Member of Team USA Competes in Paralympic EquestrianMember of Team USA Competes in Paralympic Equestrian

Equestrian

Horses have long been a partner to humans in sport competitions. At the ancient Olympic Games, equestrian sport consisted of fast, dangerous and exceedingly popular chariot races featuring teams of two or four horses. While chariot racing is no longer part of the program, today horses are still involved in the Paralympic Games in the form of dressage.

Dressage also originated in ancient Greece and was based on military training; the horses are expected to complete a series of predetermined movements in a natural and disciplined manner. Para-equestrian dressage riders prompt the horse to perform movements like steps, trots and canters, and, in freestyle tests, moves choreographed to music. Athletes are judged on their horsemanship skills, and the rider and horse with the fewest faults—and thus the highest score—wins. The sport is loved for the harmony that is apparent between horse and rider as they work together in this “horse ballet.”

The first equestrian competitions for athletes with impairments took place around 1970 in England and Scandinavia, and the sport debuted at the Paralympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. The Paralympic Games feature equestrian dressage events, whereas the Olympics feature dressage, eventing and jumping events.

Equestrian sport has long been used as a rehabilitative tool for a wide range of impairments. In that vein, the Paralympic events are open to athletes with physical or visual impairments.

 

TIMELINE:

1970s
First equestrian competitions for athletes with impairments take place in England and Scandinavia

1996
Equestrian debuts at the Atlanta Paralympic Games with participants from 16 countries

2012
At the London Games, 78 athletes compete in 11 events

EVENTS

Para-equestrian dressage is comprised of two individual events and one team event. Individuals compete in championship tests with set movements and freestyle tests that are arranged to music. Team tests involve three to four human teammates and their horses.

For all events, judges are located in booths spread around the arena. Judges take note of every detail, down to the position of the horse’s head, and when they see a fault, they ring a bell. Scores are awarded between zero and one, and the rider and horse with the highest score wins.

EQUIPMENT

For accessibility and safety, the arena in which Paralympic riders and horses compete is smaller than its Olympic counterpart. The arena surface is made up of compacted sand, which facilitates movement.

Riders use assistive devices such as dressage crops, connecting rein bars and rubber bands to aid communication with the horse.

FAST FACTS

Horses have moves: One of the movements horses exhibit is the pirouette, which is when the horse turns with its inside hind leg serving as the axis. A transition is when the horse alternates its legs with each trot or walk. To stop the horse, riders put pressure on the bit—the part of the reins in the horse’s mouth.

What’s your event? Though the Paralympics focus on dressage events, individuals with impairments can compete in national and international competitions in both dressage and driving.

Equestrian equality: Equestrian is the only Olympic or Paralympic sport in which women and men compete against each other on equal terms; events are not divided by gender.

Shh!: During competition riders must remain completely silent; however, severely visually impaired athletes may be guided by sound signals.

Communication breakdown: Para-equestrian dressage athletes communicate with their horses through subtle shifts of body weight and pressure, particularly with the legs. Athletes with physical impairments of the legs therefore must get creative in teaching the horse innovative communication signals.

Athlete Spotlight:

Rebecca Hart

Rebecca Hart was born with familial spastic paraplegiaDefinition: A permanent condition in which you may be unable to move or feel both legs and/or the lower half of the body, usually due to disease or injury of the spinal cord., a rare genetic disease that causes increasing muscle wasting and paralysis throughout life. As a child, she was frustrated at being unable to play sports with other children, but her outlook changed when she discovered horseback riding. She took up jumping at first, which provided an adrenaline rush, but she eventually became hooked on dressage. She learned to love the sport's precision and the opportunity to develop a deep and silent communication with her horse. Her first riding instructor, and several coaches along the way, recognized her competitive drive and helped her develop into the athlete she always wanted to be.

Today, Hart is a seven-time national champion and a two-time Paralympian. She finished in fourth place at both the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games and the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Looking to Rio, she has plans to step up onto the podium—preferably into the top spot.

But at the end of the day, Hart knows she owes much more to the sport of dressage than her career as an elite athlete. Staying active and practicing with her horse every day has helped her slow the progression of her disease and maintain her ability to walk, for without dressage, Hart would be in a wheelchair full time. As a testament to the connection between horse and rider, she also credits her horse, Romani, with both lifting her up and keeping her humble.

Althete Spotlight Rebecca Hart

CLASSIFICATION

Paralympic equestrian competition is open to male and female athletes with a physical impairment, including amputationDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body. or limb loss, spinal cord injury, cerebral palsyDefinition: Damage to the central nervous system., dwarfism or brain injury, as well as those with a visual impairment. Some athletes may use a wheelchair in daily life, while others are ambulatory.

Para-equestrian dressage athletes are categorized into five sport classes, known as grades, based on how their impairment affects their athletic performance. A lower grade indicates the athlete has an impairment that more severely disrupts activity.

Note: The models presented below are examples. A classification evaluation must be performed to determine an athlete’s sport class(es).

Physical Impairment

Visual Impairment

Intellectual Impairment

Athletes with physical impairments compete in one of five grades depending on the severity of their impairment. In grades III and IV, these athletes compete alongside athletes with visual impairments.

Grade Ia

Grade Ib

Grade II

Grade III

Grade IV

Grade Ia

Athletes with the most severe impairments compete in grade Ia. These athletes have severely restricted control or movement in their arms and legs and usually require a wheelchair in daily life.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

Grade Ib

Like those in grade Ia, these athletes have impairments that severely affect their riding function and likely use a wheelchair in daily life.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

Grade II

Athletes in grade II have severe impairments in both legs or a moderate, full-body impairment. Some of these athletes use a wheelchair in daily life.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

Grade III

Athletes in grade III may have a severe impairment of the arms, moderate impairment of the full body or short stature. These athletes are able to walk and usually do not require a wheelchair in daily life. Leg amputees compete without a prosthesisDefinition: An artificial body part such as a leg or an arm.. Athletes with the most severe visual impairments also compete in grade III.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional
 Short
Stature

Grade IV

Grade IV athletes may have a range of mild impairments of the arms, legs or full body. Leg amputees compete with a prosthesisDefinition: An artificial body part such as a leg or an arm.. Athletes with moderate visual impairments also compete in grade IV.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

Athletes with visual impairments compete in one of two grades depending on the severity of their impairment. These athletes compete alongside athletes with physical impairments.

Grade III

Grade IV

Grade III

Athletes with the most severe impairments compete in grade III. These athletes have very low visual acuity and little to no light perception.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

Grade IV

Athletes with the most severe impairments compete in grade IV. These athletes have a higher visual acuity than those with severe impairments, but with a visual field of less than 5 degrees radius.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional