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American Riders With Disabilities Gain Valuable Experience at Belgium Championships

Kingston, RI–October 28, 2002–Three U.S. dressage riders with physical disabilities competed at the Open Belgium Championships on October 5-6, 2002 in Moorseles, Belgium. The riders all performed well and gained valuable international experience.

With assistance from the National Disability Sports Alliance (NDSA), the U.S. riders -- Rebecca Hart of Erie, PA; Barbara Grassmyer of Placerville, CA; and Kebbie Cannon of Mineral Springs, NC – traveled to Belgium where they faced stiff competition during the two-day international event for riders with physical disabilities. The event attracted more than 40 riders representing 13 countries. Among the top equestrians competing at this event were Anne Sticker of Germany riding her horse My Melodie FRH, and Ineke De Groot of The Netherlands on her mount, Ivox.

To ensure fair competition in an event such as this, riders are categorized in Grades I-IV according to their disabilities and follow rules set by the International Paralympic Equestrian Committee (IPEC). Grade 1 is for those with the most severe disabilities; Grade IV is for those with the least. The Individual Championship test for each grade is similar to the grand prix for able-bodied equestrians -- the highest level to achieve.

Barbara Grassmyer, riding a locally borrowed horse, Polonius, placed third in her Grade III, Individual Championship class, with a score of 64.13, and second in the Musical Freestyle with a score of 67.70, for a combined second place finish. Grassmyer has competed for 10 years in national and international competition for riders with disabilities. She has Apert’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes fused fingers and toes and limited range of motion in the joints. Her second place overall finish in Grade III was a strong performance for her and helped to bring the U.S. team the respect of being strong in the international field.

It took a lot of heart for rider Rebecca "Becca" Hart to ride an unfamiliar horse in her first international competition. It also took a lot of courage for Hart to finish the round after her mount, Java, spooked in the arena during her test.

"Java got scared by a spectator in the stands at the start of Becca's freestyle, so her ride did not go as well as we had hoped. But she rode beautifully and handled herself well in a difficult situation," said Jerry Schwartz, National Team Coach for NDSA’s equestrian program and Head Coach for the U.S. Team in Belgium.

Hart received a score of 54.92 and eighth place for her Musical Freestyle. She took fifth place out of a total of 12 riders in the Grade III Individual Championship with a score of 60.93 and finished in the top six overall. Hart, 17 years old, has Spastic Familial Paraplegia, a genetic disorder that causes her legs to be paralyzed.

Cannon, riding King's Ransom, placed twelfth in both of her classes in Grade IV. She received a score of 56.77 in the Individual Championship and 58.88 in the Musical Freestyle. A member of the 2000 U.S. Paralympic team in Sydney, Cannon has cerebral palsy.

"It was a great 'test event' for the U.S. team. It added to our overall international experience and was a good opportunity for us to prepare for next year's World Championships which will be held at the same venue," said Denise Avolio, Equestrian Sports Manager for the National Disability Sports Alliance and the U.S. chef d'equipe for the international event. "This also gave us the chance to make good contacts for next year, just in case we can't take our own horses and have to borrow mounts again."

Avolio explained that it can be prohibitively expensive to ship horses to foreign competitions, and most equestrians are further challenged to compete on loaned horses in international championships. In Belgium, all three U.S. competitors rode horses loaned by generous owners. Riders from Australia, South Africa, Croatia, Slovakia and Slovinia also rode borrowed horses.

"The element of riding a new horse at a high level competition makes these events so exciting and a true test of horsemanship," Avolio said. "Unfortunately, sometimes the horse isn't so cooperative, and riders, like Becca on Java, faced even stiffer challenges.

“Though other U.S. riders competed in Holland and Portugal earlier this year, the Belgium championship was, without doubt, good experience for our team," Avolio added. "Now we can look ahead to next year’s World Championships and to Athens for the 2004 Paralympics. Our group of U.S. riders are extremely talented and competitive, and we feel that we will have a strong team at both these upcoming major events.”

The NDSA is the national governing body for equestrian sport for riders with disabilities. The non-profit organization is responsible for the development and selection of riders for national championships and international competitions, including the Paralympic Games, and provides training, competition and advocacy for riders of all levels with physical disabilities. For more information about the NDSA and opportunities to support the programs, please contact Denise Avolio at (914) 949-8166 or


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