Para What? What it Means
Early during the opening ceremonies at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Argentina and Canada’s wheelchair athletes acted as flag bearers leading their team’s parade into the packed stadium. This marked a significant visible and symbolic step. Thanks to the FEI’s foresight, Para-Equestrians officially joined the elite ranks of their counterparts for the first time in the 2010 Games. Not all para-riders use wheelchairs but to see those who do alongside their walking teammates, illustrated perfectly the transforming power of the horse. The horse is the great equalizer between men and women in sport, now able and impaired riders.
For many, the term “para” is still associated with paralyzed and therapy level riding. In fact, para’s meaning comes from parallel, being similar, resembling, along the same lines. Once mounted, any notion of ‘disability’ evaporates when you see para-riders execute polished side passes, shoulder-ins, collected gaits, extended trots, the ideal tracking walk, precise tempi changes, counter counters and perfect square halts on cue.
“The horse is the greatest compensating aid,” writes German gold medalist (Grade III), Dr. Angelika Trabert, who rides without the benefit of legs. Trabert has traveled as far as Japan to give riding demonstrations to open people’s eyes and minds.
Para-dressage is judged and scored by the same standards as regular dressage, only the rider’s position is exempted. Quality of the horse’s gaits, movements, impulsion, submission and accuracy to the test are calculated. Riders are classified into 5 Grades: 1a &1b (most impaired) II, III, IV (least impaired).
Crowd favorite, Danish rider, Stinna Tange Kaabstrup (Grade 1b), 16-years old, who sported a sparkly silver headband when not aboard her New Forest Pony, Labbenhus Snoevs, won team and individual bronze, plus a silver for freestyle. Born without legs, she rides in a soft, treeless saddle with no extra modifications. Her balance was tested the first day when [#24037 override="her pony stumbled to his knees" title="her pony stumbled to his knees"] but Kaapstrup never wavered in her composure and continued on.
“It humbles you, you can’t complain about daily bothers,” said the mother of British rider Sophie Wells as she watched her daughter accept gold for her Grade IV freestyle performance. Wells, age 20, born with fused ankles and wrists scripted a masterful, flowing test to Disney tunes paired with Pinnochio, a Dutch Warmblood.
Over six days, the Covered Arena created a mecca for a diverse cross-section of para-athletes from ages 16-65 to mingle.
Sixteen nations fielded teams: Great Britain (gold), Germany (silver), Denmark (bronze), Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, United States, Italy, Canada, Australia, Mexico, France, Brazil, South Africa, Israel, Japan. Individuals represented Bermuda, Finland, Ireland, Portugal, Russia, Singapore and Sweden.
Disabilities ranged from accident, illness, disease, blindness, genetic, muscle and nerve disorders. Creative solutions to reins, stirrups, and saddle modifications must be approved for safety and designed for fairness. Saddles with pommel bars, built up cantles or leg blocks aid stability. Riders with one leg, no legs or no use of their legs can carry whips for aids. Rubber bands can secure boots to stirrups
Jonathan Wentz, the youngest U.S. rider at 19, who has cerebral palsy rides with two whips and his legs secured with breakaway velcro straps. Aboard his Shire cross, NTEC Richter Scale, he placed 11th with a Techno freestyle in tough Grade II competition.
Leaps and Bounds
Para Equestrian has evolved since the first dressage competitions for disabled riders originated in Great Britain and Scandinavia in the 1970s. Sweden held the first World Championships in 1987. Host countries supplied the horses, which tested the rider’s ability to adapt to unfamiliar horses via a random draw. In 1996, Para Dressage was included in the Paralympics.
Due to the travel cost and availability of suitable mounts, private horses are still loaned or donated but many riders purchase and train their own. This has swiftly raised the standard as top European countries have internationally experienced FEI horses and are well funded. Many para-riders also compete in able-bodied competitions up to Prix St. George level.
For three Japanese riders (Grades Ia, Ib, II), the learning curve was quick. “Doing dressage is not just riding,” said interpreter Jackie Nakajima. In Japan, dressage is new, horses are expensive and only one competition is held a year. Team member Nobumasa Asakawa purchased his first Dutch horse, Unico, this spring. They all rotate horses at home, so two riders borrowing mounts was not so different except for the glare of the world stage!
Some riders requested “no applause” to keep the arena quiet during their rides, while others asked for background music to drown out distractions for their horses. Ear stuffing is not permitted. Others like Canada’s Lauren Barwick (Grade III) welcomed the wild cheers and frenzied flag waving to spur on her expressive, flashy chestnut mare, Maile, as she bounded around the perimeter past the judge’s tables. Paralyzed from the waist down from a hay stacking accident, Barwick, a former jumper rider, rides 4-5 horses a day to stay in shape. She also competes with the able-bodied but the judges mark her down for leaning too far back. “You assume riding is all physical but both horse and rider need to be mentally able too. Relaxation is at the top of the training pyramid,” says the focused 33-year old. She works for Pat Parelli, who helped her re-train a very hot and spooky Maile. “We worked her with cows, we’ll do dressage out in a field.” “She is all heart,” said Barwick with a catch in her voice knowing 16-year old Maile will be retired after this competition. They just missed a medal placing fourth.
