The amazing “sixth sense” of para-equestrian horses

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Para dressage horse Solitaer40, ridden by Kate Shoemaker (USA) at Tokyo 2020.
Para dressage horse Solitaer40, ridden by Kate Shoemaker (USA) at Tokyo 2020. © FEI/Liz Gregg

Those who don’t ride horses tend to think that the person on top is “just sitting there”, unaware of the fitness required and the combination of aids — hand, leg, voice and weight signals — used to communicate with the horse.

It is this refined communication — and the unique bond between horse and human — that are important factors for success in elite equestrian sports.

So how do Para Dressage riders do it? While there is a broad range of movement that is standard for able-bodied dressage athletes, Para Equestrians have to find and develop their own style of communication with their horse, sometimes using compensating aids to make up for the physical or sensory limitation resulting from their disabilities.

As many Para Dressage riders will attest, learning to interpret their horses’ body language is one of the keys to a successful sporting relationship. But training a horse to adapt and respond to the use of compensating aids also plays an important role in the development of the horse and athlete connection.

Team USA’s Head of Para Equestrian Coach Development and High-Performance Michel Assouline said that 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.

“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,” Assouline said.

“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.”

Grade 3 rider Natasha Baker (GBR) riding Keystone Dawn Chorus: "When you see my legs moving, that's not me. It’s a completely involuntary movement."
Grade 3 rider Natasha Baker (GBR) riding Keystone Dawn Chorus at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics: “When you see my legs moving, that’s not me. It’s a completely involuntary movement.” © Jon Stroud Media

Six-time Paralympic gold medallist Natasha Baker said walking the way that she did was normal for her, so when she learned to ride, she learned in a way that was normal for her.

“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.

“This is the reason why 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,” the British rider said.

While able-bodied dressage athletes use a combination of hand, leg, and weight signals to communicate with their horses, para-equestrian riders are allowed to use a variety of special equipment and aids which include specially designed saddles that assist the athlete with balance and support. Also permitted is the use of elastic bands to keep feet in stirrups, whips in each hand and adapted reins.

Singapore 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.

Paralympic rider Laurentia Tan (SGP) and Banestro. They finished fifth in their Grade 1 test at Tokyo 2020. It is Tan's fourth appearance at a Paralympic Games.
Paralympic rider Laurentia Tan (SGP) and Banestro. They finished fifth in their Grade 1 test at Tokyo 2020. It is Tan’s fourth appearance at a Paralympic Games. © FEI/Liz Gregg

“I can ride different horses but I must have my own customised looped reins, which are important partly because they are customised to the way I hold them,” Tan said.

“But the reins, which are the connection between my hands and the horse’s mouth, are like a telephone line which make my conversation with my horse soft, steady and ‘elastic’.  This contact is different depending on the horse I ride and is absolutely essential for me to bring out their best performance.

“I am also sensitive to the feeling through my seat which facilitates the conversation between me and my horse. I can execute a good square halt through my seat. 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.”

The  FEI  Para-Equestrian Committee was created in April  2006 to ensure that the needs and requirements of riders were well represented in the work of the International Federation, and rules have been established to ensure that athletes have the equipment they require to compete on a level playing field, while keeping competition fair and safe.

Belgian para dressage rider Michele George, who rides Best of 8 at Tokyo 2020.
Belgian para dressage rider Michele George, who rides Best of 8 at Tokyo 2020. © FEI/Liz Gregg

“As living beings with thoughts and feelings of their own, horses are extremely sensitive to the specific needs of an athlete’s disability, and are highly perceptive to verbal and non-verbal cues,” said Amanda Bond, Chair of the FEI Para Equestrian Committee.

“While horses have a natural ability to adapt, and seem to have a sixth sense for knowing what is required of them, it is the compensating aids which allow a Para Equestrian athlete to effectively communicate with their horse.

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

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