The Horse Radio Network and the United States Para Equestrian Association are hosting the first ever Para-Webathon tonight from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. (EDT). The purpose is to raise money and awareness for the U.S. Para-Equestrian athletes aiming to compete in the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
This is the first WEG offering Para-Equestrian competition. Unfortunately, the Para teams do not have the resources or sponsors that the other disciplines enjoy. Most of the competitors will have to raise their own funds to attend the WEG this year. This can amount to up to $20,000 per competitor for U.S. riders. All donations raised during the Para-Webathon will be used to offset the costs of the 10 U.S. Para-Athletes and their horses.
Check back on www.chronofhorse.com at 7 p.m. for this live video event.
In this monthly series leading up to the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in September and October, we watch a different competitor each month prepare for competition.
Rebecca Hart knows exactly where she wants to be at the conclusion of the para-equestrian competition at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games—on a podium.
“My goal is to go in there and get a medal. I’m completely looking forward to the WEG. I want to go out there and show them what we’ve got,” Hart said.
Hart was so close to a medal she could taste it at the 2008 Para-Olympic Games in Hong Kong, finishing fourth in the individual freestyle. So, this fall she wants to seal the deal. The U.S. riders will face a competitive British team, which earned team gold in 2008.
“They’re top dog right now, so we’re going to have to work hard to catch them. But I love a challenge like that,” Hart said. “I’ve got two horses, and I think they both have the necessary skills to get there and the talent to do that. My goal is definitely to represent our country well and bring home a medal.”
The 2010 WEG was always a goal for Hart, who has three National Para-Dressage Championships titles and two Para-Equestrian World Championship appearances in her résumé.
“While we were preparing for the ’08 Games, we had the WEG also in our sights,” she said. “I wanted to do both of them. My horse is getting older, and I thought it would be a really good opportunity to represent our country at the World Games in our own country.”
Hart, 25, is in the perfect place to devote herself to the quest. She graduated from Penn State University in May and has postponed her full-time job search until after the WEG so she can concentrate on preparations.
“I did a business degree specialized in international business and forensic accounting. Right now, I’m leaning toward a government position, possibly in the IRS as a revenue officer. But I didn’t want the stress of starting a new job while I was trying to get to the WEG,” she said.
“Now that school is done, I can focus on the horses. I also work at a Starbucks in Kennett Square, Pa., and that works perfectly because I can fill my addiction to my chai tea lattes, and I also get the early morning shift, so I can be done by 10 and come out to the farm after work and ride,” Hart said.
She’s ideally positioned, as well, since she lives on USEF para-equestrian coach Missy Ransehousen’s Blue Hill Farm in Unionville, Pa., and is a working student there. She’s ridden with Ransehousen for seven years.
Hart finds that Ransehousen is gifted in teaching para-equestrian riders.
“She’s great at working with different disabilities and figuring out where we can change a traditional cue to get it to work for a para rider, no matter what the challenge is. She’s very good at adapting what needs to be done. She’s always got a new tool, and she’ll say, ‘Try this.’ And if that didn’t work she’ll say, ‘OK, then try this.’ It’s a little bit of a puzzle trying to figure out what works for each rider and each horse,” she said.
Hart rides with familial spastic paraplegia, a degenerative and genetic condition that causes muscle wasting and paralysis in the lower body. She was diagnosed while a young child, and in the process of her diagnosis, they discovered that her father also has the condition.
“They’d always thought he was just pigeon-toed, so he hadn’t looked into it. But once we figured out what it was, we could trace it back through the family line,” she said.
“It’s a progressive disease, so it will get worse as I age. Some people do lose complete mobility and do end up in a wheelchair. So far, the line that I have seems to be rather slow to progress. My dad is now 55, and he’s close to being wheelchair-bound, but he’s still mobile.”
Hart has ridden since she was a young child. She started in a hunter/jumper lesson program with a trainer who was supportive of looking into ways to make riding easier for her. But after reading about para-equestrian competition in a magazine and watching the selection trials for the 1996 Para-Olympic Games, Hart was hooked on dressage.
“My disease does cause quite a bit of discomfort when I do ride, because of muscle spasms and the weakness of the muscles. We do some adaptive things to help me. I use two whips so I don’t have to exhaust the leg muscles. They counteract the lack of leg. And because I also don’t have full control of my legs, I use a Velcro tether to hold my leg close to the horse’s side. Everything has to be breakaway and approved by the USEF,” she said.
“Since I really don’t have much control over my legs, most of the aids come from my seat and my shoulders. I’ll get my shoulders going in the right direction and because everything’s attached, it helps get my hip bones where they need to be, and the horse generally can figure out what I’m trying to ask him to do.”
A Back-Up Plan