Partial paralysis doesn’t deter Central Coast dressage rider from highest-level competitive goals.
by Anna Buffini
That word embodies the man and incredible para-equestrian and future Olympic hopeful, Michele Bandinu. Michele, pronounced “Mee-KEH-leh,” is a long-time FEI level dressage competitor who suffered partial paralysis in a motocross accident almost five years ago. That nearly career-ending disability hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his dreams.
Born and raised in Uster, Switzerland, the half-German/half-Italian rider resides, rides and runs two masonry businesses in San Louis Obispo. Not only is he an up-and-coming competitive para rider, he is also a self-employed entrepreneur with 48 employees.
As a young boy, Michele liked horses but his family did not have the money to provide a horse for him so he picked up rides any way he could; cleaning stalls and grooming in exchange for rides. But he lost interest without being able to consistently learn on a horse.
At 21 he moved to Santa Barbara to learn English. After running out of funds he and a friend ended up sleeping on the floors of the University of California, Santa Barbara hallways for two months. A nanny job saved him from his dire situation and during that time he cultivated his masonry skills and most importantly met his beautiful wife, Jeanne, who also shares his love of horses.
After two years of riding various horses for fun, he met Sharon Vander Ziel, who gave him his first official dressage lessons. That, he jokes, “ruined me for life.” He then started looking for a real dressage horse and found a lofty-moving Thoroughbred that, unfortunately, died six months later. His next horse was Willow, a 17.3hh old-fashioned Hanoverian mare that he learned on until her retirement.
After feeling such lofty, powerful extended trots from Willow, he was hooked and made the decision to invest in a high-quality horse from Europe. Michele found an eye-catching horse named Ace who taught him a lot but was big, strong and very difficult to ride. He found a trainer who showed his tricky horse extensively through Fourth Level but because the trainer mostly rode the horse, Michele was not getting the experience he needed and did not know how to ride his big-moving animal.
He then moved on to trainer Albrecht Heidemann, for whom Michele has very high praise. Over a tireless seven-year coaching span, Albrecht took Michele from novice dressage student to accomplished, knowledgeable polished rider who won the Prix St. Georges class with over 20 adult amateurs at the Del Mar National horse show.
It was a very tough journey but without the horse being “a nightmare to just get on the bit” he would not have grown into the finessed rider that he is today. After their huge success at Del Mar they started training for the Intermediaire I. Just before their debut, however, the horse fractured his pastern in a pasture accident, leaving Michele heart broken and questioning his future in the sport.
The bite of the dressage bug was too strong for him, and he decided to look for a top quality horse. Before he could do that, tragedy struck and this time one that changed his life forever and in a way he could not have imagined.
A motocross accident left him with a broken back and a severely damaged spinal cord, requiring two steel rods and eight screws to repair. The trauma left him with no feeling whatsoever in his feet and left leg. His right leg is completely numb with the exception of a little bit of feeling. Excruciating nerve pain from the belt line down still bothers him on and off to this day.
Michele makes light of his situation, joking that his heels are always perfectly positioned down because he can’t feel them. Following the accident he determinedly began exhaustive rehabilitation to re-learn how to walk, which he can now do with arm braces. He’s constantly working on walking without them by shifting his weight on feet and legs that he cannot feel.
He uses rubber bands on his stirrups to hold his boots onto his heel as well as ankle braces to keep them stable. Stirrup guards keep his foot from going through the front of the stirrup.
The understandable thing to do would have been to give up riding and continue working tirelessly with his two thriving companies, five horses and five dogs and spend time with his seventh-grade son Luca and his faithful wife.
But, in case you haven’t noticed yet, Michele is anything but ordinary.
“Can I ride again?” were the first words out of Michele’s mouth when he was released from the hospital. The doctor hesitantly told him it wasn’t the best idea but he could as long as he didn’t fall off. Of course, there’s no guarantee of that, especially for a serious equestrian needing an energetic and athletic mount to be competitive.
After an excruciating six months of rehab, Michele bravely got on a mare he raised named Dominique, but it was still a bit premature. He waited another six months and very determinedly made up his mind that he would have to make it work somehow. Five to 10 minutes a day was all he could do at first, then he gradually progressed into a normal amount of riding. The mare was very quiet and patient with him at home but much too hot and dangerous at shows.
Bravely, with his new trainer Ryan Torkkelli, Michele took the mare to his first show since the accident. Remember the doctor’s words? Well, a helicopter landed right next to the warm-up ring and the feisty mare lost it. Amazingly, Michele stayed on with skilled riding and completed two tests that weekend. The mare was not a good fit for him to continue his para career with, so he started scouring the internet for his next horse in Europe.
While Ryan was on a buying trip overseas, Michele found video of a horse he loved. Ryan rode him and thought it was an excellent horse and came home with Michele’s current mount, Skagen 5. Even though he was not marketed as a para horse, Skagen was the perfect match for Michele. He is level-headed, beautiful, forward, not lazy, very impressive and talented. In regular training with Ryan at Templeton Farms in Paso Robles, the pair is making great progress.
Asking Less, Getting More
Michele’s future goals are to become an elite para rider and qualify to compete for the US Para-Equestrian Dressage Team at major competitions such as the World Equestrian Games and the Olympics.
Michele describes his relationship with Skagen as “growing.” He’s a much more patient rider now than in the past; not as demanding to get results immediately. He has grown so much in his feel that he can ask less and get more out of his horse, Michele explains. They have started off having a great show season. In only their third show together, they won a non-para Adult Amateur Second Level class and were awarded Custom Saddlery’s Most Valuable Rider at the new Templeton Farms Paso Robles Dressage Summer Classic in June. (California Riding Magazine, July 2016.)
His trainer Ryan describes Michele as an intense and very determined competitor with a great attitude, who never stops working to become the best he can be. Michele has applied for a “Grade 3” rider certification, which is a very competitive grade on the international para equestrian circuit.
Ryan is very excited about the direction that Michele is going and knows he will only continue to improve and be successful. The trainer is inspired by Michele and his positive attitude and even more amazed at the fact that he runs his two companies in the daytime and gives 110% in his evening lessons.
In his quest to compete in international para-dressage, Michele faces the added challenge that few California dressage competitions offer opportunities for para- equestrians to qualify for national and international competitions. If riders don’t achieve the necessary score at the few shows on the West Coast they will need to fly across the country for a seven-minute test to earn a qualifying score.
Expanding para dressage on the West Coast is extremely important for the growth of this sport in order for deserving West Coast para riders to be able to qualify for international competitions. Michele has a big future ahead of him and will undoubtedly be a recognized name in the dressage community. Everyone will be inspired by his strength, sportsmanship, competitiveness, skill and, most importantly his love of horses, which is what this sport is all about.
Author Anna Buffini is one of our region’s top young dressage riders. She met and was inspired by Michele while scribing at the Templeton Farms Paso Robles Dressage Summer Classic. This month, she will compete in the national U25 Championships at the USEF Festival of Champions in the Chicago area’s Wayne, IL, with Sundayboy and Wilton.
Written by Anna Buffini
Sunday, 31 July 2016 18:54