Para-Equestrian sport includes all equestrian disciplines practiced by people
with physical disabilities. "Para" means, parallel to able-bodied equestrian
sports. Many disabled athletes are able to hold their ground in competitions
designed for the able-bodied, but Para-Equestrian opens the world of competition
to riders and drivers with severe disabilities as well, allowing them to compete
in a serious, focused environment. Many athletes who participate in Para-Equestrian
are quite talented, and some are considered to be among the elite equestrians of
the world, regardless of their physical condition.
In Para-Equestrian, each rider or driver is classified according to his or her
functional ability. Para-Equestrians are assessed by trained physiotherapists and
doctors who evaluate either muscle strength, coordination, or a combination thereof
throughout the athlete’s body. The athlete is then given a functional profile that
indicates the grade in which they can compete. The competition within each grade
is judged on the functional skill of the rider or driver and not the level of
The primary focus of the Para-Equestrian programs are to provide clinic and
competition opportunities for athletes with physical disabilities. Many of
our Para-Equestrian athletes were first introduced to horses through their
therapeutic riding programs. The therapy program objectives are to introduce
riding to improve balance, joint mobility, coordination, muscle tone and
posture to ease symptoms of a wide variety of disabilities. It is a well
know fact that horse’s gaits parallel that of the human.
What makes Para-Equestrian so special is that a person with a disability can
compete in an exciting and well respected sport as an elite athlete and be
judged on their abilities. Some of our best Para-Equestrians compete at the
highest level, the Paralympics. The Paralympics, not to be confused with
Special Olympics, is an elite sporting event for athletes with physical
disabilities. Currently, the only Para-Equestrian sport recognized at the
Paralympic level is Para-Dressage.
Para-Equestrian is the eigth discipline within the United States Equestrian
Federation. Para-Dressage is considered a High Performance Sport, therefor
subject to the USEF selection criteria standards. All Para-Dressage riders
must meet the strict show standards prior to being considered eligible to
compete at a selection trial. After applying the selection criteria, considering
the horse and rider combinations, their rankings and scores at the trials, a
team is selected.
What does Olympic gold mean to athletes who have more to prove than just
sporting ability? For starters, it takes a lot of money to support this
sport. The most successful countries fund athletes’ living expenses through
lotteries, heavy endowment funds, and corporate sponsorships so that they
can concentrate on their job: riding for medals. In turn, medals won bring
more funding, credibility, and respect.
Although the US Olympic Committee provides some funding to our Paralympic
equestrians, it does not compare to that received by our competition. Our
Paralympians’ stories are much different from those of their able-bodied
equestrian peers because it takes more of a support team to handle the
day-to-day horse care and training. Para-Equestrians generally cannot
supplement their expenses by training or coaching, so most of our athletes
have full-time careers apart from horses.