Evermore has always been more than just a product or a brand for us. It has been a vehicle for connection with people and their dogs all over the country. From day one, we have had events and meetings that felt almost magical in their synchronicity. As many of you know, Evermore began in the fall of 2009, when one of Hanna’s dog walking clients, Mary, had a stroke (it’s a long but worthwhile story, check it out if you haven’t). Unbeknownst to us, at the same time that Mary had permanently lost her ability to walk, an eleven-year-old girl named Sydney was striving to regain hers, after a massive stroke a few months earlier.
Ten years later and now a young woman, Sydney Collier reached out to Evermore. She is a 21-year-old award-winning equestrian. Her event is Para Dressage. Sydney represented the USA in the World Equestrian Games in Caen, France in 2014, as well as the Paralympics in Rio in 2016, and is hoping to make the team again for Tokyo 2020.
When not in saddle, Sydney relies on a service dog for mobility assistance and to help with certain tasks. After the sudden and tragic death of her previous dog, Journey, she is now acclimating to life with a new service dog named Logan. Unlike Journey, Logan is a very picky eater, and he began to lose a concerning amount of weight after moving to New York to become her canine partner. After doing her research, Sydney decided to reach out to Evermore to inquire about sponsorship.
We receive a LOT of requests of this nature. As a small company with limited resources, we have always had to say no. With Sydney, however, we felt an instant kinship. It also didn't hurt that she eloquently led with a compelling case for how she and Logan could introduce Evermore to both the service dog and equestrian communities. We are proud to announce that we are sponsoring Sydney and Logan, and we’re rooting for them to represent the USA at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020.
She's very much on her way, having recently come in 5th overall in the National Championships in North Carolina in September, riding her new horse, All in One, owned by sponsor Georgina Bloomberg—they call him Alle! She’ll be heading to Florida for two qualifiers in January, and Sydney, Logan, and Alle are looking forward to escaping the New York winter for a bit! Their goal in these upcoming competitions is to come in in the top three overall. They are currently training six days a week to prepare for this challenge.
She has a fascinating story and since she is the best one to tell it, we interviewed her. Please note that answers have been slightly edited for content and clarity.
Tell me a little bit about yourself, the basic biographical information.
I am a 21-year-old Midwesterner, born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan. At the age of seven, I started riding horses and simultaneously got diagnosed with Wyburn-Mason syndrome, which is an incredibly rare congenital birth defect that affects less than 1,000 people on earth. Most of the time when people get diagnosed with it, it’s like a death sentence, and it’s mainly diagnosed after people have passed away from a massive bleed.
What exactly is Wyburn-Mason syndrome?
Wyburn-Mason Syndrome is a non-hereditary congenital brain disorder. In the formation of the brain’s vasculature, large and often multiple arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) are present. AVMs are a concentrated tangled mess of veins and arteries without capillaries. In the simplest terms, it’s as if the brain contains tumors made out of blood vessels—tumors that could rupture and hemorrhage at any time. Other neurological symptoms like vision problems and seizures often occur as well.
How did you get diagnosed?
It was totally by chance at a well-child visit that I just barely failed the vision test, and I was having problems with my vision at school. The nurse just kinda said to my mom, “Well if you have good insurance, go ahead and take her to an ophthalmologist.” Thank goodness we had good insurance! My parents took me to the ophthalmologist, and [she] looked behind my right eye and turned sheet white and said to my parents, “Oh my God, I never thought I would see a case of this in my entire life.” This whole time I’m just excited because I think I’m there getting glasses, and all I wanted was glasses, and she says, “I don’t know if I should send you to the hospital, call an ambulance, or send you home.” She’s freaking out, and I’m insisting on glasses. I’m seven years old, I have no idea what’s going on. We end up at the University of Michigan hospital, and the doctors told my parents that they couldn’t do anything there and to take me home and pray that I didn’t die of a massive bleed.
What was your family’s response to this?
Obviously that’s not something that a parent ever wants to have to hear. My mom, thank God, was not willing to take that as an answer. Throughout all of this craziness I continued riding, and it was the only place where I didn’t have to think about the medical stuff. Meanwhile, my mom searched far and wide on the internet—and this was before online search was that much of a thing—to find the best doctors that had any experience dealing with this. She ended up finding two hospitals, one in Sweden and Stanford Medical Center in California, that even had any experience treating cases similar to mine. She reached out to both hospitals, and Stanford actually responded, saying they had never treated a pediatric case but had treated adults with similar cases. They agreed to take me on as an experimental case. So at the age of eight, my family and I went down there as the first pediatric case they had ever treated.
What was your course of treatment?
