Para-Equestrianism is an exciting adaptation of equestrian sports for horse enthusiasts. Para-equestrian sports are recognized by international equestrian organizations and the Paralympic games alike. Para equestrian events are divided by the ability of the rider, allowing disabled participants to compete on a level playing field in the sports they love.
Para-equestrian sports have been held formally since the 1970s. The formation of the sports was only natural. Horses have been used a therapeutic tool for those with both physical and mental disabilities. Horses can help to sooth mentally disabled people and work the muscles of the physically disabled. Horse therapy increases coordination and muscle strength. It also creates a bond of friendship between horse and rider.
Carriage-driving is especially well-suited for physically disabled people who cannot hold their bodies upright. As Paralympic sports began to increase in popularity, it seemed logical that disabled athletes could just as easily compete in equestrian sports.
Para Dressage is recognized as the only equestrian sport in the Paralympics. Riders are classified using a complex system by the severity of the disability. The mobility, strength and coordination are factors in determining which class a rider belongs in. The classifications are divided in to grades, from the lowest grade of Ia to the highest-functioning grade IV.
Participants in grade Ia perform simple dressage movements at a walking speed. Most of the test is walking, turning and standing still. The highest level of para dressage incorporates more complex dressage movements. The rider will be asked to perform at different speeds including a trot and canter. Additionally, the horse will perform collected gaits and extended gaits.
Driving has been a utilitarian part of the equestrian world for centuries. The progression of technology lent to more efficient means of travel, and driving found its way into the world of competitive sport. As the riders are in a carriage, it is a natural fit for disabled individuals who cannot maintain balance on a horse.
Like any other para-equestrian discipline, participants are classified based upon level of disability or impairment. Like traditional driving, para-driving competitions take place across a three-day event. The first day is a dressage competiton. In the dressage portion, the horses perform a series on compulsory movements. The rider uses verbal cues to direct the horse, so a great deal of practice and hard work are necessary for success.
The second day event in para-driving is the cross-country marathon. The driver must direct the horse through a series of obstacles, all driving at a faster pace. The event is timed and requires plenty of endurance for both horse and driver.
The third day of competition introduces the cone driving portion. The third event exists mainly to showcase the continued endurance of a horse who has already been competing for two days. The driver must direct the horse and carriage through narrow sets of cones. Since the event is timed, the driving is fast-paced. The steering must be accurate and careful.
There are currently not enough countries with organized para-driving for it to be introduced to the Paralympics or be recognized by the FEI. This equestrian sport is an excellent fit for horse enthusiasts who have disabilities that will not allow them to ride on horseback. Hopefully, as more countries introduce the sport, more disabled athletes will be able to compete and higher levels.
In para-driving, the driver is generally accompanied by a groom. The groom serves as an able-bodied teammate who can assist for safety purposes. Other mounted sports do allow adaptive devices to help the rider with balance and control of the horse. In organized competitions, all adaptive devices and equipment must be approved by the governing organizations. Adaptive equipment is allowed to make the sport accessible to all, but the equipment will also help to determine the classifications.
The most common adaptive device for para-equestrian sports is the saddle. Many disabled participants either do not have full use of their legs, or have no legs at all. Other participants lack the core muscle and back strength to maintain balance on a horse. Specially designed adaptive saddles can help account for those.
Some examples of modifications include the addition of a block on the back of the saddle to help the rider maintain a straight-backed position. Straps and handles can be added for riders who use their upper bodies for balance. In typical horse riding, the rider holds the reins and balances on the horse using his/her legs. Since this is not possible for all disabled riders, non-movable handles go a long way in maintain balance. Other riders have difficulty with balance left to ride. Flaps on the saddle can help force the body in to the correct position.
Some saddles have stirrup modifications for riders who have little control over their feet or legs. The boots can be held in the stirrups with easy-release bands. All modifications are typically easy to release or change so that the devices do not injure the rider inadvertently. Saddle modifications are custom for each rider’s needs. Many riders try a number of modifications before settling on the perfect saddle.
Para-equestrian horses must have, above all, supreme athletic ability and a good temperament. Many people believe in the misconception that para-equestrian athletes need a slow, mild horse. While speed is not essential for the lowest classifications, who compete at the walking speed, it is important for the higher classification levels. Para-equestrian athletes have saddle modifications for safety and support, so the horse does not need to be modified.
Typically, horses with even temperaments are used for horse therapy. A competition horse should be easily spooked and must not be highly spirited. However, this does not mean that the horse has to be competition-ready at the outset of training. Oftentimes, a horse and rider can develop a relationship that improves the skills of both. Mutual respect and understanding create much more success than fine breeding in para-equestrian sports.
Para-equestrian sports are a special part of the disability community. The horse and rider develop a unique relationship in which both can reach full athletic potential. Para-equestrian sports were created to open up the world of horse sports to more enthusiasts.