Riding out the storm
Once free to fly on horseback, friends face future -- and the 4-legged -- from wheelchairs

By Louis Hillary Park staff writer
May 4, 2003

In the heavy morning air, the perfect loam of Payson Park's thoroughbred track flies from thumping hooves in an earthen spray. Horseshoes glint in the dark soil of western Martin County, propelling forward 1,300 pounds of bone and muscle and danger.

Behind the track tower, former Stuart resident and trainer Robin Cleary sits in her high-backed wheelchair, looking pretty in pink, but unable even to brush away a strand of red hair that a persistent, dung-ripened breeze has pushed across her face.

Cleary was paralyzed from the neck down in 1996 when a horse she was galloping at Calder Race Course in Miami suddenly broke both front legs, slamming her to the turf.

"I remember, just before it happened, thinking how good the horse felt. Then I felt it bobble," says Cleary, now a 47-year-old Pembroke Pines resident, who recently was back among the dozens of stalls off State Road 76 to raise money for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.

Since Cleary began her stable-to-stable, barn-to-barn effort in 1999, she has raised more than $465,000 for the research facility, which is affiliated with the University of Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital. In fact, her fund-raising push has so impressed Miami Project officials that they named a conference room in her honor in their new seven-story, $38 million laboratory complex.

Now she is waiting in her ramp-equipped van for some of the sport's top to slip their stop watches into their pockets and walk by.

"Are you up for another donation this year?" she asks Elliott Walden, a third-generation horseman with more than one Kentucky Derby entry to his credit.

"Oh yeah," he says, stopping to chat about old times and new horses.

"From top to bottom -- from the owners and trainers right down to the hot walkers -- everyone has been great," says Cleary. "You wouldn't believe it, but I used to be very shy. Now I'm dedicated to getting myself and everyone else out of these chairs."

"I think people appreciate courage . . . (and) Robin is someone who doesn't feel sorry for herself," says Dr. Barth Green, founder of the Miami Project, during a recent fund-raiser at the National Equestrian Festival in Wellington. "She doesn't complain about her limitations."

Walden agrees.

"I've known Robin for a long time," he says after penciling a donation onto a clipboard Cleary keeps on the dashboard of her van. "When something like this happens so close to home, it does make you think about it more.

"My wife is a rider."

Decades of friendship

In many ways, the visit to Payson Park felt like a homecoming for Robin and her horse-trainer husband, Brian; not only because the internationally known, 600-acre training facility is where they wintered their horses from 1985 to 1993, but also because it is managed by Mike Rivers, Brian's best friend of 30 years.

As young horsemen working the South Florida winter racing circuit and the summer tracks of the Northeast, they shared training tips and fishing trips, cold beers and ambitions and an apartment.

"I remember one time he showed up at my door with a Volkswagen in the back of a U-Haul," Rivers says, smiling.

Naturally, when the fishing buddies met two young but already accomplished riders -- Robin MacIver, who grew up in Deerfield Beach, Fla., and Kate Martin, a Virginian -- while all were working at stables in Davie, the women had little choice but to become close friends as well.

Brian was Mike's best man, and the Riverses named their first child in his honor. Throughout it all, the couples were part of the tight, hard-working, early-rising circle that is at the core of thoroughbred racing.

Today, they share yet another bond.

Nine years before Cleary was injured, Kate Rivers was sent tumbling, the thoroughbred she was riding somersaulting, rolling, landing on top of her on the track at Saratoga, N.Y. She was left paralyzed from the chest down.

Though they were working in different parts of the country at the time, Robin says she kept in touch with Kate via phone and tried to be supportive. "(But) we never talked much about the accident," she says. "Kate didn't want to dwell on it. She was always wanting to look forward."

And Kate Rivers did move forward with her life. She had to, she told herself. She was a wife and had two young children -- Brian, 4, and Sarah, 18 months -- to raise.

"Everyone tried to retire me after I had my babies," she says. "But I thought, why stop doing something I love?

"My youngest doesn't remember me ever not being in a wheelchair," adds Rivers. "But it was hard on the 4-year-old. Now I would tell anyone (in that situation) to stop riding."

Mike Rivers continued to work in the thoroughbred industry, moving permanently to Payson Park in 1992, but he did get out of the saddle.

"It wasn't necessary for my job, and I just couldn't take the chance," he says.

All the while, the Riverses' friendship with the Clearys remained strong, especially after Robin and Brian settled in Broward County to train full time at Calder. The men would share a fishing boat while the women went shopping.

"I remember pushing Kate's wheelchair in the mall, so she wouldn't have to," says Robin, who now has no use of her legs or arms, but admits at the time feeling an odd sense of lightning-can't-strike-twice invulnerability.

"When Kate got hurt, it was a devastating thing," says Robin. "But because it already had happened to someone so close to me, I kind of didn't think it could happen to me."

