The Truth About Para Equestrian And What It Takes

December 23, 2022 4 min read

The Truth About Para Equestrian And What It Takes

Para Equestrian is a sport that has been around for many years. It requires a great deal of discipline, mental fortitude, and a softness towards horses that all contribute to the strengthening of the bond between rider and steed. 

This extraordinary discipline has had a very colorful history before it finally became a regular part of the Paralympic program. So, how well do you know para equestrian?

In this article, we will discuss the following:

 

The history of para equestrian

Para equestrian or para equestrianism is a riding sport open to people with disabilities. An official discipline in the Paralympics (which others mistakenly  call “Para Olympics”), one of its sports, para dressage, debuted in the 1996 Atlanta Games, where its first athletes competed on borrowed horses. Horse&Hound describes dressage as an event that showcases horse training, discipline, and their bond with the riding by going  through a series of rigorous prescribed movements. 

According to Paralympics.org, the competition in Atlanta had four grades and nine events, with 61 participants hailing from 16 countries. The events were Mixed Dressage Grade I, Mixed Dressage Grade II, Mixed Dressage Grade III, Mixed Dressage Grade IV, Mixed Kur Canter Grade III, Mixed Kur Canter Grade IV, Mix Kur Trot Grade I, Mix Kur Trot Grade II, and Mixed Team Open. Currently, para equestrian in the Paralympics has five grades, with Grades I-III riding in a 20m x 40m dressage arena, and Grades IV-V in a 20m x 60m arena.

Para equestrian, however, has been around long before it became an official Paralympic sport. The Chronicle of the Horse explains that it actually began as therapy for people with disabilities. Lis Hartel was the first ever equestrian who competed against men in the Olympics and who won the silver medal in 1952 in Helsinki and in 1956 in Stockholm for Individual Dressage. This great woman was instrumental in shaping what is known today as therapeutic riding. Liz, who won her medals after suffering from polio, pushed for the concept of working with horses as a means to improve the health of people with disabilities. 

Therapeutic riding has an array of benefits. The bond that would be created between the horse and the rider can help improve the rider’s mental and emotional health. Moreover, the Freedom Hooves Therapeutic Riding Center notes that it has a lot of physical benefits, too: the horse’s movement is similar to how a person walks, and this enables the person to improve flexibility and balance without much stress or pain. It also improves concentration, coordination, and motor reflexes. 

Therapeutic riding inspired para equestrian, as organizers saw the need to have riders reach for higher goals. Para dressage competitions were held in Scandinavia and Great Britain in the 1970s. In 1996, it made its Paralympic debut. The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI, known as the International Federation for Equestrian Sports), took para equestrian under their wing in 2006, with para dressage and para driving as recognized sports. Equestrian Australia notes that para reining and para jumping have started to  become popular; however, only para dressage is currently in the Paralympic program.
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Keep running forward with your trusted riding companion!

 

What are the qualifications to be a para equestrian and (hopefully) a Paralympian? 

To become para equestrians, aspirants have to have a classifiable disability, which could be a physical or a visual impairment. According to the FEI’s Manual for Classifiers of 2017, the eligible impairments for the para equestrian discipline include:
  • Impaired muscle power – Muscles in one or two limbs cannot function at full power due injuries or as a result of a condition or an illness

  • Impaired passive range of movement – Permanently reduced joint movement or stability

  • Limb deficiency – Absence of limbs and  bones due to a congenital deficiency, injury, or illness

  • Leg length difference

  • Short stature – Reduced height due to bone or muscle issues

  • Hypertonia – Excessive muscle tension due to neurological issues

  • Ataxia – Poor muscle control due to neurological issues

  • Athetosis – A dysfunction that causes involuntary movements

  • Visual Impairment (VI)

For para dressage, athletes will then be classified into five grades depending on their capabilities. On the other hand, there are only two grades for para driving.

Aspirants will also need to submit an array of documents and have specific tools required by the FEI. They will go through a battery of physical tests to check for muscle power, coordination, and  range of movement, as these are important in verifying whether they can ride or drive a horse.

The FEI also has a list of compensating aids that athletes who pass the tests can use. Standard compensating aids can be used across all functional profiles, such as pro rider saddles (Kavallerie has an array of saddle pads that can help with grip and balance), enclosed stirrups, magnetic stirrups, knotted reins, and more).

Profile-specific compensating aids  are used by certain rider profiles, while non-standard compensating aids are aids customized for the individual athlete. Unlike standard compensating aids, classifiers need to take note of these.

