Her right arm amputated just above the elbow, Gloria Bloomberg recalls a nurse explaining God's plan: inspiring other people lacking limbs.
Bloomberg's parents were more pragmatic, insisting the 10-year-old tackle everyday tasks, such as washing her hair. Never one to pass up a challenge, Bloomberg mastered knitting, sewing her own clothes and eventually diapering her babies one-handed. Her active lifestyle extended to athletic pursuits — running, snow skiing, even water skiing.
But by age 53, Bloomberg still hadn't discovered her passion and "prayed really hard" about finding one. Little did she suspect a horse would be the answer.
"Probably my biggest fear was a horse," says Bloomberg, now 58. "Fear is a tough thing to overcome when you've been hurt."
A riding mishap caused the injury that ultimately cost Bloomberg her arm. Falling from the family horse while riding through a gate at her Eagle Point home, Bloomberg suffered a compound fracture. The wound through which a bone protruded wasn't thoroughly cleaned, says Bloomberg, and she developed gangrene. Despite her six-week hospital stay, Bloomberg's arm couldn't be saved.
"If it had been handled right, I just would have broken my arm," says Bloomberg.
The offending horse — its name lost to memory — was sent away and, although her children rode horses in their teens, Bloomberg felt no urge to get back in the saddle. It wasn't until their oldest granddaughters expressed an interest in riding that Bloomberg's husband, Barry, took the reins, encouraging his wife to face her demons and share the girls' pastime.
To her surprise, Gloria Bloomberg "got the riding bug" and practiced Western riding with granddaughters Brittni and Karisa under a local trainer's supervision. When Bloomberg saw a dressage demonstration, she was so impressed with its "beauty" that she sought out a trainer in the demanding discipline with military roots. A friend told Bloomberg that she doubted she could do dressage, but — true to character — Bloomberg never doubted her ability to adapt.
"I don't think that I'm limited, and I never have."
Local equestrian experts didn't agree.
"She went to trainers, and they wouldn't even talk to her," says Vickie Bauer, 62.
With a 25-year career competing in dressage, Bauer agreed to take Bloomberg as a student but quickly realized that some fundamentals of riding wouldn't apply. Scrapping the concept of connecting elbows to hips, Bauer helped Bloomberg establish her balance — or "get a good seat" — by riding with neither stirrups nor reins.
"I had to think outside the box," says Bauer.
But it was Bauer's steadfast dressage mount, Indigo, who helped Bloomberg the most.
"He can basically teach her how to do it," says Bauer of the 20-year-old Dutch Warmblood.
"I just fell in love with Indi," says Bloomberg.
Feeling her fears dissipate astride the gray gelding, Bloomberg traveled from Eagle Point to Bauer's property in Williams five or six times per week to practice. Impressed by Bloomberg's dedication to riding and the long commutes it entailed, Bauer suggested she purchase Indi for herself. Pairing with the perfect partner then spurred Bloomberg to competition.
"I never thought I ever wanted to compete," she says.
First Bloomberg had to obtain a dispensation to ride with one hand, circumnavigating a dressage rule against "bridging the rein." Bloomberg eschews a prosthesis for riding and other daily tasks, calling it "more of a hindrance." The United States Equestrian Federation assured Bloomberg and Bauer there would be no problem, only for a judge to later dispute Bloomberg's obvious exemption from the rule and try to disqualify her.
"We were a little bit of an oddity," concedes Bloomberg.
"It's not about hands; it's not about how you use the rein and stuff," she says, explaining that body positioning is the key to communicating with one's horse.
"The judges judge her a little more harshly, actually," says Bauer.
Steadily amassing points toward her dressage bronze medal, Bloomberg draws more attention now for her skill rather than shortcoming. During a July competition at DevonWood Equestrian Centre, in Sherwood, Bloomberg claimed six ribbons from a field of 300 riders, few of whom took home honors, says Bauer.
"They would all stop and watch her ride," she says. "They don't even see her anymore as handicapped."
Her success is all the more reason for Bloomberg to keep practicing — and inspiring those around her.
"I love to ride, and I love the challenge," says Bloomberg. "My goal is to just keep doing it."