By Veronica Gogan
The partnership between horse and rider is a magical, mysterious thing. For as long as man has relied on the horse, he has struggled for words to describe the bond between them. Leaders who have shaped the world have done it alongside these brilliant and intuitive creatures. These horses knew what was needed, sometimes before their riders. No different are the school horses who educate the beginner, the schoolmaster who guides riders to mastery, nor the Pony Club pony who tutors horsemanship. And then there is the para horse, who selflessly lends his rider his legs and his freedom.
The para horse comes in many shapes and sizes, with many a varied background. He is not a therapy horse, but a sport horse with the heart of an athlete. The physical duties of the para horse are as such: Grade 1 horses walk, Grade 2 and 3 horses walk and trot with varying degrees of lateral work and lengthening, and Grade 4 and 5 horses show all three gaits with respective complexity. The tests for the lower grades prescribe less variety in the movements and rely heavily on patterns and transitions, with harmony being heavily weighted for all grades.
The grade of horses is determined by the impairment level of their riders. The more substantial the rider’s impairment, the lower her grade. Permanent physical disability can affect muscles, skeletal structure, vision, and nerves; there may be many or a few impairments. Para equestrians too are athletes with drive and passion for competition in their hearts. The precariousness of an impaired rider means her horse must have a special, intuitive mind that looks out for the pair rather than himself.
Let us celebrate the para horse. His kindness, his intuition, his spirit, his purpose; he is at schooling shows and the Paralympic theatre, he packs around the novice and dances with the greats.
Bardondales Ultrasuede, “Suede” is ridden by Holly Lovejoy, a Grade 1 rider. He is a 15-year-old Connemara cross gelding with an impressive para dressage resume. Before pairing up with Holly, he was piloted by US Grade 2 Paralympian Dale Dedrick. Prior to that, he was a children’s lesson horse. According to Holly, Suede has a service dog-type personality and enchants all who encounter him. His awareness of Holly’s fluctuating balance while mounting and riding makes him a horse she can feel safe and confident on. Suede seemed to have bonded with Holly even before she sat on him, as he accepted a less-than-ideal mounting situation when she went to try him.
His inherent sensibility is but one of his natural qualities. The Grade 1 horse must have a clear, powerful, swinging walk, as the entirety of each test done at every level is performed at the walk. Suede possesses this coveted walk in a compact package and his aptitude for the show ring is obvious. Not only is he a former Paralympian’s mount, Holly and Suede have consistently earned impressive scores from international judges, as well as a Champion title at the inaugural 2021 West Coast National Dressage Pony Cup. Suede and Holly have a team behind them that recognizes Suede as the incredible horse he is and is helping the pair accomplish their big dreams for the future.
Clairvoyant or “Claire” is a Grade 2 21-year-old Morgan/Thoroughbred mare for Natalie Abbott. Claire is a natural athlete, having been an eventer in her younger days. Her foal went on to compete in eventing at the FEI level! An injury steered her into the suitable job as a walk-trot horse for Natalie. This mare has transitioned to being a para horse effortlessly, adjusting to Natalie’s limited strength, and is incredibly kind. Claire is naturally willing, forward, sensitive, and sensible, making her a confidence building mount for Natalie. The pair have started showing the Introductory Level Grade 2 tests, and Claire is helping Natalie as she builds confidence both at home and away at shows. Getting connected with Claire has changed the course of Natalie’s dressage education, and it’s all thanks to Half Halt Farm and Double G.
PG Ganda (or GMan, or just ‘G’), the 27-year-old Danish Warmblood with a big swinging walk, natural motor and tempo, good over-track, and steadiness for days, is another para horse with expertise, presence, and animation. Standing at 17.1h, he was the first alternate for the 2012 London Paralympic Games with Grade 1 rider Donna Ponessa. Donated to Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding in Wellington, FL, U.S. ParaEquestrian Association President Hope Hand connected GMan and Donna, who was looking for a competition mount, and the rest is history.
GMan was naturally respectful of Donna’s half halts from the very beginning, and his natural willingness to go forward made it easier for her to ride him over his back and into the bridle. Although, it did take some time for him to accept bilateral whips in lieu of her leg aids. His education and kindness was such that she let him do some of the thinking, and when he offered her gifts like a once-in-a-life time piaffe and passage, she just enjoyed the ride. Desensitization clinics, trail rides, hill work, praise, and his willingness to be bribed with food have helped GMan be calm and confident around Donna’s mobility equipment and medical devices. After doing all that, being in the show ring and dealing with all the horse show commotion is just another day in the office!
The village behind this pair understands the unique and deep bond between them. Their friends, supporters, and sponsors have made dreams into reality both in the para and able-bodied worlds of dressage. What a wonderful thing it is when these special horses can dance in both rings.
Aniko, aka ‘Sneaky’, is a 15-year-old Oldenburg gelding ridden by Junior Grade 4 rider, Andie Sue Roth. Sneaky recently made his Grand Prix debut with his professional owner, Lisa Hellmer, who also serves as USEF Para Dressage Development Coach. His mastery through the levels means that Andie Sue is learning from him. The pair were in their first CPEDI 1* together at Tryon, in October 2021, with very respectable scores. According to Andie Sue, Sneaky is the perfect mix between being fancy, with impressive collection and powerful extensions, while remaining safe and manageable.
Andie Sue rides Aniko when she visits Ocala, FL, to train and show. Cumulatively they have a history, but it is dotted with periods of separation. He is so well-suited to her as a para horse because their bond allows them to pick up wherever they leave off. In addition to this bond, being trained by his owner means Lisa knows him inside and out. Andie Sue reports that Lisa has an amazing voice for his personality, like Kristoff and Sven from Frozen; Lisa knows Sneaky so well that Lisa can do his speaking for him.
Blue is an 11-year-old Thoroughbred gelding and Andie Sue’s mount at home in Sanger, CA. He raced for six years before finding himself in a kill pen, prior to being rescued by his previous owner, just prior to Andie Sue. Blue has the amazing walk, critical for para horses, but also a little sass, while still being extremely safe. He has a good brain, is super sweet, and willing to learn. Andie Sue is bringing him up the levels in hopes that he will one day be a Grade 4 para mount for her. Blue has grown up with Andie Sue; they started together when he was learning to start and stop, now he is schooling Second Level movements. Blue has allowed her to take what she learns from other horses and use it to teach a horse who knows nothing. In two short years, the pair have gone from no brakes or steering and running little kids over in the arena, to getting First Level scores in the 60s.
Not every horse is able to be a para horse, to put aside their fight-or-flight instincts to care for those to whom they lend their freedom. But those athletes who do accept this job, they are to be cherished and celebrated. The para horse is a special partner indeed.