How a start in a therapeutic program led to a lengthy resume of riding accomplishments that includes national titles, traveling the world as a Paralympian, dining at the White House, and success competing in able-bodied competition. Deeply disappointed not to make the U.S. team for the 2010 WEG, Barbara Grassmyer rebounded by setting her sights on earning her USDF Bronze Medal. After years of intense para-dressage focus, she found riding the able-bodied tests liberating and fun. “I laughed during my Third Level rides because for the first time in a very long career I was having so much fun showing my superstar mare!” says Grassmyer. She earned all her Bronze scores on her partner Mibis in one year and says her Dutch Warmblood loves doing Third Level even though it’s hard work.
“Third Level vs Para Grade 3 is, for me, much easier to ride, the tests flow much better. In the Para Grade 3 tests, there are a lot of trot-walk transitions, less so in Third Level. Also, riding the para tests in the short court is very difficult to fit all of the movements. The counter-canter work is very hard as well as getting a good medium canter in the short court. The long court makes the movements a lot easier to ride in front of the judges.”
Born with Aperts Syndrome, Grassmyer has poor joint rotation with bone anomalies that include fused digits of the hands and feet. Classified as a Grade 3 rider for para dressage, she uses special adaptive reins, carries two whips and uses rubber bands to stabilize her feet in the stirrups. She is also allowed to nod her head to salute.
“Connection is the most difficult for Grade 3 riders with hand difficulties,where movements of shoulder-in and counter counters are required,” notes Hope Hand, director of the USPEA. Soft spoken but quick-witted, Grassmyer says she likes performing musical freestyles the best. “No one knows if you go off course. Well, your trainer knows." she chuckles. She favors Phil Collins’ music.
A Riding Resume
Barb and her sister Jennifer inherited the horse crazy gene from their father Robert. Her father has been the moving force in all things equestrian and worked on developing her special tack. He goes with her when she rides as she cannot physically complete all the tacking herself. Grassmyer started at 10-years-old at All Season’s Riding Academy, a therapeutic riding center in Sunol, CA where she competed in horse shows for the disabled in California and across the United States.
Like so many little girls, Barb looked out the front window on Christmas mornings to see if a horse might be outside. Her first horse, Winnie, a Doc Bar Quarter Horse came from the therapy program, staying with Grassmyer who took her to college. Another mount, Jake, had also belonged to All Seasons, proved a reliable jumper but when Grassmyer discovered dressage, she passed Jake on to her sister.
Dressage intrigued her and opened the door to competitive possibilities. “It felt safer than jumping but I also found I was better at it.” She competed at the state championships on a mare named April and also, on Poupon who was trained up to Second Level. “Poupon was quite a mare! She was very forward in the dressage tests. In our freestyle ride at Dressage in the Wine County, Poupon did the freestyle in the long court that was designed for the short court!”
“When you hear your name representing the United States, it takes over your life,” she says. Para equestrian has evolved to run under USEF rules nationally and FEI rules internationally with Paralympic dressage governed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Until 1996, para dressage riders used borrowed horses at international competitions supplied by the host country. “You can reject one horse but the next draw might be worse,” laughs Grassmyer who was also an alternate on the 2000 Paralympic Team in Sydney, Australia. Grassmyer concedes the para competitions of the past were much less intense and maybe, more fun but as riders started buying, training and using their own horses, the standards got higher.
Some riders still arrange for borrowed mounts ahead of time due to the high expenses of horse travel but Grassmyer wanted to see how far she could go with the right partner.
At the Midnight Hour/Mibis
On the hunt for an international caliber horse for a para rider requires finding mounts with the utmost temperament and ride-ability that match each rider’s specific abilities and deficits. Missy Ransehousen helped Barb find her true partner in time for Athens in 2004. On one of their last stops that required a late long distance drive in Holland, they looked at Mibis, a 1994 Dutch Warmblood mare by Darwin, grand sire Roemer, out of Ibis by Able Alert. “We tried her at midnight,” recalls Grassmyer. “She felt bold and easy off the leg, plus she had a sweet, kind face.”
Together, they’ve competed as members of Team USA at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, the 2006 Pacific Rim Paralympic Qualifier, Vancouver, Canada, winning a Gold Medal; the 2007 World Championships in Hartbury, England and the 2008 Paralympics in Hong Kong. At the 2007 USEF Para-Equestrian National Championship, they claimed reserve champion and in 2008, their third place score secured a spot on the team bound for Hong Kong. At the 2009 USEF National Para-Equestrian Dressage Championship held at Lamplight in Illinois, Mibis and Barb won the Grade 3 and placed third overall.
“Rain, shine, hot, cold, Barb is a hard worker dedicated to furthering her riding,” says Mike Steele, a traveling trainer who’s taught her at Black Rice Farm in Diamond Springs, CA since 2009.
