Dressage fans treated to Australian Paralympic showcase

The Hampshire countryside and Sparsholt College’s Equine Centre provided a beautiful backdrop for the Australian Paralympic Equestrian Team, as their horses were put through their paces, demonstrating to many dressage fans and special guests their Freestyle Tests for the forthcoming Paralympic Games.  The team have chosen Sparsholt College’s Equine Centre for their staging camp whilst they prepare horses and riders for London 2012.

The team of four riders, four grooms, coach, manager, vet and sports medicine manager have been training at Sparsholt since their arrival on the 10th August.  Looked after by Equine Centre staff and students, they will depart for Greenwich Park on the 24th ready for the Games to start on the 29th August.

Julia Battams, who has been the team’s National Performance Director for three years explained how the team will be preparing whilst at Sparsholt:  “Each rider has a daily training environment which includes daily on-horse training and off-horse training – gym, core stability work, cardio, swimming and access to a sports psychologist and nutritionist.  Each horse and rider has a groom and the team has their own vet responsible for the care of the horses.”

Of the staff and students at the Equine Centre Julia said: “The facilities here are fantastic! The College has the same surface as Greenwich which is perfect for our pre London preparations. Everyone has been amazing – so helpful and everything we have requested they have arranged.”

Having spent the week recovering from jet lag and acclimatising to the British weather the demonstration enabled the team to showcase the various elements of Paralympic dressage.   This starts with athletes classified across five grades: 1a, 1b, II, III and IV.  The impairments of Grade 1a athletes have the greatest impact on their ability to ride, whilst the impairements of Grade IV athletes have the least impact.  The horses ridden are chosen for both their dressage ability but also the test requirements of their respective riders. Once at Greenwich athletes will compete in three Dressage tests where they have to perform a series of pre-determined movements which differ by grade and ability: a Team Test, an Individual Championship Test, and a Freestyle Test, for which athletes choose their own movements and music. Through the tests, horse and rider must be in harmony, and the overall picture must be of lightness and rhythm and the system of grades ensures that the tests can be judged on the skill of the rider, regardless of their disability.

First out into the outdoor arena was 1a competitor Rob Oakley. Rob, who has muscular dystrophy, was the first person in Australia at any classification level to compete at Prix St George (the introductory level for international dressage competition).  Rob has been riding the stallion Statford Mantovani, fondly known as Manny, for two years. Rob’s test, which he performed to London Philharmonic Orchestra’s version of ‘Paint It Black’ incorporated a number of compulsory movements including changes of the rein, collected walk, medium walk and extended walk.

Joann Formosa has had two serious riding accidents which led to crush injuries damaging both legs. The 1b competitor rides the stallion Worldwide PB and the compulsory requirements of her test include walk with some trot work.  To the instrumental version of ‘Fever,’ Joann and Worldwide PB beautifully demonstrated the elements she will be required to perform in Greenwich.

At only 22 years old Grace Bowman is the veteran of the team having competed at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games.  Grace, paraplegic since the age of 12 rides Kirby Park Joy, (stable name of Rolly), is ranked 4th in the world. The grade II competitor has velcro straps keeping her legs in place, and  bands keeping her feet in the stirrups.  Grace competes at Elementary level and to a ‘Sound of Music’ montage she performed a number of movements such as shoulder in and collected and extended work in both walk and trot.  Asked details of her career highlights Grace said it was competing and representing Australia at the Paralympics and internationally.

Youngest member of the team Hannah Dodd was born with sacral agenesis, a rare congenital disease.  A grade IV rider Hannah choreographed her Freestyle test to the film ‘Australia’ soundtrack.  On her horse Waikiwi, Hannah’s routine incorporated the compulsory movements of half passes, extended trots and collected trot and flying change using walk, trot and canter.

During a question and answers session following the demonstration it became very apparent how much off-horse training keeps these athletes in top condition.  Hours are spent each week in the gym, at pilates classes, yoga classes and doing cardio workouts.

Kathy Bamber  Sparsholt College’s Learning Manager for Equine Studies said: “ We worked very hard to get the Australian team here and it has been an honour working with and looking after such an incredibly talented, professional and friendly team. When the Games start on the 29th we will be rooting for team GB and Australia but I suspect I may now be shouting slightly louder for the Aussies!”