Michel Assouline, newly appointed USEF Head of Para-Equestrian Coach Development, led a Para-Dressage Coaches Clinic at Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center (Loxahatchee, Florida) on Sunday, January 14, 2018.
The event was attended by riders, instructors, and parents of athletes, eager to work with the this well-known coach.
Mr. Assouline has vast international experience in the USA, France, Germany and the United Kingdom as an international dressage rider and trainer. Prior to his appointment by the USEF last May, he was the UK Para-Equestrian Dressage Team Coach, and led Team GBR riders to win Team Gold medals at multiple WEG and Olympic events, including Rio.
He will work hand-in- hand with Kai Hundt, USEF Chef d’Equipe for Para-dressage, and Laureen Johnson, USEF Director of Para-Equestrian & Vaulting, to prepare US athletes for the 2018 Tryon World Equestrian Games (WEG).
Assouline’s work with the USEF/USPEA Centers of Excellence (COE) directly ties in with their stated aim to grow and develop para-equestrian dressage in the U.S. by reaching into the therapeutic riding community in order to demonstrate competition-based opportunities provided by para-dressage.
The Vinceremos center serves children and adults with developmental, physical and psychological disabilities, in its dynamic equestrian environment. Hundreds of clients have been helped to conquer challenges associated with their disabilities at the center, through the staff’s extensive expertise, combined with their program horses’ gentle natures and rhythmic movement.
During the classroom portion of the day, attendees shared their backgrounds, with Michel adding information where it was needed. Also attending were Vinceremos staff Ruth Menor, chief program officer, Susan Guinan, director of development and the clinic’s organizer, and Laureen Johnson of USEF.
During introductions, Ruth said she was thrilled to host the clinic, and she answered a few questions about the center. VTRC conducts about 120 therapeutic riding lessons per week, and its enormous covered arena can be divided into smaller rings as necessary. Individual and group lessons are offered in hippotherapy and equine-assisted therapy.
In his Sunday talk, Assouline explained that he is an advocate for all levels of the sport, not just the para Olympians. He expressed his sincere enthusiasm about his experiences and about making connections between the rider and their horse. He also explained that the purpose of the clinic was to make coaches and riders aware of para-dressage and how it enhances joy in peoples’ lives.
Coaches attending the clinic spoke freely about the trials and tribulations of coaching para-athletes, and how they have learned much by standing up for their riders.
Participating para-riders included all levels of representation, and each had a different story about how they became involved. One young woman auditing the clinic discussed how therapeutic riding helped her with her MS. She had never “seen or done dressage”, much less competed.
The demo riders were from different levels, and each had their own issues to deal with. The athletes who rode as demo riders were: Deborah Faith Stanitski, Katie Jackson, and Ellie Brimmer. The format was shadow coaching, with each instructor teaching under Assouline's watchful eye. He asked coaches to “hold your hand up covering the rider, and only look at the horse, that is what is being judged”. In Para-dressage the horse and its way of moving are judged, not the rider.
Para-riders are given permissions to use their voice, an additional whip, and certain straps and belts that pass safety tests to assist them. Michel showed videos of all types of International FEI Para-Dressage competitions from Europe and Olympic games in Great Britain and Rio. Notably, the stands were filled with an enthusiastic audience.
Assouline pointed out how far behind the U.S. is in accepting and supporting Para riders. He admitted to being quite shocked when arriving in Wellington and witnessing the booming activities during the able body Global Dressage, then seeing everything shut down, no vendors and very little audience attendance for the Para-riders. In Europe, Michel explained, audience attendance is high for Para-sports, and companies are shifting to supporting Para riders out of concern for sportsmanship.
For instance, the UK has a long history of involvement in the Para-equestrian events, and Michel says the riders get tons of media attention, that money pours into them. Support in the form of horses and equipment are offered freely, with most riders needing solid international-level horses that have the ability to connect with their para riders. There is even a syndicate called the “Lady Joseph Trust” that provides horses to riders. FEI horses with good temperaments facing retirement can find a place with a Para-rider, and many horse owners are happy to sponsor Para-Dressage riders in this way.
The reason for the lack of support in the United States, Assouline stressed, is a dearth of education. He suggested that the dressage community needs to become informed about the needs of Para-equestrians.
HorsesDaily encourages its readers in Wellington to come by the Global showgrounds and watch the competition. The Para-dressage schedule is available here. Live streaming of the CPEDI 3* show this weekend is also available at the Chronicle of the Horse website.
We encourage you to join us as advocates for Para-equestrians, and to explore more about the sport by watching videos, attending shows, and being open to sharing and receiving the joy that horses bring to our lives. Please spread the word!