The sport has come a long way since the first equestrian Paralympics 24 years ago. Polly Bryan looks at the growing quality and popularity of para dressage
In 1996, Britain’s Anne Dunham arrived at her first Paralympic Games in Atlanta, USA, where she dug her hand into a hat and drew out the name of the horse she would compete. That horse turned out to be Doodlebug, “a riding school pony who really did behave like a doodlebug in the arena!” remembers Anne, who won a bronze medal nonetheless.
A total of 59 disabled athletes from 16 nations, mounted on a motley bunch of horses, did battle for the medals in Atlanta, and in doing so, they cemented the status of dressage as a Paralympic sport.
In the 24 years since, the sport has changed almost beyond recognition; at the last Paralympic Games, in Rio in 2016, there were 76 riders representing 29 countries, all riding sleek, well-trained dressage horses – not a Doodlebug in sight. It was in Rio that Anne concluded her glittering career, adding a gold and two silver medals with spotted stallion LJT Lucas Normark to her hefty medal tally, but she still looks back fondly on her early Paralympic days.
“Before Athens in 2004, we rode borrowed horses at Paralympics and I actually liked it,” says Anne. “I didn’t have my own horse until I was in my 40s anyway, and I worked at riding schools, always riding whatever was left over or came my way. I was very used to riding anything and everything. We would see the horses being paraded and we all daydreamed about the one we would choose, but we’d almost never get it. We had an hour a day to ride our allotted horse in the run-up to the competition, which was only a couple of days. It meant we had to be very quick at picking up what would work; my strength was that I had a knack for getting inside a horse’s head.
“We still did a freestyle back then. We would put together a routine and the music in advance, without knowing what sort of horse we would be riding it on. It was a challenge, but I thought it was great fun, and it brought about a huge sense of camaraderie, which still exists in the sport today.”
Multi gold medallist Sir Lee Pearson is another who remembers the early format of para dressage – his first Paralympics were in Sydney in 2000, where the standard of borrowed horses provided was higher than in Atlanta, but the challenges remained. He says: “There were few ‘proper’ dressage horses for us back in those days. But it really drew out horsemanship skills, which are sometimes lacking nowadays. And the banter we have in our sport was there, perhaps even more so.”
The landscape of the sport
The switch to competing on riders’ own horses in 2004 not only transformed the competition format of para dressage but, along with the introduction of Lottery funding in the run-up to the Athens Paralympics, altered the landscape of the sport as a whole.
“I’d spent my life savings to get to Atlanta, and it was the Lottery funding that enabled me to continue my career,” says Anne. “The change to riding our own horses made the sport much more expensive – now we had to maintain our own horses, lorries, support teams – so it made the Lottery funding doubly important.”
With the funding came an increase in the professionalism of the sport, with David Hunter installed as performance manager in 2002 and Britain leading the way when it came to opportunities and pathways put in place for disabled riders to succeed. Over the following decade more of the names we now know as legends of the sport started to appear: the likes of Sophie Christiansen, Deb Criddle, Natasha Baker and Sophie Wells joined Anne and Lee on podiums across the world as the sport truly took off, with Britain remaining firmly on top.
Simultaneously, awareness of disabled sport in general grew, dressage with it, and nowhere was this more apparent than at the London Paralympics in 2012. With the Olympics and Paralympics planned under one umbrella, it helped “Games fever” in the UK to continue throughout that golden summer.
The packed stands filled with banners and flags, crowds chanting, “We love you Sophie,” as Sophie Christiansen claimed yet more medals, and 10,000 people witnessing the British team win another euphoric gold, will long remain a pinnacle moment in the sport.
“London was insane. There was such a buzz around the city,” says Sophie Wells, who won team gold and double individual silver at Greenwich Park on Pinocchio. “Before London, even able-bodied dressage was under the radar for most of the public. But London taught them about the ‘dancing horses’.
“I’m not sure I can see us ever competing in front of that number of people again in paras. But then again, why shouldn’t we?
“What London did so well for para sport was that it made talking about disability OK. Beforehand, so many people were genuinely scared of disability – they hadn’t been exposed to it, they didn’t know how to react to it.
“The media around London, especially the Channel 4 show The Last Leg, made disability less of a taboo, no longer the elephant in the room.”
A drastic change
With the advent of para dressage as a professional sport, and especially in the years since London 2012, came a drastic change in the type of horse required to do well at international level.
