Future of U.S. ParaDressage
Success at the 2018 World Equestrian Games stems from growing support and outreach programs for para-riders.
Success for the para-dressage team at the 2018 World Equestrian Games stems from growing support and outreach programs for para-riders.
Amonth before the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina, U.S. Para Equestrian Association President Hope Hand had a “vivid dream of team bronze.” It was a wild prediction because the U.S had not medaled since para-dressage was added to the WEG in 2010 and its last Paralympics medal was a freestyle silver in 2004, an entirely different era in terms of caliber of competition.
Yet Hand recalls the dream was so powerful that, “I was not even nervous” as competition commenced Sept. 18 at the Tryon International Equestrian Center. When veteran U.S. para-rider Rebecca Hart rode El Corona Texel to bronze in the Individual Grade III test, “It almost seemed like witchcraft,” Hand remembered with lingering joy. And that was just the beginning.
By week’s end, the squad had hauled in four medals: Hart picked up another with silver in the Grade III freestyle, Kate Shoemaker and Solitaer 40 earned bronze in the Grade IV freestyle and Roxanne Trunnell and Dolton rode to bronze in the Grade I freestyle. It wasn’t the team bronze of Hand’s dream, which would have taken care of 2020 Paralympics qualification. But the four individual medals topped totals earned by any of the U.S. teams in the WEG’s seven other disciplines and alerted an increasingly competitive paradressage world that it’s Game On! in America.
“Winning is contagious,” Hand stated. High-quality horses, made possible by generous sponsors, played a big part in the victories, she noted. So did a very focused effort on the final team candidates in the months preceding selection and final Games preparation. Most of all, the wins reflect many years’ work—on many people’s part—spent growing support, participation and outreach for U.S. para-dressage.
A member of the U.S. 2008 Hong Kong Paralympics team, Hand recalled there were five contenders for that squad and they all made it. Twenty years later, she estimates that the field of realistic WEG
hopefuls was about 20 at the outset of the qualification process. “The growth has been really incredible.”
At the 2010 WEG in Kentucky, the U.S. team finished 11th, then seventh at the 2014 Games in Normandy, France. “To move to fifth now and have the U.S. team with the most medals at the 2018 WEG is pretty exciting,” noted another paradressage pioneer, Kai Handt. He’d made a bold pronouncement when he started as U.S. para-dressage chef d’ equipe and technical director going into the Normandy WEG. “I told our athletes we would medal before the end of my four-year term,” he says. “It was a hard road.”
Paving that road has been a several-step process that has to continue with increasing intensity to keep pace with the international field. The many-year journey included going from zero to four international FEI para-dressage competitions (CPEDI) a year, with a post-show clinic zeroing in on each horse and rider pair. Athletes also traveled and competed at some of the major CPEDIs in Europe.
Along with focus on high-performance riders, programs to plant seeds and nurture participation have been given equal
emphasis. A big coup was enlisting Michel Assouline as U.S. equestrian head of para-dressage coach development and high performance programs. The accomplished able-bodied dressage trainer and rider coached the British para-dressage team through 12 years of international dominance. Brought on board in Sept. 2017, Assouline is working with current and future sport stars while helping seed the sport at the grass-roots level.
His hiring was part of the coaching development endeavor spearheaded by Handt starting in 2016. Around the same time, International Para-Equestrian Dressage Centers of Excellence were established and now number six in the U.S. Outreach and Education Programs for judges are in development, along with similar efforts for para-judging. A pilot program supporting Young Riders, aged 12–21, launched in 2018 with a roster of 33 participants. Strategies to create and support more para-dressage competition at all levels throughout the country are additional points of focus.
The Coaches & Tapping Therapeutic Programs
Coaching development will be a key to continuing U.S. paradressage growth. During a 2017 symposium held at one of the first International Para-Equestrian Dressage Centers of Excellence, Ride On Therapeutic Horsemanship, in Chatsworth, California, Assouline demonstrated that para- and able-bodied dressage athletes have the same horsemanship goals: clear communication and a fluid partnership between the rider and a willing, relaxed horse. “It’s not the what, it’s the how,” he said. Working with several riders, among them Alex Henry
“I encourage students to take initiative in their warm-ups, including the chance to make and correct their own mistakes.” —Michel Assouline
who lost her lower left leg to osteosarcoma and Lilly Russo, a young legally blind rider, Assouline was friendly yet firm. Their coaches, however, were his main focus.
“The first thing we did in England was change the coaching program. A lot of riders didn’t have a home coach,” he explained of the British para-dressage landscape when he took over in 2005. “We made sure that all the riders had a coach who they worked with at least once or twice a week.” Via Internet and phone, Assouline communicated with team riders and prospects and their coaches to maintain continuity in their training and gauge their progress. He worked with them in person periodically, but it was the regular work with their home coaches that caused the change in performances and laid the foundation for Great Britain’s international success.
“It’s an exciting sport which has exploded in the last 10 years to a very high standard of riding,” Assouline observed. Critical to growth in participation are therapeutic riding centers where demonstrating the competition-based opportunities provided by para-dressage can be a main focus, he says. Their facilities, horses, staff and existing support networks make them ideal launch pads for para-dressage careers.
