Wellington, Fl - Para means parallel and para dressage riders from the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Finland, Mexico and Japan competing alongside their able-bodied counterparts for the first time in Wellington at the Jim Brandon Equestrian Center, is not only giving riders a boost to compete in the equine epicenter but is giving the dressage community an eye opener to what is possible as well. "It's not sad, it is sport," insists FEI5* judge Hanneke Gerritsen. Para dressage is high stakes competition as individuals riders seek qualifying scores for selection trials and team scores for the London Paralympics later this year, where Para Dressage is the only equestrian discipline on the Games. American and Canadian teams will again contest top honors this week. With wheelchairs and canes left ringside, once on their horses, para riders join the ranks of normal competitors: focused, skilled, striving for accuracy and consistent harmony with their partners.
For para riders, dressage offers not only the chance to show their serious ability in the saddle (most compete regularly in able-bodied classes) but gives riders the added freedom many cannot experience otherwise. Riders are classified based on their physical limitations, Grades I-IV, Ia and b include the most impaired riders and Grade IV the least but the tests are judged with identical scrutiny on the horses gaits, accuracy, and required movements as able-bodied dressage. All adapted equipment must be approved for safety and fairness.
One aspect often noticed about para is the prevalent can-do attitude. By mid-afternoon, the ring steward at the para in-gate announced, "I'm now getting a shirt that says 'Stop Complaining' to wear at all the other rings!"
Lauren Barwick: Pioneer for Para Ability
At the Gold Coast Opener, the Canadian team displayed their depth with veteran Lauren Barwick scoring above 70% across the board riding her expressive Oldenburg mare Off To Paris. Barwick has been a determined pioneer for Para dressage across North America.
A professional rider before being paralyzed from the waist down from hay bales falling on her, she trains with Walter Zettle and Pat Parelli. For several years the Beijing Gold and Silver medalist was the lone para rider to compete in the Open FEI classes offered at the Jim Brandon. She gives a salute of thanks to Wellington Classic Dressage show manager Noreen O'Sullivan for stepping up to the plate to add two CPEDIs to their schedule.
Canadian Ashley Gowanlock Grade Ib placed first with 70.98 in the Team and second in the Individual aboard Ferdonia 2, a stylish bay Oldenburg mare by Don Gregory borrowed from Barwick. The pair clicks so well, Barwick admits she may not get her horse back. It seems fitting as Gowanlock has followed Lauren as a mentor in pursuit of her equestrian passion. Ashley began riding at age two for therapy to combat Cerebral Palsy but later discovered para dressage because of Lauren's accomplishments. Confident, plucky and internationally seasoned, her energy is focused on making the podium in London. She won her freestyle with a 73.41%. With Fergie, she says, the bar has been raised. "An 85 is the new 69 or 70 but why not?" Teammate Jody Schloss guided Inspector Rebus, her gray KWPN, to win all three Grade 1a tests adding her second day's 70.58 to help the Maple Leaf squad secure the Team Gold.
Americans Edging Closer
U.S. Team Grade II members Dale Dedrick on Bonifatius, her Hanoverian by Brentano II and Rebecca Hart riding Lord Ludger, a Holsteiner owned by Jessica Ransehousen, came in close behind Barwick with scores of 69.20 and 69.04 in the Team test. Dedrick finished third in the freestyle with 70.33 and Hart took second with a 71.50.
For Dedrick, a lifelong horsewoman who has dealt with a series of health issues that have left her with severe joint deformities and a pacemaker, the thrill is in the ability to perform. "I'm still kicking myself that I'm actually here in Wellington, I'm part of the U.S. Team and posting solid scores," said Dedrick. Her enthusiasm carries over to the added advantage to watch and absorb the high caliber training and riding where she's stabled at Pam Goodrich's barn.
