British Dressage opens new doors for riders with intellectual disabilities

  • A new competition and classification pathway for riders with intellectual disabilities will “ensure dressage is inclusive and accessible to all”.

    British Dressage (BD) has launched an initiative with Virtus and SportExcel UK, organisations that promote sport for athletes with intellectual impairments, to create new opportunities.

    “The current para classification system focuses primarily on physical and visual impairments, and we want to ensure that there are equal opportunities available for those who have intellectual challenges to overcome too,” said a BD spokesman.

    To compete under Virtus, riders must undergo a classification and eligibility application, led by SportExcel UK. The categories are; II1) athletes with an intellectual disability, II2) athletes with an intellectual disability and significant additional impairment, and II3) autistic athletes.

    Virtus already hosts dressage competitions, using FEI tests and judges, with international opportunities including world and global games. This year the Virtus Open European Championships take place in the UK for the first time, at Sparsholt College on 15-19 July, while under the BD partnership, it is planned that Virtus classes will be held at the BD para championships at Hartpury in August. BD has hosted Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) intellectual disability classes (grade VII) at its para championships, run under RDA rules and without the need for classification, and will continue to do so.

    BD project delivery lead Emma Bayliss told H&H there has been a “glass ceiling” around opportunities for riders with intellectual disabilities “for a long time”.

    “The Virtus classes at the para championships will be run as pilots, to see how popular they are. But my ideal goal would be to have these classes at all BD events, not just para events,” she said.

    BD chief executive Jason Brautigam added that this work “reaffirms our commitment to ensuring there are genuinely equal opportunities for all”.

    “Thanks to the support of Virtus and SportExcel UK, we can now help riders with intellectual impairments reach their goals. We can work together to open new pathways for riders already training and competing with BD, as well as attract new people into the sport,” he said.

    SportExcel UK chief executive Tracey McCillen told H&H British riders have been involved in Virtus since it started hosting equestrian sport, and the first Virtus European Championships coming to the UK is “a very proud moment”.

    “It shows what can and should happen when equality and inclusion mixed with high-performance sport comes together; fierce competition, riders ambitious for the top spot, and all hosted on home soil,” she said.

    Christopher Bradley, who has represented Great Britain at the Special Olympics, competed at the Virtus Global Games in France in 2023. Christopher competes in BD and his mother Veronica told H&H the family is “delighted” about the BD and Virtus partnership.

    “We appreciate any opportunity for Chris and other riders with an intellectual impairment. Chris hopes to inspire others to get involved,” she said.

    Virtus executive director Nick Parr told H&H that since launching equestrian sport within Virtus several years ago the organisation has seen participation grow across the world.

    “We look forward to seeing those athletes build their competitive careers in the Virtus pathway in years to come. Together BD, SportExcel UK and Virtus can make real and lasting change for riders with intellectual impairment,” he said.

    H&H asked the FEI whether there had been any progress for riders with intellectual disabilities in para equestrian sport. An FEI spokesman told H&H the organisation had had discussions on this topic, but that these conversations were “put on hold” owing to the pandemic.

    “Nonetheless, the FEI continues to engage in ongoing discussions with Virtus, actively exploring the feasibility of including athletes with intellectual impairments in para equestrian disciplines,” he said, adding that the FEI is “truly committed to the development of equestrian para sport”.

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