Para Equestrian Dressage - Who Makes the Grade?


Great Brittain's multiple medal winner Lee Pearson is classified as a Grade 1b
Great Brittain's multiple medal winner Lee Pearson is classified as a Grade 1b

Joann Benjamin, a national classifier, explains the process of who is eligible, how to qualify as a Para Equestrian rider and what goes on behind the scenes. Joann Benjamin is a PT, who has worked in Hippotherapy or with athletes with disabilities for 30 years and currently coordinates classification for the USEF.


Para Equestrian (PE) dressage classes are being offered at more local shows and riders can contact show managers about adding PE classes to their prizelists. Riders who want to compete in PE dressage (or PE driving) need to be classified, meaning graded, to assess their level of physical disability or impairment. Riders who compete in able-bodied classes can use their PE card to list any allowed equipment modifications.

The process requires only a clothed physical exam by one or two trained physical therapists. Therapists measure range of motion, strength, or coordination. When an equestrian gets classified, they are given a profile (one of 42 different profiles) from a chart with stick figures that attempts to represent visually what parts of the body are involved. That profile then determines what Grade a rider or driver will compete in, which dressage tests they will ride and against whom they will compete.

Goldman piloted Trudy Phillips' Irish Sport Horse gelding Carlingford JD to fourth place in the individual test
Goldman piloted Trudy Phillips' Irish Sport Horse gelding Carlingford JD to fourth place in the individual test

Any adaptation to equipment can also be approved at this time. A letter signed by an MD with the application filled out by the athlete is sent to USEF. Currently, classification is free of charge to all USEF members. Riders receive a USEF PE Classification card, which lists any compensating aids they are allowed to use. The card is checked by the show Steward before the rider enters the ring.

In the US, there are 3 FEI International and 6 USEF National classifiers. There are classifiers at all National and International PE events in the US. Classifiers also attend USEF training clinics whenever possible. An FEI Classification card is needed to compete at the international level.

Para Equestrian - Who Can Qualify?
Only equestrians with a diagnosed, permanent physical disability with measurable impairments will qualify. The spectrum of disabilities is wide. The scale runs from Grade IV riders who have the least amount of impairments to Grades 1a and 1b with the most impairment.

Generally speaking, Grade IV riders have mild impairments or involvement in just one limb. Examples of Grade IV riders may be those who are missing part of an arm or leg, they might be in the early stages of Multiple Sclerosis or Rheumatoid Arthritis. There might be a visual impairment but those who are totally blind ride in Grade III.


Grade III riders may have minimal to moderate impairment in 2 limbs, such as from a stroke or with 2 limbs partially missing.
Grade II riders have significant involvement in one side of the body and the trunk, such as from a stroke, or maybe significant impairment in 2 limbs and the lower trunk such as from a Spinal Cord Injury.

Grade I riders have the most significant impairments. Often these riders have Cerebral Palsy or Brain Injuries that affect all 4 limbs and the trunk. These riders may also have Spinal Cord Injuries at a high level or very severe Multiple Sclerosis.
Grade I riders have involvement in all the limbs and trunk.

Diagnoses includes almost everything: Cerebral Palsy, Stroke, Brain Injury, Multiple Sclerosis, Amputation or missing limbs, Spinal cord injury, Gullian Barre, visual impairment, Parkinson's, Charcot Marie Tooth – some are common, some are very rare disorders.

Visual impairments are evaluated by an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. The eye tests are done and sent to the US Blind Sports Association for confirmation on the type of visual impairment that is present and whether it fits into a Grade III (totally blind) or Grade IV (partial, significant loss of vision).

With MS or other neuromuscular disorders that are expected to change over time, a profile and grade are determined. These riders may request a re-classification if they feel that their condition has changed significantly enough to be in a different profile or grade. All of these riders must be re-classified within 6 months of a major championship.

Para Equestrian - What Can’t Be Measured?
There are several very disabling conditions that do not qualify for Para Equestrian because they are difficult to measure easily or because the situation may fluctuate too much to quantify. Impairments of circulation, respiration, gastrointestinal function, pain, endurance, sensory loss, balance, seizures, loss of internal organs, skin conditions, spinal dysfunction not accompanied by a significant loss of range of motion, strength or coordination are a few of the conditions that would not qualify for PE.

Para Equestrian - The Velcro Rule and Other Dilemmas
Not only do classifiers contend with an extremely diverse group of athletes, they must determine which equipment modifications may be used that are safe for both horse and rider, and do not provide an unfair advantage. It is sometimes complicated by the ever shifting, rapid sophistication of materials and prosthetics.

Velcro is one example. Many riders use Velcro to stabilize their legs on the saddle, enough to assist riding but without an unfair advantage of being held into position or fastened to the horse without breakaway for safety. However, since the original guidelines were written, which limited the overall amount of Velcro used, the quality and strength of Velcro has improved. Another factor, does the one inch Velcro have the same affect for a 180 pound rider versus a 90 pound rider?
Protests, informal or formal, can be brought by coaches or riders to the USEF classifiers regarding an athlete’s Grade. Questions or protests regarding equipment may e brought to the TD or Steward at competitions.

Classifiers look to a template chart for compensating aids that may be allowed. Examples of aids are changes to equipment such as a raised cantle or solid hand hold, changes of attire such allowing a rider to ride without gloves, or changes of performance such as saluting with the head only so that they do not have to transfer reins to one hand. All PE riders must wear a safety helmet. All PE riders may choose whether to sit or post the trot based on their disability.

Another job for the classifiers is to watch the riders at the competition to determine if the assignment of Grade is correct and if the compensating aids are appropriate and safe. The classifiers consult with the TD’s and Stewards at shows to ensure that the classification system is working fairly. Classifiers watched every single rider at the 2010 Alltech/World Equestrian Games.

To classify para drivers or para jumper riders (para jumping has started in Europe with interest in the U.S.), a different set of Grades is used for each discipline. Those Grades would reflect how each discipline measures impairment. One arm missing may be a greater disadvantage in driving than riding. Poor sitting balance is less crucial for driving than riding. Blind drivers are not allowed.

The classification system, and particularly the use of compensating aids, is always being re-evaluated. It is challenging to keep up with improvements in the medical field such as new medications or the high-tech area of newer prosthetics. Would a better designed prosthetic enhance a rider’s ability past the point of fairness?

These are the questions classifier Joann Benjamin finds so intriguing. How do we best measure each person’s abilities and disabilities to create a fair playing field?

Anyone interested in getting classified can contact PE director, Pam Lane, or her assistant, Laureen Johnson to be scheduled: plane@usef.org or lkjohnson@usef.org




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