The Magic Saddle – The Para Dressage Chronicles, vol. 2

The saddle was scheduled for several modifications. First, a hard hand hold with elements of adjustability. Second, D-rings added for a tie-back stirrup to be used in schooling. Third, slits in the flap to add thigh straps. Fo

Para equestrians, like many adaptive athletes, use specialized equipment, which has to neutralize the detracting ways the body works so para riders can ride effectively and safely. In para dressage, there are standard, profile-specific, and non standard compensating aids. Work with professionals to ensure any equipment you use is safe for you and your horse. Make sure to review the current para dressage rules before using any modified equipment in competition.

As a grade II rider, soft and hard hand holds are profile-specific compensating aids for me. Hand holds are for riders to grab to steady their hands, to pull themselves deep into the saddle, or in case of emergency. I found that a soft hand hold didn’t anchor me as securely as I needed, it was too hard to pick up, too hard to hold onto with my right hand, and it was too long. 

I began using two individual loops attached to each front D-ring. Michel Assouline, U.S. para dressage coach, suggested these at a para clinic and were approved by the Adaptive Equipment Committee as a non standard compensating aid for me. They made a real improvement in my contact. I used my ring finger through my saddle loops and my pointer and middle finger to hold onto my looped reins. I experimented with different materials (different kinds of spur straps, a curb lip strap, paracord), length, how to make them easiest to pick up, and what gaits to use them in. The most successful version was nylon spur straps with tubing to keep them open. I used the loops during all trot work and in all walk movements except the free walk.

Last summer, I sought out advice via video review with Rebecca Hart, a Paralympic para dressage rider. When I trot, my spasticity triggers causing my legs to become stiff and straight. My knee and ankle joints freeze making it hard to sit and carry my hands still. She connected me with her Paralympian teammate, Keith Newerla. He came to give me a lesson with his saddle that has a hard hand hold. He had donated this saddle to Pal-O-Mine Equestrian and they graciously lent it to me for this trial. A hard hand hold is rigidly attached to the saddle and comes in all shapes and sizes. It can help riders improve their contact by quieting their hands. After one ride, it was clear this was what I needed.

I had an essentially brand-new saddle; a Détente Novio from Colleen Meyer and Advanced Saddle Fit. I reached out to Colleen to ask for her help. I had no idea if I needed to buy a new saddle or have my saddle retrofitted with a hard hand hold. Her saddle makers in England were backlogged due to COVID and shipping in and out of the country was taking longer than normal. I began prototyping while I looked for a saddler stateside that could help. I knew how much trial and error I had done with my D-ring loops. When designing my hard hand hold (or bar as we started calling it), I knew I wanted an element of adjustability so I wasn’t sending it to a saddler every time I wanted to tweak it. I scoured social media and Google for riders with hard hand holds (see the Facebook album of what I found). The U.S. ParaEquestrian Association had a few photos in their literature and the FEI Para Dressage Rule Book has maximum height and width restrictions in addition to other tack requirements. I roped my husband into making prototypes with aluminum and steel rods. I had to consider things like height, width, shape, and thickness. We were trying things way out of the box, the first version slid through the D-rings on my saddle and secured and stabilized with everything from Vetwrap, duct tape, chop sticks, para cord, hair ties, and electrical tape – and it worked! We made several versions and with some practice with each version, I began to formulate what worked and didn’t work. This helped me determine exactly how I wanted my saddle permanently modified.

While I played with the prototypes, I needed someone who could do the metal work for the bar and do the leatherwork for the saddle. Through the grapevine of Colleen and her contacts, I connected with Adrienne Hendricks, owner/founder of Adrienne Hendricks Saddlery. Colleen, Adrienne, and I had a conference call to discuss this intricate project. She was instantaneously invested and had great ideas and resources on how to make the necessary adjustments. We scheduled a date to ship the saddle from Virginia to Adrienne in Idaho. 

The saddle was scheduled for several modifications. First, a hard hand hold with elements of adjustability. Second, D-rings added for a tie-back stirrup to be used in schooling. Third, slits in the flap to add thigh straps. Fourth, Velcro added to the back of the flap for moveable back thigh blocks. Fifth, an anatomical front thigh block. Before I shipped the saddle, I took copious measurements, notes, videos, and pictures of each element. I used masking tape and wax pencils on the saddle to give Adrienne as much information as possible. I also sent her many of the pictures I had accumulated during my research.

