"When somebody at a horse show comes up to me and tells me I inspire them, then I have done my job," Tessa says. Photo © Tessa Palumbo

Tessa’s Saving Grace: Rookie Overcomes Obstacles to Show at Level 1 East Championships

We all know that horses are therapeutic for both the mind and body. Rookie Amateur Tessa Palumbo of Frostburg, Maryland discovered this 28 years ago. Her occupational therapist recommended horseback riding as a way to strengthen and stretch her muscles. At the early age of six-years-old, Tessa was given her first horse by her grandfather who rescued him from a glue factory.

After starting off learning the ins and outs of showing through open shows, Tessa began competing on the Quarter Horse circuit. At eighteen, she started her AQHA show career and first exhibited at the Congress in 2004. Palumbo told us that western pleasure is her favorite class. “Having a disability my whole life, there are points where you do not feel equal to your peers. In the show ring, I am just like everyone else, and I am judged with my peers. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

Tessa explains her disability, “The doctors do not know what happened to me. After each baby shot, I became sicker and sicker. My parents were told I would die, but they didn’t believe that so they took me to see physical and occupational therapists. I regained everything except I walked with canes. The doctors could not believe I was alive because my brain looked like Swiss Cheese. When I was 21, though, I had episodes where I would go completely paralyzed. These would last a few months, and, then, I would get my strength back. I had 21 of these episodes. This left me with just the ability to stand and walk with a walker very short distances. They call it spastic quadriplegia of an unknown cause.”

The connection and understanding between horse, rider, and trainer play a crucial role within any successful team. Tessa and her trainer, Jeff Prescott of Uniontown, Pennsylvania have developed a unique and practical approach to teaching her horse, Our Saving Grace (Gracie), to work as one.

“Jeff had to learn my way of riding so he could ride my horse the way I would ride her. I flop on the horse because I do not have very good core strength. I can’t use my legs at all on my horse, so I bounce on her and cannot cue her like the normal rider. The bounce makes my arms move up and down with her stride bouncing her in the mouth,” Tessa explains. “Jeff had to prepare Gracie for all of this and so much more. Jeff has trained Gracie to go off of clicks and a little tap with my rein for my left lead. He bounces on Gracie and leans off of her while loping because I am always getting off center.”

Her trainer also had to teach Gracie to stand like a statue while she mounts and dismounts. “He would go up and down my steps making all kinds of noise to make sure Gracie stood like a rock. When mounting Gracie from the steps, Jeff mimicked my movements so Gracie would know what to expect. Jeff also uses zero leg when he rides Gracie himself, so she does not know any different,” Tessa says. “If Gracie does not listen that day, Jeff uses techniques I can perform so I can correct her.”

Tessa explains the process. “If Gracie does not go into her lope after I asked her twice, I take the slack up in my reins and tap her on her butt. If I want her to pick up the left lead, I tap her on her shoulder. If I want to jog, I click twice. If I want to lope, I click three times. Jeff taught her this in three months.”

Tessa adds, “Not all trainers are up for a challenge or want to take a chance on a ‘handicap person.’ Some trainers are not willing to change their techniques. Jeff did. Jeff took a chance on me, and every time I step into the show ring, I try to show the world how great my trainer is at the end of the day. My goal when I jog into an AQHA show pen is to make my trainer proud and do his name justice.”

Her trainer Jeff Prescott told us how he first met Tessa. “I’ve known her since she was a kid. I have always watched her ride and try to treat her just like anybody else. She hangs in there and does not want to ride in the special classes. That right there tells you a lot about her character.”

Jeff reveals, “She has nerves. Things scare her, but she keeps on going.”

Due to Tessa’s disability, everyday riding tasks become challenging to complete. She has had everything from a custom saddle to mounting block made to accommodate her needs. However, nothing is more important than the bond she shares with her barn family. “My barn family helps me up my custom-made steps onto my horse. It takes four people to help me mount my horse and is a 5-minute process. My PBPH family drops everything and helps me with anything they can.”

Her determination and passion are also prevalent in academics. “My second passion is teaching. I am a student at Frostburg State University. I am majoring in Elementary/Middle Education with a specialization in English Language Arts. This will be my second degree. I received my bachelor’s in psychology in 2016. When I graduate in the Spring of 2019, I will be able to teach grades 1-9, but I want to teach special education. There is something about these exceptional individuals that warms my heart. I am a firm believer that everyone is put on this earth for a reason and teaching young children is my reason.”

Tessa adds that none of this would be possible without the backing of her parents. “My parents are very supportive of my horseback riding and showing. They give up their nights and weekends to help me support my dreams. My dad used to show AQHA with me when I first started showing. Now, he is always on the rail and behind the scenes helping me. He longes and saddles Gracie every time I ride her in and out of the show pen. He gets my horse looking show ready. He bathes her, bands her, puts her tail in, and shines her up. My mom makes sure I’m show ready with my makeup, chaps, and hat. She’s always there giving me emotional support.”

This week, Tessa plans to compete at the Level 1 East Championships in the Rookie Amateur Western Pleasure. She serves as an inspiration to never give up and to chase your dreams head-on.

Tessa advises, “Support each other. Sometimes in this business, people get caught up in the points and the money. They lose sight of why they started showing in the first place. Every time I step into the show ring, I don’t care about points or placings. Does it feel nice to win? Yes…but that is not why I do this. I do this to inspire people never to give up. When somebody at a horse show comes up to me and tells me I inspire them, then I have done my job. Those words are worth more than any amount of points can give you.”

We all wish Tessa and Gracie lots of luck at the Level 1 East Championships!

About the Author – Cat Guenther is in a junior at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. She has ridden horses since she was 8 years old. When Cat is not at the barn, she focuses on her small businesses “Behind the Bit Tack Sales” and “Tack to Dye for”. Cat is also a representative for Haala jeans and recommends them to every equestrian! She hopes to one-day attend Michigan State University and study to become an equine veterinarian. Cat is extremely excited to compete in the rookie and novice youth all around events this year with her new equine partner, Royal Invite.