January 16, 2023 4 min read
The beauty of horseback riding is that it is open to anyone and everyone. The equestrian way of life does not discriminate based on physical or mental abilities. In fact, it flourishes more when a rider and a horse reflect each other’s truths. Both find healing in each other, and this creates a strong, unbreakable bond of trust and companionship.
This is why para equestrian has become the huge sporting discipline that it is. Owing its history to gentle therapy, para equestrian has become a way for a person with disabilities to be more in touch with what their bodies can achieve while communing and working together with their partner–the horse. Today, para equestrian events hold a special place in international competitions and continue to inspire others to give it a shot.
In this article, we will touch on the quick history of para equestrian and look into the different kinds of sports that the discipline offers. We’ll also take a quick look into upcoming major events that can give you an idea of what it means to be a para equestrian athlete.
We will discuss:
As we’ve written in a previous blog post, para equestrian is a riding sport that aims to engage individuals with disabilities. Its roots can be traced back to the 1950s, when equestrian Lis Hartel, who won all her medals after surviving polio, started pushing riding as a method of therapy for people with disabilities.
This method is what is now called “therapeutic riding”, and it plays a huge part in improving the lives of people with disabilities. Therapeutic riding not only gives a mental health boost, but also affords the body a bit of exercise, as riding in itself activates several muscle groups.
Many of those who participate in therapeutic riding fall in love with the activity, and later express the desire to move on to the next level, which is the competition. It was through the need to raise the bar for these riders that para equestrian was born.
Para equestrian, in the form of para dressage, first debuted in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. In 2006, para dressage was adopted by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), also known as the International Federation for Equestrian Sports. Para dressage is now considered a sport regulated by the FEI, and those who wish to participate at the Paralympic level will need to abide by the rules of this governing body.
A rider getting ready with her riding companion.
Para equestrian competitions classify riders based on their functional abilities and tools needed to make sure that the game is fair and the playing field is leveled. Depending on the sport, horses and their riders need to perform a series of movements that showcases their skills and their ability to work well as a team.
Similar to dressage, para dressage requires the horse and the rider to perform a predetermined set of forms in the right order and position. Equestrian Australia explains that moving through the starting and finishing point of the arena, a horse has to smoothly transition from a walk, a trot, and a canter. The horse and the rider must start and end with a salute.
There are five grades in the para dressage grading system, which helps classify athletes: Grade I is for athletes with severe disabilities, while Grade V is for those with the least severe. According to Article 8403 of the 4th Edition of the FEI’s Para Dressage Rules (1 January 2023), athletes need to go through the following tests depending on their grade:
Para dressage is the only para equestrian sport included in the Paralympics (which is often mistakenly referred to as “Para Olympics”). The 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris will include the following para equestrian events:
Para equestrianism isn’t only about horseback riding. According to FEI, para driving is a para equestrian sport where a driver sits in an open carriage pulled by one or two horses. Together, they go through tests in “dressage, marathon, and obstacle driving”.
Like para dressage riders, para drivers are also classified according to their functional abilities, but unlike para dressage, para driving only has two competition grades: athletes classified under Grade I have severe impairments, while those classified under Grade II have less severe impairments.
Para driving athletes and their riding partner/s must finish the provided course, passing through compulsory training flags in a specific sequence. While the sport allows rectification of the mistake (as long as the team hasn’t passed the next compulsory training flag or obstacle), constantly failing to pass the flags will result in elimination.
According to FEI, “athletes must not deviate from the track for the last 300 meters.” Doing this, as well as going in circles and riding at the wrong pace will incur penalties.
For the full set of rules, head to FEI.
The equestrian lifestyle is accepting of anyone regardless of mental and physical abilities.
While showjumping is an Olympic sport, para showjumping is not included in the Paralympic games. There are, however, organizations that help train riders with disabilities in competitive jumping.
The British Equestrian, in collaboration with the British Showjumping and Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA), is one such organization. As with para dressage and para driving, para showjumping works with graded categories, with Grade I riders being the most impaired, Grade II riders being impaired, Grade III riders being slightly impaired, Grade IV riders being visually impaired, and Grade V riders being ineligible to compete. Para showjumpers clear heights between 60-90 centimeters.
If you’re interested in learning more about para equestrian or even participating in the sport, there are several events you can look into.
The FEI Para Dressage World Challenge happens between January 1 to December 31 of each year. The goal is to give up-and-coming para riders the chance to compete internationally without having to fly out of their country. It brings together riders, officials, coaches, and organizers under the guidance of the FEI.
The FEI Para Dressage World Challenge has three levels:
Challenge I - “Beginner Test”
Challenge II - “Foundation Test”
Challenge III - “Para Novice Test A”
Riders from Grades I-V will undergo tests specifically developed for the series. The event is open to all aspiring para athletes from 14 years old.
Horse-riding creates bond that will last a lifetime!
The FEI, being the premiere organization in competitive para equestrian, has a long list of events that athletes, para athletes, and aspirants alike would be interested in. You can check out the full list here.
The Virtus Global Games, which was previously called Inas Global Games, was born out of the need to create space for intellectually impaired athletes who have been removed from the Paralympics. The Global Games are held a year before the Paralympics. Sports include athletics, rowing, basketball, cycling, horse riding, futsal, handball, hockey, judo, karate, swimming, taekwondo, tennis, and table tennis.
Para dressage is a listed event, which will be held in Stade équestre du Sichon, 106 Rue Jean Jaurès, 03200 Vichy, France. Specific dates are yet to be announced.
The Global Games 2023 opens on June 4.
There are several para driving events sponsored by FEI for 2023:
February 23-26 - Ocala, Florida, USA (Horse Park)
March 15-19 - Ocala, Florida, USA (Live Oak)
August 30-September 3: Exloo, Netherlands
More events can be added at any time. See the full list here.
As para showjumping is yet to be included in big games such as the Paralympics, there are organizations that hold shows for different grades and categories. British Showjumping has a calendar of shows, competitions, and qualifiers that can guide you. While there are no available para showjumping events on their site as of writing, feel free to check for updates every so often.
As with all sports, it’s important to use the right tools, especially in high-level competitions. The FEI has a list of approved tools to use in international events. The basics, of course, are also important. Tools and accessories that make your equestrian lifedata-style easier and offer comfort to you and your horse such as riding helmets, pro rider saddles, gel pads, and the like can not only make you safer but also help you perform better.
Kavallerie has quality saddle pads, horse boots, bandages, and bit accessories for your riding partner. If it’s time for an upgrade, check out the collection below.
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