Everything you need to know about para dressage at the Paralympics

  • What is para dressage?

    Para dressage is the sport of dressage for riders with a physical impairment. Riders compete against other competitors of the same grade, which they are allocated through a classification process according to their disability. Para dressage involves showing off a horse’s training by performing a set of prescribed movements, marked by a panel of judges.

    “Freestyle” tests still involve set movements that must be performed, but riders are able to set their own floorplan and choose their own music.

    Para dressage is the sole equestrian discipline contested at the Paralympic Games, which it joined as a sport at Atlanta 1996. It joined the rosta of equestrian sports governed by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) in 2006.

    The word “para” comes from the term “parallel”, referring to the Paralympics as being parallel to the Olympics.

    How does para dressage work?

    Before riders can compete at national or international para dressage competitions, they must go through the classification process, which includes an athlete evaluation.

    Eligible riders will be allocated one of five grades, depending on their disability: grade I is for athletes whose impairment has the greatest impact on their ability to ride, while grade V is for athletes whose impairment has the least impact on their ability to ride.

    What do horses and riders have to do?

    Combinations perform a routine of movements that are specific to the grade at which they are competing and the level at which the test is set.

    Each of these movements is scored out of 10 by a number of judges – up to five at a Paralympic Games – who are watching from different positions around the arena. Some movements receive double marks. “Collective” marks are also awarded at the end, based on the whole impression of a test, with marks for rider skill and position and the horse’s way of going. Each judges’ marks are then added up, converted into a percentage and an average of their scores is then calculated, to give the combination and overall mark – the higher, the better.

    What is dressage at the Paralympics?

    Qualified teams of a minimum of three and a maximum of four riders compete in the team dressage competition at the Paralympics. All team riders are also competing for medals as individuals as well, and there will also be individuals competing whose nation does not hold a team spot.

    Teams must be made up of at least one rider from either grade I, II or III, and two riders from the same grade can compete on a team.

    All competitors will ride in the individual test, which determines the individual medals and is the first competition the para dressage competitors will contest.

    Three combinations, selected by each nation’s chef d’equipe, will then contest the team test, which will be set to music but is not a freestyle. The team medals will be calculated from the three riders’ scores in the team test.

    The last medal-winning competition of the Games for para dressage riders is the individual freestyle. Here, the top eight combinations from each grade perform a freestyle routine to a soundtrack of their choice for a third and final set of medals. The rider must include certain movements, but can design the programme to best suit their horse’s particular strengths. Both the technical elements and the music are marked by the judges, and combined to form the final score.

    Who will win in Tokyo?

    Britain has a stellar record in the sport and has won team gold at every Paralympic Games since the discipline joined the programme at Atlanta 1996. Britain’s most decorated para dressage riders include Sir Lee Pearson, Sophie Christiansen, Sophie Wells and Natasha Baker, who are all among the British para dressage entries for Tokyo.

    Up until 2018, Britain had also won team gold at every other senior para dressage championship. But the sport is growing in strength and popularity across the world and a number of nations will be challenging Britain’s dominant Paralympic record in Tokyo. The Netherlands claimed team gold at both the 2018 World Equestrian Games and the 2019 European Championships and they are not alone in having a serious shot at team gold this summer.

    US grade I rider Roxanne Trunnell is the overall world number one and also holds multiple world records, including the highest ever score in the team test (84.7%) and freestyle (89.52%) aboard Dolton at the Perrigo Tryon Summer Dressage CPEDI3* in June 2021. She has been selected as part of the US paralympic dressage team for Tokyo.

    How dangerous is para dressage?

    Any sport that involves horses comes with a certain level of risk. While falls at para dressage competitions are rare – far rarer than in other equestrian sports, such as showjumping and eventing – even the best-trained horses can never be completely predictable. They are large, powerful, living animals with their own brains and quick reactions, so riding and handling will always come with some inherent risk. However, with good training and using correct, up-to-date safety equipment, serious accidents while doing para dressage are relatively rare.

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