A true story of GROWING UP WITH A RARE DISEASE, a deadly prognosis, and horses.

An exclusive sneak peek from the new book, Beyond Expectations, the story of Sydney Collier, a dressage paralympian who continues to defy norms and a life-threatening condition to pursue her dreams of riding at the very top of our sport.

This excerpt from Beyond Expectations, by Sydney Collier and Heather Wallace, was published with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.


Iwas told at eight years old I wasn’t supposed to be alive.

It sounds dramatic, but it’s the truth.

At that age, the ramifications of that one doctor’s appointment were unfathomable. It focused me on “more important things,” like playing with my friends and riding horses. It irrevocably changed the lives of every member of my family. I was “built differently,” and in the end, that would mean my life, more than others, had a time limit.

Thanksgiving 1997 brought something new for my family to be thankful for…me! My mother had invited everyone to dinner—her parents, my dad’s parents, my uncles. She was so excited to host. Then her water broke, and she ended up in the hospital for the entire holiday.

The first few hours of labor were peaceful, apparently. My father is a psychologist, and he’d had Mom take birth hypnosis classes in preparation for my delivery. She doesn’t remember the first five hours to this day. It was only when a nurse questioned her and told her hypnosis didn’t work that she started feeling the contractions, which, of course, made her just a little upset! It’s funny how instilling a sliver of doubt can unravel months of hard work and preparation.

I wasn’t ready to come out. After twenty-eight hours of labor, my mom needed a C-section. I’ve been a pain in her butt ever since. But my mom loves to say that everyone remarked on my beautiful blue eyes from the moment I was born. Ironically, they turned out to be what led to my diagnosis years later.

My childhood was typical in the best of ways. I could even say it was picture perfect. My family lived in the suburbs of Illinois where I was surrounded by kids my age, as my mom and the other women in the neighborhood had all had babies around the same time. I got a lot of attention, especially since I was my parents’ first child, and after my two brothers were born, the only girl.

I went to school and had playdates with friends. I vividly remember celebrating warm summer days, running through sprinklers. My younger brothers and I did all the things that children do: joking, fighting, and making core memories. My mom was a superwoman, balancing our schedules and seemingly never intimidated by having three children, plus all our pets! She gave us everything we needed to thrive. When I think back to those early days of my childhood, I can still feel the sunshine on my skin as I ran with my brothers, laughing wildly at some antic or another.

Life was good.

I found my passion early in life. I was utterly obsessed with four-legged animals. “Rideable” bouncy horses were a favorite toy of mine. I never wanted the Bratz doll or the Barbie; I enjoyed playing with Breyer model horses. Whenever my mother went grocery shopping, I begged to ride on the motorized horse outside the storefront. I was on a pony ride whenever the opportunity struck. Horses became a steady undercurrent in my life.

Sometimes things feel meant to be.

My mom helped plant the seeds that took my interest in horses from playing with toys to becoming an equestrian. I tried every type of sport as a kid. Basketball wasn’t a good fit. I’ve always been short. And I was out on the field, picking dandelions, daydreaming in my own little world, during soccer practice. My mom would say, “Soccer is pretty good, but how about those horses?” She had grown up with horses herself, cleaning stalls in exchange for riding time. Eventually, she had earned her own horse, Top of the Hill Wild Music, and I loved hearing stories about her times with him. He sounded like a horse no one else wanted, but Mom had loved him exactly as he was, no holds barred. I longed for a relationship like that with a horse.

When I asked for riding lessons, my mom was so elated she signed me up the next day at a local barn. I was seven years old.

After I walked into a barn for the first time, I never looked back. It instantly felt like a second home to me: the sounds of hay being chewed, tails whipping flies, and little sneezes and nickers of contentment. The smell of horses, and yes, manure, was inviting. When I entered the barn and saw the horses all lined up in their stalls, it felt like they were waiting for me to arrive. I breathed it all in and felt a sense of “rightness,” knowing I was where I belonged. I practically bounced into the arena in my excitement, instantly craving a ride on the biggest, fanciest horses. It never occurred to me I wouldn’t immediately get on them! When my first instructor took me to the cross-ties and introduced me to my lesson partner, I admitted some disappointment aloud—instead of the Barbie Dream Horse, a small, fluffy pony waited for me. Ponies were for little kids. I wanted to ride the big ones.

Of course, my riding instructor knew better than I did, and despite my initial feelings, the fluffy pony turned out to be incredible! Macy was approximately thirty-one years old, and the safest choice for a child just starting out. Her ears were gigantic. To this day, I can clearly see them standing straight up, with tufts of hair coming out of them, like a stuffed animal. No one knew what breed Macy was, but the ears made us suspect she had some donkey in her. Bouncy horses and pony rides may have jump- started my passion, but little Macy solidified it. She could hang with the big horses despite her size—and even show them up! At one show-jumping rally where Macy and I competed, we took home first prize with a stunning twenty-six-second jump-off, while all the “fancy” horses completed the jump-off in forty-five seconds or more!

Macy was the perfect example of small but mighty, and she never quit. What she lacked in size she more than made up for in heart. I couldn’t help but fall in love with her. And I made it a habit to never underestimate a horse based on appearance after that. It took me a lot longer to appreciate that the same rule applies to people, as well. Looks can and are deceiving.

Macy and I, it would turn out, would have a lot in common.

One of my fondest memories of my time with Macy is playing gymkhana games with a flag and barrel. The first time we tried, no one had told me she used to be a “gaming pony.” I found out quickly! We approached the first barrel at a decent, rhythmic canter, but once I grabbed the flag, she made a beeline for the next barrel, rocketing down the line as fast as her little legs could carry us. I remember thinking, I thought she was old! I dropped the flag and held on for dear life, not out of fear but sheer joy. The feeling of the wind in my face and the pony pumping her legs under me was freedom! We spoke each other’s language, and we both loved speed.

Soon after, I began to think that one day I would qualify to compete on the United States Equestrian Team in three-day eventing at the Olympics. I was a total daredevil, always wanting bigger jumps and faster speeds. I never worried about my safety.

And then, everything changed.

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