The bond between horse and rider is what makes equestrian sport unique, and the communication between the two must be particularly refined at elite level competition.

While able-bodied dressage riders use a combination of hand, leg and weight signals, some para dressage riders require the use of compensatory aids. This is to make up for the physical or sensory limitation resulting from their disabilities.

Para equestrians have to find and develop their own style of communication with their horse.

Where necessary, athletes are allowed to use a variety of special equipment and aids. These include specially designed saddles that assist the rider with balance and support, the use of elastic bands to keep their feet in their stirrups, whips in each hand, and adapted reins.

“As I have minimal feeling from my hips down, my legs just hang when I’m on a horse, and they naturally follow the movement of the horse. When you see my legs moving, that’s not me. It’s a completely involuntary movement,” said Britain’s Natasha Baker, who won the silver in today’s Grade III.

“I have to train my horses to different aids and am reliant on my voice. I train my horses to the smallest of noises or words so they know exactly what I’m asking.

“It can be a simple sound so they know that I want to go more forward or a command like ‘trot’ under my voice, and they know exactly what I mean,” continued Natasha.

“Walking the way I do is normal for me, so when I learned to ride I also learnt in a way that was normal for me.”

Riding without sight

Singaporean rider Laurentia Tan, who developed cerebral palsy and profound deafness after birth, relies on people to tell her when the music begins and ends, and has a greater dependency on feeling in order to communicate with her horse.

“I can ride different horses, but I must have my own customised loop reins,” said Laurentia, who is contesting her fourth Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

“The reins are like a telephone line which makes my conversation with my horse soft, steady and elastic.

“I am also sensitive to the feeling through my seat, which facilitates the conversation between me and my horse,” added Laurentia.

“I can feel when my horse does a perfect straight square halt under me, and when to give a correction if one leg is out of place.”

A level playing field

“The FEI Para Dressage rules have been established to ensure that athletes have the equipment they require to compete on a level playing field, whilst keeping the competition fair and safe,” said Chair of the FEI Para Equestrian Committee Amanda Bond.

“There are important principles to abide by if we are to ensure the continued growth and development of Para Equestrian sport.”

The horses are trained to respond to the compensating aids used by the rider in order to develop the connection between them and their horse.

“Before a horse is ridden by a para athlete, it is first trained by an able-bodied rider with classic training aids and then retrained to adapt to the athlete’s disability,” explained Michel Assouline, Team USA’s Head of Para Equestrian Coach Development and High Performance.

“The horse is trained to what the person does not have. So if an athlete does not have the full use of their legs for example, the horse will be trained to receive cues and signals with a series of taps given through a compensating aid, instead of the legs.

“An athlete can also learn to use their voice and seat to communicate with their horse.

“For athletes who are unable to use their legs, a tap becomes like a conductor’s baton, which signals to the horse when they should move,” continued Michel.

“An able-bodied trainer will usually begin this process and will train the horse by not using their legs, but with the tapping. So by the time the athlete takes over, the horse is already aware of what these cues represent.

“On average it takes around six months to a year for the horse to be truly confident and trustworthy.”

Pictured: Paralympic medallist Laurentia Tan (SGP) (Photo credit: FEI/Liz Gregg)

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