They started out with CyberKnife radiation, which takes about six months to three years to actually take effect. So I went back home, continued riding, continued living my life and continuing doing all of the stuff that I did. Over the years I began noticing more and more weakness on the left side and a loss of coordination. When I went back at age 11 to check and see if the radiation had taken effect, they weren’t happy. The radiation hadn’t done as much as they wanted, and at that point, I was having a burning sensation in the bottom of my left foot, which was basically the tumor (AVM) in my brain becoming more of a problem. The doctors decided that it was time to take a more invasive and risky route with brain surgery. It was during my first brain surgery that I had a massive stroke and woke up totally unable to use my left side at all, I couldn’t feel it normally and I couldn’t walk. I spent the entire summer in inpatient rehab learning how to walk, just to be able to ride again.
Wow, what a powerful motivating force. Did you have any specific riding goals at the time?
Before my first stroke I was doing eventing, which consists of three phases, these being cross-country, show jumping, and dressage. My goal at that point, before my stroke, was to make it on the US Olympic team for eventing. After my first stroke, I got very discouraged for a little bit of time. I was able to retrain my brain how to walk, but I was not as fast or coordinated as before. I went back to Michigan and was basically a different person. I lost a lot of my friends who weren’t willing to slow down for me, and in the 7th grade, that’s a bit difficult.
But in 2010, at the age of 12, my mom took me to the world equestrian games in Kentucky, where I got to watch Para Dressage. It was jaw dropping to me, because I saw these incredible athletes in the show ring, in a five-star competition, at the peak of their game, just showing at the peak of their ability. That’s when I had a movie moment, where I realized if they can do this, then I can do this, too. It clicked to me just because I had a stroke and have my medical issues doesn’t mean that I have to give up on my huge goals of representing the USA one day. So I went home and told my mom and dad, “This is what I need to do, I need to start training for this every single day.” My family was super supportive. It (Para Dressage) taught me a lot, going from not embracing my disabilities, to meeting this entire community of people who rode horses and completely embraced themselves for who they are and what they wanted to do, no matter what. Since then, I’ve been riding and striving to make it onto the teams, and I actually represented the USA in the world equestrian games in 2014, as well as the Paralympics in 2016 in Rio. I’m very, very lucky to have so many incredible sponsors whose support is allowing me to train and compete to make it onto the team for 2020.
For people who may not be familiar with dressage, can you explain the sport?
The way I explain it, is you know how in figure skating they skate patterns and get judged on that? For dressage we ride specific patterns and get judged on how accurately we do them. It’s all about the relationship with the horse and the finessing of the movements, as well as the smoothness of transitions between movements and the horse’s overall quality of movement. A lot of people say its like dancing with the horse, and you are in the ring with your dance partner and making everything look effortless.
Jumping around a bit, but can you tell me a little bit about about your service dogs.
I had been applying to service dog organizations throughout the country trying to get a service dog. What made me decide I needed one was when I was 13, I was walking in a movie theater after seeing The Smurfs, and I piledrove the floor and ended up breaking my collarbone, just by falling over like a tree.
At that point I refused to use a cane because…
Because you were 13?
After my parents picked me up from that, I told them, “Look, I need a service dog.” It took years to find an organization that had a balance and mobility dog that could work with me. It’s really hard to find organizations that train these dogs because their training is so specific to the person they end up with. We were lucky enough to find an organization in Sterling Heights, Michigan called Sterling Service Dogs that had a poodle that would work for me. Since I was young, my mom was doing all of the communication with them, and when she told me that there was a dog that could potentially work for me, she wasn’t allowed to tell me anything about the dog, the name, the breed, the color... so I wouldn’t get attached to the idea, in case it didn’t work out in the end. Upon hearing this, both my dad and I jokingly said, “Just as long as it’s not a poodle.” We always had this “froofy” image of poodles, with like the Eiffel Tower. Then when we finally got to meet him, we opened the door of the house where Journey was, and he came and greeted me at the door, this floppy-eared Standard Poodle. My mom must have been having to bite her tongue so hard! When I met Journey, we totally clicked, he was such an ambassador for service dogs in general, he was the first service dog to get accreditation at a 5-star event at the World Equestrian Games in 2014, so that he could be allowed into stabling. He was actually more famous than any of the horses that year—we have photos of him getting media and looking into the camera, he was such a camera hound. He ate up all of the attention, like, “Heck yes, this is where I’m meant to be!” He loved traveling, he got to meet two princesses. After the world equestrian games, he traveled with me to Azerbaijan and was the first service dog to enter the country! Everyone over there was just fascinated by him, because over there they have dogs more as protection dogs, and everyone was just was amazed by him. At the awards gala, the waiter looked at him under our table and pointed at him asking, “Sheep, is that a sheep?”
So I guess service dogs aren’t that common on the para equestrian circuit?
