Put US para-dressage on the medal podiums? Bien sûr, says French-born program leader Michel Assouline, who has brought his winning ways with Team Great Britain to the USA
Reprinted from the July/August 2022 issue of USDF Connection magazine
By Kelly Vencill Sanchez
n 2016, Michel Assouline found himself at something of a crossroads. After coaching Great Britain’s para-equestrian dressage team to an unprecedented 11 team gold medals in international competition in as many years, he was itching for a new challenge.
Fast-forward to September 2018, when Assouline guided US para-dressage athletes to four individual medals at the FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina. And then there were last summer’s 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, where he led Team USA to a historic bronze medal, its best Paralympic finish ever.
Will Connell, US Equestrian’s director of sport, was delighted though not entirely surprised by the results, which included a pair of individual golds for world number-one-ranked rider Roxanne Trunnell. After all, it was Connell who coaxed Assouline to cross the Atlantic and take the post as US Equestrian’s (USEF) head of para-equestrian coach development and high-performance consultant in 2017.
“I knew Michel could work with athletes and that he had a deep insight into the sort of horse that’s needed to be at the top of the sport in the five [para-dressage] grades,” says Connell, who worked with Assouline for about a decade during his own tenure with the British Equestrian Federation. “Michel knows where the sport is internationally, and he understands what’s needed to gain a winning score.”
With the Paralympic Games in Paris a mere two years away, the 67-year-old Assouline, who has since added chef d’équipe and technical advisor to his responsibilities, isn’t making any predictions. He’s too busy shepherding US para athletes and their horses to international competitions in Florida, Denmark, Qatar, France, and Belgium; creating a pipeline for backup horses; building up a network of supporters; and, perhaps most important, providing assistance and expertise to riders and their individual coaches.
With sponsors including Rowan O’Riley, who owns Rebecca Hart’s mounts El Corona Texel and Fortune 500; and Karin Flint and Flintwoode Farms LLC, owners of Trunnell’s Paralympic partner Dolton; plus Lisa Hellmer, who in March assumed the newly created post of USEF national para-dressage development coach (“Collection,” p. 16), US para-dressage’s future looks very bright indeed.
But Assouline isn’t one to rest on his laurels. “We had great success in Tokyo, and there’s tremendous momentum in the para-dressage community now in the States,” he affirms. “But one thing to be very realistic about is that our depth is not great. The US is a very big country, and we haven’t got that many para riders compared to the Netherlands or Great Britain. But they are all fighting hard to just be as good as they can be. And the only way they can do that is having the right horses and competing against the best riders in the world.”
A Coach’s Coach
Assouline may boast an impressive resume as he leads the charge to transform US para-dressage into a global powerhouse, but the trim, elegant French native is all business as he intently watches a horse and rider go through their paces. He’s quick to encourage but just as quick to listen, as FEI-level dressage trainer and competitor Lehua Custer learned when she began coaching Grade IV athlete and 2020 Paralympic team bronze medalist Kate Shoemaker.
“Michel spends time building rapport and mutual respect with the coaches,” Custer says. “We’re there to get medals, and he needs to do his job to make it happen. But doing that is about building relationships and making all of us—the riders, the coaches, the grooms, everybody—perform at their best.”
“He is very commanding,” Custer adds, “but he’s also extremely approachable, extremely friendly, and extremely amenable to dialogue and conversation.” Assouline understands when riders need a push and when they need to be left alone before heading into the arena. “He knows how to work the two angles,” she says.
Hart, a four-time Grade III Paralympian who trains with 2019 US Pan Am Games team silver and individual bronze medalist Jennifer Baumert, agrees.
“Michel is really sensitive and well-balanced in how he approaches horse-rider communication,” says Hart. “He’ll stand with your coach and use them as a liaison without interrupting your riding style and your flow, which is great when you’re in an intense situation, like warming up for a CPEDI or a World Championship. He doesn’t disrupt your personal system, but he still gives you great insight and knowledge from his eyes on the ground.”
Having watched Assouline in action for nearly two decades, Connell appreciates his no-nonsense yet empathetic interactions with athletes and others.
