For years, television network executives said they couldn’t broadcast more women’s sports because the audience wasn’t there to support it. It turned out that once the networks made women’s sports easily available to watch, plenty of people were interested.
We’re in a similar situation in para-dressage. Our current crop of international riders is outstanding; the Adequan U.S. Para Dressage Team won team bronze at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics and then again at the ECCO FEI World Championships (Denmark) last year under the guidance of Chef d’Equipe Michel Assouline. There’s no doubting this group’s talent.
But compared to other equestrian sports, para-dressage suffers from a lack of exposure and financial support. I can unequivocally say that if there was more public knowledge and more media coverage of the sport, there would be more sponsorship, prize money and attention given to the para-equestrians. It would also help recruit more top-class trainers to this discipline to help bring along even more top riders.
Like all horse sports, para-dressage is expensive. To field the most talented athletes, we need to make it possible for them to focus their attention on their sport and pursue the best possible coaching.
I’ve been involved in para-dressage since 1985, in many different capacities. As a competitor myself, I have experienced the challenges faced by para riders; these are not different than other elite riders, aside from the obvious challenge brought by disabilities themselves.
The Money Problem
When I was competing at that level, all my resources, all my time and all my money went in the direction of training. I actually sold a Grand Prix horse to finance my trip to Hong Kong for the 2008 Paralympics, and it was like tearing my heart out of my body to sell this horse. I didn’t have financial backers, so it was the sweat of my brow making this happen. I would save my money all year to spend a month or two down in Florida with Anne Gribbons.
Among our current top para-equestrians, some have family sponsorships and others have very generous external sponsors who cover the cost of their horses and their training. I don’t know what their scenarios are for living expenses, but most of our elite riders do nothing else; this is their job, however they’re able to make that work.
And let’s not forget that elite para riders are sitting on elite horses, bred as well as elite dressage riders’ horses. Most have been trained to Fédération Equestre Internationale levels, and certainly they must have superb gaits. Most para horses have competed at the FEI Young Rider level or above, demonstrating that they are solid in competition as well as at home. Many of our elite para riders have two or more horses, so that they can practice and also compete on different steeds.
These requirements do not come cheaply. Amazing para horses can easily cost into six figures, and these horses would be competitive in any venue in either dressage or para-dressage. They are difficult to find—pearls indeed—and they are valued accordingly.
And in addition to the cost of quality instruction and a talented horse, the competitions our riders need to qualify for championships are also expensive. Putting on a CPEDI costs well into five figures, and the U.S. Equestrian Federation absorbs most of that because we need to have these competitions—both to get our riders qualified, and to give them the exposure to compete internationally. The funding for our CPEDIs has been supported by several corporate sponsors, most notably Perrigo, so this sponsorship is very important and valued.
To help our riders continue to improve, and to make participation in the sport financially attainable, we need to grow interest in the sport. One of the best ways to do that is through the tremendously talented riders themselves; the visibility of our currently successful riders helps attract more up-and-coming riders, trainers and sponsors. It brings awareness to the broader equestrian community that, “Wow, these are really good riders, and these are really good horses,” and maybe they’d like to get in on that.
Avenues To Exposure
Another challenge is that the sport suffers from certain misconceptions. First is that these are therapeutic riders who are led around on school horses. Second, there’s some confusion between the Paralympics and the Special Olympics.
These para athletes are riding to an amazing standard. When I judge in Florida, and I watch the regular riders and compare them to the para riders, I think to myself, “The rest of you should be taking lessons from these women!”
The skillset required of elite para riders is amazing. Watching the livestream from any para competition reveals highly effective and tactful riders performing very accurate and expressive tests, very consistently. These athletes are not just riders; they have developed very correct and elastic aids to produce seamless performances. Para-dressage tests recently were renamed to reflect the skill required; at the CPEDI3* level, these tests are Grand Prix A, B and freestyle, reflecting just how much precision and expression each athlete brings to the sandbox.
We do have many more avenues of exposure now than we used to have. Many competitions are livestreamed. NBC did some coverage of the Tokyo Paralympics, including para-dressage, and that is important. But I also think social media is going to be more and more important as a path forward, because this is a young person’s sport, and our up-and-coming generation of riders are going to be people who grew up with social media. (That would not be me!)
Many of our current riders are really good at social media. Roxanne Trunnell, Rebecca Hart, Katie Jackson, and many other up-and-coming riders are all very active on social media, and following them is a great way to learn more about the sport.
Magazines like the Chronicle can also be a catalyst, showing the rest of the equestrian community that the para team isn’t an also-ran; we’re leaderboard material.
To be a successful elite para competitor, a rider must have drive. They must have a good trainer—and that person is not a therapeutic riding instructor; she’s an Anne Gribbons or a Debbie McDonald. They need an amazing horse, and they need skill. And all of that is predicated on having the financial where- withal to make it happen. All these pieces go together.
The lift our sport needs can come from within the equestrian community, so follow some of these amazing riders on social media and watch some livestreamed competition. With more exposure and support, this sport can continue to thrive and bring home more international recognition.
Robin Brueckmann has been a U.S. Equestrian Federation ‘S’ dressage judge since 1993, and she’s a U.S. Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medalist, and a USEF para coach at the silver level. She competed as a para rider in two world championships, the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Kentucky) and two Paralympics. She won two gold medals and one bronze at the 1999 World Championships (Denmark). She has earned many national USEF Horse of the Year awards from training level through Grand Prix as an open professional on horses she developed herself. She is currently on the USEF Selection Committee to help choose para riders who represent the U.S. internationally.
This article appeared in the July 24-31, 2023, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.