Special-Needs Athletes? Not These Horses, Vets Say

Special-Needs Athletes? Not These Horses, Vets Say

Paralympic dressage horses "almost have to be more perfect" than horses for able-bodied riders, one veterinarian says.

Photo: Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI)

As the 2012 London Paralympic Games get under way, we're hearing a lot about the human athletes and the physical obstacles they've surmounted to reach the elite level. But unlike at the Olympic Games, the equine athletes at a Paralympics tend to get less media attention. We set out to remedy that.

The Paralympics are for athletes with physical disabilities. Dressage is the Paralympic equestrian discipline, and riders compete in divisions (called grades) according to the severity of their disabilities.

Riders' physical issues range from fairly mild to quite profound. That a rider can put a horse on the bit and execute a fluid, accurate dressage test despite (for example) lacking the use of an arm or a leg, or with pronounced weakness on one side of the body, is a testament to the skill of a Paralympic equestrian.

But what effect do the riders' physical challenges have on their horses? After all, horse owners continually hear how an unbalanced seat or an off-kilter saddle can cause their mounts discomfort. Surely some Paralympic-level horses must experience something similar, right?

Sport-horse veterinarian Richard B. Markell, DVM, shot our hypothesis down flat.

"They have the same issues as regular dressage horses," said Markell, who owns and operates Ranch & Coast Equine Practice Inc. in Encinitas, Calif. He's served on many a U.S. Equestrian Team veterinary selection committee and as a U.S. team veterinarian, and his clientele includes top-level dressage and other sport horses, as well as para-equestrian horses. He should know. Plus, after many years of donating care to the J.F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Center in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., and serving on the organization's board of directors, he's versed in therapeutic riding horses health issues and career demands, as well.

"They are remarkably similar," said Markell of elite dressage and para-dressage horses. "Even at the non-Paralympic level, it's different than in the old days. Old, broken-down horses are not appropriate for therapeutic riding because they have to give a very symmetrical ride" to have maximum therapeutic benefit, he said.

In fact, Markell added, Paralympic horses "almost have to be more perfect" than horses for able-bodied dressage riders, at least in some ways.

"Someone with physical challenges might not be able to push a horse through" a balance or symmetry issue, he explained.

"I have an elite-level dressage horse in my practice that sustained a pelvic fracture as a baby," Markell said. "When it jogs, it's asymmetrical; but when the rider rides, you can't tell. That horse might not be appropriate for a rider with a partial paralysis on one side, for example."

Stacey W. Kent, VMD, "wholeheartedly agree[s]" with her colleague's assertions about para horses' not needing special attention. With both dressage and para-dressage horses in her Cochranville, Pa.,-based practice, Equigen LLC, "I am approaching both the same. To be competitive, they have to be fit and ready to go," she said.

Kent is the veterinarian for Team USA at this year's Paralympics. She held the same position at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Hong Kong; prior to that, she served as a U.S. eventing team veterinarian in England during the lead-up to the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Markell pointed out that Paralympic horses come under the same veterinary scrutiny and "clean sport" forbidden-substance testing as Olympic horses. International Equestrian Federation (FEI) rules mandate that horses cannot be administered possible pain-masking or performance-enhancing substances--which means they compete on virtually nothing. And the same holds true for the riders, he added.

The Role of Fitness

"Fitness is something we're careful of" with para-dressage horses, Markell said. "We want to make sure that the rider's limitation does not change the muscular development of the horse."

To that end, able-bodied riders (often the para competitor's trainer or an assistant) will often climb aboard and focus on achieving equal balance and suppleness on both sides of the horse's body, Markell said. Likewise, other types of fitness work, such as hill work, sometimes falls to the able-bodied rider. Careful attention is also paid to saddle fit, with flocking or pad adjustments made as necessary to ensure balance for the horse.

The highest-level Paralympic horse (Grade IV) performs at the equivalent of about U.S. Third Level--walk, trot, canter, and lateral work including half-pass. It might not be Grand Prix dressage, but it's still demanding and it still requires plenty of fitness on the horse's part, Markell said.

"It's eighty miles per hour versus sixty miles per hour," he said. "You're still going fast; you still need good tires."

Where the two disciplines often diverge a bit is in the degree of "hotness" in the elite equines' temperament--but on this point, our two experts don't entirely see eye to eye.

In the Paralympics, Markell said, "There is perhaps more emphasis in the judging on compliance and willingness rather than brilliance. In the Olympics, those horses that medaled, they were on fire. They had sparkle. For the Paralympics we want 'Zen sparkle'--brilliance balanced with levelheadedness."

Kent sees it differently. "Some of the Paralympic horses are pretty hot," she said. When she went to her first Paralympics four years ago, "I was very surprised at the difference in temperaments. There is no real blanket you can put over it."

Bonds, Not Boundaries

"Paralympians are basically riders without disabilities," Markell asserted. "They have overcome their limitations. That's really cool."

"I am constantly inspired by the whole therapeutic-riding community--what horses do for people, what people do for horses," he said.

About the Author

Jennifer O. Bryant

Jennifer O. Bryant is editor-at-large of the U.S. Dressage Federation's magazine, USDF Connection. An independent writer and editor, Bryant contributes to many equestrian publications, has edited numerous books, and authored Olympic Equestrian, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604. More information about Jennifer can be found on her site, www.jenniferbryant.net.

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