Jonathan Wentz from Richardson, TX, Grade 1b rode his veteran team mount NTEC Richter Scale, a Shire/TB cross owned by trainer and sponsor Kai Handt and NTEC Jabriel, a Bavarian Warmblood owned by Rachael Zent to consistent scores, placing just ahead and behind Gowanlock. "Gabe is great to ride, totally different then Richter, sensitive in the mouth and very forward, which is a great combination because he doesn't require as much energy from me as Richter does. He also was part of the German para team with a Grade III before Rachael bought him. So he is use to dealing with handicapped riders, which helps since my mounts and dismounts aren't as fluid as a normal rider." Wentz has Cerebral Palsy and is quite tall. He credits riding since childhood with allowing him to walk today and is grateful to Handt and his wife for providing him with sponsorship and horses.
Rebecca Hart, born with Familial Spastic Paraplegia, a genetic disease that causes muscle wasting and lack of control from the waist down makes coordination and walking awkward at best but her multiple U.S. National Championships speak to her utmost elegance in the saddle. Competing two horses a day exhausts many able-bodied riders but Hart is also campaigning Hugh Knows, Karen O'Conner's former event mount generously loaned by Jacqueline Mars.Laurietta Oakleaf of Jacksontown, OH, is another American to watch this week as she finished second behind Schloss in all three Grade 1b tests with smooth rides on Niekele fan Busenitz, a Friesian stallion owned by Joanne Bosma. Many people are shocked when they see para riders who look completely normal on horseback on the ground. Oakleaf's compromised health keeps her in a wheelchair with the added services of a service dog but she still maintains a determined show schedule and cares for two stallions.
Going the Distance
Several riders traveled long distance to catch ride borrowed mounts. Horse-rider combinations only need to be declared at selection trials for international games, so riders can accrue points for individual ranking on different mounts. Two accomplished riders from Finland flew in to take part borrowing mounts from Vinceremos Equestrian Center. Katja Karjalainen paired with Margie Engle's former Grand Prix champion jumper Hidden Creek Jones marked the debut for the therapeutic program where he serves. Karjalainen who has limited eyesight and a condition that requires use of a wheelchair appreciated the veteran's professional demeanor. Jaana Kivimaki also from Finland and paralyzed from the waist down rode Sarona, Carol Cohen's Danish sport pony, loaned from Vinceremos. Kivimaki shared her missing luggage nightmare which for a para rider can be more than just needing to buy new clothes. All of her adapted equipment was missing until the morning of her first test. Kivimaki gave the show vendors lots of business buying all new clothes just to be sure she was white and bright for the first test.
Fernanda Otheguy who traveled from Mexico City showed her poise and skill piloting the flashy chestnut, It's Mister Merlot, a Welsh/TB sale pony on loan from Cory Gregory's Elimika Sport Ponies, as they improved rapidly with each successive test. Otheguy has substantial joint and muscle weakness in her legs using a cane to walk but competes Third level at home on her own horses. "Merlot is sensitive and very smart," she relayed. Para riders really need to rely on their adaptability skills for catch riding. Fernanda worked into the early morning hours to fashion a brand new freestyle to match the pony's tempo to earn a 67.66.
Shipping in all the way from her remote ranch in Oregon, Lise Yervasi and Brendon Braveheart made their first CPEDI appearance and earned their first qualifying score in the Grade IV Individual test but Yervasi was most pleased with her new freestyle. Even with mistakes, the connection and chemistry between the Brentano II Hanoverian and his owner boded well for the coming week. Yervasi suffers from spinocerebellar ataxia and autoimmune issues that keep her in a wheelchair but that doesn't stop her from an active life that includes raising three adopted children from Haiti, running a ranch with her husband that includes cattle and assorted rescue horses and dogs, while still devoting time to train with retired Olympic Grand Prix and Para judge Libby Andersen.
From the Judge's Box
"It's not sad, it is sport," insists FEI5* judge Hanneke Gerritsen who finds that the riders are more serious and better prepared now than in years past. "Now riders know exactly what they have to do. Sometimes it might not happen, you ride for an 8 but it doesn't work so you get a 5 but that is the same for able-bodied as well." She emphasized seeking out the best coaching and proper preparation as the key, "So the rider knows the horse, the horse knows and the trainer knows, so when things go well it's not just luck."