A morning tragedy

Both partners in Brian A. Cleary Stables were on the Calder track on July 29, 1996. The early-morning workouts were just about the only time Robin and Brian saw each other in that long, hot and trying summer.

"It was a difficult time for us," says Robin, explaining that while both were getting up at 3 a.m. to deal with their stalls at Calder, Brian was splitting time between the Miami track and several horses in their charge in Delray Beach.

That morning seemed no different. The air was thick with tropical humidity as the sun began scorching the dew from the palm fronds and white rails. The track was smooth and fast.

"I passed her going the (other) way," says Brian, who was riding another of their horses. "I looked back and saw her close to another horse . . . (and) when I looked again, I didn't see her.

"Then the (track) siren went off. They give it a short blow when there's trouble. This time it didn't go off. A guy rode by and said, 'It's bad, man.'"

The man was right. Short of death, Robin Cleary's spinal cord injury was about as bad as it gets. Not quite Christopher Reeve bad -- she doesn't need a ventilator to breathe -- but almost.

"I knew right away," says Robin Cleary, remembering the minutes she lay there on the soft sod, the broken horse nearby. "At first, my only thoughts were that I couldn't move my arms or legs. Later, I thought of Kate."

Getting on with life

"The irony of it is so startling, it's hard to believe," says Mike Rivers. "When it happened to Katie, I thought all our friends were safe. Oh, I knew they could still get hurt -- break a leg or something, but I didn't think this. Not this."

But it had happened again, and Mike and Kate Rivers rushed to be of what help and support they could be. "Even though Kate was (paraplegic) and Robin is quadriplegic, Mike was able to help me see what to expect," remembers Brian.

"I knew Kate's situation," remembers Robin. "Whatever she said to me wasn't going to sink in. But just having her be there meant a lot."

With two children at home, Kate Rivers returned to Jackson Memorial as often as she could during Robin's recovery. She knew that the accepting, the moving on, would take time.

"It doesn't sink in for the first couple of years," she says. "You have to figure out how to live (in a wheelchair). You have to decide if you're going to sink or swim.

"Robin and I got on with our lives."

A love for horses

One part of their lives that neither woman was willing to give up was their beloved horses.

Even while lying in intensive care, Robin Cleary wanted to see videos of the races in which the couple's horses ran. And as soon as she was able, she was visiting the Calder Stables. Now she is there almost every day at 7:30 a.m., looking over the horses and helping Brian make decisions about training and racing.

"She still has a perfect eye (for thoroughbreds)," says Brian.

Her friend "Trish" Millner says, "I know every day she goes to the stables and can't reach out and touch the horses, it's tough." But, adds Millner, the accident and the several hundred thousand dollars she has raised for the Miami Project have brought out another side of Robin Cleary.

"Before, she was always kind of secondary. She was always 'Brian's wife,'" says Millner. "Being so successful with the fund-raising has helped her to blossom on her own."

Kate Rivers also has blossomed in recent years despite being in a wheelchair; and the color of the blossom is gold.

While living in Kentucky in 1992, she discovered carriage driving for the disabled. In the three-stage competition, a driver guides his or her horse and carriage through a cross country course, a layout of cones and a dressage -- or horse dancing -- exercise.

Rivers got her own rig in 1995 and in 1998 won the individual and team bronze medal at the first World Disabled Driving Championships in Wolfsburg, Germany. At the 2000 World Championships in Austria, she brought home individual gold.

Though vice president of U.S. Driving for the Disabled, Rivers for the most part competes against able-bodied drivers and has never finished below third.

"The first time I was in the carriage, it was like a revelation," she said after winning the gold. "I finally held (again) the reins of a horse that I could control. It was wonderful.

"I felt natural. I felt complete again."

- louis.park@scripps.com

Horse Safety


Never wear open-toed shoes or go barefoot in a barn or pasture.

Always speak softly and walk slowly when approaching a horse.

Never approach a strange horse from behind.

Never feed a horse anything unless you have approval from the horse owner.

Never run a horse back toward the barn (or you will soon be out of control).

Always wait at least 45 minutes before riding a horse after it has been fed.

Never feed a horse directly after it has been ridden. Always leave enough time for the horse to cool down.

Never tie a horse by its reins, only by its lead rope.

Always tie a horse to something solid or with a piece of twine so it will not get hurt if it breaks loose.

Wear an equestrian helmet that meets the ASTM-F 1163-99 standard and is SEI certified.

Inspect all equipment for wear and stretching and ensure it is securely fastened.

Wear fitted clothing with no hanging strings or scarves.

Use safety stirrup irons to prevent dragging if a foot slips through the stirrup.

Never tie yourself to a horse with a lead rope or reins.

Parents should choose a mount for their child that matches the child's ability level.
Sources: Kris Bowman, director Vero Beach Polo and Saddle Club, and the National Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety.





















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