Adrienne and I chatted often (sometimes every day) about the specifics of how I wanted the modifications and the reasons behind each of them. She was incredible; totally invested in learning how my body works and how to make this saddle the best it could be. The metal work guys got totally into it too! They wanted to the bar to be just right. We did have to restrain ourselves from delving into the rabbit holes of “what ifs,” “try this,” and “could we…” We knew that there is only so much to be done until you actually sit in the saddle and ride the horse. 

The end result was better than I ever could have imagined. Not only did I get one bar, I got TWO! These bars bolt into the “paddles.” The paddles attach to the tree and allow for the bar angle to be adjusted with a simple crescent wrench. I had successful prototypes in two different shapes, so she made them both. They are also padded and covered in calf skin. Additional ones could be made at a local HVAC or similar metal shop – sky’s the limit on bar design. The D-rings are functional and discreet. The heroes have ended up being the new thigh block and flap Velcro. I feel so safe and so secure with this front and back block configuration, I haven’t needed to use the slits for thigh straps. (Plus, less Velcro holding me on, the better.) 

I depend on the bar heavily during my warm-up as my body warms up and we get in a groove together. I hold onto it with my outside hand while also holding the rein. To turn from the outside rein, I slide my hand across the bar towards the inside. Now that I’ve spent a few weeks in the saddle, I’m really getting a feel for how to best utilize the bar to ride my best and prevent my body from disrupting Mason. I find it helps my contact and balance. The irony of it all is that I’m using the bar less than I ever would have imagined because I am so anchored by the blocks that my contact is improving.

Thank goodness for the supportive para dressage world. During my research, I spoke with other riders who use modified saddles, each told the story that it’s really just a matter of muddling through. I thought I’d share my story and my resources in hopes it might help the next para rider looking for a modification. If you are that rider: Any of the people mentioned or tagged in my Facebook album were incredibly kind and helpful. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them or me. Good luck!


The Para Dressage Chronicles, vol. 1

March/April 2021

Sprieser Sporthorse and Clearwater Farms has been a thing of my dreams since I started my para dressage journey. In the very beginning, in May 2018, I met Lisa Hellmer through Sprout Therapeutic Riding Center. Lisa was then the assistant trainer at Sprieser Sporthorse. Since then I have occasionally visited the pristine barn and beautiful ring. Watching the spectacular horses and riders in their strategized, competition-oriented programs helped me formulate what it might take for me to ride at the highest level of para dressage of which I’m capable. 

And, here we are! Thanks to Lauren Sprieser, grand poobah of Sprieser Sporthorse; Amanda Fitze, Mason’s owner; and my incredible village who has made it financially possible, Mason arrived at Sprieser Sporthorse on March 4th, 2021. Ours is a new partnership. He is the principal in our dance company; the chaperone to my developing dressage education.  His CV includes upper-level training under respected names with pretty ribbons at a multitude of prestigious shows. He’s stoic, sensible, kid-friendly, food motivated, and oh-so-dreamy. Lauren; Karrigan, assistant trainer; Rachel, barn manager; Calah, working student; and Emma, working student have keen and exacting eyes on Mason and me was we “go to college” together.

Our first month was time for all of us, horse and humans, to get to know one another. At first, he was like an ascetic house guest, continually in a state of ready apology for any misgiving – we’re talking ultra-polite. Now that we’ve spent some time together, the shell is beginning to crack. A first order of business was to halter and bridle him from my scooter – each time two ears pop out from the crownpiece, I stuff a cookie into his maw. He now parks his nose in my crotch whenever he is remotely peckish – it’s quite unsightly. Many of the horses in the barn have taken a liking to the “cookie cart.” We have had zero miscommunications grooming or tacking up, it’s like someone has been picking out his feet from a scooter his entire life. 

Determining the best way and place to mount has been more puzzling for the people than it has been for Mason. The ladies who help me are beyond knowledgeable and capable and rival politeness with Mason. It is a bit presumptuous of me to ask them to shove my broken body aboard the horse they don’t know in a way that brings near strangers into close bodily contact during a time we’ve become accustomed to six feet of social distancing. All this intensified by my cries of, “Do it faster!” “Push harder!” and “You won’t hurt me.” Oy vey. They have been brilliant, and fortunately, I haven’t stuff treats into their mouths. Although, now that I think about it, some baked goods, at the very least, are probably in order. Again, zero mishaps mounting and dismounting thus far.

Mason has been doing more babysitting and, well, sitting, than working over the winter. I shouldn’t judge, I did a lot of nothing over our wet winter too. We have been getting in shape together. We started with walking in brief, 20-minute stints as to not exacerbate Mason’s old suspensory injury and for Karrigan, Mason, and I to get to know one another. Plus, when there are only two gaits in your tests, there is plenty to keep busy in the walk. The trot work came in short, uneventful bursts for a few weeks and now we are up and running.