Dressage at its core is a combined sport and art form. The creative freestyle portion is theatrical, set to music and requires nimble strategy. Riders can opt to add movements above their graded level. Adding loops, figure eights, serpentines and transitions adds points for difficulty. If a required element is missed or done poorly, the rider might improvise without getting lost or behind their music.
An active dressage judge, commentator and veteran of two Paralympics (2000 and 2008), U.S. rider Robin Brueckmann (Grade IV) walks with crutches and rides without stirrups due to disabling pain. Breuckmann said she often adjusts her routine in the arena depending on how her mount, Raison D’Etre, feels.
The grace and beauty inherent in dressage comes from the horse. Para adds another dimension that blends the horse’s generous nature with the rider’s willingness to push beyond perceived limits. It is very moving to see wheelchairs, crutches, and awkwardness left behind on the ground, replaced by poise, confidence and skill in the saddle.
A reader calls out the letters to orient a blind rider whose horse dances through symmetrical patterns performing shoulder-ins, diagonal lines, ten meter circles and serpentines at the canter without mistakes. Blind riders count strides to know where they are in relation to the boards and can also wear auditory aids. A rider with one arm deftly shuffles a looped web of three reins, while paralyzed riders work horses with such suspension their hooves barely touch the ground.
The horse’s tolerance to the riders with imperfect balance, extraneous movement or spasticity, shows a deep communication between horse and rider. Singapore’s Laurentia Yen-Yi Tan’s (Grade 1a ) body and limbs jerk and flail constantly, yet her steed holds straight lines and bends, collects and moves forward all on the bit. The horses adapt and understand despite alternate aids while they tune out distracting motion. For Tan, who has cerebral palsy and is deaf, “Riding a horse gives me the freedom, movement and energy that my own legs cannot do." Tan placed fourth out of 17 in her freestyle riding Redcliff.
Once people see the depth of para-ability, the daring and dedication needed to ride well, they are smitten. Even the volunteer van drivers, neophyte dressage guys, stayed to root for their new friends and discuss the merits of half-pirouettes.
There is something tangible about para riding that allows bystanders to share in the achievement. Transforming our understanding of limits is very motivating and powerful. Thanks to the Internet, anyone can sample para-dressage by clicking on You Tube videos. You won’t experience the palpable energy but be prepared for a bit of a revelation.
Asked to choose one word that described what para-dressage meant during a press conference, the panel of medalists voiced: “Amazing,” “inspiring,” “outstanding,” “harmony,” “partnership,” “different,” “recognition” and two riders echoed, “opportunity.” Recognition from everyone, the public and other athletes was very important stressed Grade II Dutch silver medalist Gert Bolmer and ground breaking at this event.
Germany’s Hannelore Brenner, reigning Paralympian champion and WEG Grade IV gold medalist, agreed. “Since 1999 the Para Sport has really taken a step forward. It’s the first time for us to be with the other German riders. It’s great, really great. We are like one big German family now.”
With his three gold medals clinking around his neck, popular British rider Lee Pearson (Grade Ib) expressed his strong views about furthering para-awareness and the need to educate the public. In Britain, para and able-bodied junior nationals are held together. Tiered para programs and events, lottery funding and their international success garners publicity. “Just to make the squad is very, very competitive.” Pearson, born with fused joints in all his limbs, swept triple gold in the Sydney, Athens, and Beijing Paralymics, plus 2007 World Champonships. He delivered the highest score of 82.500 with a smooth, elastic ride on his dark brown Hanoverian Gentleman.
The U.S. team placed 7th at WEG up from 12th in Beijing. Looking to London 2012 and Normandy 2014, the quest continues to find and afford horses with FEI or PSG training, quality gaits and funding opportunities for riders to compete in Europe. Several hopeful new riders who networked online came to see the action and get classified. “I think this was eye opening for U.S. horse enthusiasts to see... and I hope a catalyst that propels our riders to the next level!” Susan Trebass (Grade IV), who rides with a prosthetic hook on her left arm finished in 10th with a strong freestyle on her regular partner Moneypenny.
However, both fans and competitors felt disappointed that the venue, located in the center of the horse park, remained half-filled even though all the seats were sold. It was a missed opportunity. School groups who roamed the park and ground pass holders could have been invited in. Rental headsets provided excellent commentary on the horses, riders, rules, judging, adaptations and background tidbits done skillfully by Jennifer Nell based out of Seattle, Washington who owns and runs a consultant business in the field of therapeutic riding and Para-equestrian program and rider development.
NBC’s broadcast also knew little about the rider’s disabilities, so viewers could not expect to have a clue why para-dressage is so compelling. It is a strange reflection on American culture that we strongly advocate a land of opportunity yet shy away from difference.
We are all more equal than we like to think. Anyone can join the para-ranks tomorrow - accident, injury or disease, plus the number of returning veterans from our wars make us vulnerable. We are all more fragile and stronger than we believe. The elegance demonstrated so eloquently on horseback in the sport of para-dressage is the perfect example of the possible.
About the author: Holly Jacobson writes for equine publications including Practical Horseman, Massachusetts Horse and Equine Journal. She is also an NEHC steward. Holly grew up riding and working for show barns in Connecticut and New York. Fourteen years after she lost her right arm and fingers in a carfire, Holly relearned to ride and competes in modified divisions.