Para-equestrian is a multi-disability sport, in which riders are classified according to their functional ability, and are judged on their riding skill against other athletes of similar abilities.
Para-Equestrian sport is one of the few sports in which male and female participants compete against one another in competition. Athletes may also achieve medals in both individual and team events at the same competition.
Many Para-Equestrian athletes also compete alongside able-bodied competitors in competitions. At the grass roots level, Para-Equestrian encompasses a number of different disciplines, while the international stream focuses only on Para-Dressage.
Riders are eligible to compete in three events; a team test, an individual test, and a freestyle test to music. Riders are judged on their ability to perform various patterns, which include various changes in pace and direction
At the international level, riders may achieve a medal in the individual and freestyle tests. Team medals are awarded to countries based on the combined scores of the team and individual tests of their designated team riders.
The Federation Equestre International (FEI) (www.horsesport.org) has been the governing body for Para-Equestrian sport since 2006, while Equine Canada is the national sport organization responsible for Para-Equestrian sport in Canada (www.equinecanada.ca).
There are five grades of competitions in Para-Equestrian, with Grade IA representing the more severely impaired riders, and Grade IV representing the least impaired riders.
During the classification process, riders may receive approval to use specific “compensating aids”, which are used by riders to compensate for the physical or sensory limitation resulting from their impairment, thereby enabling them to effectively ride a horse. A compensating aid is not to be used to compensate for lack of riding skill or as an aid to enhance the horse’s performance, but would be considered a training aid. The well-being of the horse is paramount in considering the use of any compensating aid.
- Grade IV - Riders usually are impaired in one or two limbs or have a visual impairment.
- Grade III - Often riders are able to walk without support. They may have minimal use of their limbs or loss of sight.
- Grade II - Most riders are wheelchair users or have little locomotive ability with some limb function. Others have severe unilateral impairment. The rider performs a walk and trot level test excluding canter.
- Grade Ib – Riders are mainly wheelchair users with poor trunk balance and/or impairment of function in all four limbs, or no trunk balance and good upper limb function, or moderate trunk balance with severe impairment of all four limbs.
- Grade Ia – Riders are mainly wheelchair users with impairment of all four limbs who may be able to walk with an unsteady gait, but trunk and balance are severely impaired.
The first major international dressage competition for riders with physical disabilities was held at the World Games in New York, USA in 1984. Para-Equestrian competition made its Paralympic debut at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games.
Para-Equestrian is one of Canada’s most successful international disciplines, achieving an individual gold medal and an individual silver medal at the 2008 Paralympic Games, as well as two individual bronze medals at the 2004 Paralympic Games.