Rebecca Hart competes at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 on Sept. 15, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Tokyo 2021 will mark the 25th anniversary for the sport of equestrian being on the Paralympic program. It’s the only sport that features animals (except the sport of modern pentathlon where horse jumping is one of the five events). It was first contested in thee Paralympic Games Atlanta 1996 and has been included in every Paralympic Games since.
In honor of its momentous anniversary, we asked Paralympic riders Rebecca Hart, a three-time Paralympian and Sydney Collier, who competed in Rio, to share with us six things that might shock you about their sport.
Both athletes compete in dressage equestrian, which is the only equestrian event competed in the Paralympics. Olympic Equestrian also includes eventing and jumping, and has been in the program since 1912.
1. Dressage Is Kind Of Like Pairs Figure Skating — But Your Partner Is An Animal
“Dressage” is a French term that translates to mean “training,” and involves a horse and rider performing a series of movements. For this reason, it has been compared to everything from ballet to gymnastics to pair skating.
“You have your compulsory movements that the judges score you on, but the freestyle reminds me of figure skating because you get to create your own movements and patterns with your horse to music,” Collier explained. “Your horse is basically your dance partner, and you have to work in harmony to put out your best performance possible for the judges.”
The judges score from a 0 to a 10, with “0 being it absolutely didn’t happen and 10 being absolute perfection,” Hart said.
The freestyle gets an artistic mark, and a technical mark and is typically the part of the competition that the crowd enjoys the most. Hart said it’s quite fun to do because the music is set to the horse’s gate so the horses can trot on beat.
And like figure skating, “you do a freestyle routine for one season, and then you want to change it up to keep it interesting for the audience and also for the judges,” Hart said.
2. Horses Have To Get Drug Tested Too
What do you get if you give a horse a peppermint — fresh breath? Maybe. But you’ll also get a positive drug test.
“Horses are held to the same strict standards as us riders,” Collier said about horses needing drug testing, too.
While WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) tests the riders, FEI (International Federation of Equestrian Sport) tests the horses.
Things like poppy seeds and peppermint, and “things you wouldn’t even imagine” Collier said could pop up funny in a drug test.
“Just as we are high performance athletes, so are they,” Hart said about her four-legged teammate.
And because of that, you have to be very conscious of what you are putting into your horse — as well as on your horse. Everything from electrolytes and supplements to topical creams and treats could cause a positive test.
“Something that I do personally is before a competition I buy two containers of everything that I consciously give that horse. So if something weird pops up, I have a sample to test,” Hart shared.
Speaking of testing, how do you get a horse to pee in a cup for a drug test?
“It’s basically a cup on a stick,” Hart explained. And just like a human athlete who isn’t ready to go on command, she said what is “amazingly effective” is spreading a fresh bag of shavings on the floor of their stall.
“Horses like to mark their territory,” she said, so that will “almost guarantee that you will get a horse to pee within a relatively happy timeframe.”
3. You Can FedEx A Horse!
So, what exactly is the excess baggage fee on a horse? Collier said people always want to know how equestrian athletes travel with their horses.
“It’s funny,” she admitted, “because for the Rio Games, we FedEx’ed our horses.”
“Yup, you put a big old postage stamp on ‘em and send them on their way,” joked Hart.
If only it was that easy, and cheap.
“Depending on where you’re shipping, the flights for horses can go anywhere from a couple thousand up to $25,000 — one way,” Hart said.
While they don’t go in a box, they do go on a special plane. Collier said when she flew to the World Equestrian Games in France they flew on a “combi” plane, where the front of the plane was all passengers and the back was cargo.
“Everyone on the plane — that wasn’t on our team — would have never known the back half was all our horses.”
The horses go onto pallets — essentially a horse trailer without wheels — designed for up to three horses. For international competitions, Hart said they typically do two horses per pallet.
“That way they have a travel buddy, but can still stretch out a bit,” she explained.
They also travel with special handlers, typically a vet and someone who knows the horse. It’s usually a professional equestrian groomer who knows if the horse needs something, or if there’s turbulence to reassure them that everything’s fine.
