortly after dismounting. 

Credit: Peter Tenzer Photography Judith’s service dog, Connor, helps her find independence in daily life.

Credit: Peter Tenzer Photography Judith’s service dog, Connor, helps her find independence in daily life.

While Connor has the natural ability to predict her seizures, Judith encouraged his natural confidence around horses and his tolerance for unusual circumstances. Connor is barn savvy and extremely careful around the horses. “I taught him how to walk alongside the horse so he could follow me, and I showed him where to sit and wait for me. He has learned not to go into a horse’s stall. He just stands outside and looks into them,” she explains. “He knows which two horses are his. He sits between their stalls and keeps his distance from the other horses.” When Judith rides, Connor sits on a designated mat, ready to alert her in the event of an emergency. “Since he is an Irish Setter, his favorite thing is to run through the field with me as I ride,” she says. 

Judith’s horses, Gillian, a 23-year-old registered Quarter Horse, and Cadiz, an 8-year-old Hanoverian, know that when they see her, they should expect to see Connor, too. “The horses don’t ever see me without seeing Connor, too. It’s always either the four of us or the three of us. We are a package,” she explains. 

Because of Connor’s continual presence around the barn, owning horses with good temperaments that are also dog-tolerant is crucial for Judith. “Say I saw a beautiful horse with beautiful movement,” she explains. “That doesn’t mean I would want that horse. There’s another quality that has to be first. The horse has to be naturally comfortable around the service dog. There are horses that are and there are horses that aren’t. That’s something I can’t work around,” she says. 

Judith has studied dressage for 25 years and currently works with Diane Mansour, focusing on training and reinforcing “beautiful basics,” rather than competing with Cadiz. To Judith, everything comes from the basics. She says that solidifying the elementary building blocks of dressage is more important than competing and moving up the levels. 

“As a rider, I am fully enamored by the fact I am able to participate in this sport outside of direct competition in any way I want,” she says. “My focus is training. If I want to do flying changes in a field, that’s what we should do. One day, I would like to get a shadbelly and white breeches and ride the Prix St. Georges test in a field, simply because it’s a pretty test.”

Judith has worked with trainers such as John Zopatti and Silke Rembacz, who helped her progress in her riding career. She credits much of her riding success to John, who helped her learn to finesse her abilities by leasing his schoolmaster many years ago. She says Silke helped her train Gillian through Fourth Level and through some of the Prix St. Georges movements. Before Judith retired Gillian two years ago, she enjoyed taking him to hunter paces and going on trail rides.

Judith’s process-oriented riding goals seem to be uncommon, yet refreshing, within the realm of a highly competitive sport. “When I first went to Silke, she asked me what my goals were. I said, ‘teach me to teach my horse and help us go as far as we can happily go together.” 

Judith’s background as a skater has helped her riding in unexpected ways. “I have this feeling of grace when I think of a horse and riding. That’s how I felt as a skater. It’s very similar to riding. In my lessons with Silke, she would tell me to do something, and I would do it because I had been used to being told what to do from skating.” 

Judith says that she does not compete for a few reasons. It is logistically complicated to bring a service dog to a show, and the fact that Connor needs to be in proximity to her at all times creates a dilemma for normal show procedures, such as being in the warm-up ring. Additionally, many people are not aware of service-dog etiquette (see “Service-Dog Etiquette” on page 21) and can distract Connor from doing his work. Even in the animal-friendly horse world, Judith has encountered individuals who are not sensitive to proper behavior around a service dog such as Connor.

However, it’s not just showing that is complicated for a rider who needs a service dog at her side. When considering training opportunities, Judith must take into account that wherever she rides it must be a safe environment for Connor, free from aggressive dogs that might hurt or distract him. 

Judith recalls an instance when Connor was attacked by another dog at a previous barn. He suffered multiple puncture wounds, two of which went so deep into his chest that they just missed his heart and lung. “He almost died,” Judith says.

Due to the nature of their work, service dogs are not very aggressive and so there tends to be a high statistic of injury for them. According to a survey from The Seeing Eye Organization, 44 percent of seeing eye dogs are attacked by other dogs at least once in their life. Of that percentage, many of them don’t have the confidence to go back to work. “If anything happens to Connor, I can’t function,” she says. 

Connor helps Judith find independence in daily life, but he isn’t her only source of freedom. Judith says, “To me, the actual act of riding is tremendous freedom. Being on the farm with a smaller number of people and being around animals is the wonderful part of my day.”

Service-Dog Etiquette

• Allow the service dog to serve as a working partner without any attempt to distract him by calling, clapping or offering him food.

• Don’t attempt to pet or touch the service dog. 

• Speak to the person, not the dog, when greeting a service-dog team.

• Don’t be offended if your request to pet the service dog is not granted or if the handler does not wish to chat about the service dog.

• Don’t automatically tell a person that dogs are not allowed in a parti-cular location or situation. 

• If you are operating a business, ask if the dog is a service dog. If a person says yes, no further questions are necessary.

• Never assume that a dog is not a service dog because the person doesn’t  look disabled. 

• Do observe the conduct and interaction between the person and the service dog. If the dog is being attentive to his or her partner and functioning close to that person, you are looking at the main characteristics of a service dog.

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