“Michel is not going to dress things up. If a difficult message needs communicating, he will communicate it. But he’ll communicate it in a manner that it’s understood and clear. He’s not a screamer or a shouter or an arm-waver. He’s direct, subtle, clear, and measured.”
Assouline’s roots in dressage run deep, but if his parents had had their way, he might have never had a career in horses. He was born in France, where his parents owned a couture business in the town of Tours. When he was in his early teens, the family moved to the picturesque city of Blois, which sits at the heart of the Loire Valley and is a stone’s throw from Saumur, home of the iconic Cadre Noir.
“My family was not horsey at all,” Assouline says, “but Blois was home to a large national stud farm, which meant that riding was the thing to do and part of the school curriculum. The stables were at the center of town, so you could walk or take a bicycle and ride every day if you wanted to.”
Assouline embraced his new hobby and eventually graduated to vaulting, jumping, and eventing as well as dressage. But his father shot down his son’s notion of making horses a career. “Especially in the 1960s and ’70s, to be into horses was not a thing to do as a guy,” Assouline explains.
After high school, he headed to university at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he studied psychology and graphic arts as well as fashion design, riding his brother’s event horse when he could. Degree in hand, Assouline made his way to Carmel, California, to work for Robert Talbott, the tie and menswear company. He also made an important connection. The late former French military officer and 1948 Olympic team dressage gold medalist Jean Saint-Fort Paillard was living in California, and when he discovered Assouline’s passion, he let him ride his horses.
“I started training with him,” Assouline recalls. “And then I had the bug again.”
Assouline became a dual French/American citizen and bought his first horse, a Thoroughbred named Arthur, whom he trained to Grand Prix.
“I never had my own horse in France,” he explains. “There were so many riding clubs with wonderful school horses that very often were trained to a very high level. So at 12, 13, or 14, you were learning, riding, and competing on those horses, which was absolutely incredible.”
After several years in the States, Europe beckoned, and Assouline sold Arthur and returned to the Continent, where he began training in earnest with the likes of the late German masters Willi Schultheis and Herbert Rehbein and later with Uwe Schulten-Baumer, who at the time was training German superstar Isabell Werth.
At the recommendation of the well-known sport-horse breeder/trainer Ullrich Kasselmann, Assouline was offered a position at Addington Manor Equestrian Center in Buckinghamshire, England, where he began working as the private trainer of the Countess of Inchcape. His full-time career was launched.
Serendipitously, England was also where Assouline met his future wife, Danish dressage rider Mette Lubker. The pair married in 1995, and their daughter, Megan, herself a rider and competitor, was born in 2001.
“With Mette being Danish and me being French-American, it was a happy medium to stay in an English-speaking country,” says Assouline. “I wasn’t going to move to Denmark—I didn’t speak the language—and she wasn’t going to move to France. We were quite happy to continue in England.”
Though Assouline’s father died some 15 years ago, he did celebrate when his son was selected to represent France at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and when he swept the French National Dressage Championships in 2000.
Assouline might have continued happily overseeing a thriving dressage business, with Mette specializing in Grand Prix horses and producing youngsters for the World Young Horse Championships, had he not been approached with an intriguing job proposition by Will Connell, who was then the British Equestrian Federation’s performance director: coach of Great Britain’s para-dressage team. Despite Assouline’s lack of experience in the para world, he told Connell he’d give it a try.
“And I was hooked,” Assouline says. “Para-dressage in England was really at its peak—extremely competitive and really buoyant and fun. As a coach, it was a great environment because the athletes were looking up to you, and there was a lot of trust and respect and a lot of commitment.”
He discovered that para-dressage is nearly indistinguishable from able-bodied dressage: “You’re just dealing with athletes who have a disability and finding ways of having perfect communication with the horse. It’s the essence of dressage to make your horse super-responsive and super-alert to the slightest invisible aid. Of course, you have to be careful because horses cannot be so sensitive that they would overreact to a rider who might not have the same coordination [as one] who is fully abled. If you’re working with a rider who’s an amputee, we adapt to it and find ways to communicate.”
Building a Better Network
Assouline’s first major undertaking when he took the job with USEF built on an effort he’d devised in the UK, and he began the process to develop a multi-level coaching program to prepare para-equestrian coaches to train athletes from the grass roots up through international competition.
