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May 27, 2010

Journey To The WEG: Rebecca Hart Has A Medal On Her Mind

Rebecca Hart performed the test ride at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** with Kazan. Photo by Amy Dragoo.

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.

Different Tools

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

For five years, Hart has depended on Norteassa, an 18-year-old Hanoverian gelding, in the show ring. But her plans for 2010 hit a snag in December when Norteassa, nicknamed Pippin, suffered a slight suspensory ligament strain.

“We weren’t sure if Pippin was going to come back well—it’s always a big question mark,” she said.

While Pippin rebounded and rehabilitated well from the injury, Hart wanted an equine insurance policy. Owner Kerri Sowers loaned her Kazan as a back-up horse, and Hart’s been riding him since late March.

“That’s been fabulous. Hopefully, they both get there happy and healthy, and we’ll kind of see how it goes,” Hart said.

For Hart, the road to Lexington, Ky., in October for the WEG runs through Wayne, Ill., on June 24-27. The USEF National Para-Equestrian Dressage Championships will double as the selection trials for the WEG team.

On May 27-30, however, Hart and her horses will travel north to Toronto, Ont., to the Windreach CPEDI***.

“That [competition] will give us a good test run for the WEG, because the international judges are going to be at that show. And there are nine countries going, so we’re hoping to see where we stand against some of the European riders,” she said. “Once we have that feedback, we’ll then be able to adjust our plan to prepare for the WEG.”

Hart is working on a freestyle for Kazan, and she’ll have the same freestyle she rode in 2008 for Pippin, to a John Tesh song. She’s taking both horses to the selection trials.

While she’s thrilled to have Kazan, Hart would love to ride Pippin at one more major championship.

“He’s taught me and done so much for me. I’ve literally traveled around the world with him. Every time I ride him, it gets a little better. As we work together and build our relationship even more, he trusts me more, and he’s not quite as silly as he used to be. He can sometimes be a little over-exuberant. We’re working on that. He’s gotten a lot more relaxed and free in his shoulder and his stride, which has made him very fancy,” she said.

Hart found Pippin in the Netherlands in 2004, when she was traveling with the U.S. team to the 2004 Para-Olympic Games. He just happened to be at the farm where the U.S. horses were quarantined, and the owner offered him to Hart to ride a few times.

“I sat on him and said, ‘Oh my, I want this horse.’ After many calls home, a lot of gathering family funds and taking out loans and IOUs, we brought him home.”

Pushing Herself

With Pippin, Hart claimed the 2006 USEF National Para-Equestrian Championships and traveled to England to represent the United States at the 2007 Para-Equestrian World Championships. They repeated their national title in 2008 to qualify for the ’08 Para-Olympic Games team.

Between the 2008 Para-Olympics and her quest for the 2010 WEG, Hart stepped up her game. Throughout the year, she shows in both para-equestrian and able-bodied dressage classes. Before heading to Hong Kong for the Games, she moved up from first and second levels to third level in able-bodied shows.

And after she returned from Hong Kong, she and Pippin tackled fourth level and Prix St. Georges, even though her Grade II tests for para-equestrian competitions are walk-trot tests.

“Missy is very big at pushing para riders to go beyond their grade. She encourages you to show in able-bodied tests to improve your skills, so when you come back to the Grade II test, you can relax that much more because you have all the skills necessary,” she said.

“I’d always wanted to wear a top hat and tails. I didn’t really know if I could, but I thought I might. We knew Pippin had all the talent to do it, but putting it all together, he’d get a little bit wound up. And it was kind of me, too, because I was pretty nervous.”

By the fall of 2009, Hart and Pippin were scoring in the mid-60s in able-bodied Prix St. Georges classes. They also won the national para-equestrian championship for the third time.

“It also built up my leg muscles. The tests at the lower levels are shorter, and I had enough leg strength to make it through those tests. But as we were getting to the longer, more involved tests, I didn’t have that muscle or endurance to make it through the FEI test,” she said.

“The European para-dressage riders are phenomenal. You watch them ride, and they’re riding able-bodied Prix St. Georges and Grand Prix. Watching their quality of riding and the quality of tests that they can lay down at a show is mind-blowing. The quality of horses they have is amazing. There’s a lot of pressure to be at their level,” she noted.

Did you miss this series? Read about endurance rider Steve Rojek and four-in-hand driver Tucker Johnson.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Journey To The WEG: Rebecca Hart Has A Medal On Her Mind" ran in the May 28, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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