For Paralympian and equine vet Kate Shoemaker, it’s horses from sunrise to sundown (and often beyond)
Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.
There is more than a little serendipity in Kate Shoemaker’s journey from a childhood lover of horses to the highest levels of equestrianism, and more than a little persistence.
“From my earliest memory, I was always begging my parents for a pony,” Shoemaker recalled with a smile. “But you know, every kid wants a pony. Of course, my parents thought I’d grow out of it.”
Some thirty years later, she hasn’t grown out of it, but has instead grown into her passion for horses, as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, a three-time Para Dressage world medalist, and a Paralympic bronze medalist from the Tokyo Games. From caring from her equine patients to competing with them as teammates, it’s clear that early passion remains an anchor of the athlete she’s become.
“On social media, you see a lot of us hugging and kissing [our horses], and of course, we love our horses a lot,” Shoemaker said. “But it’s also that connection in the work. You get into the arena with your horse and you are reaching your dreams. You are riding your dreams in that moment, doing stuff that you wouldn’t otherwise ever be able to do.”
The small neighborhood in Eagle, Idaho that Shoemaker calls home wasn’t horse country, but a neighbor owned two Arabian horses that fascinated the future Paralympic medalist from the age of six. One Halloween, that same neighbor lent Shoemaker a show outfit to perfect a costume that was a harbinger of things to come: an equestrian.
“From the helmet to the boots,” Shoemaker said. “I just thought it was the most majestic, classical thing to be sitting up on these beautiful animals.”
That Halloween further cemented the fascination a girl who recalls reading all of the nearly 100 books in the “Thoroughbred” series from the school library. In those pages, Shoemaker learned about dressage, the form of riding that would eventually bring her to the Tokyo Paralympics.
Further serendipity came when her parents realized their daughter’s obsession wasn’t going away – and wouldn’t be satisfied with books alone – and brought Kate to Once Upon a Horse, a barn at the edge of Eagle.
“Had I not ended up there, I think the trajectory of my whole life would have been different,” Shoemaker said. “And it was just based off of luck, because there was a newspaper ad for this horse named Honky Tonk Blue, a 21-year-old quarter horse, a grey gelding. But he could jump. And I really wanted something that could jump.”
Once Upon a Time, which is still open today, was close enough that Shoemaker could take the bus there after school. It was also, fortuitously, a barn with experience preparing young athletes for international levels of competition.
“I didn’t know what that was other than that it was really exciting and I wanted to do it,” Shoemaker said. “Had [the barn] not had the experience it had bringing other junior riders to these competitions, I don’t think it would have happened. Having other riders that were ahead of me on the schedule and watching them be successful, it just gives you this feeling that this is possible. What I loved about it is that it normalized getting there. That you can compete on the international level, and you don’t have to have the fanciest horse, and the fanciest tack. You just have to work the hardest and put the most amount of time in, and make sure you’re clean and you’re on time. And if you’re there, you’ve got as good a shot as anyone. That was just the normal culture.”
Shoemaker now lives, trains, and owns her own veterinary medicine practice in Florida, but her roots are firmly in Eagle, about 10 miles from Boise. She says it’s defined by its small-town feel and by its people.
“The people are so wonderful, and it’s not just a goodness, but I like to think a big part of my growth through sports is that a lot of people in Idaho have that grit that they talk about with athletes,” she said. “Growing up in a smaller town, not having access to everything – take the competitions for example. There was one dressage competition that would happen per year in Eagle and everything else, we’re driving eight to ten hours. That just became the norm… I think there was a level of grit and tenacity that came from coming out of Idaho.”
There was a special element to riding for Shoemaker, who has partial paralysis of her right leg, generalized weakness on the right side of her body and limits to the range of motion in her lower back and hips as a result of Periventricular leukomalacia, a brain injury which occurred at birth.
“There’s nothing different about me when I’m on a horse,” she said. “There’s no limp, there’s no challenge. I’m just like everyone else. The horses, they’re more like a unicorn or a Pegasus. They give you wings, and it’s really, really special.
Today, she uses adaptive aids, either rubber bands or a magnet, that help keep her right foot in the stirrup, as well as loops on her reins in case of fatigue or spasticity on her right side. But the 36-year-old didn’t begin to fully understand the options available to her until a competition in Wellington, Florida in January 2014, where she was assessed for classification. At that same competition, a fellow rider shared some of the rubber bands that they used to keep them secure in their stirrups.
“I was like, wow, this is a game changer, because I didn’t even realize how much I was compensating for just holding on to the stirrup and having to tell my horse to do things in different ways,” Shoemaker said. “I would do everything I could to just not move my right leg at any time during the competition.”
Equally essential for riders is the dynamic with their horse. Shoemaker made her world championship debut with Solitaer 40 (Soli for short) in 2018 and the pair also competed at the Tokyo Paralympics, where they were part of the U.S. team that took home a bronze medal. She began working with a younger horse, Quiana, in 2021, and the two partnered for individual silver and team bronze at the 2022 World Championships. Shoemaker currently competes with both, and says they’re the only two horses she’s ever sat on who have provided the feeling of true synchronicity.
“I’m not saying that no horse ever cares, because some of them do, and that’s why it’s important that you find that horse with the right connection,” she said. “But when you do have that horse that doesn’t care about your disability and will work around it, it’s like the world is your oyster and the opportunity is there in front of you. You just get in there, work hard, keep going.”
With the Paris Paralympics less than a year away, the U.S. has already qualified a Para Dressage team by virtue of that 2022 world bronze. Now, the focus is on being selected for that team.
“It’s a team sport, so it doesn’t just come down to are your scores higher than their scores,” Shoemaker said. “You’re always thinking about how we’re going to do as a team and how do we slot riders into positions that are going to give the team the most amount of advantage.”
Shoemaker is also balancing the demands of competition with work as an equine vet. She owns her own practice in Wellington, Florida, the same town where she was first introduced to the adaptive aids that transformed her experience as a rider. Her practice, Velocity Equine Sports Medicine, is focused on sports medicine in competition horses, and enables her to work her own hours – often long ones.
“The most important thing is that my patients are taken care of and to be honest, they always come first because the health of our horses is the most important thing possible,” Shoemaker said. “But then I always make sure to make time for training, even if it’s 1:00 o’clock in the morning and we’re doing it from, you know, lights reflecting off the barn. It’s horses from sun-up to sundown, and oftentimes even beyond.”
Over the years, she’s found that the unique perspective an equestrian brings to their relationship with horses serves a dual purpose in her veterinary career, where the horses are treated as athletes on an equal playing field as their human partners and receive many of the same treatments to keep them healthy and competition ready. The emphasis is on identifying subtle shifts in the horses’ movement before lameness and injury may occur.
“In dressage, it’s so detailed oriented about the way that the horse is moving and the way they’re using their body,” Shoemaker said. “For me, they go hand in hand, being able to almost have an eye for lameness before the lameness develops and that has come from the years of dressage training and correlating the two together.”
On the road to the 2024 Paris Paralympics, Shoemaker has based Quiana in Europe to further establish themselves on the international circuit, while Soli remains based in the United States. But throughout, the three-time world medalist is centered in her Rocky Mountain roots.
“Even though I’ve moved to be closer to training opportunities, I am and always will be from Idaho,” Shoemaker said. “I think the community won’t let me go either, which I love because they’re they are all family to me. So many people that have watched me grow up, some of whom who made comments back then like, ‘Oh, this girl, she’s special.’ I feel like I’m fulfilling – maybe an expectation? I don’t know, but I hope I make them proud.”