In this series, the Chronicle follows multiple riders as they seek to fulfill their FEI World Equestrian Games dreams in Tryon, North Carolina, in 2018. We’ll check in with them in the coming months as they pursue a team spot to see how they’re getting their horses ready and preparing mentally.
Rebecca Hart is a veteran of the U.S. Para-Dressage program. She’s been on teams at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games as well as the FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010 and 2014.
Hart has been progressing with her two new WEG contenders El Corona Texel and Fortune 500. She recently competed at the Para-Equestrian Dressage test event at the Tryon International Equestrian Center, where she and Fortune 500 finished first in the individual and team tests, and second in the Grade III freestyle. She was named to the para-equestrian long list and will join seven other horse-and-rider pairs at Wheatland Farms in Purcellville, Virginia, for the final test event July 6-8.
Hart is based in Wellington, Florida, year round, and “Tex” and “Moola” are at Cedar Crest Farms and Havensafe Farms respectively.
We’ve been continuing training and working with both horses. We were only allowed to show one horse at the test event [in Tryon, North Carolina], so we went with Fortune 500. He was superb! It was one of our first shows together and our first big show together, but he didn’t put a foot wrong. We also brought El Corona Texel so he could get some experience at the venue, and he handled everything really well, which was a great confidence booster for both of us.
Moola learned a lot at Tryon. He’s green in the ring but very mature in himself, which is fabulous for a young horse. He doesn’t have a ton of experience in stadiums or with the jog, but he was just like, “Oh hello, yes, everyone is here to see me; this is great.” Having that event be a WEG-like atmosphere without the pressure of a five-star competition was huge because we could give both horses confidence in that intimidating space. It was also valuable for Moola and I as a new combination; now I know that in a pressure-cooker situation he’ll be there for me.
We’re still exposing Moola as much as possible to all kinds of different scenarios, but he’s very mature in himself, so we’re able to make the training playful. We haven’t had any issues with the transition from able bodied to para. Sometimes you get a grace period where the horse isn’t quite sure what to do with your aids, so they just do what they were trained to and are very good, and then after a few months they figure out, “Oh, you don’t have any leg. So it’s really hot, I don’t want to go forward, and you don’t have the leg to make me.”
Moola hasn’t done any of that. He’s a very endearing horse. He’s one in a million in his ability to pick up the puzzle pieces we’ve been throwing at him.
Next we’re headed to the event at Wheatland Farms, which is not a selection trial in the sense that the top four will automatically get on the team, but it gives us another chance to get in front of the committee. I’m ranked third in the world in our grade, so that gives me a little confidence. We’ll want to be in the 70s at this event in order to make a strong case for ourselves.
We don’t want the horses to peak at this event; we want them to peak at WEG, but you do have to start asking them those questions: Can I have a little more from you in this movement? What is your response in a stressful situation? Will you give me more when I ask for it? I’ve had unicorn rides the last three days, so it’ll be fun to see how this new gear we have affects our performance. This sport is so competitive, so much more than it used to be, so nothing is guaranteed.
Progress As A Sport
At the beginning of para-equestrian dressage competition in the United States we drew a horse to compete on, like an intercollegiate competition. You didn’t know what your horse’s strengths and weaknesses were, so there wasn’t as much strategy in the tests. Another huge challenge was the freestyles. You had no idea what the horse’s tempo would be, what their personality was like, or what music would fit them. We always had good riders, but there was only so much you could do when you’d known the horse for three hours. We used to just kind of hope that it would work out, but it’s a lot to ask of anybody to get on a strange horse and compete, especially at something like the Olympics.
The draw format was instituted to make para-dressage more accessible. Many para riders deal with major medical expenses, so the cost of a horse, training and travel can be really limiting. Over the years the federation realized there were better ways to do that, and each country realized that if they can make para riding more parallel to able-bodied sport in terms of quality it would help counteract the expense because more people would be interested.
I was an alternate at the Olympics in 2004, and riders were allowed to bring horses provided by their country, so you knew the mount a little better. We’ve changed further, so now most riders own their horse or have an owner but work exclusively with that horse just like the able-bodied riders. The harmony, fluidity and professionalism of the presentation has really skyrocketed since the early days; now we have these crowd-pleasing freestyles that get the audience involved.
That increase in quality has allowed us to say, “Hey, we’re a high-level sport too,” and it’s been a fun process to see from the beginning. I had an amazing time at the beginning, and I have an amazing time now that it’s a highly competitive field.
There’s different pressure on us as a team this year. There’s always pressure because the results determine funding and development, but I think more is expected now because we’ve had so much support from Murray Kessler and Will Connell and Michel Assouline. Medaling would be like telling the world, “Hey, we’re here, and we can do this.” It would become…not easier, but allowed. It’s like what Robert Dover has done with able-bodied team; he’s made them at the top of their game and brought them again and again in front of European competition to say, “Hey, we’re here; we can do this too.”
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