Written by: Alison King

Nova Scotia para-dressage rider Nel Godin-Keating is on her way.

Thumbnail for Nel Godin-Keating: Trail Blazer

Susan Stickle Photo

Nel Godin-Keating may not be able to talk, but her accomplishments speak for themselves. The 18-year-old rider from Dartmouth, NS, is blazing a trail in the sport of para-dressage, becoming the first rider in Nova Scotia and the youngest in Canada to be long-listed by Para-Equestrian Canada. Nel’s cerebral palsy makes it more difficult to walk, balance, or talk, but it doesn’t stop her from focusing on her number-one goal – making Canada’s national team and competing at the Paralympics.

Although Nel rode off and on for physical therapy from the age of two, she didn’t start riding regularly until she was eleven. The following year she rode for the first time without assistance and hasn’t looked back since.

“When Nel was twelve years old, she rode for the first time with no leader or side-walkers,” says Lorraine Godin-Keating, Nel’s mother and primary coach. “Eleven months later, she was the first para rider to compete in a show in Nova Scotia. We didn’t know a thing about showing, tests, scores, etc., but watching Nel riding in that first show was just about the best four minutes of my life. Nel made the long list when she was just fifteen years old and is still the youngest rider on the Canadian long list.”

As a Grade 1a rider, Nel competes at the walk. In spite of her many physical challenges, she uses no special tack or equipment and requires few accommodations. “I use a whip on my left side and if the horse is a bit spooky, I also have my stirrups attached to my girth,” says Nel. “I can’t speak, but am able to make a sort of ‘whoa’ sound with my voice, which I am allowed to do while competing.” (Nel can communicate to others with a keyboard-to-voice device.)

Nel has already achieved a major milestone in her quest to represent Canada internationally. She was named to Canada’s para-dressage team at the 2015 North American Junior and Young Rider Championships (NAJYRC) the first year para-dressage was included in the prestigious tournament. She helped lead her country to a team silver medal and captured individual gold in both the Grade 1a individual and freestyle tests.

Her partner for the past several years and at the NAJYRC was a wonderful Haflinger pony named Mr. Itchy. This year, Nel is competing on a borrowed mare named Savannah as well as her new mount, General Patton.

“Savannah is exactly what one needs in a para horse: relaxed, responsive, patient, and kind. She is very, very sweet and keeps Nel safe. She’s an eighteen-year-old draft-cross owned by Carol and Doug Macomber who own our barn,” says Lorraine. “With our new horse, General Patton, I think the sky’s the limit. It will take time to develop the partnership, but I believe that Nel and Patton have unlimited potential. I think that NAJYRC will be on the list again next year and she would love to qualify for the WEG in Bromont in 2018.”

Nel’s success has not gone unnoticed. She was named Female Athlete of the Year for 2015 by the Nova Scotia Equestrian Federation, an honour which both surprised and delighted her. “I was so happy and surprised when I heard the news!” she says. “I was worried at first that maybe I was chosen because I had a disability, but now I realize it was because I worked so hard.”

Hard work and determination are the keys to Nel’s success, according to her mother. “Nel is very, very competitive and likes to push herself. I would not want to compete against her,” Lorraine says with a laugh. “She is the iron lady when it comes to pulling out all the stops in the ring. Once, in a show in PEI, it was freezing cold, raining sideways, and the horse was quite spooky. Nel was given the option to scratch, but she refused. She rode through it all, and scored very well. That shows so much of what she is made of; she refuses to quit or give up even if it is freezing, or 90 degrees, or the horse is acting out.

“A few nights ago, I forgot to put her gloves on before she lunged on a horse with a lot of movement. The skin on her hands tore from hanging on to the safety strap. She never mentioned it, and never stopped. I only noticed it afterwards when we were untacking. That is the type of rider and competitor Nel is.

“I was overwhelmed when I found out she’d been named Female Athlete of the Year,” Lorraine continues. “When we are in it day-to-day, sometimes I don’t see the big picture, and how much Nel is accomplishing. Recognition like this reminds me that she is on her way to big things!”

“She refuses to quit or give up even if it is freezing, or 90 degrees, or the horse is acting out.”