MILL SPRING, N.C. — Kate Shoemaker finished her Para-dressage freestyle program, slid off her horse, Solitaer 40, and kissed him on the nose.
“Today’s ride was just everything that I could have asked for,” she said. “Soli did one of the best rides I think we’ve had, and to be able to do it on the last day of the World Equestrian Games with our music, with everything that we’ve worked so hard for, it’s a wonderful feeling. Now we just have to wait and see where we end up.”
At her first World Equestrian Games, Shoemaker ended up on the podium. She won a bronze medal in the world freestyle championship, Grade IV. [Para-equestrian athletes are classified according to mobility, strength and coordination. The grades range from I for the most significant impairment to IV for the least impaired.]
It was the beginning of a historic day for the U.S. Para-Equestrian Team, presented by Deloitte.
A few hours later, Roxanne Trunnell and her horse, Dolton, won a bronze medal in Grade I.
And to finish the Para-dressage freestyle — where equestrians choreograph a dressage program to music — three-time Paralympian Rebecca Hart won her second world championship medal at these Games: a silver in Grade III.
Four Para-equestrian athletes from the U.S. competed at the 2018 World Equestrian Games at the Tryon International Equestrian Center, and three walked away with the program’s first medals.
“It’s absolutely fantastic to finally see the growth and development and all the hard work behind the scenes show in competition and on the field of play,” said Hart, who started the medal run on Wednesday when she won a bronze medal in the Para-dressage individual test event. “It’s absolutely fantastic to see that growth happening.”
In the freestyle, Shoemaker, 30, came to the World Equestrian Games as a long shot for a medal. She had finished seventh in the individual test earlier in the week.
Of the four U.S. Para-equestrians at Tryon, she is the only one without Paralympic experience. She competes in Grade IV due to white matter lesions from periventricular ischemia, which causes motor control dysfunction, muscle weakness and spasms on her right side.
But she was inspired by Hart’s bronze medal on Wednesday.
“It’s a huge deal for an American to end up on the podium,” Shoemaker said. “Sometimes, we feel like there’s that little bit of an American stigma. But the reality is we just have to work harder, and we’ve got to put ourselves up there. That’s what Becca did, and that was so cool to watch that. Now that’s what we’re all striving for.”
For Trunnell, it was her first time competing at a world championships. The 33-year-old is a 2016 Paralympian and used to compete in able-bodied dressage. She was an aspiring Olympian until she contracted a virus in 2009 that left her in a coma. In November 2012, she was classified as a Grade 1a Para-equestrian. She competed on Dolton, a 6-year-old Hanoverian gelding owned by Shoemaker.
At the end of the day, Hart, a three-time WEG competitor, trotted into the ring on El Corona Texel. She was hopeful for another medal but did not expect it, despite years of experience.
“I expect nothing with horses because it’s so in the moment when you’re dealing with an animal,” she said.
Hart was born with a rare genetic disease called hereditary spastic paraplegia, a progressive impairment that causes muscle wasting and paralysis from the middle of her back down. She has been involved with the Paralympic movement for 20 years.
Her performance at day’s end wrapped up a historic week for the team. In addition to the four medals, the team of women, including Annie Peavy, finished a best-ever fifth in the team event. They missed qualifying for the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo (only the top three earned quota spots) but will have opportunities over the next two years to qualify.
Equestrian events debuted at the Paralympic Games in 1996, and the U.S. has earned four medals since then — two of them gold — but none since 2004. Hart finished fifth in Para-dressage at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016.
But that could change in Tokyo. Over the past two years, U.S. Equestrian in partnership with the U.S. Para-Equestrian Association, has worked to increase support of the athletes and their horses. In May 2017, they appointed Michel Assouline as head of coach development and as a high-performance consultant. They also introduced four centers of excellence where athletes and their horses can develop into medal-winning performers.
“We have been nipping at the medals for the past couple of years, and finally, now the program is coming into its own,” said Kai Handt, the U.S. Para-equestrian dressage chef d’equipe, after Hart won the bronze medal on Wednesday. “We are getting the coaches properly educated, and they understand what it takes to get this point and compete at this level. I’ve been trying to get [a medal] for 11 years … this is a dream come true.”
Shoemaker, who manages a private dressage barn in Peoria, Arizona, has been watching the program grow and improve.
“There was a lot of anticipation coming into this Games,” she said. “To have everybody come in and perform the way they did and just get better every day has just been phenomenal.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.