“She takes full responsibility for herself and her education without any excuses, a trait much appreciated by trainers.” He says he’s never treated her differently than any other rider. “If anything, I’m harder on her because it’s more difficult. To progress takes more work and determination on her part but I expect she can do it. I, too, make no excuses for her.” Although Steele hadn’t worked with para riders before, his background in body awareness, bio mechanics and body work, as well as 30-plus years training dressage, made him a good match with Barb. Training with Mike is fun, she adds. “His constant good humor is a big part of the package.”
“I am very proud of Barb in earning the bronze medal. It isn’t easy for her which makes the accomplishment something rather special. It’s been very rewarding for me. Barb is a very inspiring individual.”
Grassmyer credits Steele with helping keep her hands and legs still while improving her whole position. “He helped me get Mibis more engaged, stepping up and more uphill to bump our scores up from mid-60s.”
“Mibis is a great horse. Big heart, good and kind mind, plus nice movement,” says Steele. “A horse like her deserves respect and the best way to show that is through fair and correct riding from Barb.” Because Steele isn’t allowed to school Mibis at the FEI shows, he wants Barbara more correct in her riding so that she can produce more correctness in Mibis. He goes by the adage, "No matter the training the horse has, it will only work as well as the rider can ride."
Grassmyer is not shy about advocating for Para Equestrians and has ridden many demos to showcase the ability and quality of para skills. Grassmyer’s favorite dressage riders to emulate all support Para Equestrian as well: Steffan Peters, Guenter Seidal, Courtney King Dye and Tracey Lert. She rode in a demo with Seidel on a borrowed horse many years ago at a California Dressage Society convention held at the LAEC in Burbank, CA.
She also recalls when the Olympic and Paralympic athletes toured the White House, King Dye sat with the Paralympians at dinner and joined them at a bar later. She’s especially enjoyed clinics with Tracey Lert, whose father, Peter Lert, was one of the first supporters for Para Equestrians riders.
“Barb is a very dedicated and hard working person. When I taught her, she was amazing with how she worked and never asked for breaks. She’s one of the most diligent riders I have ever had the pleasure to work with,” according to Tracy Lert.
In preparation for nationals, she and Mibis trained with the Para Equestrian assistant coach Sharon Schneidman in Colorado for a few months and they trained in Pennsylvania with Missy Ransehousen, the Paralympic chef d’equipe before Hong Kong. “Mibis’ passport is stamped more than mine,” says Grassmyer.
Riding in China marked a definite highlight to promote the abilities of ‘disabled’ athletes in a culture where disability is traditionally not accepted or acknowledged. The 2008 Paralympics broke new ground to a receptive audience.
Grassmyer described a funny scene at the airport trying to make their plane connection. “We had to wait for our team mates in wheelchairs to deplane last and then our motley group [of various disabilities] had to run for the connecting flight to Beijing. Everyone was staring at us. They thought it was a race!” Little did other passengers watching know that these were elite athletes on their way to compete capably on 1200 pound animals in an Olympic stadium showcasing the finer points of riding dressage.
It’s a Lifestyle
“It’s been a roller coaster ride for her as it is for most of the para equestrians,” says Nora, Barb’s mother. “I am not surprised by her dedication to the sport. It has defined her as a person. The opportunities for travel have been wonderful. I doubt we ever would have traveled to England, Belgium, Germany or Greece.” Barb traveled on her own to England and Hong Kong. “My proudest moment has to be Barb winning the 2001 National Championship at Gladstone in the Dick and Jane Brown arena.”
Competing at the elite level requires a strong support system. Grassmyer credits her entire family for pitching in through the years. “Dad driving horses everywhere, Mom watching every ride and driving across country with me, my sister Jenn groomed for me at nationals and local shows and my oldest sister Margy cheering us on.”
She helps her sisters by babysitting her six nieces: Isabel, age 11 (who already helps at shows), Beatrice 9, Emma 6, Tyler 6, Penny 5 and Sammie 4. All have ridden Mibis as she is part of the family. “Mibis loves it when they come to the shows! She takes good care of them when their are in the saddle.”
As a life-long student of dressage, Grassmyer shows how taking the reins as a para equestrian spurs confidence, enriches and enlarges life’s experience. Para translates as parallel, meaning equal, and Grassmyer wants to expand that understanding. To that end, she serves as a High Performance committee member, diligently keeping track of rider’s FEI rankings, deadlines and regulations for national and international competitions. Her wide-ranging experience makes her a great resource.
Horses are the vehicle of achievement for any rider to pursue their dreams and showcase their abilities. The able-disabled line is a matter of interpretation in the eye of the public but on a judge’s score card it’s skill and harmony that count. Grassmyer’s journey proves, with horses, there are no boundaries and few limits.