Eques­tri­ans ride their own way

The Myanmar Times - - Sport -

THEY hob­ble, they sit in wheel­chairs wait­ing to be pushed, they look help­less. Then the Par­a­lympian rid­ers mount their glossy horses and are trans­formed. “It gives me my free­dom. It gives me back my free­dom,” said vet­eran Bri­tish Par­a­lympic rider Anne Dun­ham, who is just a cou­ple weeks short of 68 and has been con­fined to a wheel­chair with mul­ti­ple sclero­sis since she was 30.

That feel­ing of lib­erty was some­thing ex­pressed by rider af­ter rider at the Par­a­lympic dres­sage con­test in Rio’s eques­trian cen­tre on Septem­ber 12.

Com­pet­ing in the most se­ri­ously dis­abled 1a category, rid­ers talked about two dis­tinct re­al­i­ties.

One is be­ing on the ground, trapped in a crip­pled body. The other is be­ing in the sad­dle, gifted with all the strength of a large, beau­ti­ful an­i­mal.

“I’m an equal to many peo­ple and ac­tu­ally I’m bet­ter than a lot of peo­ple once I’m on my horse, be­cause I can ride,” said five-time Par­a­lympian Dun­ham, whose horse is called Lu­cas Nor­mark.

“He’s one of my best friends and he takes me around the great, wide open world.”

Gemma Rose Foo, from Sin­ga­pore, who is just 20 and is un­able to walk with­out help as a re­sult of life­long cere­bral palsy, smiled joy­fully when asked to de­scribe the ex­pe­ri­ence of rid­ing.

“The horse is like legs for you,” she said.

Par­a­lympians do not par­tic­i­pate in the riskier jump­ing dis­ci­plines of their able-bod­ied com­rades. Dres­sage is about main­tain­ing per­fect con­trol while per­form­ing a mem­o­rised se­quence of moves.

For safety, a so-called “friendly horse” is brought to stand at the edge of the course to re­as­sure and calm the com­pe­ti­tion horse. Rid­ers with poor eye­sight or con­cen­tra­tion have a “caller” on hand to shout in­struc­tions.

But any form of rid­ing re­mains loaded with po­ten­tial danger, es­pe­cially for ath­letes who may not be able to pro­tect them­selves dur­ing falls.

Foo said that while train­ing in Ger­many this March, her horse was spooked by a loud noise and she tum­bled off, rup­tur­ing her spleen and forc­ing her into in­ten­sive ther­apy so that she could make it to Rio.

Just learn­ing to ride in the first place can be the most fear­some chal­lenge of all.

Robyn An­drews, 33, was a gifted child fig­ure skater in Canada when she was found to have a brain tu­mor. Then sur­geons hit the main artery while try­ing to re­lieve pres­sure on her brain and she suf­fered a mas­sive stroke.

An­drews was com­pletely paral­ysed.

“She couldn’t blink,” her mother Diana said.

At 17, An­drews en­tered a ther­a­peu­tic rid­ing course – not so much to learn eques­tri­an­ism as how to func­tion at all. Progress was gru­elling: Eight years passed be­fore she could even stay on the horse with­out some­one there to hold her on.

Now she’s a Par­a­lympian. Dres­sage even brings back some of the old thrill she once knew on the fig­ure skat­ing rink.

“There’s a sim­i­lar­ity,” she said. “There are the pat­terns and you have to re­mem­ber it.” –

Photo: AFP

Sin­ga­pore’s Gemma Rose Foo Ser­gio Oliva rides dur­ing the Par­a­lympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on Septem­ber 12.

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