October 2019 - The Gallop: Para To The People!

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Californians on a quest to increase para-dressage participation.

by Kim F. Miller • photos by Kim F. Miller, taken during the 2017 Symposium at Ride On

Continuing the momentum of earning an unprecedented four individual medals at the World Equestrian Games last summer, the U.S. Para Dressage Team won the Championships at the Tryon Fall Dressage CPEDI3*, held in mid-September in North Carolina. This latest top-level victory reflects the success of the US Para-Dressage Team’s mission, stated head of coach development Michel Assouline.

 

“We have been working on two things, including performance progression and depth. We are now seeing so much depth. This was one the biggest shows in our U.S. history with almost 30 horse and rider combinations and top scores, so the depth is coming.”

 

California-based Beatrice De Lavalette is one of the scene’s fastest rising stars, winning both the Individual and Team tests in North Carolina. But otherwise the West Coast is woefully underrepresented in the para dressage world. Several influential West Coasters would like to change that and they say the broader equestrian public is critical to making that happen. As with any discipline, the base of participation needs to be broad and solid to sustain success at the top.

Building understanding of the sport and the paths to participating as an athlete, coach or supporter are critical to the discipline’s survival and growth out West. Veterinarian and US Para Equestrian Association board member Mike Tomlinson, show organizer Connie Davenport, and recently certified para-dressage coach Shayna Simon are among Californians leading this charge.

David Schmutz, FEI para judge, left and Michel Assouline, right.

Headline grabbing WEG wins and 2020 Tokyo pursuits are great for building awareness, but rider-to-rider outreach is equally important, says Dr. Tomlinson. “Do you have a neighbor with a handicapped child? See if they’d like to come meet your horse…Not even ride, just be there. That’s a start.

“If you volunteer at a therapeutic riding center, let them know about upcoming dressage shows and see if they want to compete,” he continues. “If you’re going to a dressage show yourself, encourage the organizer to have para tests and classes and volunteer to help out with them.”

In short, every horse enthusiast can find a way to promote para-equestrian participation. As the only paralympic equestrian sport, para-dressage is best known but para-reining, para-driving and even para-jumping are additional options.

“The real thing we need is people aware of the possibilities of competing,” Dr. Tomlinson asserts. “It doesn’t have to be at the highest level: That’s a fabulous goal, but only a handful of people make teams every four years. What most people do is compete in a para-dressage test at an Open show and they have a fabulous time.”

Lilly Russo.

Sharing The Vision

Californians got a glimpse of U.S. para dressage’s hopeful future when Assouline visited the West several times as part of the USPEA’s coaching development program. He returns to present at Ride On Therapeutic Riding Center in the Los Angeles area’s Chatsworth Nov. 1-2. (See story, this issue.)

The Frenchman and accomplished able-bodied dressage trainer and rider coached the British para-dressage team through 12 years of international dominance. Brought on board in for the U.S. in September of 2017, Assouline is working with current and future sport stars while helping seed the sport at the grass roots level.

Ride On Therapeutic Horsemanship is one of a handful of International Para Equestrian Dressage Centers Of Excellence, focal points for drawing more riders into the sport. Educating able bodied coaches on working with para riders and educating judges are keys to the national effort.

During the November 2017 symposium at Ride On, Assouline demonstrated that para and able-bodied dressage athletes have the same horsemanship goals: clear communication and a fluid partnership between rider and a willing, relaxed horse. “It’s not the what, it’s the how,” he said.  Working with riders whose challenges ranged from two teenagers with lower leg amputations to a young, legally blind rider, Assouline’s main focus was their coaches.

“The first thing we did in England was change the coaching program. A lot of riders didn’t have a home coach,” he explained of the British para-dressage landscape when he took over in 2005. “We made sure that all the riders had a home coach who they worked with at least once or twice a week.”

Critical to growth in participation, the USPEA’s Centers of Excellence are therapeutic riding centers where “demonstrating the competition-based opportunities provided by para-dressage” can be a main focus. Their facilities, horses, staff and existing support networks make them ideal launch pads for para-dressage careers.

