If you scroll too fast through Lily Rhodes’ Instagram page, you might simply see a college rider with a sunny demeanor posting handsome warmbloods, understated riding outfits, and an occasional gym selfie. You might miss her describing herself as an “amateur para-equestrian” to her almost 30,000 followers, or the photos in which the sleeve of her show coat is neatly pinned up at mid-arm, both reins in her left hand.
You might not get it until you encounter a video of her tacking up with one arm, boosting her saddle above her head one-handed, and settling it softly on her horses’ back. And even then, you might not clock that beneath Rhodes’ upbeat online presence lies a deep vein of grit and wisdom, and her experiences in dressage, para-dressage, hunters, and intercollegiate riding make her an expert on accessibility and inclusion in the equestrian industry at a young age.
Born into a horse-crazy family, Rhodes began riding with her mom, a Western rider, as soon as she could walk, and mother and daughter began taking dressage lessons together when Rhodes was still in elementary school. “It was just one of those coincidences,” Rhodes said about her unusual early choice of discipline — she was eager to take lessons, and the local dressage barn was the first option her mom discovered.
At age 14, Rhodes was in a serious ATV accident. The vehicle flipped over and onto Rhodes, severing her dominant right arm. After being flown to the nearest hospital, she was in and out of the hospital for months battling infections. “It was a really, really long healing process,” she said. “It took a very long time to get all of my energy back.” Despite that, she was back in the saddle as soon as she could manage. “This is so bad,” she said, laughing. “But after I lost my arm I was in the hospital for a week and a half, and at the two-week mark I was on a horse again, just my mom leading me around. I had my first real ride on my own a month after losing my arm.”
While she battled early doubts about her ability to ride, half-joking that she considered switching to a Western discipline where she could ride with one hand, Rhodes never seriously thought of giving up horses. She credits her determination to ride with accelerating her overall healing, musing, “Instead of worrying if I would ever be a good rider again, I saw it as something to look forward to. I think my healing process went a lot quicker than it could have because I had that goal in mind. All I wanted to do was ride and be with the horses again. It gave me something to get better for.”
Exactly one year after her accident, Rhodes was back in the show ring. In the years that followed she competed in both para-dressage and able-bodied dressage, traveling to Wellington to get her para classification and progressing in sport while adjusting to her changed abilities. Her longtime trainer, Roberta Clark, accompanied her throughout, learning about the para world alongside Rhodes, and now coaches other para-dressage riders.
“There were moments that were really frustrating,” Rhodes said of her return to riding. It took her nearly three years to learn how to tack up solo, and she had to learn to be left-hand dominant. In the saddle, she had to determine what traits she required in an equine partner, and what accommodations she might need in the ring. Even years after losing her arm, Rhodes is still learning and adapting. “It’s a never-ending process,” she said. “There are still times where physically I can't do something, but I don't let that stop me. I just figure out my own way to do it.”
While she was lucky enough to be surrounded by supportive friends, family, and coaches in her para journey, she eventually realized, “I was encouraged to pursue para-dressage because there is para-dressage, if that makes sense. It was available and it was specifically for people like myself. But I was always fascinated by hunters, and I wanted to jump.” When she left home for college, Rhodes saw an opportunity to explore the hunter and equitation rings that had intrigued her for so long. “I had always been really interested in the hunter/jumper world, but because of my disability, I wasn’t sure if it was possible or not,” she said. “I don’t really see people like me in that world.”
Rhodes was also keenly aware that she was transitioning into a discipline that prizes aesthetics, and wasn’t sure how she would be received. “You’re judged on how pretty of a picture you make,” she noted. As a rider with a limb difference, “I wasn’t sure I would make the prettiest picture, and that’s where doubt came in. I’ve learned I can hold my own and have as much fun as the next person, but I didn’t know at first if I had the equitation and the picture to be competitive.”
Transitioning from the familiar environment of para-dressage to the world of hunter/jumpers also proved challenging. “The entry was difficult,” she said. “With para-dressage, there’s so much infrastructure in place and so many people willing to help out, up to providing sponsored horses so riders can compete at the FEI level.” The diffuse hunter/jumper industry lacked that established support system, but Rhodes found the University of Lynchburg’s intercollegiate riding team was her way in.
“There isn’t easy access for entry to the hunter/jumper world,” she said. “Once I got to college, I had the opportunity to try it out through IHSA. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to ride really sweet horses at school and have coaches that encourage me.” Still, Rhodes points out that the hunter/jumper industry has a long way to go in terms of accessibility: “I know I’m not the only person out there with a limb difference or a disability that is unsure about how to enter the sport. There are so many resources to help people get started in para-dressage, and I wish that infrastructure was in place in the hunter/jumper world.”
While her transition from dressage to hunters was carefully planned, Rhodes’ social media influence was a happy accident. After starting an Instagram page to document her road back to the saddle, Rhodes found that “waves of followers” immediately arrived, overwhelming her with their support. Rhodes describes the philosophy she communicates online as one of practical optimism. “If this is the worst thing I have to go through in my entire life, then I’m set, and I have nothing to complain about,” she said. “It really is about perspective.” The sentiment resonates with riders of all ages and abilities, who reach out to Rhodes to tell her how her equestrian journey has inspired their own. “I get goosebumps just thinking about it,” she says. “I wish I could thank every single one of my followers individually.”
This perspective was hard-won in the moments after Rhodes’ ATV accident. “After the accident,” she said, “I was laying on the ground waiting for the ambulance. I remember lying there at 14 years old, coming to terms with the fact that I might die. I was thinking about my life and what I would miss out on if I did die. And at that moment, I made an executive decision that I wasn’t ready to die yet.”
“I still very much remember what that feeling was like. So young, thinking of all the things I wanted to do that I hadn’t done yet. And so I try not to take the opportunity I was given for granted. I made the decision that day that I wasn’t going to die. Now I make sure I’m living the life that 14-year-old Lily thought she wouldn’t have.”
Photos by Milyn Holbrook