Para-equestrian sport is a form of equestrian sport which is practiced by people with disabilities. Many disabled athletes are able to hold their ground in competitions designed for the able-bodied, but para-equestrian opens the world of competition to riders with severe disabilities as well, allowing them to compete in a serious, focused environment. Many athletes who participate in para-equestrian are quite talented, and some are considered to be among the elite equestrians of the world, regardless of their physical condition.
While athletes with various disabilities have been riding and competing for decades, the first organized form of para-equestrian sport arose in Europe in the 1970s for dressage. As interest grew, para-equestrian expanded to include driving, jumping, and other equestrian sports. Para-equestrian dressage continues to be an especially big part of the sport, with competitions being held all over the world.
Internationally, para-equestrian is supervised by the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), which has set standards for the sport, along with other equestrian sports. Riders are classified by their level of disability, with some being encouraged to compete in able-bodied competitions as well as para-equestrian ones, while others compete solely in the para-equestrian arena. Para-equestrian competitions have differing classes, some of which are designed to be easier for people with severe disabilities; for example, a dressage test could be ridden at a walk, without demonstrations of more challenging gaits.
Because para-equestrian athletes have physical disabilities, they are allowed to use a variety of aids to assist themselves in holding their seats and controlling their horses. They also endure grueling and intensive training which is focused on strengthening the bond between rider and horse, with para-equestrian horses being among the finest athletes in the equine world. In addition to possessing all the traits of horses who work at the elite level, including flexibility, suppleness, and grace, these horses must also be able to work with their riders, alert to subtle cues which could signal a rider in trouble.
Disabled equestrians appreciate the ability to compete in the para-equestrian arena, traveling to events all over the world to show their horses and meet like-minded people. The level of disability in para-equestrian sports is incredibly varied; everyone from amputees to people with cerebral palsy can be seen competing in para-equestrian. This field is also recognized by the International Paralympic Committee, as well an assortment of other bodies which govern Para-Olympic sport.