Special Needs

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Para Equestrian Athletes: Unified Competition Gaining Ground

24 Aug, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
In U.S., Athletes with Disabilities Compete Alongside Able-Bodied Counterparts; Will the Paralympics Bring More Attention to this Developing Sport?

While everyone else was watching the Opening Ceremonies of the Games in Rio, something entirely different was happening in England. It marked a first – and a big one at that: the first time leading equestrian athletes with a physical disability competed in UK show jumping against able-bodied riders.

This took place at the ESUK Grassroots Championships at Arena UK in Grantham. The Championships, the UK’s biggest unaffiliated competition, took place over four days and featured more than 130 classes across a wide range of disciplines, including show jumping, combined training, dressage, showing and fun classes.

According to an article in Inside The Games, para-athletes included Evie Toombes who suffers from spina bifida and Cally Gould, who, because of a disease called transversemyelitis, had a stroke that caused her to lose 70 per cent use of her right leg and 40 per cent of her right arm. Both women competed in show jumping.

While Gould failed to place, Toombes noted in a Facebook post that she finished second in her class.

When in competition with other para-athletes, riders with disabilities are classified according to their degree of handicap. A list of classifications for equestrian sports, as well as others, can be found here.

The opening of athletic competition to both disabled and able-bodied athletes happens throughout sports; it isn’t something owned by Oscar Pistorious (although his is unarguably the most high-profile case in recent history.) But equestrian has been a different animal, so to speak, at least in the various countries the sport is contested. In the U.S., the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) has a special section on its website that is devoted to para equestrian events and issues. And admittedly, this is a niche and developing aspect of the sport.

The USEF’s Laureen Johnson, Director of Para Equestrian & Vaulting, notes that para equestrian athletes can compete in able-bodied competitions alongside able bodied riders, generally because of a lack of para-equestrian-specific competitions.

The United States Para Equestrian Association (USPEA) includes every recognized equestrian discipline that is practiced by athletes with an eligible physical impairment, with a focus on Paralympic Equestrian Sports. In addition, it is noted that “while Para Equestrian disciplines were originally segregated, they now are integrated in international sport. As each individual Para Equestrian discipline develops, it is USPEA’s mission to always serve as an advisory resource with the ultimate goal that the established able-bodied discipline affiliate will integrate within their organization.”

Within the U.S., the rise of adapted sports, whether held within their own competitions, or in unified events, is an issue that is bound to grow in prominence.  The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the NGB of high school sports, noted that in its most recent High School Athletics Participation Survey, participation in adapted sports also increased in 2015-16 from 8,483 participants to 9,491 with schools in 12 states now offering these programs for students with disabilities.

At the college level, equestrian is a sport that continues to develop. The National College Equestrian Association, which has been heading up the effort to keep equestrian on the list of emerging sports for women, oversees all competition. Executive director Leah Fiorentino notes that although there have not yet been any para athletes on the teams NCEA oversees, “that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be opportunities for para equestrians if they tried out for the teams.” However, she adds, “I do know in the past that there were a few riders with hearing deficits that worked with headsets in their helmets to receive instruction from the coaches.”

Count on para equestrian to continue to develop at all levels in the U.S., and to find ways to work seamlessly with existing competition. In May, for example, the USEF and the USPEA announced the first National Para-Equestrian Dressage Centers of Excellence (COE). These regional hubs of excellence are intended to attract new riders to the sport of para-equestrian dressage. Additionally, they will work in partnership with the USEF high performance programs to develop athletes to a level where they can represent the U.S. in international competition and at the Paralympic Games and ultimately win medals. A list of facilities can be found here.

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