H&H’s expert guide to Paralympic dressage classification and grades

  • H&H takes a look at how para dressage classification works ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics, with all you need to know about the different grades, the different tests, plus which British combinations will be competing in each

    What is para dressage classification?

    The classification process is designed so riders are able to compete against each other on equal terms. Before a rider is able to compete in para equestrian classes, they must undergo ‘grading’. This is the process by which their mobility, strength and coordination are assessed in order to ensure they are riding against others with similar physical functional ability. Riders are grouped into competition grades, meaning that competition can be judged on the skill of the individual rider on their horse, regardless of their disability.

    What does para dressage grading mean?

    Para dressage has five grades, defined by the FEI and adopted by the British Equestrian Federation (BEF) for use in national competition. Grade I is for riders with the greatest physical impairments, ranging to grade V with the least.

    How does para dressage work?

    Para dressage involves showing off a horse’s training by performing a set of prescribed movements, marked by a panel of judges, with the grading system determining the complexity of the tests riders perform. The word “para” comes from the term “parallel”, referring to the Paralympics as being parallel to the Olympics.

    In set tests, including the individual and team tests at the Tokyo Paralympics, grade I tests are ridden in walk, grades II and III feature walk and trot, and grades IV and V comprise of walk, trot, canter and lateral work.

    Riders can choose to add more complex movements and additional paces in their freestyle tests, within set rules. For example, grade I riders are allowed to show trot and lateral work, grade III riders can show canter work (including counter canter) – but not lateral canter work, while grades IV and V can include flying changes among other extra movements.

    What happens at a grading?

    The first step is to submit an application form, including medical and diagnostic information. This is then reviewed by one of the BEF’s national classification working groups. If their application is successful, they will then be invited to an athlete evaluation, which is carried out by two classifiers. Riders are asked to carry out some movements and exercises (not on a horse). Applications for international (FEI) grading are also handled by the BEF.

    In some cases, the classification panel may require to be observed in competition, before it makes its final grading decision. Classifications can also be reviewed at later dates. If, when and how reviews are deemed appropriate is determined on an individual basis.

    Can a para dressage rider be in more than one grade?

    No. But it is possible for an athlete to have different gradings in different sports, as the classification system varies for each. For example, para driving has two grades, compared to para dressage’s five, while a sport such as para swimming has a completely different classification system. Classification is sport-specific because an impairment affects the ability to perform in each sport to a different extent.

    Can riders use additional aids?

    Yes. Which additional aids riders are permitted to use in tests depends on their physical impairment.

    Can para riders compete in able-bodied dressage?

    Yes, and they do so very successfully. Sir Lee Pearon and Sophie Wells are among the best-known names that compete successfully in both able-bodied and para dressage. Lee has trained horses to grand prix and competed up to inter I himself, and in 2003, he became the first para rider to win a national title competing against able-bodied riders at the British Dressage National Championships. Alongside her para achievements, Sophie has contested two young rider European Championships (2010 and 2011), competes up to grand prix and has a collection of national championship titles to her name.

    All you need to know about each para dressage grade ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics

    Grade I

    • Test movements: walk only for the team and individual tests, featuring three-loop serpentines, voltes (small circles). Trot permitted in freestyle.
    • View the grade I team test
    • View the grade I individual test
    • Competition for grade I medals is set to be particularly fierce at these Games. Grade I riders fill the top three places in the world para dressage riders, headed by multiple record-breaker Roxanne Trunnell (Dolton) from the US, who will have her eyes firmly on gold. Ireland’s Michael Murphy and Cleverboy will be among the other individuals to watch in this grade.

    Grade II

    Grade III

    • Test movements: walk and trot for the team and individual tests. Walk work includes rein-back and turn on the haunches. Trot work features medium trot, voltes, serpentines and leg yields.
    • All walk and trot lateral work allowed in freestyle, along with canter work including counter canter – but no canter lateral work or flying changes.
    • View the grade III team test
    • View the grade III individual test
    • British combination at Tokyo 2020: Natasha Baker and Keystone Dawn Chorus. Find out more about Natasha’s “practically perfect” mare, what Natasha does before she goes into the arena and listen to her interview on the H&H podcast.
    • Rixt van der Horst and the 11-year-old mare Findsley come to Tokyo with a blistering string of consistent results under their belt, including gold and silver medals from their last two senior championships (WEG 2018 and 2019 Europeans). Denmark’s Tobias Thorning Joergensen – tipped by H&H as one to watch ahead of his 2018 World Equestrian Games (WEG) debut – is another to keep your eyes peeled for as the 21-year-old has a real chance of Paralympic gold.

    Grade IV

    • Test movements: walk, trot and canter, including collected trot and canter, shoulder-in, simple changes through walk, turn on the haunches, trot voltes, canter loops, and rein-back. All lateral work at any pace permitted in freestyle, canter work including single flying changes also allowed.
    • View the grade IV team test
    • View the grade IV individual test
    • Dutch rider Sanne Voets will be aiming for the elusive “triple-triple” in Tokyo with the 13-year-old Demantur (Vivaldi x Elcaro). The pair topped the individual and freestyle classes at WEG 2018 and the 2019 Europeans, and were on the winning team on both occasions. The formidable partnership’s competition record is a veritable sea of red rosettes and they are in with a strong chance of triple glory in Tokyo.

    Grade V

    • Test movements: walk, trot and canter, including collected, medium and extended movements in all paces, counter canter, simple changes, shoulder-in, rein-back and trot voltes. All lateral work, plus single flying changes, three- and four- time sequence changes and demi-pirouettes in canter permitted in freestyle.
    • View the grade V team test
    • View the grade V individual test
    • British combination at Tokyo 2020: Sophie Wells and Don Cara M. Listen to Sophie’s latest interview on the H&H podcast and find out more about her last-minute horse change for the Tokyo Paralympics.
    • Frank Hosmar and Alphaville are stalwarts of the Dutch squad and have never gone home from a championship without a medal. Tokyo will be their ninth senior championship and third Paralympic Games as a combination.

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