The Legend of Shawn Makepeace

by Cindy Butler

Everyone has wishes and dreams. A few people actually make their dreams come true.

I admire anyone who sets a goal and works toward it with true determination, setting benchmarks, doing the hard stuff in little steps, for a LONG time until the goal is met.

It’s hard enough to climb a mountain starting at sea level. Imagine starting from the ocean floor. Consider how much longer it might take or how much harder it might be to accomplish your personal goal, if you were blind.

Shawn Makepeace, the 2016 Reserve Champion Intro Level Western Dressage rider for Western Dressage Association of Illinois (WDAIL), knows exactly what that’s like. Shawn has been legally blind from uveitis since she was eight years-old. She is a kind, quiet woman who has been conquering goals her entire life.

Shawn became interested in horses during graduate school in Connecticut. She received an email advertising riding lessons for college students and was soon hooked. Shawn loved the sense of freedom she got from riding. When she moved to pursue her PhD, Shawn continued taking lessons and joined the equestrian team at University of Cincinnati. She trained as a hunter/jumper and won a year-end championship for Green Horse Walk-Trot.

Shawn’s equestrian pursuits were not all wine and roses. She experienced a severe set-back after a fall from a spooked horse. Shawn suffered a cracked vertebra which left her with a weakness that still makes lifting saddles more difficult. The accident also left Shawn apprehensive about cantering and on the look-out for an equine partner she could trust.

Six years ago, Shawn bought the horse she had fallen in love with, “Mosly A Rose”, now known as Arwen. Arwen was a nine year-old granddaughter of Zippo’s Mr. Goodbar and a Western Pleasure veteran, who had competed at the Quarter Horse Congress. More recently the roan mare was used as a therapeutic riding lesson horse. She was perfect for Shawn.

About a year into their partnership, Shawn began showing Arwen in local dressage schooling shows. After she earned her PhD, Shawn moved home to Belleville, IL where she still lives. She boards Arwen nearby at CW Equestrian Center (CWEC) in Mascoutah, IL. She shows in Western Dressage and has won a WDAIL High Score award among other honors.

Western Dressage appeals to Shawn because of the consistent spatiality of the dressage arena. She also likes the variety in the lower level Western Dressage tests.

One of the challenges Shawn faces in Western Dressage, is finding the letters, especially B, X and E. She has memorized the layout of the arena, but pinpointing exact locations, for example to be able to stop and salute at X, is tricky. Shawn is like a pirate following a treasure map. With one eye, she can see light and some large shapes. She has identified landmarks at CWEC such as big doors and gates. Shawn even counts the number of overhead lights to locate coordinates.

The game changes when Shawn shows in unfamiliar arenas. One solution her coach, Crystal Welsh, came up with is having volunteers hold up LED lights at certain letters when Shawn competes.
Though she has accomplished much, Shawn’s journey is far from complete. She is looking forward to mastering the lope and competing at Basic Level this year. She also plans to compete at more venues. Someday she may even set sail for the Lazy E Arena and the Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA) World Show.

Shawn credits her parents with her success, saying, “My parents didn’t treat me any different when I lost my vision. They said I can do anything. We just have to figure out a way”. She also said it stuck with her when a social worker told her there are only three things a blind person cannot do: fly a plane, perform surgery, and drive a car. Shawn is excited about the idea of smashing that ceiling now that we have programmable cars.

I asked Shawn what she would say to others with disabilities who may be thinking about riding. She said, “You can do it! I would encourage people to do a little research. Call around and explain your disability to a riding instructor. Go for it. You need the right horse. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Look for a therapeutic riding center”.

As for me, seeing Shawn’s success gives me faith and reminds me that I have the power to make my own dreams come true. Shawn’s story reminds me of the Calamity Jane quote, “I figure, if a girl wants to be a legend, she should just go ahead and be one.” like Shawn Makepeace….

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