After nearly a year out of the saddle, accomplished para-equestrian dressage rider Rebecca Hart is back, and back in a big way, thanks to the support of a generous benefactor and an equally special horse.
Hart and her new partner, El Corona Texel, have made their presence known at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in her adopted home town of Wellington, Florida, by sweeping all of the Grade III classes in both the CPEDI***s that have been held (Jan. 5-7 and Jan. 19-21) and being crowned the overall champion of the second CPEDI. She’s also holding down a job as a barista at the Wellington Starbucks.
Hart, 33, has been a stalwart of the U.S. Para-Equestrian High Performance squad for a decade, with appearances at the Paralympics in 2008, 2012 and 2016, as well as at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010 and 2014. But she has been absent in the competitive arena since retiring her Rio team partner, Schroeder’s Romani, in 2016. Thanks to the support of her new sponsor Rowan O’Riley, Hart is grateful to be forming a strong partnership with her talented new mount, “Tex,” and has her sights set firmly on not just making the team, but also the podium at the 2018 WEG in North Carolina and the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
COTH: You had a really successful partnership with Schroeder’s Romani, your mount at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. Why did you decide to retire her when you did?
Hart: Romani was turning 16 years old, and at that point we still thought we were traveling to the WEG [at its originally named site in Bromont,] Canada, and that we would be needing to do a lot of competing in Europe. We didn’t think she needed to be traveling that much anymore, and so in partnership with her other owners, Margaret Duprey and the Kimmels, we decided to retire her. Our goal had been to go to Rio, and we did that. She is very happy living her new life in Pennsylvania!
COTH: When you retired Romani, it left you without a horse to ride and without a clear direction. How did you feel at that time?
Hart: It’s a very daunting kind of thing. A horse without a rider is still a horse, but a rider without a horse isn’t a rider. I really identify as being a rider—it is a part of who I am. To not know what the next step was was scary. I took some time to regroup and did a lot of soul searching. I learned how important horses were for me, not only as someone with high performance aspirations but also for me physically.
We all hear how amazing horses are for physical therapy, but I really understand it now. When I stopped riding, I felt the lack of physical benefits that riding every day and being in a training program gave me. I was losing strength a lot faster than I thought I would. I have familial spastic paraplegia, which is a degenerative condition. It was one of those mortality moments… no one is getting any younger!
COTH: How did you stay fit for riding while you were horseless?
Hart: I started working with Melissa MacLaren Velix on the Equicizer, which we call the Phony Pony, and she helps me now with the riding too. The Phony Pony simulates the movements of a horse, and it really helps to identify any imbalances in your body. It uses a video set up behind you and a TV screen in the front. You can see if, for example, your shoulder is dropped, and then you can do exercises to address that.
The Phony Pony really helped me to get my fitness back, much faster than I anticipated. I also did a lot of swimming, which is a good all-around kind of exercise that is low impact. But it was a full year from when we retired Romani to when I started working with Tex—and that was a really long year! I am so grateful to Jan Hopkins, who allowed me to ride her awesome horse Gouda during that time. I hadn’t been riding for almost six months, and some horses take a while to get used to a para rider, but Gouda was the epitome of a schoolmaster. He was like, “I’ve got you.”
COTH: How did you remain involved with the para community during your year off?
Hart: I tried to give back and to be a resource for new riders. It is a big jump from therapeutic riding programs to international CPEDI competition. I mentored some young riders, and especially stayed in touch with Annie Peavey, who was my teammate in Rio. I made sure I was at all of the CPEDI competitions to show support and be there as a resource.
Within the past few months, there has been a huge push within the [U.S. Equestrian] Federation to give the para community more structure and support. Murray Kessler, who is the USEF president, has been really dedicated to para sport this past year and along with Will Connell [USEF Director of Sport] has been really instrumental in getting us front and center.
We have a new coach and technical advisor, Michel Assouline, who has had a lot of success with the British para team. He has a vast knowledge of how to make a team truly successful as a team. Our ultimate goal is to medal at the WEG in Tryon and the Olympics in Tokyo. Michel has been working within each rider’s individual program to give everyone a path to success in the international ring.
COTH: But of course, to compete there you need a horse. How did you meet Rowan O’Riley?
Hart: I had met Rowan at several of the CPEDIs I attended. She has been simply instrumental in growing the para movement, and through her sponsorship and support we have been able to do things like be in the main stadium at Global. I knew I needed to expand my sponsor base. This is an amazing sport, but it is expensive at the high performance level.