Whilst all this getting-to-know-each-other was going on, we began the equipment assessment. Each horse (and rider for that matter) is a unique little snowflake, so the solutions that were magical for Robin haven’t been so for Mason. Tack has to be safe, effective for communication, and acceptable for competition. Problemo numero uno: reins. I have reduced grip strength and dexterity in my right hand. With Robin, looped reins worked like a charm. Thus far, we’ve eliminated those and Correct Connect reins (Velcro reins and gloves) from the list of possibilities. Finding what doesn’t work is almost as useful as finding what does work; also, walking the line between giving something a fair trial, but not chasing it down the rabbit hole. The current winner is thick reins with hand stops. I’m on the hunt for some rubber reins with hand stops like these ones. (PS If you’re reading this from a manufacturer or tack shop and you’d let us trial your reins, that’d be awesome!) Something we have decided on, at least for now, is that the elastic inserts in the reins work for us.

Saddle modifications to increase the stability in my contact and security for my seat have been in the works since October 2020 (remember that snowflake comment? Smh). I sent it off just two weeks after Mason arrived. We’re using my old saddle which isn’t optimal for either of us, but not hurting either of us either. Some truly ingenious work is being done and I eagerly await its return. Expect a full description of the whole story when its back!

I can’t believe how much stronger I feel now that I’m riding five, six, sometimes seven days a week when I get to sit on Robin too. Everything seems to be a little bit easier – rolling over in bed, getting in and out of the car, getting my saddle up to the back or saddle rack. Sometimes I forget that this is indeed therapy for my body, not just my spirit. I’m getting used to the new routine – the little bit farther drive that takes a little bit longer, through fields of cows instead of highways. My heart pitter-patters when I drive down the driveway to see Mason greeting me through his half-door. Mason is still a little perplexed as to why this lady won’t just put her legs on his sides, the poor guy. He hasn’t faltered. He hasn’t taken one misstep. And now that I’ve jinxed myself on all counts, I’ll probably drop my saddle, fall off the mounting block, bust my reins, and Mason will spook at something, but if I manage to get both feet in the stirrups, it’ll have been a great day.

A Tale of Two Horse Shows

Spoiler alert: this story has a happy ending, but it was a bit dicey getting there. Some of the lessons I learned are general to the world of dressage in the digital age and some are specific to para. Of course, I had no idea what I didn’t know and really bumbled through the process. There were several minor and one profuse apology along the way. 

Read on, PLEASE learn from my mistakes! In my area, there doesn’t seem to be any other para riders showing in para classes, so it’s unchartered territory for everyone. My horse show experience is almost exclusively in the hunter realm from 1994 to roughly 2012 where there were no ride times, digital entries, or emailing show secretaries! I am totally new to online entries and dynamic, digital show schedules and scores. I should have asked the following questions and taken steps early in the registration process to have avoided some snafus.

  1. Do memberships, Safe Sport training, horse recordings well in advance of registering for horse shows. The memberships take a few days to be official and if there are errors, they can be caught and corrected early. Get coggins and vaccines in PDF format.
  2. Find USDF-sanctioned horse shows offering para on the USDF calendar. Check the prize list as soon as it’s posted online. Am I planning to ride more than one para test? Are there two para TOC classes listed on the prize list? If not, can accommodations be made?
  3. Send the show secretary USEF classification/dispensation and blank tests after getting answers about para TOC classes. 
  4. Ask about ride times, can I request riding back to back early in the process?
  5. Bring hard copies of all documents submitted online to the horse show. Also, have digital version available for easy emailing from my phone.
  6. Use the digital tools! Check ride times early and often on the online platform.

There were two rated shows sanctioned for para still standing on the USDF website after all the cancelled shows due to coronavirus. Snags from the beginning! I created an account on and went to register – oh, no! The classes I wanted to enter weren’t there. I emailed the show secretary and got the following response, “We aren’t offering para. We had it on our prize list for years, but never had entries.” I was devastated because USDF had listed them as being sanctioned for para. I sent a pleading response and she offered to ask show management. Eureka! They agreed. I kept plugging away on the entry – what?!  They only offered one para test of choice (TOC) and one musical freestyle (MFS). I needed two TOC classes; again, emailed the show secretary, she said, “Just register for the MFS and I’ll correct it later.” Phew! Ok, all ahead go. (This was a hard lesson learned later!) As the show approached, we still had outstanding items: Ann-Louise’s Safe Sport certificate, vaccinations, sending dispensations. Once the entries were submitted through the website, all corrections were sent directly to the show secretary via email. I finally got the clearance that everything was done. Now it was horse show time. 

