Hope Hand of Chester County, PA shown at the 2011 Del Mar with Jonathan Wentz on NTEC Ritcher Scale and his trainer/sponsor Kai Handt, started the US Para Equestrian Association which gave the sport of para dressage legitimacy. Photo Credit: Lindsay McCall
Hope Hand doesn't believe in boundaries. The founder and president of the U.S. Para-Equestrian Association was born with spina bifida, but that never stopped her from achieving her goal of competing internationally as a para dressage rider.
Born into an athletic family -- her father trained to compete in gymnastics at the 1944 Olympic Games -- Hand started trail riding with her father when she was 10. She eventually found Thorncroft Equestrian Center in Malvern, which helped launch her career in dressage.
“Thorncroft was more mainstream-based where riders with disabilities had classes with their able-bodied peers,” Hand said. “My peers got to see riders going from a wheelchair to a horse, which was a learning experience for everyone.”
Hand road at Thorncroft for about 15 years before getting married and moving to a horse farm in Chester County that borders the Radnor Hunt Club. After raising her children and being a Pony Club mom, she began training privately with dressage instructors with the end goal of trying out for the Paralympics in mind.
“I was an alternate in 1996 for the first Paralympics and captain of team that went to Sydney in 2000,” Hand said. “In between that I went all over world and Europe competing at world championships and shows in Great Britain, Sweden and Denmark.”
Hand saw that Europe was well ahead of the U.S. with its para dressage programs, and she wanted to see the U.S. develop a national federation to support the country's fledgling para dressage riders.
“When I wanted to get the para dressage riders together and build on making a competitive team, I tried to get the USEF to give us dressage clinics,” Hand said. “I think they were a little wary and not comfortable at first because they weren't familiar with disabled competition. They knew about therapeutic riding, but it was a huge leap into competition.”
Enter George Morris
Living in the heart of horse country in Chester County, Hand's family was very well connected in the horse world. She'd rubbed shoulders with Michael Matz during Pony Club clinics, as well as George Morris. Morris was ultimately the first trainer to host a clinic for the para riders.
“The person that had the guts to give us a chance was George Morris. He invited us to the USEF headquarters in Gladstone, N.J.,” Hand said. “We did a clinic with George that was supposed to be just flat work, but by the end of the night we were all jumping. George said, 'Oh hell, these guys are good riders. Let's do a little jumping.'”
The clinic with Morris began a wonderful relationship between the USEF and the para dressage riders. Every year, the USEF would get “braver and braver,” sponsoring clinics with top riders like Robert Dover. By the end of 2006, Hand was working with the FEI to have para dressage included as the eighth recognized discipline.
“We were just getting our feet wet and I knew we needed a nationally based organization to be competitive with Europe,” Hand said. “In 2009 I started the U.S. Para-Equestrian Association and we became a recognized affiliation of the USEF.”
Hand took advantage of Facebook to connect with para dressage riders around the country. She tripled the association's pool of riders in just one year. All her hard work culminated at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky., where 10 para dressage riders represented the U.S.
Just this past month, the Para Equestrian Olympic qualifiers for the 2012 London Olympics were held in Saugerties, N.Y. The event, which was the biggest para dressage show the U.S. has ever held, drew 34 U.S. para riders, with the U.S. team ultimately coming out on top.
“Canada, Mexico, Ireland and the U.S. were all representing their countries at the show. It's really onward and upward from here,” Hand said. “We accomplished a lot in a couple years, which shows it's so important to have the national organization to help us branch out and expose our riders. Just like our peers, we need to get to Europe and show.”
Hand isn't actively showing anymore, as running the U.S. Para-Equestrian Association consumes the majority of her time, but she finds she doesn't miss it much when she's spending her days helping the para dressage riders achieve their dreams.
“It's more satisfying than competing myself,” Hand said. “It's really wonderful to be there from the beginning and see this through. I am a board member at the USEF also, so come January everybody will be reporting about how their teams are doing. Hopefully we hold onto our top ranking.”
The future looks bright for the U.S. Para-Equestrian Association. As exposure continues to grow and Hand continues to recruit the best para riders in the country, the U.S. is on track to establish itself as a powerhouse in para dressage.
“We're bringing in more and more people every year. We're participating in top-notch clinics and building awareness,” Hand said. “Some of the tragedies that people have had in their lives have turned into real triumphs when they get back on a horse or compete at this level.”
Last month, the para dressage riders competed at the New England Dressage Association Fall Festival in New York. All weekend, riders and spectators stopped Hand and asked which ring the para dressage riders were competing in.
“It's just nice now when you go to some of these symposiums and people see you wheeling in and ask if you're a para equestrian,” Hand said. “Finally, people are putting it together and recognizing the discipline and giving us more credibility.”