Get Started in Para-Equestrian Dressage


Reprinted from December 2015/January 2016 USDF Connection

Have a physical disability and want to compete in dressage? Here’s what you need to know.

By David Schmutz and Joann Benjamin

Para-equestrian is a United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) discipline for athletes with a permanent, measurable physical disability. Para-dressage stands parallel to dressage as an option for these athletes.

Potential para-equestrian athletes who wish to compete have a number of decisions to make and steps to take on their way to the show arena. in this article, we’ll explain the process.

Athletes with physical disabilities who wish to compete locally, regionally, or nationally have numerous opportunities. Most will participate in the USEF dressage division at USEF-licensed/USDF-recognized dressage competitions.

Many show managers offer athletes the ability to compete in regular dressage classes. If compensating aids are needed in order to compete, the athlete must apply for and receive a USEF Dispensation Certificate. The certificate is submitted with each show entry so that show management and officials are aware of the athlete’s needs.

Classification and Grades
If you want to ride para-equestrian tests in USEF-licensed competition, then an evaluation process known as classification is required.

Start by applying for classification through the USEF. After submitting an application and medical documentation, the classification is scheduled. You’ll meet with a USEF or FEI classifier, who will perform a physical evaluation. If you are determined to be eligible for para-equestrian, then the classifier will establish your profile and grade, based on the FEI profile system.

The profile is assigned based on the athlete’s impairments or challenges. Profiles are grouped into one of five grades, which range from Grade Ia (most impaired) to Grade IV (least impaired). Te grade an athlete is assigned determines which tests are ridden in competition and against whom he or she will compete.

You will be issued a USEF dispensation certificate that indicates your profile and grade along with any approved compensating aids or adaptations necessary for competition. You must include a copy of the certificate with your entry into para-equestrian (PE) classes at a USEF competition. Once classified with a current USEF dispensation certificate, you may compete in either USEF dressage or FEI para-equestrian classes at USEF-licensed competitions.

TESTING: US Para-Equestrian Association board member and national classifier Tina Wentz (right) conducts a classification session with a para-equestrian athlete
Photo by Joann Benjamin

International Competition
Just as in able-bodied dressage, some para-equestrians who reach a high level of proficiency aspire to compete at the international level. in para-dressage, that next level is an FEI para-equestrian competition, or CPEDI.

FEI classification is required in order to take part in a CPEDI. Similar to the USEF classification process, FEI classification is carried out by two FEI classifiers, at least one of whom is from a nation other than the US. once classified, your national affiliation, grade, compensating aids, and status (see below) will be listed on the FEI Classification Master List on the FEI website (, where show management and officials at any CPEDI can verify the data. Classifiers attend these FEI competitions in order to evaluate the athletes and verify the accuracy of the profile and aids.

Classification Status
In both USEF and FEI classification, an athlete is initially assigned the status of New, or newly classified, until classifiers have the chance to observe him or her riding.

Many athletes with medical conditions that have a reasonable expectation of changing (for example, multiple sclerosis) will be listed with the status of Review. These athletes will be reclassified at a later date to ensure that their medical condition has not changed, either improved or deteriorated.

After they have begun competing, most classified athletes have a status of Confirmed. This status is for a stable condition (such as loss of a limb) and indicates that the classification will stand without need for reclassification. In rare circumstances, if there are substantial medical changes, an athlete may submit to the FEI for a medical review and reclassification.

Toward a Level Playing Field
The goal of the para-equestrian movement is a framework of fair competition. The goal of classification is to ensure that competitive success is determined by athletes’ strategies, skills, and abilities, not by their disabilities. To that end, classification processes must be robust, transparent, and fair.

David Schmutz, of Glendale, CA, is an FEI 4* para-equestrian dressage judge, a USEF “S” dressage judge, and a member of the USDF Judges Committee. Joann Benjamin, of Sherman Oaks, CA, is an FEI Level 2 para-equestrian classifier and a member of the USEF Para-Equestrian Technical and Adaptive Sports Committees.

Useful Links
Dispensation application
Consent for classification (USEF)
Certificate of diagnosis (USEF)

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