The Pak Talks Paralympics Part 2 – Under Pressure, Para-Equestrians Put on a Show

Barbara Minneci, Grade II rider for Beligum, is in perfect harmony with her stunning partner, Barilla. (c) Lindsay Y McCall

Hey guys – Sarah from SmartPak here! This is part 2 in our series with Para rider and guest-blogger Holly Jacobson, bringing you an insider’s look at the equestrian competition at the Paralympics in London. You can check out Part 1 here. I hope you enjoy her writing as much as we all do.

In the Ring

Held at the imposing stadium inside Greenwich Park, the Para-Dressage portion of the 2012 London Paralympic Games tested the composure of horses and riders. 78 competitors from 26 countries rose to the challenge, and thousands of spectators were treated to stellar rides, and a few surprises along the way.

Identical to what greeted the Olympic Event and Dressage riders, the elevated sand created a grand, spatial atmosphere as riders came down a centerline laid out exactly on the Prime Meridian. For American Rebecca Hart, that marked a highlight of her experience – trotting into an arena in two hemispheres simultaneously.

Riding into a view of the Royal Maritime palace, with a backdrop of London, plus the towering stadium seating on three sides had many Para-Dressage riders contending with tense and spooky horses, not ideal for riders with a variety of physical impairments. However, it was amazing to watch the determination and obvious skill these riders possessed, even if disabled, as they managed to finesse cooperation out of their amped-up mounts.

My favorite tactic used to keep the atmosphere calm (the daily crowds of 10,000 spectators created a buzz) was the request for silent applause or ‘the wave’ in lieu of clapping, especially for the lower Grades with more impaired riders. This communal gesture felt very moving as crowds on three sides saluted the riders in hushed appreciation with raised arms waving and flags, like a silent motion picture, and riders, sometimes with effort, reciprocating with an answering wave or victory fist punch. The silent acknowledgment of the large crowds felt both surreal and powerful. “It’s quite emotional. It’s like entering a film set,” commented Grade 1a rider Sara Morganti, from Italy. “I watched the Olympic equestrian events but didn’t realize coming here would be like this and affect me so much.” Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 19, she requires the use of a wheelchair but is a freestyle specialist and placed fourth just shy of the Grade 1A podium with a 73.9% on her 7-year-old new mare Royal Delight.

Noteworthy Pairs

Another humbling observation was the high quality of horseflesh many Para riders are sitting on, making scores at the top of each of the five Grades 1a, 1b, II, III, IV tightly contested. Heavily favored Great Britain secured Team Gold but their top rider, Lee Pearson, was dethroned for the Grade Ib Individual Gold for the first time by Joann Formosa of Australia, who floated through a flawless test on her 19-year-old Hanoverian stallion, Worldwide PB.

Severely disabled from the waist down from a 1987 riding accident that occurred while opening a gate on horseback, Formosa relies on a scooter for mobility and crutches to balance on twisted legs, but she exudes the confidence of seasoned competitor. “I know what I want and I usually get what I want. I may not be good at walking but just put me on a horse.”

Aussie rider Joann Formasa sits a big trot from Worldwide PB, sans stirrups, on their way to winning the Grade 1b Individual Gold. (c) Lindsay Y McCall

She is hardly unique in the ranks of world-level Para riders whose disabilities cover the spectrum: congenital issues, spinal injuries amputations from accidents on horseback, motor bikes or cars, neuromuscular conditions, illness, cerebral palsy, stroke and blindness are all common among the ranks of Para riders. The shocking revelation is how well they all can ride.

Love of horses propels these riders to find alternative ways to communicate with their mounts. Many riders at these Games use adapted equipment like looped reins that are easier to grasp, or they choose to ride without stirrups for better feel. Due to atrophy and weakness in both her legs, Barbara Minneci, Grade II from Belgium, rides sidesaddle on her striking cob, Barilla. The tempo, harmony and quality of figures these riders are able to achieve showed through in their impressive scores and proved popular with the crowd.

While the Grade IV tests are for riders with impairments to only one limb, when you watch Irish rider James Dwyer, it’s almost impossible to believe he lost his right leg as a teenager. Bone cancer in 1987 resulted in the removal of bone from his leg, and the addition of an artificial knee and bar going down to his ankle. After several years in constant pain, he had the leg amputated in 1997. “That was probably the best day of my life. I wasn’t expecting to feel that way. But when I woke up from the anesthetic, I felt so good.” He jumped right back in the saddle after a 10-year lapse. At first he used an artificial leg, but he found it limited his motion and bothered the horse. Without the prosthesis, “My riding improved a lot,” he said.

Dwyer moved to the U.S. in 2004 to work and train with Jessica and Missy Ransehousen in PA but still rides for Ireland. He traveled with his 16-year-old KWPN horse, Orlando, to Europe this spring to qualify, then helped the first-ever Irish-assembled Paralympic team secure the Bronze medal.

Grade IV rider James Dwyer and Orlando trot past the judges’ booth for Team Ireland. (c) Lindsay Y McCall

Grade III provides an intriguing mix of ailments and complex tests that riders must deftly navigate in the 20 x 40 arena. Riders perform half-passes and shoulder-ins with one arm or half-limbs. Many riders you cannot decipher any issues until you see their frailty on the ground. With experienced, yet compromised riders, you get a true sense of the trust and how intuitive horses can be. It’s a breathtaking and compelling example of what is possible when you refuse to give up.

Case in point: Austrian Pepo Puch, a former 3-day event rider who competed in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, injured his spinal cord in a riding accident four years ago. He returned to the games, this time on the Paralympic stage, and executed a polished, perfect Grade 1b freestyle walk-trot test on his sublime mare, Fine Feeling. Watching this pair was humbling, celebratory and a testament to the human-horse connection. They won Gold.

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