Gerritsen sees a talented pool of riders showing in the U.S. but stresses the need for quality equine partners to compete against the rest of the world. "I see too many horses here that aren't supple enough or have small problems and that's no longer possible to compete at this level." Seeking that successful horse-rider combination that is just as elusive for able-bodied riders, Gerritsen offers words of wisdom: "It's not always an older horse that is best suited for Para. It can be a younger, supple horse, it's the match between horse and rider that matters."
A perfect example, she pointed out Japanese rider Mina Chinju Grade 1a who has severe spasticity in all four limbs and had real difficulty with the loaned Appaloosa NTEC Manchada on the first day to receiving marks of 8 by the third day. "At first, the horse didn't understand and by the third day, the horse says, yes, I will do it for you," observed Gerritsen. Their dramatic improvement is a testament to the communication that regularly occurs in the para discipline as the pair completed an impressive, flowing freestyle that caused one bystander to comment, "I wish I could get my horse to walk like that!"
Part of the appeal of para is not only the variety of riders but their partners. Two former event riders put their trust in former event horses as they transition into the para realm. Competing at her first CPEDI, Margaret McIntosh, a former four star event rider earned her first qualifying score with Idalgo, a Selle Francis owned by Janis Smith and once competed by Buck Davidson. "I was very happy, we received a lot of 7 marks, he just has a lateral walk," she smiled, obviously glad to be actively showing again. An incomplete paraplegia, she has minimal leg function and arm instability after breaking her neck at Morven Park but climbed back in the saddle after six months later. Irish bred, Sportsfield Twist, carried owner Charlotte Bathalon (nee Merle-Smith) to a NAYRC championship able-bodied in 2002 and now serves as her steady para dressage horse after broke her back in an ATV accident. True horsewomen to the core, McIntosh stayed busy braced in a stall doorway taking apart, cleaning and reassembling double bridles, while Bathalon swept up the aisle deftly in her wheelchair.
Irish Class Act
One of the spectators watching from the left side as Irish rider James Dwyer went down the center line, asked "What is his disability, I don't see anything going on here!" That was until Dwyer who rides with one leg turned right easily doing a leg yield to the right with no leg. Dwyer dominated Grade IV with his ever consistent blaze-faced KWPN gelding Orlando, sired by Hamlet. American Mary Jordan with two mounts, Sebastian, a Hanoverian owned by Deecie Denison and her homebred mare P. Sparrow Socks, aptly nicknamed "Clever" took turns in the placings behind Dwyer with Canadians Lynne Poole with her two horses, Vasco E and Frisbee, a Welsh Cob and Madison Lawsen aboard her own Canadian sport horse Maquire over the three days.
"He's the Yoda and I'm the young Jedi warrior learning," says Lawsen, a former eventer injured in a riding mishap at age 13, she stretched and fractured her spine and has steel rods in her back. She loves the opportunity Para gives riders of all levels to participate and reach high levels in the sport. "Everyone has a unique story and a special bond with horses, yet they are focused competitors," enthuses Lawson. She also marvels that she is actually in Wellington, competing in the same ring where the World Dressage Masters will take place. "I'm a bit dazed to be here, surrounded by the best, there's just no other place like this." Lawsen was quick to credit DressageDaily for posting information on the event. "If it was not for DressageDaily we wouldn't be here as we did not know at first this competition was going on in the United States."
All the riders, trainers and supporters thank sponsor Palm Beach Equine, Gold Coast Dressage Association, WCD show management, and organizer Noreen O'Sullivan for bringing Para Equestrian to Wellington. Including Para Dressage on equal footing at the CDI level makes sense. Para is popular and respected worldwide. Para helps to diversify dressage by attracting a base of new riders and spectators. Trainers, owners and barns benefit from opportunities to be involved with the High Performance scene. Everyone gains motivation from the example of how real life intersects riding, goals and how rider by rider, these athletes redefine the staid ideas of normal.