Elizabeth Pigott is a young rider with a goal—she wants to represent the United States at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in the para-dressage competition.
Para-dressage allows athletes with physical disabilities the opportunity to compete at the highest levels of sport along side able-bodied riders from around the world.
And for the first time, para–dressage will be included in the World Equestrian Games being held in Lexington, Ky, this fall.
Para-dressage competitions are pretty much the same as standard competitions, but at the lower levels, the tests vary in difficulty between seniors, young riders, pony riders and children. At the higher levels, at which Elizabeth competes, the competitors perform more difficult Grand Prix, Grand Prix Special and Grand Prix Freestyle (Kur) tests.
Elizabeth is 24 years old and she lives in Pennsylvania. She has a full-time job as a biomedical research assistant, so she spends much of her free time in the saddle or in the gym.
“I do a lot of cross-training to build my strength for riding,” explains Elizabeth.
She began riding when she was 7.
“It started as a form of physical therapy for me, “remembers Elizabeth. “I had a friend who was doing it. I went and watched her lesson and said ‘I want to do that too!’ Once I got on, I was hooked.”
It took a while to find a therapeutic riding program that suited Elizabeth, but eventually she found the perfect place—Hope Springs in Chester Springs, Penn (hope-springs.org).
Elizabeth began competing in para-dressage shows with the Hope Springs gang and that’s how she met Hope Hand, a very successful para-equestrian.
“Hope competed all over the world and she was a member of the team at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia,” says Elizabeth. “Hope trains with Missy Ransehousen and now I train with her too.”
Elizabeth keeps her horse, Mr. Darcy, at Missy’s Blue Hill Farm in Unionville, Penn. Mr. Darcy is a 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood.
“Missy found him for me in Holland,” explains Elizabeth. “She thought he’d be perfect for me. He had competed up to second level, but he wasn’t a para-horse. He’s so talented. He has great movement, especially at the trot.”
It took a while for Elizabeth to get used to his bouncy trot.
“The first year I owned him, I had both of my hips replaced so I spent a lot of time on a lunge line trying to build up my strength—and to get used to his trot.”
It wasn’t long before Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy were competing.
“Mr. Darcy is a show off. He performs really well at shows,” says Elizabeth.
In para-dressage, riders are evaluated to establish their “classification profile.” This means that riders with similar functional abilities compete against each other. The profiles are grouped into competition grades. The grades range from severely impaired, Grade 1a to Grade IV, the least severely impaired. Elizabeth competes at Grade II level.
“Our dressage competitions are not that different from standard ones,” says Elizabeth. “We’re allowed to ride with ‘dispensation aids.’ I use rubber bands on my feet and calves to hold my legs closer to the horse and I ride with two dressage whips.”
Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy will head to selection trials in Illinois at the end of June to try to qualify for the United States team.
“I’ll ride three tests at the trials,” explains Elizabeth. “An individual test, a team test and a freestyle. My music is kind of modern classical with a techno beat!”
If she makes the team, she and Darcy will pack their gear and travel to Lexington, Ky., to compete against the best para-equestrians in the world. The para-dressage competition takes place October 5 to October 9, 2010.