Spinning around in her wheelchair she greeted me while she was picking up bag debris. Everything seems so effortless. “My horse likes to play with this stuff!” she said laughingly. Just like most equestrians, Diane Kastama is at home in the barn working with and taking care of her horses. Yet, unlike most equestrians, Diane Kastama does it from a wheelchair.
Diane, an Arroyo Grande resident since 2005, has a long list of accomplishments on the world stage. Currently she is preparing to represent the United States in the Para-Equestrian World Championships for Single Drivers – her seventh appearance since 2002 – competing in the sport of Combined Driving.
Diane is considered to have a Grade 1 disability which means she has a major restriction; hers would be lack of use of her legs. A car accident in her twenties resulted in her having to use a wheelchair to get around in. However, that has never stopped her. In fact, perhaps it fuels her competitive nature, driving her to accomplish more than she ever imagined.
A Horse-Lover from the Get-Go
A horse lover practically from the get-go after her first pony ride at the age of five, Diane has a special connection with her horses. “Yeah, my parents made the mistake of putting me on a pony!” laughed Diane, as she began to tell me her story. She grew up in the city near San Diego. At the age of seven Diane started riding lessons. In the junior high and high school years she spent the summers at a horse camp but she never went to horse shows.
After graduating from college, she got a job as a Software Engineer, bought a truck, and then a horse. She spent her time outside of work riding her Appy on the trails.
Diane was forced to rethink what she was going to do with horses after the car accident. However, the idea of riding her horse helped her recovery and she improved every day. One year to the day after the accident she was back on her horse. Three years later she started looking into driving horses. The first horse she taught to drive was her Appaloosa.
The Driving World Was Never to be the Same
The driving world was never to be the same. Diane is the inspiration behind a countless number of people with disabilities success stories along with many able-bodied people who have taken up the sport of Combined Driving. She has raised awareness for the sport and has accomplished more than most equestrians on the world stage. Diane has six Para-Equestrian Driving medals in Combined Driving: one gold, two silver and three bronze.
What is a Combined Driving Competition?
Three events make up a Combined Driving competition. The first is the Driven Dressage phase where the horse is driven through a specific pattern. This phase is judged on the horse’s way of going at the walk, trot and canter while executing different movements, just like a regular dressage show – only the horse is pulling a carriage.
The second phase is Marathon which is a fast-paced and demanding cross-country event. Drivers navigate their horse(s) and carriage through an intricate series of hazards which will include water, steep hills, and sharp turns – all within the fastest time possible.
The final phase is cones, where competitors are timed while they accurately negotiate an intricate, winding course of narrowly-set cones without knocking them with the carriage wheels. The cones phase is Diane’s favorite.
Para-Equestrian World Championships
Now she’s gearing up to compete in the 2018 FEI Para–Equestrian World Championships for Single Drivers, hosted in Kronenberg, Netherlands August 28 – September 2, 2018. This year, Diane will not be taking one of her own horses. Instead she plans on leasing a horse, Tijibbe, and will be arriving four weeks prior to the World Championships in order to compete Tjibbe in a horse show to get to know him.
Diane has competed at the World Championships with a leased horse twice before. All the other times she has used her own horse. She’s looking forward to leasing this horse yet recognizes she’ll miss out on the special joy of success with a horse she has a long-standing partnership with.
Her Specially-Designed Carriage
However, she cannot drive without her specially-designed carriage. So the carriage is leaving the end of July, arriving in the Netherlands and will be waiting for her arrival. Diane designed her own carriage for her own unique needs. “I designed it so any one person can help me drive, turn me and be able to call 911,” she said with a smile. “I’d never drive if I needed a whole crew!”
The driver’s seat is actually hydraulic. She gets into it facing backwards as she transfers from her wheelchair. She then hydraulically lifts herself, still facing backwards. An assistant then turns her to face forward and locks her in that way.
Diane secures herself with a five-point harness. This harness keeps her in the carriage while it bounces around. Having no use of her legs, there’s no way she can brace herself in the carriage over bumps and through turns. This carriage design actually enables her to compete with able-bodied horse drivers in open classes.
Working Around Horses in a Wheelchair
Her horses all interact with her and demonstrate the special relationship she establishes with them. The horses really have no idea she’s in a wheelchair. “Horses don’t care if you’re in a wheelchair,” Diane explained, “They are actually more afraid of dogs!”
Rupert, her World Champion and most senior driving horse, holds his head low in her lap as she skillfully places his bridle on his head using one hand. “I have to use one hand,” Diane explained, “I need my other hand to help me stay balanced.”
Diane mucks her own stalls, grooms her horses, clips and trims her horses, and tacks up basically on her own. She does use help to hitch the horse and to hold it while she gets herself into the carriage. Her friend Elaine Dawson was on hand the day I visited.
Takes a Crew to Shows
Although Diane has learned to do so much with horses on her own, she does travel with a small crew to horse shows. Her friend Lila Hewitt from Parkfield, a member of Brass Oaks driving society, will be joining her for the Para-Equestrian World Driving Championships and riding on the carriage with her. Her niece Kelly Kastama is going with her for the whole trip. Kelly is a horse person, yet, Diane says laughing, “She’s going to get a crash course in grooming!”
Competing in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands, Diane will be competing as part of the USEF Para-Equestrian Driving team. There are four drivers going and three will compete on the team. The forth will compete as an individual and is there as an alternate in case one of the other drivers is unable to compete. Diane, being a Grade 1 driver is needed as all Para-Equestrian teams must have at least one Grade 1 driver. Diane also brings the experience of six other World Games under her belt.
Getting herself, her equipment, and her crew to the Netherlands is no small feat. Obviously it costs some money. The Brass Oaks Driving Society put on a fundraiser for Diane a few weekends ago. However, she is still looking for funding. She has a go fund me page for her own needs and here is a link for the team needs. Donations made to the team are tax deductible.
Diane Kastama Continues Her Vision
Once home from the games, Diane will work on qualifying for the next world games in two years. She has a young horse that she’s bringing along and another that has been successful but is getting through a slight lameness issue at the moment.
As President of United States Driving for the Disabled, she continues to inspire other people with a disability to pick up the sport of driving. In fact, most of the Para-Equestrian drivers in California were inspired by Diane. Her vision includes having several specially-designed carriages available for horsemen and horsewomen with a disability to use to develop their skills before taking on the expense of their own carriage.
Diane’s Superhero Power
“I’m competitive. I rise to the challenge. I always want to be better.” Diane responded when I asked what her superhero power was. However, even though Diane does so much on her own she did admit, “I’m always recruiting someone to dump my wheelbarrow!”
All Photos: Sharon Jantzen