This year’s Rio Games marks 20 years since the inaugural Paralympic dressage, held at Atlanta in 1996. And the anniversary is of particular significance to Britain’s Anne Dunham, who remembers vividly the birth of the sport in 1996, when riders competed on borrowed horses donated by the host country.
“We arrived in Atlanta with a big question mark hanging over us,” recalls Anne, who was joined on the 1996 team by Jo Jackson, Elizabeth Stone and Dianne Tubbs. “We were chosen for our riding and our ability to ride different horses, but until we had drawn our horse out of a hat and ridden it on that first day we had no idea how the competition was going to go.”
Riders had just one hour per day over five days to get to know their Paralympic partner ahead of the competition. For Anne, that partner was a little horse called Doodlebug, “who behaved like a doodlebug too”.
“Doodlebug would go down the centre line and explode when he saw the markers. But on the final day, in the freestyle, we won the bronze medal, and came home with team gold too. It was absolutely great, albeit totally different to nowadays.
“We set off on the plane like any other athlete, without the huge amount of luggage that comes with taking your own horse,” remembers Anne.
“But the days were far too long — from quarter to five in the morning to quarter past one at night. We had to travel a long way and the transport wasn’t nearly as slick as it is here. It was very tiring.”
At 67, Anne is the oldest athlete at the Rio Paralympics, and has seen the sport of para dressage grow exponentially, with five Paralympic Games under her belt. It was in Athens in 2004 that riders competed on their own horses for the first time.
“I set out to see disabled riding grow up, which it has done with a vengeance. Now I think it is recognised on a par with able-bodied dressage. We’ve got the skills, the horses, the trainers and, thanks to the lottery funding, the money. It’s a different world now, and it’s very exciting.”
In Rio, Anne is competing the Lady Joseph Trust and Henrietta Cheetham’s Lucas Normark, a 15-year-old Knabstrupper stallion by Ravaldi. They scored 73.95% in the grade Ia team test today (12 September).