Friday, Mar. 1, 2024

U.S. Para Dressage Development Program Revamped For 2024

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In response to a review of the U.S. Para Dressage Development Program at the end of 2023, the U.S. Equestrian Federation has decided to revamp the program in hopes of broadening its geographical outreach, but the changes caught athletes—and the former development coach—off guard.  

One major change includes eliminating the position of U.S. para dressage development coach, a role that was established in March 2022 and held by Lisa Hellmer since its creation. Hellmer was informed her position had been terminated at the end of the 2023 season. The change was not publicized on the USEF website or announced to para-dressage athletes, but Hellmer posted an update on her business’ Facebook page on Jan. 15, stating that while she no longer was contracted with USEF, she was still available as a resource.

Hellmer said she felt that her time in the development coach role helped the sport gain traction, particularly at the national level, where those newer to the sport felt seen and heard.

“It was cool to have this whole community of riders getting started and their coaches alongside them,” she said. “They were like, ‘Oh my gosh, USEF is caring what we are doing.’ I got a lot of traction with the program because people were excited to feel like they were part of it even if they weren’t part of the elite riders, it made it feel like there’s a direction to get there.”

According to Laureen Johnson, USEF director of para-equestrian, the changes to para-dressage mirror those made to the able-bodied dressage program, which were announced Jan. 4.

“In our review of the overall program in 2023, we identified with athletes, stakeholders and our technical advisor, Michel Assouline, a need to provide more regular access to coaches and trainers, further supporting the goals of the athletes, as well as continue to bolster the programming at our Centers of Excellence across the country,” Johnson wrote in an email. “We felt that expanding the network of coaches and trainers available to athletes within the program via the Coaches Support Network would increase access and allow athletes to work with trainers and coaches that suit their individual program needs.”

Instead of having one specific development coach, the Coaches Support Network is intended to give para-dressage athletes expanded access to trainers and coaches who have completed the Para Coaching Certification program. There are currently 36 coaches across 19 states listed in the Para Dressage Coach Directory. Johnson said the feedback received indicated that having a wider pool of coaches available would be more sustainable than having a single development coach.

“Our hope is with the increase in participation through the Coaches Support Network, which has been very well received from our community and program members so far, we will be able to share responsibility between participating trainers to ultimately strengthen the program as a whole and prevent one geographical location from feeling isolated or less supported due to travel and commitments of a single individual,” Johnson wrote. “Much of the input we gathered was directed towards better leveraging coaches within the CSN and the educational benefits they provide, so an emphasis in our program work was focused on providing more momentum and dedication to the CSN.”

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In her former position, Hellmer assisted para riders with the ins and outs of showing, from navigating the classification process and dispensation certificates needed to show nationally to making the step into the international ring. Clinics were held at the eight Para-Equestrian Dressage Centers of Excellence, and she attended all of the U.S. CPEDI competitions, where she was available as needed to para riders.

According to Johnson, USEF has 12 new athlete-horse combinations this year as well as additional new dispensation and classification certificate requests. In addition, USEF put in an effort to train more classifiers, so that riders looking to compete in para have more options for getting classified than having to travel to equestrian hotspots. 

“I am so proud of the amount of riders that we’ve been able to get classified in the last year,” Hellmer said. “Maybe it’s not the biggest number in the world, but every single one of those people I’ve talked to. And we had riders come to Lamplight [for the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions (Illinois)] who have never seen a big show like that, and [they] watched the para national championships and came up to me and said, ‘I’m so excited, I just got classified; I have this adorable little Haflinger that I do walk-trot on and this was so inspiring for me to watch.’ ”

For Stacey Tuman, whose daughter Adalie Tuman is on the Para Dressage Emerging Athletes List and competed in her first CPEDI last January, having someone in the development role was invaluable.

“Personally speaking we’ve benefited from the position [of para dressage development coach],” she said. “[Hellmer] was able to give us a bird’s eye view of the whole structure of how everything works and the people and the positions within that structure, and how we could utilize those various people to be resources for her as she got started, and because of that, it’s such a smooth process.”

In addition to the Coaches Support Network, USEF also has funds allocated towards clinics with outside judges and trainers for para athletes, as well as athlete grants to travel to competitions abroad and domestically.

“The sport budget for para-dressage was increased in 2024, both considering the cost associated with the 2024 Paris Paralympic Games, but also prioritizing new opportunities to enhance the reach and scope for the entirety of the program,” Johnson wrote. “The success of the U.S. Para Dressage Team in both Tokyo and Herning [Denmark] has really channeled the forward momentum surrounding our para program in the right direction. We feel confident the athletes and horses involved in the program will only continue to strengthen and improve their field of play performance with the backing we continue to receive internally from USEF and through the fundraising efforts of the USET.”

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