Wednesday, May. 29, 2024

U.S. Riders Set Their Goals High For FEI World Para-Equestrian Dressage Championships

A soggy, eventful trip to England showed them just what they need to do to prepare for next year’s Paralympics.

Riders travelling to an international competition are usually prepared for most things; long delays, problems with paperwork or a forgotten essential item are all too common complications.

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A soggy, eventful trip to England showed them just what they need to do to prepare for next year’s Paralympics.

Riders travelling to an international competition are usually prepared for most things; long delays, problems with paperwork or a forgotten essential item are all too common complications.

For the U.S. team attending the FEI World Para-Equestrian Dressage Championships held at Hartpury College in rural Gloucestershire, England, on July 16-22, there would, however, be more earthly difficulties to contend with as the region succumbed to the worst flooding that the nation had seen since 1947.

But, for this team of seasoned campaigners, the freakish weather conditions were handled like water off a duck’s back.

To participate in para-equestrian events the rider must display a “measurable physical or visual impairment.”

Depending on this level of disability, riders are then given one of five grades (1a, Ib, II, III and IV) whereby Ia is reserved for the most severely impaired and IV is for the least impaired; the complexity of the test increases from grade to grade as appropriate.

Meet The Team

Competing on Avery At Daybreak, his own Connemara-cross gelding affectionately know to all as “Herbie,” and classified as a Grade Ib rider, Keith Newerla is technically the most severely disabled athlete on the U.S. team. But to talk to him and to watch him in action you’d be hard-pressed to know it.

Newerla has spastic diplegic cerebral palsy, a condition that affects both his upper and lower body, upsetting his balance, motor skills and coordination. For most people this would translate to a life spent in the confines of a wheelchair or utilizing a set of crutches, but for him there is also the saddle.

“I started riding at a place called Pal-O-Mine Equestrian,” explained Newerla. “It’s a therapeutic riding center in New York. They gave me the opportunity, the freedom to get out there.”

His first major achievement was winning all three phases at the NDSA (National Disability Sports Alliance) Championship at the Bayer/USET Festival of Champions (N.J.) in 2003. Then, after being crowned grand champion at the 2004 Paralympic selection trials, the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens beckoned.

Only a personal best performance from Great Britain’s Sophie Cristiansen prevented him taking home
a medal in what was only his second international competition.

Newerla, a graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead, now works full-time running a youth program for disabled athletes with the charity Variety International.

Also selected for Hartpury were Californian Barbara Grassmyer and her Dutch Warmblood mare Mibis. A familiar face on the NDSA scene, Grassmyer, 35, has been riding for more than 20 years and competing in dressage for 15 of them.

The NDSA national champion in 2001 and 2002 riding her own horse, an Oldenburg mare called Grey Poupon, she is a veteran of the 2003 World Championships and the 2004 Athens Games.

Born with Apert’s Syndrome, a congenital defect that affects the development of the fingers and toes, she competes as a Grade III athlete, using adaptive equipment. With para-equestrian riders for whom balance, coordination or grip may be compromised, specialized tack approved by the FEI is often employed.

For Grassmyer, this equates to a modified whip attached to her upper arm and reins with special stops that prevent them slipping through her fingers.

Taking The Bond Further

While Grassmyer makes use of adaptive equipment, fellow Grade III athlete Rebecca Hart of Erie, Pa., employs an adaptive riding style.

“I have familial spastic paraplegia,” explained the 22-year-old, who is currently studying at Penn State. “It’s genetic. From my mid-back down I have a lack of muscle control. It can be quite unpredictable.”

This means that for every aid that Hart might offer through the leg, a backup is needed. “Most of the time I know whether or not I’ll be able to give the signal I want when I want it. If I can feel that the muscles aren’t going to do what they’re told I have another signal I can give instead,” she said.

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This not only provides a significant challenge for the rider, but also for the horse, who has to be equally well drilled in understanding what is required and when. Hart’s Hanoverian gelding Norteassa excels at this. All riders have a strong bond with their animals, but in para-equestrian sports this bond is taken to the next level.

The fourth member of the U.S. team was Robin Brueckmann from Summerfield, N.C., whose inclusion was somewhat unexpected—not least for Brueckmann herself.

Originally, her place was filled by 2007 USEF National Para-Equestrian Champion and Athens silver medallist Lynn Seidemann, but disaster struck for the Dallas, Texas, horsewoman when in June, Magnum Gold, her own Hanoverian gelding, pulled a hind suspensory ligament.

With Seidemann sidelined, Brueckmann got the call just a month before the World Championships.

Having competed at Grand Prix level as an able-bodied rider, Brueckmann was diagnosed in 1994 with reflex sympathetic dystrophy—a painful and debilitating disorder of the nervous system that, in her case, severely affected the use of her right leg.

Forced to use crutches and a wheelchair, she soon learned to live with her disability and within a year was back in the saddle, although her condition prevented her from using stirrups.

Working with her self-trained Danish Warmblood gelding, Bordeaux, she started experimenting with the
concept of riding without a bridle. Brueckmann was soon performing a Grand Prix freestyle without stirrups or bridle at shows.

This was a magnificent achievement in its own right, but more so since her audiences were, on the whole, completely unaware that she was in any way disabled.

Drawn back into competition through ACORD (American Competition Opportunities for Riders with Disabilities) and the NDSA, Brueckmann achieved a gold medal at the 1999 Para World Championships before heading to Sydney, Australia, in 2000 for the Paralympics. With her condition classed as secondary paralysis by the FEI, Brueckmann headed to Hartpury at a Grade IV competitor.

They Arrived Prepared

Before heading out for England, the team met for final preparations at Blue Hill Farm in Unionville, Pa., home of international event rider and para-equestrian team coach Missy Ransehousen.

