Every Paralympian’s story is one of overcoming challenges and the odds. Add the horse as your dance partner on the world stage and you gain the elegance that blends art and sport, along with the compelling element of trust balanced against unpredictability.
Thank you U.S. Team Riders: Rebecca Hart, Annie Peavy, Margaret ‘Gigi’ McIntosh, Sydney Collier, and Roxanne Trunnell for your personal dedication and desire to pursue the high levels required in the ever-more-competitive Para-dressage arena. Your rising visibility as para-riders and serious athletes truly has an impact on our sport at home.
While U.S. sports media woefully missed the marketing bounty with near nonexistent Paralympic coverage, the equestrian community kept ears pricked for news and results, expressing interest across online websites, chat boards and Facebook.
Mary Phelps has been one of the earliest fans and supporters of para-dressage coverage on DressageDaily, recognizing the value of broadening the dressage community.
Para-dressage, and by extension all para sports, is making strides in gaining awareness about the beauty of pushing boundaries. Our team members’ spectrum of physical issues result from congenital conditions, accident, disease and illness. Many riders like Rebecca Hart compete without stirrups due to spasms, pain or coordination issues. Many others ride with prosthetic limbs or no limbs! Yet, once in the saddle, skill is the only measure that counts. The sheer diversity on display in parallel sport is just plain cool.
Walk This Way
It might sound ridiculous to spend countless hours and dollars and years to train, then ship horses halfway around the world to compete in a walk test but I guarantee that Grade IA (the most impaired) is always a nail biter and at Rio, the largest division of the five grades with 26 entries. The tests are intricate and demanding, where literally every step counts. Changes in gait, keeping forward momentum on the bit, precise accuracy and nailing square halts with drastically impaired motor skills, balance, strength is a feat and testament to training.
The power of para-dressage is that it offers that intangible ‘you know it when you see and feel it’ extra. In a very clear way, it distills the essence of dressage, bringing harmony of horse and rider to the forefront, and it’s a privilege to witness.
The top para-riders will tell you that the therapy aspect is integral to the sport. Aside from vehicles to glory and podiums, the bottom line is the generosity and mobility the horse offers. Gratitude to ride, to compete, to the horse is the sentiment most often and most sincerely expressed. In turn, this is one way to honor the horse’s role and place in the modern world.
In Rio, Team USA sent quality horses and riders, four making their Paralympic debut with three finishing in top ten of their respective grades. But as much as we’ve improved our standards, the Europeans have continued to raise the bar. Much like our able-bodied team, para progress in the U.S. competes against well funded, entrenched programs in Europe with easier access to both horses and shows. In Great Britain, which dominates para-dressage at the moment, the UK Lottery funds para sports.
In the past, when para-dressage riders catch rode horses in host countries, U.S. riders were consistent medalists. Right now, the U.S. relies on individual riders, trainers and owners to keep up the momentum with USEF and USPEA trying to establish regional training centers as resources.
Building a viable program takes the concerted effort of a village, which includes support from USEF, USPEA, USDF, Adequan/Global Dressage Festival, NEDA and every show manager who has shortened a ring or added tests and judges who shelved pity scores to judge to FEI standards.
Heather Blitz who coaches rider Annie Peavy (Grade III), Todd Flettrich who coaches Rebecca Hart (Grade II), Missy Ransehousen, the former chef d'equipe of the U.S. para-equestrian team, who works with Margaret McIntosh (Grade IA), Wes Dunham who guides the youngest team member Sydney Collier (Grade IB), and current chef d’equpie Kai Handt who also coaches Roxanne Trunnell (Grade 1A) have all been instrumental in moving U.S. para-dressage forward.
Two to Tango
Part of horse sport is certainly grace under pressure, as three time U.S. Paralympian Rebecca Hart demonstrated her poise and class with her partner, Schroeter’s Romani, a 2002 Danish Warmblood owned by Margaret Duprey.
A pioneer for U.S. para-dressage, Hart placed 4th in London 2012. In Rio, she posted the USA's highest placing of 5th in the Grade 11 Team test with the highest percentage of 69.914%. Hart was the sole U.S. rider to advance to the freestyle.
For Hart, born with familial spastic paraplegia, a genetic disease that causes muscle wasting and lack of control from the waist down riding is as necessary a part of life as air.
“Without the therapeutic benefit of time in the saddle, I would be absolutely in wheelchair full-time,” she says. Hart thrives on competition but horses don’t always follow script.
“Romani added some unplanned moves to our freestyle. I am proud of the recovery I was able to pull off; we hit all the required movements in the test and were able to end on our music. It was an honor to represent our country and a pleasure to do it with my awesome teammates.”
It takes a lot of composure and skill to finesse your 1,200 pound partner back on track, especially in an international stadium setting.
Recognition of our Paralympic riders is important. Their visibility can trickle down to inspire, other riders, disabled or not. Local impact of para-riders can be just as profound and you don’t need an FEI horse to achieve that. The power of para goes beyond dressage or competition, it speaks to inner resilience, joy and possibility.
Hearts and Minds
In the quest to uphold the ideal spirit of sport, many see the Paralympics rivaling the Olympics in appeal. With Rio hosting 4,350 athletes from 160 countries, consistent with London and Beijing numbers, the parallel sports movement is no doubt a popular growing global phenomenon.
In response to the empty seat outcry during the Olympics and the challenge to match London’s record ticket sales, Rio rallied by selling 2 million tickets to Paralympic events, including 9,000 spectators for para-dressage.
Former London 2012 marketing director Greg Nugent’s #FillTheSeats campaign was aimed at getting Brazilian youngsters to the Games, much like tickets given to schoolchildren during London. What better way to inspire coming generations?
By example, elite athletes exude drive, grit and resilience that we admire but it takes a switch in mindset to see how (dis)ability transforms us, to recognize the value in a different path. Parallel sport is just sheer life force on display.
Team USA member Gigi McIntosh who competed her 10-year-old Rheinland mare, aptly named Rio Rio, stated that while the actual competition experience felt similar to a normal horse show, the exciting part of the Games for her was staying in the Athlete Village.
"I am in awe of the courage, determination, and effort that these athletes put into their daily lives, let alone what it takes to compete at this level and excel at their own sports. It's been overwhelming to walk around the village and to see so many vibrant people at the top of their game,” she said.
From afar, this rider appreciates renewed motivation and congratulates Team USA on their hard work and consistent riding down centerline at the highest level.
While the American media chooses to ignore the huge opportunity for compelling sport coverage, I’m thrilled to see U.S. equestrian enthusiasm catching on!