Hey guys – Sarah from SmartPak here! I’m so excited to announce that we’ve had the opportunity to work with Para rider and guest-blogger Holly Jacobson, to get an insiders look at the equestrian competition at the Paralympics in London. I hope you enjoy her writing as much as we all do.
Imagine riding an accurate, forward First Level dressage test blind. Think about performing leg yields – without legs. How would you use your seat aids if you had no feeling below your waist? How about executing a correct half-pass with one hand or the reins in your mouth? In front of five international judges on the world stage?
As the 2012 Paralympics is underway at the stunning Greenwich Park venue in London, I have been privileged to witness 78 riders from 26 countries defy convention to surmount an incredible spectrum of disabilities to skillet a very accomplished level. The skill and finesse on display truly illustrates the essence of dressage: ultimate communication, harmony and trust. Para-Dressage is the only equine event included in 20 sports of the summer Games.
Rebecca Hart schooling Jessica Ransehousen’s Lord Luger in preparation for the competition
Para-Equestrian is High Performance sport but it’s still unfamiliar in the U.S., even among avid equestrians, although it’s certainly popular in the rest of the world. Europeans, especially, boast strong established programs with funding. Quality of horses and training is very high. Para is defined as parallel to able-bodied (not all athletes are paralyzed) and Para riders can compete against able-bodied riders in standard dressage tests, and often do.
Wolf Blitzer recently mentioned Para Dressage on CNN, so perhaps London’s Paralympic visibility is seeping into our consciousness. Often confused with Special Olympics, the Paralympics originated as an outlet for physically disabled athletes, whereas Special Olympics serves those with intellectual disabilities sometimes combined with physical impairments. You may be surprised at how mobile folks in wheelchairs, on crutches, missing body parts are, trekking all over the country and globe to ride, to compete, no matter the weather or obstacles. Oh yeah, they’re crazy motivated by horses!
To qualify a Team for London, U.S. riders traveled around the country and to Mexico City and Australia (catch riding) at CPEDI3* competitions to be scored by international judges. Selection Trials held at Gladstone, NJ during the 2012 National Championships determined the four team members.
U. S. Paralympic Equestrian Team:
Chef d’Equipe Missy Ransehousen, Rebecca Hart, 27, of Unionville, PA and Jessica Ransehousen’s Holsteiner gelding Lord Ludger (Grade II)
Jonathan Wentz, 21, of Richardson, TX and Kai Handt’s 18-year-old NTEC Richter Scale (Grade Ib)
Donna Ponessa, 51, of New Windsor, NY and Wesley Dunham’s Oldenburg 9-year-old mare Western Rose (Grade Ia) and Dale Dedrick, 56, of Ann Arbor, MI and her 14-year-old grey Hanoverian Bonifatius (Grade II)
Team USA is all smiles
All About Para-Equestrians
Riders (or drivers) with a permanent, measurable disability are classified by Grade and carry an FEI or USEF classification card that states their grade and approved compensations aids. Grade Ia and Ib is for riders with a severe impairment, Grade IV is for riders with the least impairment.
Grades Ia and Ib: Mainly wheelchair users with poor trunk balance and/or impairment in all four limbs, or no trunk balance and good upper limb function, or moderate trunk balance with severe impairment of all four limbs.
Grade II: Mainly wheelchair users, or those with severe locomotive impairment involving the trunk and with good to mild upper limb function, those with severe arm impairment and slight leg impairment or severe unilateral impairment.
Grade III: Usually able to walk without support. Moderate unilateral impairment, or moderate impairment in all four limbs, severe arm impairment. May need a wheelchair for longer distances due to lack of stamina. Can also include total loss of sight in both eyes.
Grade IV: Impairment in one or two limbs or some visual impairment.
What is the same? Tests are judged identically to able-bodied dressage on quality of gaits, accuracy, submission, activity, and harmony, except rider form is exempt. Para-Dressage is subject to the USEF rules and criteria standards and is the eighth discipline governed by the FEI.
What is different? Can use approved aids, such as voice, whips or double bridles. All aids are approved by the USEF Adaptive Sports Committee for safety and fairness. Not all riders use adaptive or modified equipment, such as looped reins, pommel bars, rubber banding foot to a stirrups, Velcro gloves. Can borrow horses to compete up until selections for 5* where horse-rider combos must be declared.
Wesley Dunham’s Western Rose, ridden by Donna Ponessa, seems a bit bored by the whole affair. Photo credit: Molly Maloney
Sixteen countries—Great Britain, Germany, Denmark, Canada, the United States, the Netherlands, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Belgium, South Africa, Australia, France, Singapore, Mexico and Norway—are fielding teams in London. Eleven other countries also earned invitations to send individual competitors.
Great Britain has claimed every Team title since the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta where Para-Dressage debuted. Their top rider, Lee Pearson, a nine-time Paralympic Games Gold medalist from the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Paralympics. Canada’s top rider, Lauren Barwick earned a Silver Medal for her Individual Test and a Gold Medal for her Freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. After a successful past year, the United States pulled into fifth place in the FEI rankings going into these Games behind number one Great Britain, Germany, Denmark, and Canada.
1996 Atlanta – debut of Para Dressage and 2000 Sydney, both catch-riding!
2004 Athens – first time using owned horses – U.S. scores a silver medal!
2008 Hong Kong – U.S. finished 14th place.
2010 WEG, Kentucky – showcased 10 U.S. riders, team finished 7th.
A disabled athlete competed in two Olympics prior to the Paralympic Games. Danish equestrian Lis Hartel contracted polio in 1943 and went on to win silver medals in dressage at the 1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne Games.
Paralympics Beyond the Arena
Winter and Summer Paralympic Games follow their respective Olympic Games, governed by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). The Paralympics grew from a small gathering of British WWII veterans in 1948 to attracting 4,200 athletes at this year’s London event.
20 Summer sports: Archery, Boccia, Cycling – Road, Cycling– Track, Equestrian, Football 5-a-side, Football 7-a-side, Goalball, Judo, Powerlifting, Rowing, Sailing, Shooting, Swimming, Table Tennis, Sitting Volleyball, Wheelchair Basketball, Wheelchair Fencing, Wheelchair Rugby, Wheelchair Tennis.
5 Winter sports: Alpine Skiing, Biathlon, Cross-Country Skiing, Ice Sledge Hockey, Wheelchair Curling.
A once-a-week lesson kid, I kept a Thoroughbred at a backyard barn as a teenager that I showed locally and hunter paced. I also groomed for several summers on the “A” circuit for Judy Richter’s Coker Farm.
After injuries from a car fire resulted in losing my right arm, all the fingers on my left hand and severe facial burns, I competed for ten years as an amputee in the hunters before my Para-Dressage awakening at the 2009 USEF National Para-Equestrian Championships. Now hooked on dressage, I’m currently searching for a suitable Para horse to partner with for competition. I am classified as a Grade III rider.