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The Pak Talks Paralympics Part 3

Jonathan Wentz and Richter Scale Grade Ib USA – Credit: John Stevenson

Hey guys – Sarah from SmartPak here! This is the final portion 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 and Part 2 here. I hope you enjoy her writing as much as we all do.

Over six days of Para-Equestrian competition in London, the unanimous feeling everyone shared from spectators to trainers, to fellow riders, to the mass of purple-shirted volunteers, officials and even judges could be summed up in one word: humbling. The majestic arena setting felt daunting, yet we watched 78 riders with an incredible range of disabilities partner with quality horses to execute fine-tuned tests. Riders without good motor control or feeling or even limbs, kept their horses rhythmic, forward, on the bit, precise in the figures and required movements. Each entry kept the crowd mesmerized.

Noteworthy Horses

Of course, as international Para-Dressage standards have risen, riders and trainers tread that fine line between brilliant and explosive in seeking out suitable mounts. Longeing is allowed, and in Grades Ia, Ib, II, trainers are allowed to ride just 30 minutes per day under a steward’s timing. A companion horse is also allowed to stand nearby the competition ring for those lower Grades. (Though sometimes it was the companion horses themselves who were acting up!) For Grades III-IV, only the riders can school their horses while on the grounds. And just like traditional FEI-level competition, drug testing is rigorous.

Among the majority of classy Warmbloods, two excellent Cobs stood out: Belgium’s Barilla, ridden side saddle by Barbara Minneci, and Blues Tip Top Too, piloted by Ireland’s Geraldine Savage, whose sense of humor made everyone smile as they matched a marching tempo to Laurel and Hardy music. The five judges rewarded both with good scores, placing consistently near the top of their divisions.

Blues Tip Top Too, Geraldine Savage Grade Ia IRE – Credit: John

Another stand out star belonged to the U.S. Team: NTEC Richter Scale, an uber-cool Shire cross ridden by SMU college student Jonathan Wentz from Richardson, TX. Wentz, who has Cerebral Palsy, is also a working student for his trainer and sponsor Kai Handt, who owns Richter. The pair finished a hard-fought fourth in the Grade 1b Individual test behind Great Britain’s Lee Pearson. Riding his powerful, suave freestyle to fifth place had people cheering from all sides. Apparently, Richter, known as ‘the Ambassador’ back at the stables, had made many new transatlantic fans.

Rebecca Hart on Lord Luger Grade II USA – Credit: John Stevenson

Team Recap

Team USA represented well and rode as true contenders even though none have had the advantage of bringing horses to compete overseas before. U.S. National Champion Rebecca Hart riding Missy Rauchausen’s Holsteiner, Lord Luger, placed fourth in the Grade II Team test and fifth in her Freestyle. Hart, born with Familial Spastic Paraplegia, a genetic disease that causes muscle wasting and lack of control from the waist down, has trouble walking but credits riding with keeping her mobility intact.

Donna Ponessa on Wes Dunham’s Western Rose scored fifth in Grade Ia Team and sixth in the Individual. Ponessa, who uses a wheelchair and ventilator due to Muscular Dystrophy, called the entire trip a golden experience.

Dale Dedrick, who rides with a pacemaker and weakness from Lupus complications, was pleased with her improved tests on her Hanoverian, Bonifatius, placing top ten in Grade II Freestyle. “We had some brilliant moments. I learned so much showing in this grand environment and it was inspiring to see many people my age thrive with disability and going for it.”

With three of the four U.S. horses trainer-loaned, London provided an opportunity for the four U.S. trainers attending, and our USEF reps and affiliate, to see the quality of horses and riding at the international level. Britain has made a real statement by funding all Paralympic sports via their lottery, integrating Para-Dressage with able-bodied competitions and setting up a Trust to purchase horses for riders. Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands are also countries with a rooted Para-Dressage culture.

At the other end of the spectrum, it was emotional to be the first and/or lone rider from Latvia (Rihard Snikus placed fourth in Grade Ia Individual and sixth in the Freestyle!), Israel, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or the first Para-Equestrian multi-medalist, Laurentia Tan, from Singapore, a country that traditionally does not embrace disability.

Although, her family moved to England for educational and riding opportunities, as Tan is severely spastic due to Cerebral Palsy and completely deaf, her Grade Ia Silver and Bronze medals send a profound message of accomplishment riding under the red and white flag of her birthplace.

Laurentia Tan on Ruben James II Grade Ia SIN – Credit: John Stevenson

Other riders who couldn’t afford to fly their own horses to London bravely borrowed generously loaned mounts shortly ahead of time. Fernanda Otheguy of Mexico emailed 40 stables around England in search of a mount, and Talland School of Equitation in Gloucestershire, UK answered with the loan of Welton Adonis, a 14-year-old Thoroughbred schoolmaster stallion. Otheguy competes Third Level at home but has a condition of Ataxia, or weakness and poor coordination, in her limbs. Superior nerves, talent and determination earned her needed Grade II qualifying scores, sending her to the 2014 World Equestrians in Normandy, France.

Anyone who thinks disabled competitors aren’t athletic hasn’t seen the lean, trim, hungry look and focus of these serious riders. While top countries voiced concern about leaving developing countries behind, the aim remains the highest quality of dressage. Everyone appreciated the chance to see and observe, to root for other riders and the sport.

Beyond disability, so many different nationalities, identifiable in crisp, flag-colored clothing were on a mission to trade pins, (even the Police had pins!), to mingle and each evening raise toasts at the aptly named Gold and Saddle Pub across from the black iron gates, where guardsman operated the exhibitor security screening entry.

Well Done, London

From 16 wheelchair archery patients in 1948 to 4,300 athletes at the 2012 Paralympics, it’s been a long and storied journey. When it came to adding their chapter to the pages of history, London got it right. Organizers removed the first six rows of seating from the Olympic equestrian venue to allow plenty of access for wheelchairs and scooters for both athletes and the many disabled spectators who attended. They made disability welcome. Extensive press coverage with a mass of photographers, reporters, broadcasters and interpreters highlighted Para popularity in media outside the U.S. Live action was carried on screens from pubs to homes. Not lost on this reporter were the many disabled workers hired in those positions. Of course, that’s a misnomer since all were perfectly capable at performing their jobs. By making disability visible, para becomes normal.

London also got it right with the medal awards ceremonies. Again, they made disability visible. With low ramped podiums for wheelchairs, scooter, canes or crutches, riders waited at the far end as their horses were led from the opposite side towards them. It worked as a moving bit of pageantry to see the riders as they are on the ground and their lovely horses coming to them. The visual metaphor of how horses transform us caused more than a few to tear up at the sight. When Para and normal intersect, it changes minds. Everyone applauded as the horses paraded and pranced back out.

Brits win Team Gold – ©FEI Images/Liz Gregg

Under the cloudy gray drama of sky, with spires and a palace backdrop, flags were raised, anthems played, and we all reveled in the shared, powerful atmosphere. Knowing this huge temporary stage would soon be dismantled, we celebrated these moments of an ideal world, with horses.

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