4th Oct, 2002
By Arthur McLean
When Carol Wilkinson discovered she had multiple sclerosis, she thought her days of working with horses had ended.
But she has found another way to indulge her lifelong passion.
This summer, Wilkinson won the world's first international two-horse carriage race during competition in France.
Wilkinson stands 6 feet tall and has blond hair and a bright personality. She discovered she had MS in 1987, when she lived in Connecticut.
"I did it all, Western riding, hunting, dressage," she said of the different horse disciplines.
Wilkinson, who is 52, and her husband, Joe, moved to Moore County in January. In the front living room of their home is a photo of Wilkinson astride one of her horses before a competition.
A riding accident led to her being diagnosed with the disease.
"I was riding one day, the horse zigged, and I zagged," she said. She landed in a pile on the ground.
Wilkinson had been having problems with her balance before the accident, and doctors first thought she had a brain tumor.
"When they told me I had MS, I already knew all about it. My father had progressive MS," Wilkinson said.
Doctors diagnosed her with relapsing and remitting MS. Multiple sclerosis is believed to be an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
About 85 percent of the people diagnosed with the disease have relapsing and remitting MS. People suffer attacks, losing some of their body functions. They regain those body functions when the disease goes into temporary remission.
For Wilkinson, the disease once robbed her of her sight. Another time, she lost the use of one of her arms. She said she usually has about two attacks of the disease each year.
When the disease is in remission, Wilkinson looks and acts like any healthy person, but because the disease strikes without warning, her horse-riding days ended 15 years ago.
"For about six months, I went into mourning," she said. "Then I had an epiphany; there's more than one way to skin a cat."
Wilkinson researched carriage driving, in which she could sit on a four-wheel racing carriage pulled by a horse. "I found that it could work for me," she said.
She practiced for a year before her need for competition brought her to racing. Wilkinson says it is part of her outlook on life. "Disability does not mean inability," she said.
Wilkinson's prowess led to an invitation to the International Friendly Event for Carriage Drivers with Disabilities, an international competition held in France.
"I was invited by the president of disabled drivers to compete in doubles driving," she said.
The competition, held Aug. 27, was the first time disabled drivers raced carriages pulled by two horses. To compete in all elements of the competition usually takes three days in the single-horse category. Because the event was so new, Wilkinson and her competitors had to do everything in one day.
Wilkinson won, becoming the first disabled driver to compete in and win a doubles carriage competition. "This whole doubles thing is still sinking in," she said.
At Economy Farms in Southern Pines, Wilkinson practiced driving doubles before flying to France where she would meet the horse team she would drive. "I don't speak much French, and the horses don't speak English, and we had a little communication problem at first," she said.
She keeps her ribbon and medal along with a scrapbook from her trip. "It was an unforgettable experience," Wilkinson said.
Her husband accompanied her on the trip. He helps Wilkinson harness the horse and get on the carriage. He also rides with her as required in the competitions.
"It's kind of like being a kid, I can't play with sharp objects," she said.
"It's tough, but what can you do?" Joe said recently as he watched Carol
practice. "You take the medicine, and you never know what you're going
to get with the virus, but you're not going to keep her in."
Copyright © 2002 The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer