Normally, Rebecca Hart doesn’t even think about heading down the centerline until at least 6 months into a relationship with a horse. She broke her own rule, though, after getting to know Chloe Gasiorowski’s mare Floratina.
“When we were eight weeks into our partnership, she already just felt like home,” said Hart, who only started riding the mare three months ago.
So instead of waiting, Hart loaded “Flora” onto a plane to Europe along with her longtime partner El Corona Texel, the horse with whom she’s won medals at two world championships (Tryon 2018 and Herning 2022) and the Tokyo Paralympics, and headed to Europe to go head-to-head against the best riders there in a pair of back-to-back CPEDI3* shows.
Where one might’ve expected to see moments revealing their relative inexperience as a partnership, Hart and “Flora” instead have won every class they’ve entered so far. In their international debut at last week’s CPEDI3* Stadl-Paura (Austria), they emerged victorious over a field that included seasoned veterans like “Tex,” boasting scores above 72% to win every class, culminating in a 78.01% on their freestyle. This week at the Pilisjászfalu CPEDI3* (Hungary) they appear poised to repeat that feat, having already won their first class Thursday on a 74.5%, the highest score of the day’s competition.
In Austria, their scores helped the Perrigo U.S. Para Dressage Team, with teammates Fiona Howard aboard Jagger and Kate Shoemaker riding Colijn, take bronze behind Italy and Austria.
“I wasn’t sure where we would be,” Hart said. “With ‘Tex,’ who I’ve had for years, I know him like the back of my hand. But Flora’s really quite a new ride for me, and this was our first big international competition, and we’re also in Europe, so there were a lot of unknowns going into it. But Flora surpassed my wildest expectations and dreams with how she came out.”
Though new to Hart, Flora is no stranger to the international spotlight. Piloted by Lindsay Kellock, the 15-year-old Hanoverian mare (Fidertanz 2—Rubina, Rubin Royal OLD) competed for Canada at the 2019 Pan American Games (Peru), in which their team took home the gold medal.
From there, she went to owner Gasiorowski, who campaigned her at Prix St. Georges.
Hart had known of the mare since Flora was a young horse competing regularly in Wellington, Florida, near her home base in Loxahatchee, but it wasn’t until Hart’s close friend Grand Prix dressage rider Lauren Sprieser connected her with Kellock that a partnership entered the realm of possibility. While at Kellock’s farm trying horses for someone else, Sprieser thought of Hart for Flora and set the wheels in motion.
“When Lauren called me and was like, ‘I think there’s a horse that you should look at,’ and she said, ‘It’s Lindsay Kellock’s horse.’ I was like, ‘Is the horse Floratina?’ ” Hart recalled. “When she said yes, I dropped everything, and I was like, ‘I will be right there.’ ”
Flora has taken the transition from able-bodied dressage to para-dressage in stride and has adapted to the change faster than most, she said. Hart, who competes in Grade III , was born with a rare genetic disease called hereditary spastic paraparesis, a progressive condition that causes muscle wasting and paralysis from the mid-back down. It requires her horses to learn a set of cues different to what they may be accustomed.
“Since I’ve known her, Flora’s been like, ‘Oh, cool, you have no legs? That’s fine. We’ll just do it that way now,’ ” said Hart. “And then when you go to some strange arena in Europe that she’s never been to, she’s like, ‘Oh, OK cool, we just do all the things here too? Great.’ ”
Flora’s laid-back attitude is quite different from that of Tex, Hart’s longtime medal-winning partner. The 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Wynton—Urieta Texel, Goodtimes) owned by Rowan O’Riley is talented but edgy, and he sometimes struggles with tension. In managing both horses, Hart makes a deliberate effort to prioritize their mental and physical wellness. Their training schedules are interspersed with hacking and brain games, often in the form of obstacle courses, to keep them fit without putting too much pressure on them.
These creative arena familiarization exercises have been particularly helpful to Tex, for whom new settings occasionally pose a challenge.
“They help him see different things, handle different environments, and turn it into a game rather than a stressful situation,” Hart said.
Hart and her two horses are competing again this weekend at the Pilisjászfalu CPEDI3* in Budapest to gain more overseas experience prior to the 2024 Paris Paralympics qualification season.
“We don’t have a ton of CPEDIs over the summer in the U.S., so we did do a European tour,” Hart said. “We wanted to bring Flora out and start getting even more feedback and also learn where we are with the other European riders within my grade, because all of that information is so valuable as we make our plans to qualify for Paris.”
Hart hopes to qualify both horses for the upcoming Paralympics. If she’s successful, the ultimate determination of which horse gets to go rests with the selection committee, rather than Hart. If Flora gets the nod, Hart thinks she’s got the combination of ability and personality to excel at the top of the sport.
“When you’re riding for yourself, there’s always pressure there. But then when you’re riding for your team, there’s even more pressure because you’re representing not only yourself and your barn but also your entire country, so you don’t want to let your teammates down,” said Hart. “So it’s really nice to have a horse that is, so far, just so consistent and good in her brain everywhere we’ve gone. It’s a very wonderful thing to have in a team horse.”