With para equestrians, we do have them, but a lot of times we’ll have to leave them home because of how long show days are and how hot they can be, but Journey always wanted to be part of the action, and we always paid close attention to his needs. He was quite the traveler, he loved it. It’s unusual for dogs not to get stressed about it, but he was special. I’m lucky because he had been to a barn before I met him—normally that’s not part of the service dog training, and he loved going to the barn. He would lick my horse’s nose, and the horse would lick him back, they had a bromance. He would always watch me ride. He was part of my heart. This past winter, we were in Florida… he was completely healthy, acted like a two-year old his entire life, we went on a walk on the beach, and he had a heart attack and passed away on the beach. It was heartbreaking, but it was in a way poetic because of all of the places, he waited to go to the beach… we have so many photos of him enjoying his time on the beach.
I'm so sorry that you lost him so soon. You have a new dog now, Logan?
Yeah, literally two days after Journey passed away, I called the lady who raised him as a puppy with the sad news. She was very sad, but tells me, “You’re never going to believe this, but I think I may have the perfect dog for you.” I was like, oh my gosh, really that would be a lifesaver, because I was imagining years without another service dog, and I just had this gigantic hole in my heart and life accessibility-wise, after only two days without him. She told me about Logan and showed me photos, and he looks almost identical to Journey, and it’s just crazy. She tells me that the other crazy part is that he’s the only other puppy that she’s raised that watches TV, just like Journey.
All of these coincidences… and then in another small-world timing thing, she was going to Orlando in a couple of weeks and bringing Logan. Of course I had to meet him! And I met him and fell in love, it was like having a ghost of Journey. We clicked right away. It was like he could tell that I missed having a service dog, and he’s so well-behaved. It’s like a whole new type of relationship, because with Journey I was just starting out with having a service dog, but with Logan I have “been there done that” as a handler. He’s much different because he has so much less energy than Journey did when he’s not working. He’s kind of like an old man when he’s not working, he comes home and he sleeps, and that’s basically all he does. He’s a very easy-going sort of dude. The problem we were having when we first got him is that he had two modes, sleeping and working… and no eating. That’s where I got really lucky to run into Evermore online and thinking, “Wow, maybe this would work,” and reaching out to you guys was kind of a whirlwind. Learning how Evermore started, it just became more special as a partnership, hearing the backstory, learning everything about Evermore, I knew that this was a company I really wanted to be involved in because it is really something super special. Now I’m happy to report Logan has three modes: eating, sleeping, and working!
Well, we’re glad we could add some variety to his routine. He’s still doing well with the food?
Yes, oh my gosh, his weight is so much better. His backbone no longer sticks out, from his fasting when he first moved in. He loves it, I can’t say enough good things about it. I did not know he could love food.
Do you see a connection in how you work with your service dog and how you handle a horse?
I’d say definitely, it’s all about consistency and making sure that you always end on a good, positive note so they don’t get discouraged, and making sure that you’re clear with your messages. I’d say that having a service dog has definitely helped my with my riding and being more consistent with my cues.
I think that a lot of people have this conception that when people have a service dog, they arrive fully trained, and the dog just does what the dog does. Could you speak to what sort of training you need to do with Logan?
When I first got a service dog, that’s basically what I thought about service dogs, that they know all this stuff and just naturally do it. I was 14 and young and naive, and then I got to meet Journey and was like, “Oh, there’s so much more to this.” When people just see service dogs out in public, they don’t see behind the scenes. They just see a dog out in the world behaving very well without seeing all of the hard work and training that goes into making them behave that way. With Logan he knows so many tasks, he helps me with picking up things that I drop because my balance is so bad, he can get things from my mom and bring them to me, he can bring things to my mom, he can open and close drawers, he can put away my laundry from the laundry basket.
Can I borrow him…
I’ve been teaching him how to get the TV remote and currently teaching him how to turn on and off the light. The list of things that dogs can do is amazing, and because he’s so young, he’s only 3, he has a long way to go, but it’s amazing starting a new partnership— actually two new partnerships at almost the same time—so this is very meaningful to me. Also he’s just a big cuddle bug, even though he pretty much takes up the entire bed, he’s worth it.
So you pretty much spend all of your time together?
Yeah, at least at this point in our training, eventually he will have to learn how to be away from me for a bit, but right now he is totally with me, like an extra limb. When I get up, he gets right up. He always alerts me and keeps me standing, which is good. As a mobility assistance dog, he wears a harness. Unlike a cane, I don’t put pressure on the harness, but I always have my hand on the harness. It always gives me a point, knowing where he is to know where my balance should be. And if I do trip, he braces his muscles and catches me. He helps me with stairs with the harness, and even without the harness, he helps me get around.
Dogs are amazing creatures, aren’t they?
Especially when they know you need help. From the moment he got here, he was by my side and didn’t want to leave me.
Anything else we should know about you?
I’m also currently in school. I got a scholarship through the US Olympic committee, and I’m majoring in communications online at DeVry, which is awesome because I can do school and ride and train Logan.
How can our customers and readers follow your riding career and adventures?
You can follow me on Instagram @sydsparaquest also check out my website sydsparaquest.com.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us!