Para equestrian is equestrian sport performed by para-athletes who have physical impairments that make equestrian sport challenging. Para equestrian is also the only horse event held at the Paralympics.

Para equestrian sports offered at an international level include para dressage and para driving. In both events, para equestrian athletes demonstrate precision and harmony with their horses as they perform complicated and challenging movements.

Para driving also tests the horses’ stamina and fitness during the Marathon event.

This guide examines the history of para equestrian, how competition organizers ensure fair sport, and the rules and scoring for both para dressage and para driving.

Para Equestrian

Para equestrian refers to any equestrian sport performed by para-athletes. There are two main sports in para equestrian: para dressage and para driving. Currently, only para dressage is part of the Paralympics.

History

The Paralympic movement began after World War II, when Dr. Ludwig Guttman recognized the value of sport as a component of injury rehabilitation. [1] The first Paralympic competition was during the 1948 London Olympic games, which allowed wheelchair athletes to compete on an international stage. [1] The first Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960. [1]

Para equestrian did not enter the Paralympic roster until the 1996 Summer Paralympics in Atlanta. [2] The riders participating in this event used borrowed horses. [2] Para-athletes would continue using borrowed horses until 2004, when the Paralympic committee authorized the use of personal horses. [2]

Para equestrian athletes continue to use their own horses for competitions to this day. [2]

Para Equestrian Sport Organizations

The sports organizations overseeing para equestrian determine the rules and regulations for competition. Many organizations also host competitions and promote para equestrian at the national and international levels.

FEI

The Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) is the official international governing body for all horse sports. They work with the International Paralympic Committee to decide on the rules and regulations applying to para equestrian at the Paralympics.

Para equestrian is one of seven disciplines governed by the FEI at the international level. The other FEI disciplines include:

National Organizations

In North America, the two main national organizations that regulate para equestrian are Equestrian Canada (EC) and the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF).

Other organizations involved in promoting para equestrian sport include the United States Para-Equestrian Association and the Canadian Paralympic Committee.

Para Equestrian Grades

To ensure fairness of competition, para competition organizations classify para-athletes into Grades based on the impact of their impairment on sports performance. [3] There are five grades for para dressage and two grades for para driving.

The grades for para dressage are: [3]

  • Grade I: Severe impairments affecting all limbs and trunk
  • Grade II: Severe impairment of the trunk and lower limbs with minimal impairment of the upper limbs, or moderate impairment of the trunk, upper and lower limbs
  • Grade III: Severe impairments in both lower limbs with minimal or no impairment of the trunk, or moderate impairment of the upper and lower limbs and trunk
  • Grade IV: Severe impairment or deficiency of both upper limbs, or a moderate impairment of all four limbs, or short stature, or severe blindness
  • Grade V: Mild impairment of movement or muscle strength, or a deficiency of one limb, or mild deficiency of two limbs, or visual impairment

The grades for para driving are: [3]

  • Grade I: A wide range of moderate to severe impairments that require most athletes in this Grade to use a wheelchair for some or all mobility
  • Grade II: Mild impairments of all four limbs, or severe to moderate impairment of two limbs
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Para Dressage

Para dressage is similar to traditional dressage, asking athletes to perform a series of prescribed movements with their horse (a dressage test). Judges score the dressage test based on the accuracy of the movements, fluidity, harmony, and overall impression of the performance.

Levels

There are several levels of competition available for para dressage athletes, and within each level there are separate events for each Grade to ensure fairness of competition. [4]

At national competitions (CPEDN events), the three main levels are: [4]

  • Novice
  • Intermediate
  • Grand Prix

As the level increases, the difficulty of the movements required also increases.

Each Grade also has different required movements based on what is safe for athletes with different degrees of impairment to perform. [4]

Required movements for each Grade include: [4]

  • Grade I: Movements only in walk
  • Grade II: Movements in walk and trot
  • Grade III: Movements in walk and trot, with more advanced movements than Grade II
  • Grade IV: Movements in walk, trot, and canter, with lateral movements in the trot
  • Grade V: Movements in walk, trot, and canter, with lateral movements in the trot and canter

There are also three levels of international competition that follow the same levels as national events.

