At last winter’s U.S. Dressage Federation annual meeting, I happened to meet a group of athletes and their leaders who, I must admit, I never really expected to write about. Although we have had a program of riding for the disabled at our farm for longer than most riding establishments in this country, and have even hosted the special Olympics, I long considered it a therapy, rather than a serious sports event.
Way back when, before any licensed programs or instructors existed, we had a young man who was blind from birth sign up for riding lessons. I taught Joe for more than two years, until he went to college, and the most amazing feature of our lesson was his “normalness.”
When Joe was comfortable on the flat, we started jumping, an area where he excelled. Because he couldn’t see the obstacle, Joe never anticipated the take-off, and since he was athletic and had a lot of natural feel and balance, he hardly ever got ahead or behind his horse over the fence.
People used to gather to observe Joe in action, and although we had many wonderful times, one of my very worst memories is from a lesson with him. Once, when he made a mistake, I got so excited I forgot he couldn’t see and bellowed, “Joe, why don’t you look where you are going!” The world stopped, the spectators froze in place, and I desperately hoped the ground would open up and swallow me.
Then Joe started to laugh. “Remember me?” he said. “I can’t see!”
When I apologized to Joe and his parents, they said, “Get over it, we consider it a compliment that you could forget his handicap and think of him as any rider.”
The days of disabled riding for therapy only are over. The wish to be treated like any other athlete is a recurring theme in all the literature and philosophy of today’s disabled riding programs. The disabled riders who are trying out for the Paralympic (parallel to the Olympics) Games want to compete with able-bodied athletes on the same turf. One major reason is that the possibilities for advancement and exposure are much greater in the competitive world of regular athletes.
I must admit I had a bit of a problem with this concept in my capacity as co-chairman of the American Horse Shows Association Dressage Commit-tee. Some people requested presidential modifications to allow the use of special stirrups and reins and calling an FEI-level test, which, if allowed, would change the essence of the sport and actually create an advantage for riders who receive an exemption from the rules.
I’m sure you recall the recent case of the golfer Casey Martin, who has a circulatory disorder that prevents him from walking the course, and all the legal battles this created when he requested use of a golf cart.
In the future, these kinds of issues will be dealt with by the AHSA Disabled Sports Committee, created in part to deal with what used to be requests for presidential modifications. This committee’s purpose is to level the playing field, not to give any advantage to the disabled athletes or change the nature of the sport.
Denise Avolio, the director of dressage for Paralympic equestrians, explained to me the philosophy behind promoting “vertical integration,” which means having the disabled compete with able-bodied riders. She pointed out that it’s important to her athletes to be taken seriously. They wish to be judged on the same terms as the able-bodied riders, with no “pity points.”
Just like all of us, the disabled riders want to be judged on what they get out of the horse and on their performance that day.
The system of grading disabled athletes to ensure fair competition between them is still a work in progress, said Denise. There are four divisions, with grade 1 being for the most severe handicaps. The test requirements are largely work at the walk, with very limited trot work.
Grade 2 asks for a minimal amount of canter, and grade 3 demands an increased amount of canter. At grade 4 there is a big increase in difficulty with the inclusion of half-passes and simple changes of lead. Freestyles are now called for at all levels, and although it is very difficult to create a freestyle for grade 1, the grade 4 freestyle is equivalent to almost a Prix St. Georges test.
The difficulty of being accurate and fair when evaluating the proper grade to which a person belongs is their biggest problem, said Denise. The organization that deals with all these issues has just been renamed the National Disability Sports Alliance. It publishes a newsletter called Down Center Line, and listed on the Advisory Committee are some familiar names: Peter Lert, Missy Ransehousen and Robin Brueckmann.
In addition to being a busy AHSA S-rated dressage judge and competitive rider, Robin has taught disabled riding since 1979. At that time, she couldn’t foresee that she would herself become a disabled rider. On a winter day several years ago, Robin slipped on ice and damaged her leg so severely that, after many operations, she has to wear a brace during the day and a cast at night. She was sure she’d never ride in competition again, so she started doing bridleless exhibitions on her lovely gelding David (see March 2 p. 37).
But it was not until Robin started another young horse and received special dispensation to be allowed to ride without stirrups that she realized there may still be a place for her in the competition arena.
Robin has already represented the USA in the 1999 World Championships for disabled riders in Denmark. On borrowed horses, she brought home two gold medals and one bronze. In Australia, at the 2000 Paralympics, the horses were not as evenly se-lected and the discrepancy in training made the draw tremen-dously influential in the outcome.
That problem, plus the fact that Greece has limited supplies of trained horses available, means that at Athens 2004 all riders will have to supply their own horses. This puts a whole new face on the game, and I suppose we can expect a mad dash for appropriate horses, either as donations or as borrowed or sponsored mounts.
Missy Ransehousen, the U.S. Paralympic team coach, worked with the American riders in Australia and was coaching riders at Gladstone, N.J., for the Bayer/USET Festival of Champions. She’s following in mother Jessica Ransehousen’s footsteps as an international competitor and as a leader of other riders.
While Robin is working at the most advanced and least disabled level, Lynn Seidemann is competing at grade 1, the most challenging. I met Lynn briefly at Gladstone and was immediately taken in by her graceful and soothing personality. Wheelchair-bound for 18 years due to a skiing accident, Lynn started riding eight years ago.
She too thought of it as therapy