Building the Para-Dressage Pipeline

GATEWAY TO PARA-DRESSAGE: Thorncroft Therapeutic Horseback Riding Inc. in Pennsylvania, a USEF Para-Dressage Center of Excellence, in April hosted a USEF Para-Dressage Development Clinic. USEF para-dressage development coach Lisa Hellmer works with Victoria Yu, Coatesville, Pennsylvania, on Thorncroft’s Rusty, a 19-year-old Quarter Horse gelding donated by Jason and Kristine Lisi. Jennifer Bryant photo.

Through designated Centers of Excellence, US Equestrian aims to expand the sport, beginning at the grass roots

This article is reprinted from the July/August 2023 issue of USDF Connection.

By Riley Garrett

The US has no system of community riding clubs, and the sport of dressage has no official training centers in this country. But one equestrian discipline is creating its own means of attracting and developing aspiring athletes for competitive sport: para-dressage.

In 2015, working with US Equestrian Federation (USEF) para-equestrian director Laureen Johnson and USEF para-dressage technical advisor Michel Assouline, then USEF director of sport programs Will Connell created a designation for para-dressage training facilities: the USEF Para-Dressage Center of Excellence (COE).

Any equestrian training facility that follows the program’s specified guidelines and criteria may apply for the COE designation. To become a COE, a facility must offer para-equestrian sport programs for athletes with disabilities, including para-dressage: lessons with certified coaches and trainers, competition and educational opportunities, classification into the para-dressage athlete grades (see “Introduction to Para-Dressage” at left), and access to adapted equipment and facilities. A COE also provides outreach and education programs to the local community in order to promote awareness and understanding of para-equestrian sport. The USEF Para-Equestrian Sport Department, which oversees the COE program, is responsible for ensuring that COEs meet the program’s standards and guidelines.

“I love being able to provide opportunities to new athletes considering para-dressage through education, clinics, and various opportunities,” says US Para-Equestrian Association (USPEA) vice president Carole Laulis, a USEF para-dressage silver coach based at Thorncroft Equestrian Center, Malvern, Pennsylvania, a para-dressage COE. “Being a COE is an opportunity to offer newly disabled individuals a safe space to explore the equestrian sport and guide them in the process, which is so empowering and joyful.”

The USEF and the USPEA aim to develop a pipeline from the introductory levels to high performance, creating opportunities for developing para-dressage athletes. Equipped with USEF-certified para-dressage coaches like Laulis, the COE sites are positioned to attract new and aspiring athletes and then to help them advance.

Meet the COEs

At press time, eight equestrian centers held the USEF COE designation. They are:

Carlisle Academy at Spring Creek Farm, Lyman, Maine. Founded in 1998 as the Equest Therapeutic Riding Center, Carlisle Academy has since expanded to offer a range of equine-assisted activities and therapies. In 2011, the program was renamed Carlisle Academy Integrative Equine Therapy & Sports.

Healing Strides of VA, Boones Mill, Virginia. Established in 1991, this facility, located south of Roanoke, offers a range of therapeutic riding programs for individuals with disabilities. In addition to its para-dressage COE designation, Healing Strides of VA is also a Professional Association of Therapeutic Riding International (PATH) Premier Accredited Center.

Maryland Therapeutic Riding, Crownsville, Maryland. This facility, the newest COE on USEF’s roster, offers adaptive and therapeutic riding; equine-assisted psychotherapy; speech, occupational, and physical therapy; education and mentoring; school groups and summer camps; equine services for heroes, and riding for wellness.

North Texas Equestrian Center, Wylie, Texas. NTEC owner and head trainer Kai Handt has coached Paralympic dressage riders and is a former US national para-dressage chef d’équipe and technical advisor. A native of Germany, Handt established NTEC in the greater Dallas area in 1985 as a full-service dressage and jumping training and boarding facility.

Ride On Therapeutic Riding Center, Chatsworth and Newbury Park, California. This facility, founded in 1994, promotes the welfare of at-risk youth and people with disabilities through equine-assisted activities and therapies in its two locations in the greater Los Angeles area. Ride On managed and hosted the 2015 Special Olympics World Games equestrian competition, for athletes with intellectual disabilities.

Therapeutic Riding Inc., Ann Arbor, Michigan. Founded in 1984, TRI outgrew its original facility by 2001 and later was able to acquire 46 acres on which to build a new therapeutic-riding center, with construction completed in 2010. This COE also offers adaptive-horsemanship programs for people with varying needs and abilities.

Thorncroft Therapeutic Horseback Riding Inc., Malvern, Pennsylvania. Established in the western suburbs of Philadelphia in 1969, Thorncroft specializes in therapeutic riding and other equine-assisted activities for children and adults with mental, emotional, and physical disabilities. Carole Laulis, who has been an instructor there for 30 years, is a USEF para-dressage silver coach and the current USPEA vice president.

Wheatland Farm Equestrian Center, Purcellville, Virginia. The northern-Virginia facility offers programs for riders with disabilities as well as for able-bodied equestrians: from para-dressage to adaptive riding, Pony Club activities (Wheatland is also an inclusive USPC Riding Center) to eventing and able-bodied dressage. Co-founder Muriel Forrest is a USEF silver para-dressage coach.

ONBOARDING: COEs offer opportunities for riders to learn about para-dressage competition. At the USEF development clinic, Thorncroft therapeutic-riding regular Priya Russell, Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, gets an assist from instructor and USEF para-dressage silver coach Carole Laulis (left) while a volunteer holds Thorncroft’s Rosie, a 23-year-old Quarter Horse/pony mare donated by Rita Chambers, and another rider looks on. Photo by Jennifer Bryant

The Pipeline Starts with Inclusivity

To earn the COE designation, a facility must meet specific criteria, including disability-compliant facilities, such as mounting ramps and accessible restrooms; USEF-affiliated and certified para-dressage coaches; FEI-standard arena footing; an indoor arena; and access to suitable horses.

Once accredited, a COE must undergo an annual review and periodically reapply in order to maintain its status. The USEF wants to see that a COE is an active participant in the process of developing the para-dressage sport, such as by hosting coach- or athlete-development seminars, hosting talent searches or championship competitions, participating in COE conference calls, and bringing riders to para-dressage competitions.

Although medals in national and international para-dressage competition may be the ultimate high-performance goal of USEF’s COE initiative, the COE overview published on the USEF website makes it clear that the intent of the program reaches far beyond the medal podiums.

The overview states that COEs “are also essential instruments in the continuous effort to make equestrian sports more equitable, inclusive, and available to disabled competitive riders in the United States…. [A]s the FEI has emphasized, the inclusion of disabled equestrians in our often-exclusive sport is inspiring to the general public, many of whom may not otherwise find themselves captivated by equestrian sport.”

Because “USEF commits to supporting the COEs annually through marketing, outreach, program support, and possible access to USEF funding,” as the overview states, COE facilities can benefit from the increased visibility and support. Most important, the initiative can benefit aspiring athletes with physical disabilities by introducing them to the joys of horses and the sport of para-dressage.

To learn more about the USEF’s COE program, visit

Riley Garrett is a para-dressage rider and competitor, and an instructor at Thorncroft Therapeutic Horseback Riding Inc., Malvern, Pennsylvania, a USEF Para-Equestrian Dressage Center of Excellence.

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