Para-Dressage: What it Is and How to Watch

It’s not easy for anyone to get to the World Equestrian Games, but para-equestrian riders have proven game for any challenge.

Top image: Natasha Baker, FEI Youtube

It’s been great to see that para-dressage has gained more and more attention in recent years, with plenty of coverage at the London Olympics and at the World Equestrian Games this week. But to be honest, I didn’t know much about the sport, or how it differed from able-bodied dressage.

So I asked Rachel Neff, the manager of a therapeutic riding center called Great and Small in Boyds, MD, to give some additional insight on para-equestrian sports.

“Para-dressage at its very base is just dressage, but the competition is modified for people with functional impairments (a limb that doesn’t do what a limb would normally do),” Rachel explained, “It’s pretty much strictly physical disabilities, though there are some riders who also have cognitive disabilities.”

Para-dressage riders compete against riders of the same grade–Grade I having disabilities that would impair riding ability the most, and Grade IV the least. The testing system to classify riders in different grades is very specific, and practically a science, as I found out when I perused the FEI Classification Manual.




FEI-Grade III Classification

“If you think about riding, what are the aids that would be most important?” Rachel continued, “For example, trunk control. Or if you have a problem with both legs, you’ve got an issue.”

Riders adapt their style for practicality–for example, if a rider has difficulty adjusting the reins quickly, he or she may lean forward to give the horse a release in the free walk. Many riders also choose to compete without stirrups (so just think about that next time you complain about 5 minutes of no-stirrup work in a lesson!). They’re also allowed to use adaptive equipment, based on testing for the rider’s grade of competition.

“But they’re judged by the same judges, and the same training scale, that all dressage riders are held to,” says Rachel.

In addition to more media coverage of para-equestrians in recent years, the playing field is also being leveled in other ways. Prior to 1996, para-riders had to use borrowed horses at international competitions, but in recent years, the trend is for riders to travel with the mounts they have been training with consistently, just as able-bodied dressage competitors do. A note, though–these are not your dead quiet therapeutic horses. Yes, they may have to be able to ignore involuntary movements, or compensate for weight imbalances, but many riders do their horse shopping at the same German and Belgian farms riders from all other disciplines do.

That trot though! / FEI Youtube


“The quality of the gaits is really competitive,” Rachel says.

And of course, the riders themselves are too. Two of the US para-dressage riders at WEG have ridden up to Prix St. Georges–Roxanne Trunnell and Susan Treabess.

“I’m most impressed by these riders who, even though they have whatever physical limitations they deal with, they’re riding better than a lot of able-bodied people, myself included!” says Rachel.

The work to level the playing field for para-equestrians isn’t over–as members of the Canadian para-dressage team mentioned on the FEI talk show, Chez Philip, competition venues have become more accessible, but riders sometimes face difficulties getting around and traveling to different competitions.

For more on para-dressage, check out this interview with Norway’s para-dressage Chef d’Equipe Ingeborg Simensen:

Go Para-Dressage.


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