 

An overview of para equestrian training

Different para equestrian organizations around the world have different training programs, but those that train for the Paralympics follow the guidelines of the FEI.  For example, para equestrian in New Zealand has six grades instead of five. While those under the Grade VI classification do not fit the criteria provided by the FEI or the Paralympic organization, they can still compete at club level within the country. 

On the other hand, the British Equestrian Federation’s (BEF) World Class Programme only has five grades, per FEI standards. The Programme has four levels: Podium Potential Pathway, Podium Potential, Podium Pathway, and Podium. Podium is the highest level, where actual medaled Paralympians are classified. 

While each organization has different training data-styles, most begin with the aspiring athlete already having an equestrian lifedata-style, with extensive  experience in  horseback riding. While riding at home is a good way to start, joining clubs and groups is recommended prior to entering actual dressage or driving training. 

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Anything is possible with courage and determination!

 

Para equestrians to look up to

There’s a saying that goes, “The Olympics is where heroes are created. The Paralympics is where heroes come.” All Paralympians are heroes in their own right as they master their bodies in order to achieve things that seem impossible.

Sir Lee Pearson

Born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, a condition that causes joint contracture and muscle issues, Sir Lee Pearson was inspired to ride by the para equestrian competition in the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics. He then went on to win one bronze, two silver, and 14 gold medals in the Paralympic games, giving him the moniker “The Godfather” of British para dressage. He received his knighthood in 2017 for his achievements, and has been going above and beyond his riding career by doing charity work for local shelters.

Katrine Kristensen

Katrine Kristensen was born with muscular dystrophy, which resulted in weakness in her arms and legs; however, this didn’t stop her from riding, and she’s been doing so since she was five. She told Zibrasport Equest, “Throughout my life, I have always walked with the belief that life should not be thought of in terms of limitations, but opportunities.” Para equestrian, she said, makes her feel that she is without limits.

A long-time part of the Danish para dressage, she participated in the Tokyo 2020 Games, and has recently won two gold medals at the Orifarm Healthcare FEI Para Dressage World Championship 2022.

Sho Inaba

Sho Inaba is a para equestrian whose interest in the sport started through therapy: at eight years old, he would ride a pony to rehabilitate his hip joint that was affected by cerebral palsy. Upon realizing that Tokyo would be hosting the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games, he immediately knew that he wanted to compete in para dressage. He tells the International Paralympic Committee, “I had nothing to lose, so I wanted to see how far I would be able to reach.”

In 2018, he represented Japan in the 2018 World Equestrian Games and finished 14th. He trained through the following years, and continued strengthening his bond with his horse during the initial throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, which moved the 2020 Tokyo Games back. 

As a first-time competitor, Sho finished 15th.

Lily Rhodes

There are also many para equestrians who have yet to compete professionally, but who enjoy the rigor of the sport and the best equestrian communities that offer great experiences. One of them is Lily Rhodes. Lily  was only 14 years old when she lost half of her right arm, but quitting riding didn’t even cross her mind. With her love of horses starting at age 10, she was already an avid rider by the time she reached her teens. When she lost her dominant arm due to an ATV accident, her focus didn’t waverthrough infections and trips to the ICU, the only thing she wanted to do was to get back on the saddle as soon as she was able.

Inspired by para equestrian Lizzy Traband who has been riding with one arm, Lily learned how to adjust to her new life.  Now, at 20, she considers herself an “amateur para equestrian” as she has yet to compete at pro-level–but of course, who knows what life would bring?

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Always be in harmony with your riding partner.

 

Tips for succeeding in para equestrian

Para equestrian is a great sport for disabled horse riders, as it nurtures a person’s physical and mental aspects. To succeed in it, however, a few general tips should be followed:

1. Strengthen your bond with your horse. It’s important to be with a partner that is sensitive to your movement and your vibe.

2. Get classified. It’s essential to know what grade you’re in, as this will afford you the right training. 

3. Find a great trainer. Your trainer will need to understand your needs and capabilities like the back of their hand in order to give you the training that you need at the right pace and with the right tools.

4. Join an open gathering. A tip from para equestrian Tobias Thorning Jorgensen on PARA SPORT, joining an open gathering with the national coach will help you get used to the scene on a national level. 

5. Keep at it. As with any sport, practice is key. More than practice, however, it’s important to trust your partner and be in tune with them as much as they are in tune with you. When you find that balance between you and your horse, you can be sure that you’re well on your way to success.

Looking for para equestrian saddle basics? Check out the saddle pads, horse boots, and bit accessories in our collection below. 

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