“Nice”, well-schooled types with reasonable paces gave way to top-class dressage horses, bred in the purple, who often find success in able-bodied competition alongside para.
“The horsepower now is barely comparable even to when I first started in the sport,” adds Sophie, who has ridden on every British championship team since 2009, amassing 32 medals along the way.
“The top horses back in 2007 and 2008 might not even be long-listed for teams nowadays, let alone win medals.”
As a result, the standard of para dressage has increased astronomically, but it also makes sourcing suitable horses – those with three truly outstanding paces, but also temperaments suited to a disabled rider – a constant challenge for riders, most of whom rely heavily on generous owners.
“It’s much harder to source horses now – for the higher grades you really need something that would compete successfully at international small tour,” says Sophie, a grade V rider who has also competed up to grand prix on her para horses.
“Around the time of Rio in 2016, we reached a stage where the horsepower was getting too much, where it was potentially becoming dangerous for some riders. Especially in the lower grades, some riders and disabilities have been pushed to one side because of the difficulties they’ve encountered within the quality of horsepower that’s needed – or at least, that is being rewarded.”
Lee agrees that the prohibitive cost of running a dressage horse is for many the biggest barrier to doing well in the sport.
“It’s so much more expensive to do this now than it used to be,” he says. “To stay at the top you really need a string of horses, and that’s why I have started breeding – I couldn’t afford to buy my own horses.
“Even with the phenomenal Lottery funding, it’s very difficult for many para riders to be this professional, as a lot don’t have rich supporters and the capability to run an industry to pay for these horses. And the prize money hasn’t improved much over the years.”
The role of the trainer and the method of coaching in para dressage has evolved, too.
“Back in the early days, we trained by travelling round the country going to different riding schools each weekend, and riding their horses,” remembers Anne. “It was tiring – when not on a horse we’d sit in cold indoor schools, with just a kettle and some sandwiches.”
Nowadays, many para riders train with top able-bodied trainers, and for those in grades I, II and III, horses can be warmed up at a competition by the trainer – an allowance more crucial than ever as higher quality, and therefore often hotter, horses are favoured.
“The training and coaching side has had to take more of a precedent as the horsepower has increased,” acknowledges Sophie, herself trainer to several other international para riders.
A seismic shift
In 2018, at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, USA, there came a seismic shift in the balance of power within international para dressage, as Britain yielded the team gold medal for the first time ever.
For the past two years, the Netherlands have held reign, adding their second team title at the European Championships in Rotterdam in 2019.
Sophie admits taking silver came as a blow in 2018, when even a career-best performance from her and C Fatal Attraction was not enough to topple the Dutch. But few would deny that this is a positive for the sport, with countries such as Denmark and Germany in particular snapping at the heels of the Brits and the Dutch.
“It’s been wonderful to see the support and push from the FEI to help other countries develop; it’s made the competition structure much more exciting – a team medal could be anybody’s now,” says Lee.
Sophie adds that with the pressure to maintain an unbeaten streak now eased, it has brought opportunities for upcoming British combinations to gain team experience. In 2019, she and three championship first-timers made up the British team that won silver, exceeding expectations in doing so.
“The whole dynamic has changed massively, but I do think that the Tokyo Paralympics being pushed back a year will help our chances of a team medal,” she says.
Indeed, the pressure will be back on next year. Britain may have succumbed to Dutch dominance in recent years, but still remains the only nation ever to have won Paralympic dressage gold. And there’s reason to believe that won’t change in 2021.
Breaking the grade boundaries
In 2005, Lee Pearson won two silver medals at the European Championships in Hungary, riding Blue Circle Boy. But what made these medals remarkable was that he was competing in grade III (now grade IV), despite being officially classified as a grade Ib (now grade II) rider. By 2015, the rules had changed, and riders were no longer allowed to compete in a higher grade than the one they had been allocated, something Lee would like to see reversed.
“I’ve competed at prix st georges (PSG) in able-bodied dressage, and trained horses up to grand prix, but in para tests I am only allowed to walk and trot,” he explains.
“There were other riders who took advantage of being able to compete in a higher grade – for many, canter is actually easier than trot anyway.
“The ethos of para dressage is supposed to be about showing off what you can do on a horse, and there are so many varieties of disability within a grade.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 18 June 2020