Natalie Abbot & her coach Mia Yellin.

More winning para-dressage riders are starting at therapeutic riding centers “just like this,” Assouline told attendees at Ride On. “One day, we might have one of your athletes up there in the spotlight.” On the 2017 gold medal European Championships team he coached in his final Great Britain assignment, three of four riders began in the therapeutic riding programs, he noted—typically the British equivalents to the U.S.’ Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship-certified facilities. That’s versus experienced riders who come to the para world after an injury or illness robbed them of full use of their body.

Centers of Excellence aren’t the only place to cultivate new riders, however, stresses Dr. Tomlinson. “We don’t yet have any in Northern California, but we have more para-dressage riders there than elsewhere in the state.”
Northern California dressage show organizer Connie Davenport has long put her time and show budget into hosting para tests at her regular dressage shows and to hosting the state’s only international para dressage show, a CPEDI, at which riders can earn the scores needed to quality for international championships. As that qualifying process has gravitated almost exclusively to Florida in recent years, hosting even one international para show a year has become extremely difficult for many reasons. Expense is a major factor, starting with the need to hire a panel of international para judges, two of which must be foreign. Low participation makes it hard to cover such costs.

Whatever the status of a CPEDI next year, Davenport will continue to offer para classes at her Sacramento-area shows. She also continues to offer para tests and classes and encourage para-riders with the appropriate USEF dispensations to enter classes at her open dressage shows. The organizer is happy to help riders navigate the process of getting  a “dispensation certificate,” which enables a rider to use aids to compensate for their disabilities.

Genevieve Rohner & coach Megan McQueeney.

Lots of Crossover

Young and accomplished dressage professional Shayna Simon is grateful to have been brought into the para world.  Along with maintaining her own dressage career and training business, she’s gone beyond helping Beatrice de Lavalette, her first and most famous para student. Working with para riders and becoming a certified para coach have been enlightening and inspiring. Just as horses are formal or informal therapists for their riders and owners, Shayna credits Beatrice and her contemporaries’ attitudes with re-igniting her own passion for equestrian sports.

Completing the USPEA’s coaching certification helped Simon hone widely applicable skills. “So much of it is a philosophy that Michel (Assouline) has created,” she explains. “It’s equivalent to the Germans’ Bereiter training program.” It’s heavy on academic aspects with the freedom to develop and apply a coach’s own philosophy. Rider biomechanics, psychology, and the various ways that students learn are all topics of study that apply to para and able-bodied riders, she explains.

Michel & Genevieve Rohner.

Shayna welcomes inquiries about any aspect of the para-dressage world, from riders curious whether their conditions make them para eligible to coaches who want to learn to work with para riders at all levels. Making suitable horses available—long term or loaned for specific shows—is another area she’s working on.

Her star student is a terrific ambassador for para-dressage, Shayna notes. Losing both lower legs and sustaining many internal injuries and severe burns, Beatrice was the most critically injured survivor of the Brussels Airport terrorist bombing in 2016.

Her story is tragic, but her attitude is the opposite. “She is such an amazing character and absolutely one of the best role models you could find.” The Florida resident moved to California to attend the University of San Diego and to ride with Simon at Steffen and Shannon Peters’ nearby Arroyo Del Mar.

Although she’ll spend considerable time in Florida in her Tokyo Paralympics quest, Beatrice riding in the West much of the year draws attention to the highest possibilities on the para path. The path has a multitude of rewarding levels of participation, for riders and supporters alike.

Resources:
•    United States Para Equestrian Association: www.uspea.org
•    Coach & Athlete Development Seminar: Nov. 1-2 at Ride On Therapeutic Riding Center in Chatsworth. Contact: Megan McQueeney 818-523-3960 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , www.Rideon.org
•    Shayna Simon: www.arroyodelmar.com/shaynasimondressage, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

The Gallop welcomes news, tips and photos. Contact Kim F. Miller at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .