Fu­ture of U.S. ParaDres­sage

Suc­cess at the 2018 World Eques­trian Games stems from grow­ing sup­port and out­reach pro­grams for para-rid­ers.

Practical Horseman - - CONTENTS - BY KIM F. MILLER

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.

Able-Bod­ied Back­ground

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.

Chal­lenges Ahead

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

Pos­i­tive Pre­dic­tions

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.

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