“I knew the only way to get a proper network for para-dressage in the US was to work with coaches and educate the coaches,” he says.
In 2019 USEF launched its Para-Equestrian Dressage Coach Certificate Program, which works closely with the USEF/US Para-Equestrian Association (USPEA) Para Centers of Excellence for seminars and other events. To date, the program has turned out more than 30 certified coaches.
Instructor/trainer Shayna Simon, who coaches Grade II athlete Béatrice de Lavalette, was one of the first to complete the program.
“I’ve trained in Europe, where they have degrees and Bereiter certifications, and I was really excited to see an academic program here that incorporates riding and coaching,” says Simon. “Para-dressage is a bit different because you have adaptive aids and equipment—things I was pretty unfamiliar with. Not only did it give me a foundation for what you can use to make it safer and more comfortable for the rider and horse; I also learned auditory and visual approaches that give you a different way of coaching.”
Paralympian Hope Hand, who today serves as the USPEA’s president and executive director, has watched para-dressage in this country evolve from athletes catch-riding borrowed horses to competing on top-level mounts alongside the best in the world (see “Para-Dressage at a Glance” on the facing page). The USEF/USPEA coaching program, with its focus on theory and training, will go a long way toward enabling riders to explore opportunities outside the confines of therapeutic-riding programs, she says.
“It’s so gratifying to see the pieces of the puzzle finally coming together,” Hand says. “We had the talent. Now we have the good horses and we’re building a great coaching platform, and that’s all because of Michel. We’re not a foreign discipline. Dressage is dressage. We ride the same 10-meter circles. That’s always been something I’ve tried to get across. The credibility of the sport is there.”
Underpinning Assouline’s approach to both the coaching certification program and his interactions with horses and riders is a passion for psychology.
“I’ve always put a lot of emphasis and importance on the technical, on classical training,” he says. “But if you don’t make the horse your friend—if you don’t have an understanding of animal psychology and equine behavior, and how to gain their trust and respect—no matter how good a technique you have, it’s just not going to work.”
He says it’s the same with people. “Bad communication is a deal-breaker in terms of learning. There are so many good people out there who have a strong technical background, but if they don’t know how to deliver their message or how to adapt to the learning style of the rider, there’s no transfer of knowledge. A lot of my coaching modules are based on that: on philosophy and understanding one another, and how to transfer knowledge and understanding what the receptors are on the other side so that you can communicate your message.”
Juggling in the Runup to Paris 2024
Still based at Nightingale Barn in Essex, England, the US para-dressage coach finds creative ways to supplement his in-person sessions with riders and their coaches. Assouline regularly employs a range of technologies, from online judging and WhatsApp video analysis and feedback to remote coaching via Pixio.
One might assume that Assouline’s considerable responsibilities have caused him to put his own riding on hold. But back in England, he rides as often as possible and even finds time for a few competitions of his own. His current mounts include his own eight-year-old Danish gelding, Korslunds Depardieu, as well as a six-year-old by Sir Donnerhall owned by a client.
“I ride every day, and I absolutely love it,” he says. “I also run a little bit, jog a little bit, and visit a gym two or three times a week. I really do the best I can to stay fit.
“It’s hard to juggle everything,” Assouline admits, “but it gives me extreme pleasure, so I don’t want to give that up. Sometimes I’m in the States for two or three weeks; and last year, with the pandemic, I ended up in Florida for two months. But then my wife or my daughter would ride when I’m away, so it works well. And when I come back, I just pick the horse up and move on.”
He knows he’ll need to stay in tiptop shape to successfully negotiate the next two years, during which time he’ll lead Team USA to the 2022 Ecco FEI World Championships in Herning, Denmark, this August, and to the Paris Paralympic Games the summer of 2024.
Will Connell, meanwhile, is feeling guardedly optimistic about what’s in store for US para-dressage, even allowing himself to envision his dream scenario for the 2024 Paralympics when asked.
“I’d like to see the selectors sweat—not because they have too few athletes to choose from, but because they have too many.” He laughs. “Worried selectors, that’s what I want to see.”
Connell knows that if anyone can make that happen, it’s Michel Assouline.
Kelly Vencill Sanchez is an award-winning freelance writer based in southern California.