The standard of para dressage is rising every year – and with it the quality of the championship horses. Lucy Elder asks para stars what key ingredients are needed for an elite campaigner
Rare as diamonds, top para horses have a specific set of qualities that make them stand out among performance horses.
In the same way the very best showjumpers, eventers, racehorses and Valegros of the performance horse world have their own set of ingredients and magic, para horses have a recipe all of their own. But what are the essential qualities for a good para horse and how tricky are they to track down?
“Para horses are very difficult to find,” says Mette Assouline, who has been involved in matching many top dressage and para dressage combinations.
“When I started out, horses had to be a good standard but really I think that now the sport has moved away from riding loan horses to competing their own, and that has pushed up the standard of horses in para dressage.”
The Lady Joseph Trust has been a backbone in financially supporting horsepower for British para riders over the years.
Mette explains a lot of her matchmaking experience was thanks to being appointed by the trust, with the agreement that she could buy horses and sell them again without a loss to the charity if they proved to be unsuitable.
“If I see something that could be a good para horse, I will often invest because I think it could also make a good able bodied horse, so I know there will be a market for it,” she says.
“They need a very good temperament with natural self-carriage; I look for a horse with quite an impressive front and, if we are looking for a grade I, the best walk possible.”
Mette adds that those horses need to be especially well-balanced with good conformation, but that walk is hugely important across all five grades.
When looking for grade IV and grade V horses, the market is the same as for a smart international small tour horse, making it particularly competitive.
“It is a bit of a myth that horses have to be lazy or very calm,” says Mette. “These are very much performance horses; animals with different gears, willing to go forwards with a good work ethic. With that comes a bit more of a sensitive side to the horse.
“Look beyond the physical disability — one of the strengths para riders have is that they are real horse people and they ride much more with their mind.”
Word of mouth
Paralympian Natasha Baker says word of mouth has been a solid source of finding horses in the past. “I’ve had really mixed experiences of whether I find them or they find me,” she says, adding she starts by thinking of a wish list of what she would like and where she would be prepared to compromise. “When you’re looking for your future gold medal horse, you are looking for a sport horse. The three biggest things for me are temperament, trainability and quality of paces.
“First and foremost, they have to have a really good temperament. Horses are horses, but I want their reaction to things and atmospheres to be sensible.
“Trainability — they have to be able to adapt to your way of riding quickly. I can’t use my legs and that can be quite confusing for horses the first time I ride them, so I want to know if they can pick up my aids. That’s not saying the first time of asking they are going to work, but I want to feel they are improving through the ride and that they are picking things up that bit quicker when I ask again.
“Quality of paces: they can be the most trainable horse with the best temperament in the world, but if they don’t have the paces, they won’t win medals. It is really hard to change a horse’s walk or canter – trot you can develop slightly.”
She adds that finding the right horse is a lengthy process, with misconceptions of the qualities they must have and sellers sometimes apprehensive about para riders coming to try their horse.
Natasha’s current top ride, Keystone Dawn Chorus (Lottie), entered Natasha’s life after she put a “horse wanted” advert on her Facebook page. As fate would have it, the answer came from her friend Beth Bainbridge.
“I’ve known Beth for over 10 years and knew that she was so trustworthy,” says Natasha. “Beth said: ‘I know you ride differently to me, what can I do with Lottie at home in preparation before you come and try her?’ Things like that make a big difference.”
Natasha adds that being able to take her time and try Lottie in a variety of arenas and hacking was a big help. “When I got [WEG ride] Diva Dannebrog from Mount St John, I tried a couple of other horses with Emma Blundell too, and they were really good at preparing for that.
“I think it’s good to ask the rider what their disability is, how that impacts their way of riding and if there is anything you can do in preparation for their viewing — we aren’t shy and don’t mind being asked.
“You get that instinctive feeling and it is really important to trust your gut and not waste the owner’s time. There have been some times I haven’t even got on. It has to be the right home for the owner as well as the right horse for you, and people do appreciate honesty.”
Big ears and a good brain
Reigning European champion Georgia Wilson began her para dressage career on ex-event horses. “They have seen the world and that is a really big positive,” she says, adding that they were a good starting point as they were forward, but didn’t have such big movement as some pure dressage horses.
What does she look for? “Big ears and a good brain!” she laughs.“It depends what grade you are in. I’m a grade II, so I look for a good walk and a good trot. I’m not too bothered about what the canter is like.”
She adds she already knew her top ride Midnight from competing against her at shows, and so jumped at the chance to buy her when it arose. “I’d never had a horse as soft in the contact and with such an engine — she’s a proper dressage horse,” says Georgia, adding the feeling was “totally different” to anything she’d ridden before.
Eight-time Paralympic gold medallist Sophie Christiansen adds including more walk on videos would be a big help. “For me, as a grade I rider, the walk has to be absolutely mega,” she says.
“When I’m looking through online videos, I find that barely anyone puts the walk on. Even if they do, it’s just on the buckle end for about two seconds.”
She adds going to try horses is costly, working out at around £200 a time, so the more she can see on a video, the better.
“On top of the quality of the walk, temperament is paramount,” she says. “Safety is something I would never compromise on. If I don’t feel safe getting on or while I’m riding, I’m not going to put myself in that position.”
Sophie credits Michel and Mette Assouline for their help finding horses in the past, including her Rio Paralympic triple gold medal winner Athene Lindebjerg.
“I didn’t know how lucky I was back then because Mette did all the ground work and filtering. If she said a horse was good, it was. I trusted them completely,” she says.
Sophie’s current rides, Die Furstin (Stella) and Innuendo III (Louie), were showing exciting form before the lockdown.
She spotted Louie online and although the videos weren’t much to go by, there was “something about him” that drew her.
Stella came via Froxfield Dressage Sales after an eight-month search. “They were fantastic – I really felt like they were taking care of the client they were selling for, while making sure that the horse went to the right home,” says Sophie.
“I didn’t feel rushed into making a decision. Lynn Gale brought Stella to my yard for me to try her a second time away from home and that really put my mind at ease because I needed to know that her temperament is going to be the same away from home, so that was brilliant.
“Stella is quite young, but her temperament made up for that, so I was confident she would make a really great para horse.
Not the epitome of a para horse
Nicky Greenhill says she “adores” her European team silver medal-winning ride King Edward I, whom she has produced from a four-year-old, although he “probably isn’t the epitome of a para horse”.
Her other top ride, Betty Boo, came from the Eilbergs and Nicky bought her because of her exceptional temperament and her technical correctness. “There is nothing to mark down,” she says, adding Betty is “the kindest person”.
“A big thing for me is a horse who is able to think for themselves,” adds Nicky, who is registered blind. “If I’m coming across the diagonal, I want the horse to think and to know to turn when they approach the track. Some are so reliant on their rider to tell them. I remember when I went to try her she just knew and took me round the corners.”
Nicky also shares Sophie’s thoughts on the lack of walk in videos. “As far as movement goes, we are looking for fluidity rather than masses of expression, and because the para judges are very used to judging walks they are very hot on that across all grades,” she says.
“You need a horse who is quite sensitive, but not sharp. The balance is really difficult to find. A lot of people think para horses are Riding for the Disabled Association horses and they aren’t. They need to be sensitive with a level brain. They also need to be kind and forgiving, and want to help you as it is such a partnership.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 18 June 2020