Para-Impressive Equestrians: Riders at Lamplight Show Grit & Grace

Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Posted by Holly Jacobson


As a hunt seat rider, I felt out of my element when I stepped into another world at the Cavalor/CPEDI Para Equestrian Dressage National Championships held May 15-17, in Wayne, IL.  Although I have competed for eight years as an amputee, this was my first time to see other para-equestrians display their skills in the saddle. What I found impressed me beyond any expectation from the quality of the riding to the determined organization of the USEF para-directors for how far they envision our U.S. teams reaching.


Photo Credit:Tracy Emanuel

What impressed me most, however, was the palpable spirit of sportsmanship, humor and camaraderie. As someone who looks different, it was a sudden comfort to mingle among many who confront and have mastered a wide variety of conditions. The sheer range of impairments, which covered the spectrum from accidents, past or present disease, genetic or nerve disorders offered up a visual and visceral slice of real life. It is reminder that things change, we don’t always have control and that no one is immune.

At the same time, it shows the resilience of horse-passionate people. Riders find ways to adapt using modified saddles, reins, stirrups, Velcro-ed whips, all with regards to the safety of horse and rider. Under para equestrian rules, the riderʼs position is not judged. Only the manner and movement of the horse counts.

What stands out is the strength and energy of all the para riders as athletes. This is a group of high achievers. Many have competed internationally, including the Beijing and Athens Olympics. Many pursue other sports or riding disciplines. But the competitive streak and intent focus in the ring balances perfectly with the positive support for each other that usually only comes with the sense of team participation.

“It is important for people to see these riders on the ground,” says Lynn Seidemann, a former U.S. Paralympian who now works on PE committee. “Once they get in the saddle, they are able-bodied.”

I found this event very emotional in that it clearly showcases how the power of the horse transforms us. It is what we all seek when we ride: to elevate ourselves, to feel and harness that power, elegance and grace.

All of that was on display, whether in the torrential rain of the first day to the blue sky backdrop during the individual and freestyle tests.  Ireland and Mexico offered international flavor with their riders scoring high. Overall, 14 out the 17 riders qualified for WEG and will be invited to the next yearʼs selection trials.

What I liked best, the total absence of any griping, not a hint of complaint. The horses looked relaxed and happy to perform. The coaches, grooms, stewards, helpers all worked seamlessly in concert as a team.

The beautiful plantings and trees at the Lamplight Equestrian Center only enhanced the peaceful mood as the regular CDI tests ran quietly in nearby rings.

Para Equestrian Mindset: More Than One Way

Watching para equestrians in action is to see the power of imagination at work. I took notice of the prevailing matter-of-fact attitude. As someone who lost the dexterity of both hands in a carfire, I learn daily that there is more than one right way to get things done.

I saw many creative rein designs. Simple fixes such as rubber bands on stirrups to stabilize a foot lacking motor coordination or riding a test without stirrups all worked to allow individuals to perform at their best. The 1a grade riders perform their entire test at the walk. The drive and striving for accuracy and quality was evident.

The nuance demanded in dressage for feel, movement and rhythm, for those without normal balance, muscle or limb control, truly made the execution of each test thrilling. Grade III and IV riders also compete in able-bodied competitions.

Without question, riding poses certain dangers but it also provides healing and satisfaction. Often it humbles and frustrates us. I like the idea of using horses to chart new terrain. I learned there are para-driving competitions and thoughts about fielding a U.S. para-jumping team as England and Germany have started. Really, the possibilities of human and horse look limitless.

At Lamplight, I met a young woman from Vermont, a former accomplished event rider, now paraplegic from a car accident. She  has already taken up para-sailing, ice hockey and snow boarding but can’t wait to compete on horseback again. Everyone I met spoke to the many incarnations of the riding spirit.

I am very glad para equestrian will be part of the 2010 Alltech/World Equestrian Games. It deserves an equal place, as it requires the dedication, skill set and polish that can be appreciated by a wider audience.

This is timely in the message to veterans of our current wars. PE started as therapeutic outlet for injured soldiers and has since spread to hippo-therapy for children to anyone with complications from illness or injury.  I also believe it creates a place and value for horses in modern society. It says that we prize the generosity, trust and benefits horses offer us.

I never imagined I would hear Pink Floydʼs “The Wall” used for a dressage test. I also never thought I would be so tempted to experiment with dressage or so eager to sign up for para equestrian certification.

At the urging of many to take advantage of the opportunity, I underwent the straightforward PT (physical therapy) exam. After testing, strength, stability and range of motion, riders are graded into four levels: 1 being most impaired, four least impaired. I fell into grade 3, which translates to the USDF First level test.

For me, “inspiring” is an overused, overrated word. After watching the para-action at Lamplight, I can say I feel a motivating force and renewed optimism in people. I always found it in the horses.