In late July 2016, Support through Sport UK headed to Bishop Burton College, Yorkshire, to cover one of the final para-dressage tournaments ahead of the Rio Paralympics.
The International Equestrian Federation (the FEI) defines dressage as: "the highest expression of horse training, where horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of pre-determined movements". So it is the art of training a horse in a manner that develops obedience, flexibility, and balance. In an accomplished dressage performance, the horse will respond smoothly to the skilled rider's minimal aids. The rider will appear very relaxed, whilst the horse will happily perform the requested movements.
Dressage is the only equine discipline to feature at the Paralympic Games and, in order to create a level playing field, athletes are classified according to their levels of impairment. When determining an athlete's classification, their levels of mobility, strength and coordination are taken into account. The gradings range from Ia to IV: I representing those who are the most severely impaired, IV the least. Men and women compete together.
The events competed at each grade include:-
- Grade Ia: walk only tests
- Grade Ib: walk and trot tests
- Grade II: walk and trot tests but can also canter in freestyle
- Grade III: walk, trot and canter tests and can also demonstrate lateral work in freestyle
- Grade IV: walk, trot, canter half-pirouettes, sequence changes and lateral work
Tests are prescribed series of movements.
For grades I to III, a 40 x 20 metre arena is used. For grade IV, a 60 x 20 metre arena is used. The arenas are surrounded by letters at which the riders are required to perform the various movements within their tests.
The judges evaluate each of the movements in the various tests and give them a score from zero to ten: zero meaning "didn't execute the movement", 10 meaning "excellent". The riders with the highest total scores are the winners.
The event at Bishop Burton featured seven-times Paralympic medallist (five golds), Sophie Christiansen, and triple Paralympic-medallist, Sophie Wells. Both Sophies won their events and they will now be making their final preparations for the Rio Paralympics in September.
Para-dressage is a brilliant spectator sport. The riders were inspiring to watch as they had such control of their horses and delivered the necessary movements with incredible grace. At the end of the event, we were also gifted to some freestyle tests. In freestyle tests, riders choreograph routines to music of their choosing. They still have to execute certain movements but can choose where to place these movements within the test.
Whilst watching the various tests, we had to stay quiet, but after the riders had stopped their horses and nodded to the judges, clapping was allowed and encouraged (apart from for certain horses who we were told not to clap for as they must react badly to applause).
We wish Sophie and Sophie, and the rest of the ParalympicsGB Equestrian Team, all the best for Rio and can't wait to watch them and cheer them on.