UNDER THE BEST of circumstances, it takes talent, hard work and persistence to excel at showing horses.
So how did someone living with a severe illness causing damage to his brain and motor sensory system become Washington State Horsemen’s Rider of the Year?
Through tenacity, desire and learning to focus on what he can do, says Port Angeles’ Kyle Ellis.
Since the age of 3, he’s suffered from epilepsy, a neurological brain disorder that causes him to have recurring seizures.
His parents, Sheri and Tom, said, “Kyle’s seizures were so bad that at the age of 9, we opted to try brain surgery.”
Sadly, the painful and risky surgery wasn’t a success.
Adding to his torment was the constant teasing by schoolmates because he was different. By the time he was 16, he weighed 300 pounds and didn’t want to leave the house because “his self-esteem was under a barrel,” said Sheri.
As a child, she had had a horse. When she was able to get another as an adult, she was surprised when Kyle started accompanying her to the barn.
“I could tell he had more than just a passing interest,” said Sheri. “I told Tom, ‘I think he has a passion for it, and we should try to get him a horse.’”
It wasn’t easy finding the right one — a stable, reliable and well-trained horse. They traveled off the Peninsula, trying several out before Kyle got on Star and said, “He’s the one.”
Not only was Star trained to show, but he turned out to be a therapy horse, too.
Intuitive to Kyle’s seizures, he’d stop and try to position himself to help Kyle stay on. And when the seizures caused Kyle to fall off, Star stood still — sometimes over him — being careful not to step on Kyle.
“He was just an amazing horse,” said Sheri.
A year later, Kyle was down to 180 pounds. He joined Silver Spurs 4-H where, under Teresa Whitney’s leadership, he found acceptance, tolerance and, for the first time, gained a social life.
With the help of local trainers, his knowledge, abilities and skills grew, and he quickly became one of the top competitors in 4-H and later Washington State Horsemen competitions.
In fact, I’ve featured Kyle in past Horseplay columns because of his awards for high achievement.
Two years ago, against the advice of naysayers who said it’d never be a success, he started the Star Spangled Performance Horse Show, now an annual and successful summer event at the Clallam County Fairgrounds.
This time, I’m writing with a focus both on his wins and his disabilities, on what he’s been able to overcome despite them in hopes his story can be an inspiration to others.
“All his life, Kyle was told by other people — his teachers and counselors — he sets goals for himself he can’t reach,” said Sheri.
“But we taught him you can do what you want to do, and now he’s the No. 1 rider in the state. We’re talking about a local kid here who’s taken the No. 1 position.”
Because of the epilepsy and medications, Kyle, 33, has learning disabilities that require him to constantly relearn things he’s learned before.
When 21 and attending school to become a hair-stylist (his profession today), he had a second surgery, losing everything he’d learned the first six months at cosmetology school.
“The school said he had to start over with his classes, and we said, ‘That’s OK, we’ll start over,’” said Sheri.
Through the help of teachers, tutors and his parents, Kyle relearned it all and later was able to pass the test to get his Washington state cosmetology license.
“It’s roadblocks like that he’s had to overcome all his life,” said Sheri.
“Does he need extra help? Yes. Does it take him longer to learn? Yes, but that’s OK; nothing wrong with that.
“It all starts with Kyle’s setting goals for himself and willingness to work toward them. We’re just the support system.”
Competition in Washington State Horseman is tough. To win the top awards, he has to travel a show circuit covering all of Washington and parts of Oregon.
He loves it though and has made many good friends along the way.
After several years of placing among the top five, Kyle grew frustrated he wasn’t accomplishing his goal to win WSH Rider of the Year. That’s when the family began traveling three hours one-way twice a week to a trainer in Orting.
There, he gained a better understanding of how his horse moves and how they could be a successful team together. He credits their help as the reason he was able to rise to No. 1.
Kyle hopes by sharing his story it will encourage others with disabilities to find their passion and discover they, too, can reach their goals through persistence and hard work — and perhaps even a whole lot of relearning.
Here are Kyle’s and Eyed Be Stylin’s, aka Vegas, 2014 WSH Awards:
■ First place —advanced English pleasure horse; English pleasure hunter, 18 and older; advanced Western pleasure horse; and pinto horse halter;
■ First-place buckles — showmanship in hand, senior amateur 18 and older; hunter/saddle seat equitation pattern only; and hunt seat equitation, senior amateur 18 and older;
■ Top Five Riders Award — No. 1 in state;
■ Perpetual trophies — President’s Cup A System: All-Around Western Show Horse; All-Around English Show Horse;
President’s Cup B System: All-Around Western Show Horse; All-Around English Show Horse
■ All-Around High Point Senior Award, B System;
■ Vern Burke Senior Amateur Trophy;
■ Pinto High Point — English performance and Western Performance;
■ High Point Paint Performance;
■ Gladys Cluphf Memorial Senior Amateur English Equitation;
■ ROMs — Trail and Halter
■ ROM buckles — Superior Equitation and Superior Performance Horse
Karen Griffiths’ column, Peninsula Horseplay, appears every other Sunday.If you have a horse event, clinic or seminar you would like listed, please email Griffiths at firstname.lastname@example.org at least two weeks in advance. You can also write Griffiths at PDN, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362.