The international competition classifications are: [4]

  • CPEDI1*: Novice level tests
  • CPEDI2*: Intermediate level tests
  • CPEDI3*: Grand Prix level tests

Scoring

Each required movement in the dressage test receives a score from 0-10. [4]

The scoring scale is: [4]

10: Excellent

9: Very good

8: Good

7: Fairly good

6: Satisfactory

5: Sufficient

4: Insufficient

3: Fairly bad

2: Bad

1: Very bad

0: Not executed

 

Athletes also receive scores for “General Impression”. [4]

Once the test is complete, the judge adds up the scores and calculates a percent score. The athlete with the highest percent score wins the competition. [4]

In some competitions, there are multiple judges evaluating the dressage test. In these cases, the average percent score from the three judges determines placings. [4]

Equipment

Para equestrian sports have similar dress codes to their traditional counterparts. They also allow for specific aids and other devices depending on the athlete’s individual impairment.

Rider Attire

Para dressage athletes wear similar attire to traditional dressage, including white jodhpurs or breeches, black or dark colored boots, and a black or dark colored jacket. [4] All para-athletes must also wear protective headgear in black or another dark color. [4]

Horse Tack

The tack worn by para equestrian horses can vary widely, depending on the specific needs of the para-athlete. The basic tack required includes a saddle, girth, saddle pad, and bridle.

Any compensating aids that para-athletes require must be declared before the competition for approval. [4] The committee decides whether the requested compensating aids meet requirements and do not provide an advantage to the athlete over other athletes in the same Grade. [4]

Example compensating aids used by para dressage athletes may include: [4]

  • Safety straps
  • Hand holds attached to the saddle
  • Neck straps
  • Whips, including two whips if necessary
  • Joined reins, elasticated reins, or other specialized reins
  • Foot reins
  • Rubber bands or magnetic stirrups to hold feet in the stirrups

Horses

Unlike the other Olympic equestrian disciplines, horses in para dressage are chosen more for their suitability as a calm and tractable equine partner than their capabilities as a performance animal.

As such, there is more variety in the breeds present in para equestrian events than in the other Olympic disciplines where Warmblood breeds dominate. The only requirement for horses competing in para dressage is that they must be at least 6 years of age. [4]

Para Driving

Para driving follows similar rules and regulations as traditional driving, however allows for adjustments depending on a para-athlete’s individual needs. [5] The first international para driving event was in 1989 in the United Kingdom. [6]

Events

Para driving competitors compete in three events: Driven Dressage, Marathon, and Cones. Some competitions combine Marathon and Cones into an event called the Combined Marathon. [5]

Driven Dressage

Driven dressage aims to replicate the fluidity, harmony, and obedience displayed during traditional dressage with driving horses. [5] Judges score the athletes on accuracy and general impressions during a series of prescribed movements. [5]

During driven dressage, horses perform several movements, including: [5]

  • Collected, extended, and working gaits
  • Rein back
  • Shoulder-in
  • Transitions
  • Stretching the frame
  • Diagonal yield

The judges’ total score is converted into penalties. The athlete with the lowest score wins the driven dressage event and starts in first place moving on to the following event: Marathon or Combined Marathon. [5]

Marathon

The Marathon event tests the fitness and stamina of the driving horses, and the skill of the driving athlete over a cross-country style course. [5]

Marathon starts with either “Section A“, a designated track of 4 – 7 km (2.5 – 4.3 mi) in distance, or “Controlled warm-up“, a 25 to 30 minute exercise period. [5] These sections challenge the horses’ stamina and fitness, and are followed by a 5 to 10 minute halt for the horses to catch their breath. [5]

Athletes then move onto “Section B“, an obstacle course of 4 – 8 km (2.5 – 5.0 mi) in length. [5] Athletes maneuver their horses through 5 – 6 obstacles such as water crossings, gates, or cone obstacles. [5]

Athletes can receive penalties for the following errors: [5]

  • Incorrect whip use
  • Error in following the course or deviation from the course
  • Incorrect pace
  • Stopping the carriage
  • Damaged carriage or harness
  • Dislodging an obstacle
  • Going over the time limit

These penalties are added to the athlete’s Driven Dressage score. [5] If the competition included Combined Marathon, the judges rank the athletes based on penalties and the athlete with the lowest penalty total wins the event. [5] For competitions containing traditional Marathon, athletes instead move onto the Cones event. [5]

