What kind of saddle is needed by a rider who doesn't have use of her legs? Or what if she has no legs at all? That question is becoming a frequent one as more and more para-equestrians take up the reins to ride, whether at the grass-roots or international level, creating a growing need for tack that compensates for their disabilities.
The para-dressage discipline for equestrians with physical disabilities is mushrooming across the United States, says Hope Hand, former paralympian and executive director of the U.S. Para-Equestrian Association (USPEA) and chair of the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) Para-Dressage Committee. While the USPEA has been operative for only a few years, evolving from a Facebook account, it has recently been affiliated with the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF). A big catalyst for the sport was the May 2009 three-star qualifier for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) hosted by USPEA at Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, Illinois. This event brought positive exposure as U.S. para-dressage riders competed with those from Mexico, Canada and Ireland for one of 80 slots at WEG.
According to Lynn Seidemann, a paralympian and chair of the Para-Equestrian High Performance Eligible Athletic Performance Committee, "Just since the 2008 Olympics, we've done more in the U.S." In fact, USPEA has doubled in size.
"In other countries, para-equestrianism has been popular far longer," says Keith Newerla, 2004 grand champion at the National Para-Equestrian Trials. "People have become more aware, and the saddlers have embraced it."
There are five classifications for para-equestrians. The lower grades--Grades Ia (walk only) and Ib (walk/trot) and Grade II are for those with the most severe disabilities.
"How Grades are assigned may seem complicated to the uninitiated, but the logic is to create a level playing field based on what muscles are used to accomplish a movement, rather than riding skill," says Newerla. "Everybody who has been riding for some time has different needs requiring creativity on the part of just about everyone involved, especially saddle fitters."
Many would-be para-riders require adaptive equipment--aids that compensate as far as possible for what the rider is lacking or unable to use--though there are exceptions (see "Approving Adaptive Tack" at the end of this article). Paralyzed from the waist down, Hand is a Grade Ib rider. She placed sixth at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics where she only used a little strap across the pommel, two whips and rubber bands on the stirrups.
Grades III and IV include those who are able to walk without support. They often ride with regular saddles that may or may not have minor adaptations.
Newerla has cerebral palsy that affects his entire body. His core and lower back are weak and the muscles in his legs are tight. His saddle is a German Sommer, adapted for him by saddler Marty Haist of Horse of Course in Claremore, Okla. The saddle has been tweaked several times, a common occurrence for para-riders. Newerla calls Haist "extremely cooperative." They run into each other several times a year at shows, where Newerla leaves the saddle for adjustments. Haist does the work and returns it to him.
Haist chose the Sommer for Newerla because it has a single flap, one piece of leather and no sweat flap, allowing Haist to easily remove it to customize the back block. "It has a pretty large exterior block in front of the leg, which works like a thigh block and that helps a lot," says Haist. Because Newerla does not have complete control of his legs, and keeping them in one spot is difficult, Haist added a second block, "kind of like a baseball that sits behind his thigh."
Haist also put what he calls a non-moveable metal bucking strap on the front of the saddle. "I can use my arms to hold on and go with the horse during transitions," says Newerla. Because Newerla can post, Haist moved the strap toward the withers to give him more space.