Para Dressage: Making the Grade

Their 2020 Paralympic para-dressage bronze was Team USA’s first. On the podium: Roxanne Trunnell, Kate Shoemaker, and Rebecca Hart. (photo courtesy of US Equestrian)

By Amber Wiseman

Spend enough time in the dressage world and you’ll hear “she’s a Grade II Para Equestrian”, or “he’s riding the Grade V Introductory Test A”. But what do these grades mean? Let’s look at how the FEI and USEF (who has adopted the FEI Para Equestrian Classification Rules and Para Equestrian Manual for Classifiers as the National Policies and Procedures for Classification at the National level) breaks down the Para Equestrian grading system.

An equestrian athlete must request a classification from either USEF (National Grade) or FEI (International Grade), where their mobility, strength, and coordination are assessed by a Classifier (a person authorized as an official and certified by the FEI to conduct some or all components of Athlete Evaluation as a member of a Classification Panel, per FEI 3.12 FEI Para Equestrian Classification Rules.) This person generates the athlete’s Classification Profile. The five grades allow those with similar functional ability profiles to be grouped together in competition. In doing so, athletes can be judged on their skill while mounted, regardless of impairment, when competing within their grade.

There are five grades, which range from Grade I (the most severe physical impairments) to Grade V (involving mild impairment of one limb or mild deficiency of two limbs). All are permanent physical impairments, and athletes can submit a Dispensation Certificate for permission to utilize specialized tack or equipment to best accommodate their specific needs, such as tack alterations or ground assistance.

Grade I

The Grade I athlete has the most physical impairment, affecting all four limbs and trunk. Generally the limb and trunk impairments of these athletes have a significant impact on balance. The Grade I para athlete often requires the use of a wheelchair in daily life, but may be able to walk with an unsteady gait (five of seven Grade I Classification Profiles utilize a wheelchair).

These riders compete at the walk, with their tests including movements such as the 8m and 10m volte and half volte, 20m half-circles, serpentines, halts, and changes of direction across the diagonal. These tests are performed in a 20x40m arena. The balance impairments of their riders make the steadiness and smoothness of the Grade I para horse’s movement and gait imperative.

Grade II

The Grade II athlete is generally one with severe impairment of the trunk and minimal impairment of the upper limbs, or moderate impairment of both trunk and upper and lower limbs. The Grade II athlete often uses a wheelchair in daily life (five of seven Classification Profiles in this grade utilizes a wheelchair).

The Grade II tests are ridden at the walk and the trot, and are performed in a 20x40m arena. The patterns include such movements as 20m circles at the working trot, transitions between and within gaits, voltes, leg yields, and serpentines. Due to the balance impairments of the Grade II athlete, steadiness and smoothness of the gaits is again a priority when searching for a Grade II para horse.

Grade III

The Grade III athlete is one with a Classification Profile denoting severe impairments in both lower limbs and minimal or no impairment of the trunk, or moderate impairment of the upper and lower limbs and trunk. Three of the nine classification profiles of a Grade III athlete use a wheelchair in daily life.

Like Grade I and II athletes, Grade III athletes compete at the walk and trot, with additional difficulty added by requiring changes within the gaits and more precise movements and patterns. These tests are performed in a 20x40m arena.

Grade IV

The Grade IV athlete has severe impairment or deficiency (total or partial absence of bones or joints) of both upper limbs, a moderate impairment of all four limbs, or short stature (due to extreme shortness of limbs and a maximum height of 129cm). Riders who are visually impaired to the extent of blindness are also included as Grade IV competitors.

The Grade IV tests are ridden at the walk, trot, and canter, with the Novice, Team, Individual, and Freestyle tests being performed in a standard 20×60 arena. The Introductory tests are performed in either a 20x40m or 20x60m arena. These tests introduce more complex movements and variations within the gaits.

Grade V

The Grade V athlete has the most mild impairments in comparison to Grades I through IV. The Grade V para rider may have mild movement or muscle strength impairments, one limb deficiency, or mild deficiency of two limbs. Grade V athletes may also be partially sighted (having a higher visual acuity than those in Grade IV, or a low visual field radius).

The Grade V Novice, Team, Individual, and Freestyle tests are performed in a standard 20x60m arena at the walk, trot, and canter, while the Introductory tests may be performed in either a 20x40m or 20x60m arena. These tests introduce the most complex movements and changes within the gaits such as collection, medium, and extension, and lengthening of the stride.

For more information on Classification Profiles, Para Equestrian Grades, on becoming a Certified Classifier, or to learn how you can get your Para Equestrian Classification, visit the USEF Para Equestrian Dressage Programs and Forms page or the FEI Para Dressage Rules website.


  1. Just to clarify…classifiers are not automatically FEI officials. There are both USEF national level classifiers and FEI international classifiers. Typically, FEI classifiers are also involved in national classification for their country, so may perform both national and international classifications. There is an application and education process for national classifiers to become a FEI Trainee, then Level 1, and eventually a Level 2 classifier.

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