A busy few days were spent on final training, consolidating equipment and getting packed for the 3,500-mile transatlantic voyage to the championships. Good news came when it was announced that Seidemann would indeed be travelling to the World Championships, competing as an individual, with a borrowed horse.

The riders flew out to England the day after the horses left. Then, they settled into Hartpury College.

Hartpury College is part of the University of the West of England. Specializing in land-based and sports courses, it boasts a newly completed indoor arena built especially for the World Championships, two additional indoor and four outdoor arenas and permanent stabling for 230 horses.

Since having arrived in England, the U.S. team horses had enjoyed the somewhat palatial surroundings of Ampney Park, a private estate a few miles from the town of Cirencester and about half an hour from Hartpury.

The team was then given the chance to ride as they wished within the confines of the indoor arena, a great opportunity to blow away a few cobwebs. For all their enjoyment it was obvious that the team was on countdown to the championship as horses and riders concentrated their hardest on getting things right.

Only when Herbie executed a perfect halt was the icy atmosphere broken as Ransehouen joked that they were all doomed, as Newerla had clearly peaked too early. A joke it may have been, but it was clearly enough to relax all those present.

They Shouldn’t Have To Swim

With 142 competitors, 23 teams and 33 nations present, proceedings at the championships had a truly international feel.

The accompanying CDI*** was underway at Hartpury. This proved a great opportunity for many of the riders to see the best names in European dressage going through their paces.

Friday it was down to business with the first test of the FEI World Para-Equestrian Dressage Championships—the team test—the results of which would count along with the individual test toward the team medals.

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Outside things were not looking so good. Heavy rain had started at dawn and showed no signs of letting up.

First to go for the U.S. team was Grassmyer, who was fortunately scheduled to ride indoors. A score of 63.15 percent was announced which ultimately was good enough for 17th place, with Hart scoring 64.84 percent for a rather disappointing 14th. The class winner, Deborah Criddle of Great Britain, scored 70.53 percent and it was clear to all that the judges were taking no prisoners.

Brueckmann was scheduled to ride outside. With the rain hammering down and puddles forming across the arena, conditions were far from ideal, but she maintained her concentration and was rewarded with a healthy 66.35 percent. It was Norway’s Ann Cathrin Lubbe and her horse Zanko who stood head and shoulders above the rest in that class—their score of 72.07 percent was untouchable.

The weather now was worse than ever. The warm-up arena resembled a swimming pool and the hospitality suites were in danger of being swept away. Some-thing had to be done to save the championships, but the answer came from an unanticipated source.

In an outstanding gesture of sportsmanship, the riders of the CDI small tour offered to cancel their remaining Intermediaire I and freestyle competitions to free up time and space indoors for the para-equestrian riders.

Making the best of the unexpected indoor facilities, it was now up to Seidemann and Newerla to do what they could in the Grade Ib test.

Once again, the U.S. riders put in solid performances and scores of 66.76 and 65.41 percent proved good enough for ninth and 10th places respectively. But it was the British team that proved dominant, spearheaded by the astonishing Lee Pearson who, riding the stunning Altino, posted a score of 77.17 percent to take victory.

That evening, with the entertainment of the CDI to watch, was an opportunity for the team to reflect. No one had expected this to be a walk in the park, but it was clear that the standard was higher than expected.
European-based para-equestrian athletes have a more diverse and varied competition scene available and, on the whole, the facilities offered to many are superior to those offered elsewhere in the world.

Looking To The Future

In Saturday’s individual tests, not only was national pride at stake, so too was the opportunity to gain instant team qualification for the 2008 Paralympic Games in Hong Kong.

Team gold was predictably secured for Great Britain thanks to the efforts of Anne Dunham (Ia), Lee Pearson (Ib), Simon Laurens (III) and Michelle Crunkhorn (IV) with an overall score of 440.01, bettering their German rivals by almost 17 points.

The solid performance from Germany proved that this nation, always at the forefront of international dressage competition, has moved on leaps and bounds in the world of para-equestrian sports.

The American team, however, had to be content with 14th place. Hart and Grassmyer were once again consistent in the Grade III test (65.36% and 64.88%) for 14th and 15th places. Newerla’s performance with Herbie appeared far more confident, but the pairing was surprisingly rewarded with a lower mark than before.

It was also a disappointing day for Brueckmann. With a test that she considered well suited for Rocky and the added incentive of performing for an evening crowd in the main arena, her expectations were high but once again the scoring failed to match the intention.

Sunday, the final day of competition, dawned bright and sunny. To the delight of the competitors and officials alike, it was announced that the outdoor arenas were once again back in good order and ready for use for the freestyle tests. Brueckmann put in a rousing and spirited performance (68.82%) and earned the best mark recorded by a U.S. team member at the championships. Grassmyer’s efforts were rewarded with a 65.49 percent mark and 18th place. All hopes were now with Newerla and Seidemann.

Newerla was first to go, but, although his performance appeared more collected and confident than on the previous day, there seemed to be some debate as to whether he had completed all of the required mandatory figures. Being questioned by a judge upon finishing your test is never a good sign.

The confusion as to whether he had or had not performed a serpentine was sadly reflected in his low score (59.77%).

Although not an official team member, Seidemann was the American’s last and only hope to make the awards. Rising to the occasion, the result was a solid test that was rewarded with 67.00 percent—to the delight of the team this was a score good enough for ninth place.

Heading out to the World Championships, the U.S. riders’ expectations were undoubtedly high, but there is no denying that there is an enormous amount of work to do prior to 2008 and the Hong Kong Paralympics.
These are athletes who have spent their entire lives overcoming the seemingly insurmountable. They are now aware of exactly what is required of them over the next year, and there is no doubt that they are capable of delivering.

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