In the summer of 2009, Stefanie Putnam had just finished her first semester in advertising for her master’s degree and was working in the arena of design reproduction technology and advertising.. She was also an accomplished equestrian who was training toward representing the United States Equestrian Team at the Olympics in show jumping. But that August, Stefanie’s world changed forever when she was injured in a non-horse-related accident. She received Service Dog Kaz II to help her in a myriad of ways, enabling Stefanie to be more independent and complete her master’s degree. But an integral part of Stefanie’s life was still missing.
Through a series of connections she discovered carriage driving as a way of keeping horses in her life. Stefanie is one of the only quadriplegic drivers in the world. Due to her spinal cord injury, she has no feeling from the collarbone down, so she relies heavily on muscle memory to perform the functions needed to drive a horse and carriage in combined driving events against able-bodied competitors. She says, “When people see me in my wheelchair it’s hard for them to imagine that I can drive a horse let alone compete on an international level, but when I am carriage driving, people do not even realize that I have a major disability. It forces me to forget about defining myself by my different abilities and instead see myself for the strong person that I have become.”
Kaz is always there to help around the barn, at competitions and during training. “I drop things continuously and Kaz is able to pick up a multitude of items and retrieve them quickly allowing me to be as independent as possible constantly giving me the confidence and ability to attempt new tasks,” says Stefanie. When Stefanie surveys the course before competitions, Kaz is right beside her as a confidant of sorts. “She’s my partner, and we’re doing this together as a team. Between Kaz and the horse, I couldn’t be happier, feel so loved, and have the confidence to pursue the best life possible for myself, I feel so lucky.”
Stefanie made her international debut as the sole para-driver representing the United States of America in the 2016 FEI World Para-Driving Championships last month in The Netherlands. And Kaz was there too, helping cheer her on from the sidelines.
While there are no carriage driving events in the Olympics and thus the Paralympics, this competition is considered to be the equivalent in the equestrian driving world. Stefanie states, “I have been deeply honored and indelibly touched by this incredible, inspiring opportunity. It has taken an army of people to help me reach this goal, and I want to extend my utmost gratitude and heartfelt thanks to everyone who has supported me in this amazing journey. It was a proud and unforgettable feeling flying the American flag from the back of a beautiful horse drawn carriage with my incredible service dog sitting by my side.”