DressageDaily's Mary Phelps is headed to Saugerties for the Para Equestrian Olympic qualifiers this weekend with the largest entry to date in this division. Stay tuned as we continue to cover this growing segment of American Dressage.
Since the 1990‘s, Hope Hand has been the guiding force behind the scenes to promote U.S. Para Equestrian at both the grassroots and elite international level. "Para dressage is concentrated not diluted dressage," says Hope Hand, Director of the United States Para Equestrian Association www.USPEA.ORG 501(C)3. She also serves as an Athlete Director Board Member of the USEF, a member of the FEI Technical Committee, and Chair of the USDF PE Dressage Committee. Nicknamed a para guru, her small stature in a wheelchair masks a dynamo who most people have trouble keeping up whether its running behind her down the street or across time zones. She is visible at every big event, even if huddled in a rain poncho or more typically, sporting a stylish scarf or broach.
Hope is a stellar role model for her sky‘s the limit attitude as she is more mobile, more able and capable than most. She knows the international cast of competitive riders and has a ready rolodex of contacts in the horse world. Her razor sharp eye quickly critiques horse and rider movements. "My leadership role is to educate riders," Hand says. She’s not on the payroll and uses her own time, energy and expenses to coordinate, recruit and rally para riders.
Hope has been part of the scene as Para Dressage has evolved from a network of therapeutic linked shows using borrowed mounts as catch rides to being elevated into the Paralympics (only equine event), joining the umbrella-affiliation of USEF, to Para Equestrian status raised to the World Equestrian Games level and governed by FEI.
Hand was an alternate to the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Team and competed at the British Invitational in 1997, earning gold and a bronze. In 1998, she was one of the four disabled riders competing at the Bradshaw Challenge of Champions. As a member of Team USA, she won a bronze medal at the 1999 World Dressage Championships in Denmark and competed at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia.
"The U.S. had the best catch rider teams," acknowledges Hope but now U.S. is rebuilding having to afford the horses, travel and competing against countries with stronger, established para programs with greater government support and funding.
Robert Dover is a Hope fan. "Hope has been not only a strong force as a Para-Dressage competitor but also as a huge promoter for every American Para-Equestrian. She is tireless in her work to ensure that all riders have every possible advantage to further their success and that of our country in the International arena. I have the utmost respect and admiration for Hope and her efforts to help the United States to become a world power in Para-Dressage just as it became one for us after many years of hard work and planning in 1992."
Working alongside USEF, Hope is pleased with the number of emerging riders and shows willing to work with Para Dressage. At the NEDA Fall Festival, the CPEDI3* is attracting 37 riders, 23-5 who are American.
Athletic Family Gift
Despite being born with spina bifida, Hope inherited her daring and the athletic gene from her father, an air force officer, a lifeguard and a world class champion gymnast. In training for the 1944 Olympics (the first time gymnastics entered ), he never got the chance when war broke out. Hope says while her able-bodied brother prefers sedate sports like golf, she’s drawn to speed and high risk. Early on, she did soap box derbies, and loved fast cars. Riding gave her independence. "I couldn’t do group sports." She started western trail riding at age 10, exploring the parks around Philadelphia with her Dad. Sports junkies, they also spent a lot of time kayaking and white water rafting together as well as skiing in the Poconos "for practice" then driving to Mt. Snow, Blue Mountain and Killington in VT.
Hope went to work at age 17 on the night shift "to pay for my car habit and my horse love," until they discovered she was under 18. She switched to day work, went to night school at Temple University for an accounting degree. She dreamed of a farm, country living and a horse of her own.
At age 20, she moved to Chester County, taking advantage of the mainstream program at Thorncroft Equestrian Center in Malvern, PA, where she was one of the first who rode in group lessons with able-bodied adults. Combined driving, wheels and horses, fit right up her alley. A pair of Shetland ponies were a wedding present. Ever adventurous, she would follow four-in-hand master Frolic Weymouth through Brandywine country. "Crossing rivers and streams felt like an ocean with the nine hand ponies and I floating up to our necks," she says.
The Pennsylvania native lives her dream on a 16 acre farm she and her husband, Stan, carved out of the woods and share with an errant peacock, the last of her flock, named Junior Bird Man, who sits with the dogs on their porch, a pot-bellied pig named Pig Newton and several goats. Hope retired from the IRS after 42 years. Hope’s husband worked for GE and Lockheed-Martin, is a self-professed gadget guy who adores his tractor and fishing. They share a love for the outdoors, dogs, animals, and both have a fascination with flashlights, nightlights, etc. "The best man at our wedding gave us a high-powered spotlight we use to light up the woods at night and look at the creatures," says Hope. She passed on her athletic bent to her daughter, Amy, who did pony club and was a good rider, says Hope. "She’s good at every sport but she’s the opposite of me, very calm, and careful." Amy is now a trauma nurse at UPenn.
