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  • Writer's pictureFran Cleland

Para equestrians just need a helping hand to get started


ABOVE: Five countries competed in the first World Para Reining International Team Competition in 2016. This video features photos from the competition taken by The American Quarter Horse Journal.


RIDERS with physical or intellectual disabilities are becoming more and more visible.


It’s taken a while but it’s happening: 37 para riders at the Brisbane CDI dressage, we have had medal winning teams at the Special Olympics and Jodie McKeone did us proud in carriage driving.


But if you are disabled, and my hero Dylan Alock was just on TV saying that 20 per cent of the population has a disability of some sort, where do you get a start in the sport of equestrian?


It is easier in some disciplines than others.


Reining seems to be by far the best organised of all the horse sports and could be a template for the others that seem to find things too difficult.


The National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) affiliates run a para reining class at club show-level and right through to the Oceania Affiliate Championships.


The para reining class is an approved class recognised by the NRHA internationally. For riders with disabilities there are provisions.


Riders do not have to own the horse they compete on nor does the horse need to be licensed for NRHA competition.


Reining shows may offer relaxed patterns and patterns can be ridden with the allowable use of one or two handed on the reins, as well as simple lead.


Para riders are also allowed to choose the size and speed of their circles, they can walk trot or lope the pattern and are permitted to hold the saddle without penalty, as well as general provisions for use of equipment that will assist the rider, such as audio communication equipment, a trainer being present in the arena and safety stirrups.


Three para reiners competed for a trophy buckle at the recent Oceania Championships.


ABOVE: Xavier O’Connell and Meridian, who is owned by Braemar Park Equestrian. Picture: CARMEL PETHICK

Pony Club has a set of guidelines and an exemption form on its website for riders with a disability to compete. Even so, it’s a matter of finding the right club environment.


Cheri O’Connell’s son Xavier rides with Maryborough Pony Club and says the support is tremendous.


“We tried another pony club, but it didn’t really work out," she said.


“At Maryborough in cross country grade six they have two helpers to point the way to the next fence and the same in jumping and dressage.”


In carriage driving, the Riding For Disabled Association has carriage driving programs run at selected RDA Centres throughout Victoria with the assistance of accredited carriage driving coaches or “whips” using adapted vehicles and harness.


They say carriage driving is a “challenging and exhilarating program for anyone who uses a wheelchair or is unable to participate in riding programs”.


Jodie McKeone, who did so well competing in carriage driving at international level recently, is keen to see other people with disabilities take up the sport in the Equestrian Australia section.


“Para have to follow all the rule requirements and only divert to where para is specified within the rules,” she said.


“So it can be possible to have this pathway in Australia if we can get a short format, at least to start with, event up and going. Obviously the cheapest way would be to work alongside an already established Para riding event.”


ABOVE: Kate Nipperess and SW Cruiser competing in para dressage. Picture: ONE-EYED FROG

A starting point for many para riders, including the high performance disciplines such as dressage, is Equine Pathways Australia (EPA).


EPA’s philosophy is to offer the chance for all people with disabilities (whether acquired at birth, through illness or accident) to participate in a community-based program, sharing their life experiences and goals by exploring para equestrian activities.


The group accomplishes this through” integrated health, community and sporting participation programs and the identification and creation of vocational pathways”.


For anyone looking for a starting point, the links are below.


Who knows how far you might go.



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