“I jokingly say that I am my horse’s carry-on baggage,” Hart laughed. “I’m his emotional support human.”
And like humans, “the horses have in-flight snacks and drink service,” she revealed. “They have access to hay and water during the flight.”
They also have passports! And vaccination records — although there is no equine version of the coronavirus vaccine, as a horse has not been known to contract the virus.
“But there are very specific rules on what horses need to travel,” Hart added. And that includes quarantining, a protocol that was put in place even before the pandemic began.
“Some places the horses have to have a two-week quarantine where they get held at an agricultural station. After that, if they have no fevers or anything then they’re released,” Hart said. “It’s fascinating. When we were at the quarantine station in Miami, there were giraffes and seals. You never know what you’re going to see.”
4. You Won’t Believe How Much It Costs To Compete In This Sport
Competing at a professional level takes a lot of dedication and dollars. And as one of the most expensive sports — sailing is also up there — the costs double when you have to factor in a human athlete along with an animal one.
Hart said people assume all the time that “once you have the horse, that’s the easy part.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“It’s actually the monthly expenses that add up,” Hart revealed. “Just like a human athlete needs somewhere to live, so does your horse. You have to pay for their stabling, their board, their training facility... All that stuff adds up.”
It’s the reason why Hart has a day job, in addition to being a professional athlete.
“It’s an incredibly difficult sport because of that,” Hart said. “It’s also the reason why “a lot of times, the riders don’t own the horses. You have a private support system and then once you are named, usually to an international team, the federation will then pick up the expenses of getting the horse to a world championship, or the Paralympics.”
A flight to Europe alone is about $7,500 to $9,000 one-way per horse, “depending if you’re buying the entire pallet yourself or splitting the cost,” Hart said.
And horses don’t travel light. The 36-year-old rattled off a packing list, just for her horse.
“You have their trunks of saddles and bridles and boots, and if it’s cold they have blankets,” Hart said.
And the hay that they travel with?
“A bale of hay in Florida costs $40, because they have to bring it from up north because you can’t grow hay down here,” Hart said.
5. You Have To Take Into Consideration Your Horse’s Jet Lag
Travel can be tiring — just ask a horse. Even though some horses can nap while standing for an entire flight, jet lag is inevitable. But exactly how much a horse is affected by the travel is something their rider learns over time.
“Individual horses handle traveling differently, so you need to know how your horse responds and when,” Hart explained. “You either want to go in right at the start of competition and let the effect of jetlag happen and have the recovery time after. Or you want to go in about two weeks in advance so the horses can have that jet lag time and then you build them back up for the competition.”
For her, she said, she knows her top horse gets tired on day three of international travel. “So I make a plan to give him enough time to recover either before or after.”
6. Horses Can Be In A Bad Mood, Just Like Humans
“Never work with animals or children — they are scene stealing and completely unpredictable.” That saying was made famous for a reason. But Collier said as far as animals go, “horses are pretty darn reliable. But at the end of the day, they do have a mind of their own.”
It was that mind that decided to buck her off during one of her first competitions when she was just 13 years old. It was back when riders were allowed to borrow horses, so the two were not completely familiar with one another.
“During my freestyle — within the first two movements — the horse tried to buck me off. I tried so hard to stick it out, but I landed on the ground,” she remembered. “The thing I was most upset about was that I didn’t get to finish.”
It’s that unpredictability that she thinks makes para-dressage so fun to watch.
“There’s never a dull moment,” she said about working with an “unpredictable thousand pound animal.”
But unlike children “you can’t plea with them and you can’t beg,” Hart joked. “They don’t understand that you’re at the Olympics — or the Paralympics. They just know that it’s hot, and they don’t want to do anything today.”
While Hart has thankfully never had an “absolute meltdown of a ride” in a competition, she has learned to work within the parameters that the horse establishes.
“They really do bond with their riders,” Hart said. “And just like how sometimes humans don’t feel like it, but know that it’s important to a person, horses will do that, too.”
Hart said the key is to reward your horse often.
“That’s one of my biggest things — even if they halfway do something, you go, ‘good job. Well done,’” Hart said. “That encourages them to try and work more for you.”