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.
As with many other para-riders, body asymmetry is also an issue. "Keith actually can't sit straight in the saddle," says Haist. "Basically his right side is much more forward than the left side, so we changed the flaps. When he is sitting crooked, it accommodates his body. Seen from the top, one flap is three inches forward of the other flap. But when he sits in it, he looks perfect."
Small D-rings have been sewn on the girth of Newerla's saddle. Through them, spur straps are attached to peacock safety stirrups. Black rubber bands made from tire inner tubes wrap around his boots, holding his feet in the stirrups. He can use longer-than-regulation whips because the range of motion in his arms is not as complete as that of an able-bodied rider. Of course, all adaptive equipment must be easily and quickly released for safety purposes.
"After the para-rider gets his classification, he goes through the USEF to get approval by a panel to see if the special tack dispensations are appropriate," says Newerla. "Once you have approval, the compensating aids are described on a card the rider must show to the technical delegate, the show secretary and the judge at a competition."
Germany is known for having remarkable adaptive saddles. Haist said he learned the most from German saddle makers who would say to him, "We're not doing that. It's not beautiful." "That is the key," says Haist. "It must be smart-looking, and you really want it to look like the normal thing."
Dr. Angelika Trabert, Grade II, is an anesthesiologist born with thighs measuring only about 10 to 12 inches long. "Nobody knows why," she says. She began riding at age 6 and after some minor setbacks due to a lack of suitable horses and teachers, she went on to compete in the second Para-Equestrian World Championships in Denmark in 1991. She has twice won gold medals and silver 13 times at European and World Championships and Paralympics.
"I have been in the para-equestrian world for some time, so I have seen quite a lot of compensating aids," she says. She is on her third special saddle. The first was a Voelzing designed with the help of pastor Gottfried von Dietz, whom she describes as the father of a lot of compensating aids in Germany. The second was a Hennig and the third, which she is still using, is sponsored by Passier and "rearranged" by herself and Marc Coumans, her boyfriend. His "hobby" is designing and building prototypes of compensating aids. In the Passier, Trabert's thighs are supported in leather U-shaped rests attached to the flaps. "It is comfortable for me, but sometimes it is a bit more difficult to adjust to certain horses because of their backs. Therefore, I had another saddle made last year for a more narrow horse."
Fitting horse as well as rider is as much a challenge for para-equestrians as for able-bodied riders. Seidemann, a Grade II rider who became a paraplegic from a skiing accident, had a hard metal handle put on the front of her Schleese saddle. "It took a lot of years to finally get a saddle that was right," she says. "Basically you have to fit the horse first. What is the point of having it fit you if it is uncomfortable for the horse?"
Lauren Barwick, 33, rides for Canada and had a serious issue with her own discomfort in the saddle. Barwick, Grade II, has no feeling from her belly button down after a 100-pound hay bale fell on her. "Because of my disability, I had no flesh around my coccyx and my tailbone was getting pressure sores."
The saddle fitter Barwick first worked with tried to design a solution but it wasn't suitable. Enter Danny Kroetch, owner of DK Saddlery in Alberta, Canada. Kroetch makes saddles for most of the Canadian para-equestrian team and was willing to work on a different seat for Barwick. "My DK saddle, about a year old, is phenomenal," says Barwick. "The best seat I've had. The way he set it up, the saddle has got a bunch of padding and, in the area of my seat bones and coccyx, he glued and stretched material more like nylon, so the leather is not squishy, but firm."
Kroetch also did not give her some things she said she wanted, such as knee rolls. "He helped me realize that with them, my hips couldn't move," she says. Her advice to other para-riders is to know your body and to find a saddler willing to work with you--one who really understands the biomechanics of how the body works. She also suggests talking to the many disabled riders throughout the world and asking what they have done. "There's no point in reinventing the wheel. Use these resources," she says. "The other big thing to be aware of is your riding pants and undergarments. The best I've used is the seamless underwear from Victoria's Secret."
While many saddle fitters are able to help, sometimes an off-the-shelf saddle isn't sufficient and it will take a specialist to make it work, as in Barwick's case. Kroetch began fitting saddles for para-equestrians about 15 years ago when the Bartels family in Holland contacted him to help Joop Stokkel, a well-known Dutch para-rider without a right arm or left leg, to be more stable in the saddle.
"When I do a saddle for a para-rider, I don't like straps," says Kroetch. "If I have to use them, I will, but I'm reluctant to take a saddle and throw everything on it but the kitchen sink. I don't want to give them a crutch if they don't need it. That is why, when I first assess them, I start with a bare saddle--the same saddle I design for everybody. I let them walk, trot and canter to see what happens to their body in my saddle." Most important for para-riders is to keep their legs still, he says. "An extremely narrow twist allows the rider's legs to fall straight down and stay underneath her. The twist of the saddle is where the rider's inner upper thigh lies. The twist has got to be extremely narrow. If it is wide, it rolls the thigh outward and lets the rider's leg come off the horse.
"It is just as important for the horse to be comfortable as for the rider," he continues. "Everything I do I believe is about adjustability. The most important thing in a saddle is to have it flexible. I use an air system that is comfortable to the horse. Four bladders in the panel system are fully adjustable. When a lot of para-riders start the trot and canter work, they are very often jarred and they bounce in the saddle. All the jarring creates sore-backed riders and horses as the horses' backs go rigid, which makes it even harder for riders to sit. That is where the air system works to absorb the shock," he explains.
Kroetch's dressage saddles start at $4,900 and range up to $6,000, depending on what he has to add to make it work for the rider. "I take my hat off to all para-riders," he concludes. "They're very brave. They're on a live animal that can do unforeseen things."
In reality, it is not the lack of tack but lack of appropriate mounts to put it on that is holding back the discipline in this country, says Hand. The 2000 Paralympics was the last time riders competed on borrowed horses. "The U.S. had the best para-catch riders in the world," she says. Now riders must provide their own mounts. "And we are struggling to get competitive horses. Once we have them, our sport will grow, but it will take us a few years to catch up."
The USPEA offers comprehensive information for para-riders, including the rundown on classification, a dispensation application form, clinics, training and much more at www.uspea.org.
Approving Adaptive Tack
There is information at www.usef.org regarding the dispensation certificates needed for competitors using adaptive tack. Certificates are issued through the USEF to athletes with a permanent, measurable physical disability. Applications go to the Adaptive Sports Committee. The most comprehensive explanation of compensating aids/adaptive equipment is at www.fei.org (disciplines, dressage and para-equestrian, about para-equestrian, application).