More winning para-dressage riders are starting at therapeutic riding centers “just like this,” Assouline told attendees at Ride On. “One day, we might have one of your athletes up there in the spotlight.” On the 2017 gold-medal European Championships team he coached in his final British assignment, three of four riders began in the therapeutic riding programs, he noted— typically the British equivalent to Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship-certified facilities. That’s versus experienced riders who come to the para world after an injury or illness prevented them of full use of their body. A USPEA presentation at the annual Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship conference last fall was intended to promote this point widely.
Increasing the ranks of para-coaches, including recruits among coaches of able-bodied riders, is one of Assouline’s top priorities. More support in the form of education and a qualification process goes hand in hand with that. A link to the para-dressage coaching program with the U.S. Dressage Federation coaching program is on the horizon.
Assouline started in able-bodied dressage himself and continues to train horses and coach riders at his home base, Assouline Dressage, in the United Kingdom. A graduate of the French National Equestrian School, home of the Cadre Noir in
Saumur, France, he’s competed and coached at the international level in Germany, the U.S., Great Britain and France, where he was long-listed to compete in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
In 2005 the British Equestrian Federation approached him about coaching both its able-bodied and para-teams. “I only took the para post,” he explained. “It was more at my heart because I had a quite promising Young Rider at the time. So I had that connection and I was very keen to help with that.”
Then and now, Assouline believes that “Good riding and good horsemanship have no frontiers and that producing a horse for an able-bodied or para-rider is all about good training and good communication skills with athletes.”
To help the student communicate clearly with her horse, the coach must first communicate clearly with his student. Explicit instructions are extra-important with para-riders. “You need to explain how to use the calf, the heel, the spur: the technique for applying each part of the body,” he said. “With pure dressage, you can cheat by using strength instead of correct aids.” Not so for para-riders. They have to be correct in their aids even when the body part delivering that aid differs from what an ablebodied counterpart would use.
Attendees asked for advice about getting more paradressage competitions. “We fall short in the United States in that we don’t have a clear path of national competitions,” said FEI para-dressage judge David Schmutz at the international governing body’s California symposium last year. For the most part, riders need to find regular dressage shows that offer para-classes or ask show managers to add them. “Approach managers in advance and say, ‘We’ll come if you offer these classes,’” Schmutz advised.
If para-classes are not possible, earning scores in open dressage classes is another way to build a resume. If special equipment is needed, like a longer, curved whip for an amputee, a dispensation to compete in open shows with compensating aids is accessible through the U.S. Equestrian Federation. Hand noted that many para-dressage riders already compete in open shows. As that continues, she hopes show managers will become more open to holding para classes and stand-alone paradressage shows.
“We need to focus on developing the national level of competition that allows us to feed up into the FEI,” Schmutz said. “In the past, riders often had to go directly to an FEI para-show, which was too big a hurdle for most people. The ability to progress from national to international competition is essential to producing quality rides that we want to see,” he says.
California-based two-time WEG rider Susan Treabess hopes the WEG medals will help her sport surmount big challenges posed by geography and funding to find a fair and effective way for selectors to pick and prepare the most competitive international teams. Although she and her 2014 WEG partner, the PRE stallion Kamiakin, were trying for a Tryon team spot, they backed out last December due to costs when they learned they’d have to make three trips back to the East Coast to make the team: an approximately $75,000 outlay. Fundraisers, sponsorships and personal funds enabled Treabess to make trips East for qualification for the 2010 and 2014 WEGs, but when a sole qualifying CPEDI in California was removed from the calendar in 2017, she reluctantly pulled the plug on her WEG campaign. A longtime advocate for paradressage, Treabess says, “If we don’t figure out the financing side, the sport will lose some of its best riders because they can’t afford it.”
Hand acknowledges these financial obstacles for riders. Supporting more organizers in hosting CPEDIs throughout the country is a continuing struggle. Extra expenses and risks—whether real or perceived—of hosting para-competitors are among the challenges to para-dressage’s growth.
“If we don’t figure out the financing side, the sport will lose some of its best riders because they can’t afford it.”— Susan Treabess
The effect of the WEG medals was immediate, Hand reported. “We are finally getting calls from sponsors, and I’m sure a lot of the able-bodied sponsors are now thinking, ‘maybe we should join up.’”
Even before the WEG, Assouline had positive predictions about para-dressage’s growing popularity and how that would translate to more competitions that enable riders to get on the national radar. He also noted a shift in the world of corporate sponsorship that he predicted would migrate to the States. “In Europe, companies are putting more money into para-sports— not just equestrian. If you sell it well, it works: The company is helping riders with a disadvantage in life.”
The Tryon WEG team members look likely to be strong contenders for the 2020 Paralympics, for which Hand is confident of the U.S. qualifying for. That’s partly because a strong B Team is keeping the pressure on. “We have a lot of good people in the wings.”
Para-rider Alex Henry, shown here with U.S. Equestrian Head of Para-Dressage Coach Michel Assouline, lost her lower left leg to osteosarcoma.
U.S. para-rider Hart rode El Corona Texel to bronze in the Individual Grade III test
America’s Roxanne Trunnell and Dolton rode to bronze in the Grade I freestyle.
WEG Individual Grade III test medalists wave to the crowd during their victory lap.
Henry demonstrates that para- and ablebodied dressage athletes have the same goals: clear communication and a fluid partnership between the rider and a willing, relaxed horse.