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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Disabled Riders Thrive on Equestrian Challenge

For MTA competitor preparing to take part in the Russian Paralympic Dressage Championship at Khimki earlier this month.
The music started, and the horse and rider came out into the arena, their movements synchronized. The horse's legs moved effortlessly in time with the music and the rider bobbed rhythmically in the saddle. Only later, when the rider dismounted, was it clear that she suffered from cerebral palsy.

The rider, Maria Zaborskaya, was one of 21 competitors in the Russian Paralympic Dressage Championship, which was organized by the Federal Agency for Physical Culture and Sports and held at the Moscow Riding Club for the Disabled in Khimki over the weekend of July 1-3.

In dressage, the sport of training a horse to perform intricate movements on barely perceptible signals from the rider, the competition does not look that complicated to the untrained eye -- after all, the horse is just running around the arena in time with the music. But an experienced equestrian, explained MRCD director Pyotr Gurvich, will take note of how the horse is carrying itself and how it performs the movements and will judge the rider's ability to control the horse.

In the freestyle event, where instead of a set program the riders are free to perform a set of given exercises in any order, it is easier for riders, even those who are handicapped, to cover up mistakes so they are less noticeable to the judge.

"A rider with a good ear and sense of rhythm can make up for mistakes," Gurvich said.

Zaborskaya, the competition's double gold medalist who trains at the Moscow club, said she probably had to put more of an effort into mastering the equestrian arts than someone without cerebral palsy if only because of the difficulty of getting to the club.

"It takes me 2 1/2 hours just to get to training," she said.

Given that the club is in Khimki, those who brave Moscow's disability-unfriendly public transportation systems to get there are truly dedicated to their cause. To get ready for the championship, Zaborskaya trained every day for a month, finding time among other activities and responsibilities, including raising a son. Like several of the other competitors, Zaborskaya first got involved in dressage through therapeutic riding.

Therapeutic riding is a treatment that sees riding as not only a fun experience but also as a source of sensory input. Although it is much more difficult for a person with a disability to learn to ride a horse, the payback is improved balance and coordination, not to mention mental and emotional stimulation. In addition to people with movement disabilities, the club welcomes children with blindness, mental disabilities and autism.

Natalya Antonova from St. Petersburg, who placed third in the Grade 1 freestyle for those competitors with the most serious category of disability, came to compete in the championship after just a month of training. Her strong performance, which she said she did not expect, was not the only positive result of her riding.

"When the horse moves in a trot, the muscles relax," said Antonova, 24, who has cerebral palsy. "It's not a lot, but it's nice."

Her teammate Yevgeny Nikolayev, who won a Grade 2 gold medal, has been riding for five years. Before that, he said he did not know there were organizations that worked with the mobility-impaired. The usual way people find out about the Moscow club, Gurvich said, is either by doctor's recommendation or through the grapevine.

Some riders get so excited about competing that they are willing to forego the benefits of therapy for better results in the arena, Gurvich said. He pointed out Nastya Suetina, 14, another gold medalist, who was holding the reins with just one hand as she rode. Her second arm was bandaged up so as to not interfere with her riding.

"For rehabilitation purposes, she should be working on her left arm," Gurvich said.

Up until last year, therapy sessions at the club were free, but after experiencing financial difficulties, Gurvich had to introduce membership fees. Purchasing and boarding horses is expensive, and the club relies mostly on donations. The 10 million rubles ($350,000) the club needs to run every year helps to provide disabled riders with the chance to move more smoothly and easily on horseback and feel better on the ground.

Khristina Kuznetsova, who has been riding since the age of 12, described a recent visit to a doctor, who was amazed at how riding had corrected her posture, given her deformed pelvis.

"The doctor said, 'By rights, you should be bent over,'" Kuznetsova said.