Cones

The Cones event tests the horses’ obedience and suppleness, and further evaluates their stamina by asking them to perform detailed maneuvers after a grueling Marathon challenge. [5]

During the Cones event, athletes maneuver their horses through a series of obstacles composed of cones. [5] Each cone has a ball at its tip, which is easily dislodged if a horse or the carriage bumps into the cone. [5]

In addition to bridges and water features, obstacle types in para driving cones testes include: [5]

  • Serpentine: Single cones that the horses must serpentine around
  • Zig-zag: Offset pairs of cones requiring the horses to zig-zag between the cone sets
  • Wave: Angled pairs of cones requiring the horses to travel in a wave shape
  • Oxers: Two sets of cones in a straight line
  • “L”s, boxes, and “U”s: Obstacles made of poles on the ground that horses must maneuver through

Each dislodged obstacle incurs 3 penalty points. [5] Riders can also incur penalty points for exceeding the time limit of the course. [5]

After all three events are complete, the athlete with the lowest total penalties wins. [5]

Levels

There are two categories of para driving competitions, CPEAI1* and CPEAI2*. The Star system indicates an increased level of difficulty, with 2* competitions having the highest level of difficulty for para driving athletes. [5]

Equipment

Similar to para dressage, para driving athletes and horses use similar equipment and apparel to their traditional counterparts. They also have specific aids as required by their individual impairments.

Rider Attire

Para-athletes wear jackets, driving aprons, hats and gloves during Driven Dressage and Cones. [5] The dress requirements may be adjusted depending on the para-athlete’s individual needs. [5] During Marathon and Combined Marathon, less formal dress is acceptable. [5]

During Marathon, Combined Marathon, and Cones, athletes must also wear protective headgear. [5] Some competitions may require the use of a back or body protector during these events as well. [5]

Carriage

The athlete’s carriage and horse tack can be adapted based on the athlete’s individual needs. [5] For example, athletes who wish to drive while in a wheelchair can use special straps or clamps to secure the wheelchair to the carriage. [5] The only major requirement is that all para-athletes must be able to fall free from the carriage easily, such as through a quick release system. [5]

Para driving athletes may also use their Grooms (an additional individual riding on the carriage) to perform certain tasks. [5] For example, Grooms may operate the whip or brake to assist the para-athlete. [5] All para-athletes competing in Grade I driving must have a Groom on their carriage. [5]

All compensating aids must be approved by the competitive organization prior to use. [5]

Horses

In driving, there are three events based on the number of horses pulling the carriage: [5]

  • Four-in-hand (four horses)
  • Pairs (two horses)
  • Single (one horse)

Each athlete can declare an alternate horse during competition entry in the case of injury or illness. [5]

Similar to para dressage, para-athletes select their driving horses based on their suitability as a safe equine partner for the athlete. Para driving athletes may drive horses or ponies in para driving competitions. [5] All horses competing in driving must be 5 years of age or older. [5]

Feeding Para Equestrian Horses

Performing in para equestrian dressage and driving requires sustained energy and strength over extended periods.

Para equestrian horses, like other performance horses, have increased protein needs to support muscle function and development. However, energy and protein are only part of the dietary considerations for these athletes.

The stress from training, travel, and competition can elevate the risk of digestive issues in para equestrian horses. Providing a balanced, forage-based diet is essential to support digestive health while meeting their nutritional needs.

The optimal diet for your para equestrian horse will depend on factors such as breed, age, competition schedule, training regimen, and health history.

Wondering if your para equestrian horse’s diet is complete? Submit your horse’s diet for a free evaluation and consult with our expert equine nutritionists to develop the ideal feeding plan for excelling in para dressage and driving events.

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References

  1. Paralympics History – Evolution of the Paralympic Movement.
  2. Sport Week: History of Para-Equestrian. International Paralympic Committee.
  3. FEI Para Equestrian Classification Rules 2024. Fédération Equestre Internationale. 2024.
  4. FEI Para Dressage Rules. Fédération Equestre Internationale. 2024.
  5. FEI Driving Rules 2024. Fédération Equestre Internationale. 2024.
  6. Para Driving Para Equestrian Forum. Fédération Equestre Internationale. 2019.