Wheels in Motion
"I wish I was 20 again, every sport is accessible now," says Hope, although there isn’t much she hasn’t tackled, including water skiing and the big marathons like Boston and New York. A firm believer in cross-training, she notes that hand-cycling, especially for dressage riders, is good for your core. Six years ago, she completed the New York Marathon. "You don’t realize how steep a bridge is (crossing all five boroughs) until you have to power yourself by hand. You might go 3-6 m.p.h. up, then 30 mph down." Stroking alongside a muscular Polish woman, Hope jokes "I felt like a weeble" but she finished 5th out of 90 hand-cyclists.
In protest of not being able to compete in the Philadelphia Marathon due to oversight in securing the insurance bond for crank hand cycles, Hope and five friends completed the course, 27 miles, outside the city barriers. "We all know, barriers are made to be broken and yes, We are athletes too," she posted on her FaceBook page.
Living close to Devon, gave Hope proximity to the high profile jumpers and many trainers. When she assembled a para group for a George Morris clinic at Gladstone in the mid-1990s (1995-6 started the para integration into USEF), the organizers may have initially worried but Morris took the group in stride. “We were supposed to just do flatwork but George had everyone jumping pretty quickly,” laughs Hope.
The 1996 Atlanta Olympics sparked Hand’s first serious dressage interest. Catch riding and coached by Missy Ransehausen with FEI trainer-rider Jerry Schwartz, the U.S. captured three golds and a silver. That experience whetted Hand's appetite.
Her competition horse, a Hanoverian mare named Wendy, owned and later sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Nancy Kennedy, qualified her for the 2000 Paralympics. Wendy was "a chestnut mare that fit my personality," says Hope. "She had great lengthening." Unfortunately, coming down centerline during a test, the horse spied judge Hilda Gurney wearing a hat with fruit all over it. "They really thought we were coming into the booth, Hilda screamed, the hat was tossed. We made quite a sharp turn at C," recalls Hope.
Hand also competed twice on teams for the 1997 Bradshaw Challenge Cup at the US Festival of Champions where one para rider added their freestyle score to East-West- North-South teams composed of top able-bodied riders like Steffen Peters and Guenter Seidel. Hand would love to see this format brought back as a fun way to introduce and integrate para riders into the main dressage community.
Hope is not only hard working and dedicated to the cause, she is funny. She cracks jokes about "para normal" activities and pounces on the humor in situations, especially in her travels with disabled riders, horse equipment and encounters with normal people. Once when she secured her whips to her crutches for plane storage, she cracked up when the stewardess asked if she needed her "feelers."
May the Force Be With You
Never underestimate the athleticism of anyone in a wheelchair. Lynn Seidemann, injured in a 1982 skiing accident, lost all feeling below her waist but quickly took up wheelchair basketball and then played on the very competitive Tennis World Cup team twice and represented the U.S. at the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics. She took up riding as recreational activity in Texas as she liked animals but quickly found it helped her physically, especially her back. "Everything I do is pushing forward, riding stretches the opposite muscles." It wasn’t long before she discovered the benefits of riding dressage.
Lynn first met Hope competing against her in Grade 1 (before 1a walk and 1b walk-trot were divided) on drawn horses. In 1997, therapy oriented programs pushed riders to compete at bigger shows as the disabled network made borrowed horses readily available. Although, she says the structure allowed more riders to show, Lynn agrees the elevated quality of riding and better trained horses today is the right direction.
They traveled as teammates to England twice and the Sydney Paralympics, the last catch ride Games. Hope was the Team Captain. For insurance, Lynn recalls Hope packing a chocolate gold medal.
The takeover by the IOC meant the Olympic funding structure changed the playing field. Athens would be the first time riders rode their own mounts. Today, many horses are still borrowed for competitions due to the expense of transport and finding quality mounts suited for para riders but horses are now designated ahead of time. Often, the rider and/or trainer arranges to try out and practice with the horse for days, weeks or months before competing.
"Hope is the superwoman for Para Equestrian. Her encouragement, love and passion is contagious - its hard to put into words," says Seidemann. "She deserves so much credit."
Hope’s vision is one of competitive excellence for U.S. Para Dressage. By doing so, she puts the spotlight on the flip side of disability, how able the disabled really are. Horses make so much possible. Horses create equality and crossover within the greater community of riders. Exposure, achievement and acceptance cast much wider ripples outside horse shows. Hope is a very positive force.