So one day I sat down with her with a prospectus and a budget and said, “These are my goals. Would you have any interest?” I still pinch myself every day that she said yes.
COTH: How did you find Tex?
Hart: Rowan went to Europe with me last June, and we had gone to look at many horses but couldn’t find quite the right one. One night at the hotel, I Googled on YouTube “dressage horses for sale,” and Tex’s video popped up. I thought, “Gee, he’s really cute,” and so I called the number.
As it turned out, he was only an hour away from where we were. He was with Dominique Mohimont and Arnd Erben, and Ainhoa Prada was his rider. He had just come on the market two days prior when we went and tried him. He had done all the young horse things, and so we knew he had the experience we were looking for. The big question is always, “How will they cope with a para rider?” Some just don’t.
COTH: How did you know he was your next horse?
Hart: When I got on to try him, he always gave me a response. It wasn’t always the right one, but he didn’t get frazzled and offered me something when I asked. I don’t use my legs when I ride, so the horse has to figure out para cues instead.
When you are looking for a top para horse, they have to have all the same qualities you would look for in any elite dressage horse. They have to have the same quality of gaits and be athletically fit and supple. The walk especially is paramount for a low grade rider like me. [Para riders are rated Grades 1 through V, depending on their physical impairments, in order to keep the competition as level as possible. Hart is rated at Grade III.] I looked at a lot of videos of Tex in competition, and I could see that even when he got tense, he always kept the walk clear. He is also young; he just turned 8, so we have time to grow and learn together.
COTH: Tell us more about Tex. What is he like?
Hart: He is so, so sweet. He is quite the character, almost like a giant pony. He has the best hair ever—I call it his Fabio hair—I just love it. Once he realizes you’re his person, he wants to be with you. He is a little goofy, and he loves to be scratched. He has a stuffed toy that he takes everywhere with him.
Tex is sweet in the stall and on the ground, but in the ring he is all business. He knows he is good at his job. I’m gushing, I’m sorry!
COTH: It sounds like you have bonded with him really quickly.
Hart: I enjoy grooming and being around him. This is so important—like if I lose my balance and fall into him on the ground, he is OK. Good communication on the ground translates to the riding.
He arrived in early August, and we really hit the ground running. We have a goal of competing at the WEG, and they are almost exactly one year after his arrival. I knew he wanted to partner with somebody when I first met him. They let me take him to another barn to try him for a day, and he didn’t really know me. But when he saw me there, he came right over, put his head on my chest and leaned into me. He loves having his ears pulled and rubbed, and he let me do that. I just knew this is the one. I am so very blessed to have a horse of his caliber and character and that Rowan is so gracious to let me ride him.
COTH: What is next in your plans to develop this new partnership and qualify for the WEG?
Hart: We just had our last CPEDI at Global, so now we want to work to maintain our consistency and build our confidence in the ring. In para, we need to be as accurate as possible. The medals are separated by hundredths of a point, so you don’t want to give away silly points for having a hind leg back in the halt or something like that.
You have to work to perfect the finite details, the technical aspects of test riding. I want to keep working at home to build that relationship and work on our presentation. I also want to work to keep building exposure of the sport and share education of what para is. It is parallel to able-bodied sports, and like all elite high performance sports, it is held to the same high standards. We all need to keep building the camaraderie of our team—there are some very exciting young riders and new mounts coming up.
COTH: What does a typical training week look like for you and Tex?
Hart: We ride him five days per week, not always in the arena. We are at a fantastic facility with an outdoor ring, polo field and access to a track. We try to keep it varied, not drilling all the time.
I would say that we work on the technical test riding aspect at least twice a week, and also do cavaletti or hack days. Melissa usually rides him on his hack and warms him up, because I don’t post, and I like to let his back warm up first. Melissa also helps to get him moving forward, since I can’t use my legs. We are working to take the classical cues from his training and translate them to para cues. A normal riding session lasts about 45 minutes.
We also make sure he has turn-out every day. Meanwhile, I’m swimming and still working on the Phony Pony trying to minimize personal weaknesses. I love to bike, using a tricycle. I will also do a lot of Pilates, the ball and mat work. It is so good for the core. I have scoliosis, so I am trying to get as straight as possible and work on my breath.
My legs might not work but I have learned that by really developing my core strength, especially my upper abs, I can use my body differently to communicate with the horse. It helps to compensate for a lack of lower body strength.