After just missing a medal with a 4th place finish at the 2012 London Paralympic Games, Rebecca Hart retired the veteran Holsteiner gelding Lord Ludger (pictured above) and was in search of a new mount. When she found Romani, a 16.2 hand Danish Warmblood mare, everything seemed to fall into place.
(Photo Credit Lindsay Y. McCall)
Norteassa. Lord Ludger. And now…Romani. After six long months of community effort, Rebecca Hart, 29, of Unionville, PA, is at last partnered with the 11-year-old Danish Warmblood mare, Romani. “There’s something about her body type and movement, and her willingness to work with my disability, that is so special. She’s the first horse I’ve ever sat on that hasn’t hurt my hip.”
It Takes a Village
Born with Familial Spastic Paraplegia, Hart endures muscle wasting and lack of control from her waist down. While she can walk short distances, a wheelchair or cane assistance is needed for longer ones and she competes with two breakaway straps for her legs. Despite her degenerative disability, Hart has become an enormously talented and decorated dressage rider. A five-time national champion at the USEF ParaEquestrian Championships, and a representative of the United States in both the 2008 Hong Kong Paralympics and the 2012 London Paralympics, Hart has remained modest and thankful for every person who has contributed to her success.
“The fact that I have her [Romani] and the support system that brought us together is extremely humbling,” said Hart. After retiring Lord Ludger, Rolex eventer Missy Ransehausen’s veteran mount, following the 2012 London Paralympics, Hart was in search of her new partner. Word came around of a capable, and most importantly, bright young mare in Denmark who seemed to have the brains to be a good “para” horse, despite being trained as a professional able-bodied horse. “Most horses have a learning curve to understanding the different signals of para-riders, usually at least six months, because while we ride to the same high-level standard, we use different cues,” Hart said.
Hart competes in Grade II competition. The grades span levels one through four and are based on disability, not necessarily personal riding skills. Grade I, with sublevels Ia and Ib, are for the most severely disabled, like paraplegics, and Grade IV is for those with impaired vision. At Grade II, Hart rides a walk-trot test in an FEI-level frame with trot laterals, walk pirouettes, and walk extensions. While there is no canter work and no flying changes, unless a rider chooses to do so in the freestyle test, the quality of the gaits and the carriage of the animal are as highly critiqued as in able-bodied competition.
With Romani, there was an instant connection. The mare seemed to immediately recognize Hart’s disability and tried to work with her. “It felt like I had been riding her for years,” Hart commented. “What was even more amazing was that there was no pain. It made it a really special thing.” In spite of their heartwarming connection, Romani was initially out of Hart’s price range. She moved on and tried other horses, but kept comparing them to how she felt while riding Romani. The mare’s breeders were willing to work with Hart, given her and Romani’s exceptional partnership, and allowed her some time to gather the necessary funds. It turned into a group fundraising event, led by Barbara Summers, who was the first to jump in and lend a helping hand. “It’s incredibly humbling because I didn’t think it would happen. The Pennsylvania community really pulled together and it was just so amazing. It took six months, and everyone— my family, Margaret Duprey, William and Sandy Kimmel – was absolutely phenomenal.”
Keep Calm & Ride On
In mid-February, Hart and Romani traveled to Ocala, FL as a pit stop before their first competition together in late February in Wellington, FL. Hart’s coach, Missy Ransehausen of Blue Hill Farm in Unionville, PA, had yet to see the mare and how the duo performed. Hart says she is definitely working towards the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics with Romani. “She’s such a cool, cool mare, and with her talent and brains, we should have a good chance.”
Hart candidly spoke about the challenges of not only international competition, but also of riding with a disability. “It’s challenging to get both yourself, mentally and physically, and your horse in the right moment at the right time for everything to fall into place. Since my disease is progressive, it’s hard to cope with the mental knowledge that six weeks or six months ago I could use this or that muscle and now I can’t. It can put you in a really dark space.” She explains that it is easy to pretend that everything is fine, but the horse always knows. “Pretending doesn’t work with horses; they feel it and read it, and it lessens everything. It is maddening.” It is that need for adaptability, that understanding that muscles could change at any moment, that also emboldens Hart. “It keeps you on your toes and ultimately makes you a better horseperson. I need to use my body in different ways and not become complacent.”
“I love being outside and being active…I used to think dressage was boring,” says Hart, also an avid rock climbing, camping, and kayaking fan. “I love speed and adrenaline; I never thought I would end up in dressage.” Growing up a horse-crazy little girl, Hart found the normalcy she craved through horses. “When I was younger and couldn’t really understand my disability, I used to think there would be this magic that would take it away. Horses are a part of that. They contribute to a partnership without judgment on any level and accept you for who you are. I was hooked.”
Hart started riding at an able-bodied hunter-jumper barn and cherished the movement and ability to run and play that horses gave her. When she discovered the athleticism, accuracy, and communication needed for dressage, however, Hart knew she wanted to not only dance with horses, but take it to the ultimate level: the Paralympic Games. “I love freestyle; it’s movement I can’t do within my own body, and with the music, we create a story. I still jump occasionally, but the silent language of dressage is really amazing.”
After the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, FL, the pair are gearing up for a spring show season overseas in Belgium and France for the CPEDI3* and then heading back to the United States for the Selection Trials and National Championships in New Jersey. It is obvious that there is something special between Hart and Romani. Will this be the mount that not only brings the highest-scoring American rider from the 2012 London Paralympics to a coveted spot in the 2016 Paralympics, but also brings home a medal? Time will tell.