‘My dreams are the same as everyone else’: calls for more para showing opportunities

  • Discussions have taken place around para showing – and whether more opportunities could be offered to give riders a platform to progress.

    Although there are showing opportunities through the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA), and some grassroots shows, and people with disabilities can compete in able-bodied classes, riders have told H&H they would like to see more para-specific opportunities at county level and upwards.

    Vicky Howarth, who is registered blind, told H&H she feels that “disabled riders don’t get a platform in showing”. She hopes to qualify for Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) via the SEIB Search for a Star Series in able-bodied classes, but said that if HOYS offered para-specific finals, she would aim for these instead.

    “It feels like if you have a disability, you get pigeonholed into doing para dressage, but that’s not what I want to do,” she said.

    “My dreams are the same as everyone else; I want to ride through the purple curtains at HOYS. The first thing you hear when you have a disability is you can go to RDA, and RDA provides brilliant opportunities, but there are lots of riders who want to do more in terms of county shows and qualifiers. There’s a bigger picture here and we have an opportunity to make a change.”

    Michelle Hennessy, who has decreased mobility and fibromyalgia, agreed that she would like to see para-specific opportunities.
    “I wouldn’t go to a county show at the moment because I know that I wouldn’t get anywhere competing against able-bodied riders because of the weakness in my legs,” she told H&H.

    “You always want to aim for more. It’s not so much that I’ve dreamt of getting to HOYS, but it would be lovely if I could.”

    An RDA spokesman told H&H that the association provides a “wide range of opportunities for riders to compete, including showing”. This year the RDA national championships held three showing classes, which had more entries than ever before.

    “Our classes are open to competitors with all disabilities, from RDA groups or as independent RDA riders, and they are direct entry with no qualification required,” said the spokesman.

    “We put a greater emphasis on the horse/rider partnership, and how they perform together, over traditional showing and the conformation of the horse. We know that many RDA riders go on to compete at a very high level and it’s important that onward pathways continue to be developed across the sector and across all disciplines.”

    Showing rider Heather Howe told H&H that in the past her mother Lesley Marshall had been prevented from doing some agricultural shows, as she is physically unable to run with her ponies in in-hand classes, and the shows did not allow a change of handler during the class to run her ponies for her. Heather said when they challenged this at the time, they were told “no”.

    “In showing, there isn’t much opportunity for people with disabilities,” said Heather. “It would be nice to have a level platform for those with additional needs because within showing there’s still very much a traditional approach, and I think there’s room for thought.”

    H&H found that some showing societies and organisations have disability policies and accept dispensation cards that allow assistance or a change of rider/handler under certain circumstances, including the British Show Pony Society, the National Pony Society, and The Showing Register. Competitors are encouraged to check with the relevant society before entering.

    SEIB ran a RDA Search for a Star class until 2023, which offered qualification for the British Show Horse Association championships.
    “Although the SEIB Search for a Star series does not have a specific RDA class at this time, RDA riders are welcome to come to the qualifiers for HOYS and Your Horse Live, as long as they are able to compete on a level playing field with able-bodied riders and that includes working in,” SEIB marketing manager Nicolina MacKenzie told H&H.

    “If a competitor is unable to trot a horse up, after explanation to the judge we are happy for a groom to undertake this part of the show. What will not be compromised is the safety of all competitors at the event. We have had disabled riders take part over the years and they have been welcomed into the Search for a Star family with open arms.”

    A Grandstand spokesman told H&H that HOYS welcomes riders with disabilities at its qualifiers and at the show itself.

    “We work with the relevant showing societies accordingly to allow riders to apply for a dispensation card if they are unable to complete all phases,” said the spokesman.

    A spokesman for HPower, organisers of Royal Windsor Horse Show and London International, told H&H they are “very supportive of para showing”.

    “The timetables for both events are extremely busy, and at present they are unable to accommodate any more classes over and above those they already have,” said the spokesman.

    “They are however always open to discussion for new ideas and would be pleased to consider para opportunities in future.”

    Dee Castellano is the organiser of grassroots show Supreme Showdown, which has always included classes for disabled riders and handlers, but she told H&H she can see challenges for show organisers running “traditional” showing classes split by horse type for para riders, as she believes classes would not get enough entries.

    “We would love to put on separate disability classes for mountain and moorlands, cobs, hunters, but you just don’t get the numbers. But if some of the county shows decided to hold a championship for disabled riders, we would be happy to hold qualifiers for them. Showing should be for everybody,” she said.

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