By Jennifer O. Bryant
Reprinted excerpt from November 2014 USDF Connection
Casual observers may wonder why walk-trot tests are included in the World Equestrian Games. In an exclusive interview, USEF national para-equestrian dressage coach and coordinator Kai Handt explained why para-dressage is much more than USDF Introductory Level. He also set the record straight on the realities and challenges of the para-dressage discipline.
“The biggest misconception,” said Handt, “is that people think para-equestrian is the Special Olympics [which is for athletes with intellectual disabilities]. ‘Para’ does not come from ‘paralyzed’; ‘para’ comes from ‘parallel.’ We are running parallel to the able-bodied. We get the same medals; we ride in the same arena; we ride similar horses. In the competition we have five judges sitting there, and the competition is just as tough as able-bodied.
“These athletes get a dispensation, which means they can use certain aids to equalize their handicap, but they need to perform just as well as the able-bodied. They do the same movements that an able-bodied CDI horse does. You ride the same eight-meter circle; you have to keep the horse as up in the frame as a CDI horse. The misconception is, ‘Oh, you only ride a walk-trot test,’ and they want to compare that to a walk-trot Intro test. That’s not the case. They are riding a walk-trot CDI test. It is going to be very hard for an able-bodied rider to ride three minutes of walk. You ride 15 or 20 seconds of walk; here [Grade] Ia rides a six-minute walk test in the small arena. Some able-bodied people would get a heart attack having to do that. It is very difficult to ride six minutes of steady, collected, up-in-the-bridle walk, free walk, medium walk, transitions, eight-meter circles, 10-meter circles exactly on the spot.”
(Some para-equestrian dressage tests do include canter and other movements, but those tests are for the higher grades, in which riders’ disabilities are less severe.)
Just as every horse is not cut out for Grand Prix, not every horse is right for para-dressage, Handt said. “With handicapped riders, balance is always a problem, so the horse has to be very straight, very precise, very steady in the connection, and very clear in the gaits. They’ve got to have super rhythm, very good gaits, and just an impressive and very steady look to them. It’s not as much about huge extensions or things like that; it’s very much about precision, rhythm, clear gaits, and a steady connection. And, obviously, a horse that doesn’t spook or buck; with a Ia [the most severely disabled of the athlete classifications], the horse does a couple of trot steps and the rider would be on the ground, so they have to be absolutely, 100 percent good in the temperament.”
In para-dressage, other allowances are made for the riders’ physical limitations, as well. According to Handt, “In the Ia, Ib, and Grade II, I can warm the horse up for 30 minutes. I have to be off the horse 15 minutes before the class, and the rider has to get on. At home, it depends on the horse and rider. If [the rider can] only walk, you cannot really get the horse moving through his body and loosened up. So someone would need to warm the horse up on a daily basis,” riding in all three gaits, he explained.
“The other thing with para is their daily conditioning—are they holding up?” Handt said. “If you have a [rider in a] wheelchair, they can get sores; things can come up. Body parts quit working. We have two people with brain injuries, and things are constantly changing with them, so it’s difficult to keep them on a consistent basis competing.”
In para-dressage, as in able-bodied dressage, there’s always a need for talented new riders. Handt is perpetually in scouting mode. “That’s our main thing right now—to get the Wounded Warrior Project and all the handicapped-riding centers to send people over to para,” he said.