Stefanie Putnam is a lot like any other twenty-something; she’s a working hard to achieve her goals while trying to make her way in the world.
Putnam also faces a unique challenge. After an injury (non-horse related) in 2009 that left her paralyzed from the shoulders down, the 27-year-old’s life was dramatically altered. But she refuses to be defined by her circumstances, and attests that it was the dream of horses that kept her going.
And when it comes down to it, she’s got personality in spades. Funny and engaging, Stefanie has an indomitable spirit that picks up and starts over again with determination.
With roots in England, the Putnam family found their way to Northern California where Putnam started training in earnest in 1997 with ProEquest Pro Gry McFarlane at Windfall Farm. It was an instant love affair with the horses.
“My mom used to ride horses, and she got me into horses. I started with ponies, did pony hunters, and then moved into the other classes. I loved show jumping. It was my life - all consuming,” she describes.
Together, Putnam and her mom would go to the shows, sharing a horse to cut down on expenses. Her talent and ambition helped her rise through the ranks during her junior years, and she set lofty goals, having her sights set on an eventual Olympic bid. “Her love of the sport and horses shines through her smile still today,” McFarlane attests.
Although Putnam didn’t have a horse of her own during college, she rode on the college polo team and hopped on any horse she could as a catch rider. With a career in advertising (after graduating with a B.A. in Graphic Communications from California Polytechnic State University) on the horizon, Putnam had hoped to return to the show ring with gusto.
She had her whole life planned out.
But, when life changed all those plans, her greatest fear was losing the one constant that she always had – the horses.
“To some people it’s everything, and that’s me. It’s the whole base of my life. It’s what helps me be who I am; it feeds me. I had dreams of coming back after college. That was the goal. That’s where I left off,” she says.
After her injury, Putnam was told she would never be able to ride horses, and along with it, the thought of not having horses in her life at all was devastating. But, a glimmer of hope emerged when carriage driving became a possibility. It was a pivotal turning point for the challenges she faces.
Gushing about her trainers and the horse that made it possible, Putnam attributes much of her progress and success to their unwavering support and assistance. There by her side, are trainers Scott Monroe and Leslie Berndl. Monroe and Berndl are both international driving competitors with multiple successes. In fact, Monroe and his horse Shadow are three time Advanced Level U.S. National Driving Champions and two time International competitors on the U.S. team. After Berndl saw how well Putnam and Shadow hit it off, it was only a matter of convincing Monroe to let Putnam lease the seasoned 18-year-old Morgan gelding. His heartfelt decision to enable Putnam and Shadow to pursue a new career meant putting his own goals on hold as Shadow had qualified for the 2012 World Championships in Portugal.
A Different Approach
When Putnam is driving she has an air of confidence that shows in her smile. And once she takes the reins, she’s a true force. She competes on a level playing field against able-bodied drivers in a sport similar to eventing – combined driving.
With her reins attached to specially designed cuffs around her wrists and a specially designed adaptive seat, Putnam is able to gain leverage and stability. “I don’t have any feeling or function in my hands, but I can remember the ‘feel’ of the contact with the horse even though I can’t actually feel; it’s incredible,” she explains. “I never knew what it was like to drive a horse before. But, it is very similar to riding. All of the prior horse knowledge I had and the way I rode before, it started- in a weird way- to come back.”
With great determination and hard work, Putnam and her team have already garnered several successes out in competition. Humble with a streak of funny, Putnam doesn’t miss a beat when asked about her success. “Ok, so basically I’m the equivalent of the short stirrup level,” she says with a laugh. But, she knows rising through the ranks is a process and is ready for the road ahead.
Putnam has also learned to really develop a feel for her horse, helping her finesse her new skills. “With me- I’m basically paralyzed from the top of the chest down, so having this injury and losing the amount of feeling I’ve lost- well, it’s a really different sensation,” she explains. “Everything pulls to the center. Where the connection is from the horse and where the reins are attached – I’m really driving from my heart. That’s how I say it because that’s how it feels.”
The Best Therapy
With combined driving, Putnam is now going around obstacles these days instead of over them. And the same principles she learned during her hunter/jumper years still apply; noting that she has to make sure her horse is tracking up and on the bit. “When I’m up there – I’m in control. In life, I may not be in control 80% of the time, but when I’m up there, I am.”
With Shadow as her partner, Putnam is also seeing small amounts of progress in tasks that she couldn’t do after the accident - like putting on his halter.
Also suffering from a paralyzed vocal cord, Putnam has seen her voice improve as a result of driving. “I use a lot of verbal commands, and in driving, you’re allowed; so, I really lucked out! In fact, Putnam stopped her regular physical therapy for the best therapy that exists for her – “I just drive.” Her positive attitude and progress is an impressive reminder of the power of a passion.
“I even look down and see my fingers; it’s almost like they’ve curled around the rein. I didn’t do it, and I can’t feel it happen. How do my hands know that those are reins, and that’s what they should do? I’m finding things that are very wild. It’s such a connection,” she explains with a hint of awe.
These days, Putnam is working on completing a Masters in Advertising, and makes sure she gets out to the barn every chance she can. “I don’t feel like I’m suffering. I’m on cloud nine with the horses. I’ve really got that quasi adrenaline junkie side of me. And if I can rip around those hazards, perfect a few strides in the canter or a well collected trot, it keeps me alive,” she describes.
Her competitive streak remains in full force with the goal of one day representing the U.S. in the World Para-Equestrian Driving Championships. “The beauty and healing power of our wonderful equine companions is an amazing thing. Stephanie was and is a fierce competitor,” says McFarlane.
With help, support and her own courageous outlook, Putnam is making her mark in the horse world, and beyond. “You lose a little bit of faith in things, but people have shown me that all the possibilities still exist. Such a realization re-instills faith inside of me. If there’s one thing I know – it’s horses,” Putnam attests.