In the COVID era of horse showing, there was a very socially distanced check-in process and *gasp* I didn’t have my membership cards with me. I didn’t think I would need them because I had put all of that information into the system when I registered, whoops! Fortunately, they were able to look them up on the spot. Then I had an outstanding late fee (because of all the stuff I had turned in late) which I paid with Venmo. God bless technology! The show manager tracked me down and said some incredibly encouraging words and conveyed they were so pleased to have someone entered in the para classes.

As a Grade II rider, my tests are ridden in a 20 x 40 ring. At this facility, there was room for an entire ring and warmup space for me. My tests went great. The judge loved Robin. We got scores that qualified us for Nationals. All was well.

Seeing as the first rated show went so well and we now had Nationals on the horizon, Ann-Louise and I thought we should get another big horse show under our belts. (Robin didn’t weigh in, but I’m sure he would have been in favor.) I dutifully logged into the online platform thinking this time would be a breeze. I had all the memberships done, waivers signed, vaccines, coggins, and Safe Sport. I double checked their online prize list. Yup, para TOC and para MFS were both listed. There was only one TOC, so I signed up one para TOC and one para MFS with my grade and test choices. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom I was feeling like maybe I had the hang of something. WRONG! The show secretary said I could not enter the MFS as a second TOC. Also, there was a discrepancy between Robin’s USEF card and my online entry. I hastily replied that this is what I had done at my other horse shows (of course omitting the fact that “my other horse shows” included two schooling shows and one rated show). She quickly informed me that this was not common and I should not have presumed that I could swap classes. Also, the discrepancy was not to be brushed off and that needed to be dealt with ASAP. She, of course, was right. My best course of action would have been to contact her ahead of time to see if two TOC was an option. I had assumed that because the first show had handled it this way that it was common practice. Unfortunately, my eagerness and inexperience came across as presumptiveness and arrogance. Enter my immediate, profuse, and very sincere apology. How could I possibly have made such a blunder? I was a wreck and contemplated scratching all together! I tried to be calm; technically, she never said it couldn’t happen and I not-so-patiently, but quietly waited for a response. I contacted USEF to get Robin’s registration fixed in the meantime. I had been the one to register him, so it defaulted to me as the owner rather than Ann-Louise. USEF graciously corrected the error without charging me the transfer fee. Then, to my amazement, the show secretary responded that they would make accommodations so I could ride both tests. Good! I was still feeling very sheepish about my gaffes, but was now focused on horse showing. 

The Tuesday before the horse show, the ride times arrived in my email. I had one ride before the lunch break and one ride after the lunch break. This was a fairly substantial hiccup for me. Conserving energy is one of my main focuses in life, not just in the riding sphere. My tests had always been back to back and I had no idea how it would go to ride an hour apart. I had not thought to ask for back to back ride times. This meant I had to reach out to the show secretary again, something I was not so keen on. I was afraid she was going to think I knew how to better schedule the rings (this couldn’t have been farther from the truth!) With a little encouragement from a friend (apparently most riders don’t want to go back to back), I emailed the show secretary again, this time very, very humbly, and asked if I could ride back to back. She said she would find out, but it indeed needed to be truly back to back. I assured her, I would come out of the ring for a few words from my trainer and march right back in. I waited and waited and waited for a response. It was Friday night, my ride times were 15 hours away with no word! I finally caved and emailed her again. About 30 seconds after hitting send, I remembered the ride times were posted online. DUH! I quickly checked, yup, my ride times had been rearranged back to back. I shot back another email telling her I found the updates and sorry for wasting her time. Goodness gracious, I felt like such a buffoon!

By show morning, I was a nervous wreck. I was so embarrassed to go face “these people.” This was a horse show where I knew more people, felt like I had more eyes on me, and I had been such a bumbling idiot through the whole registration process. I had let all of this get in my head and really lost sight of how much I love taking Robin into the show ring. As I drove to the barn, I was thinking, “If this is what big horse shows are like, I’m not sure I want to do this.” Then I saw Robin’s sweet face. Then we were at the horse show. Then I was warming up. He felt like a million bucks. Then I was in and out of the show ring. And yes, in fact, I love to do this more than anything else on the planet! 

These were some important lessons learned – from when and who to email to the confirmation that I really love this – now we’re even more ready for the next horse show. To reiterate again: get stuff done early, check the websites and prize lists early, ask questions early and humbly, have digital and hard copy documents at the ready, and use the online tools. Maybe there’s some way to let horse shows know that para riders need two para TOC classes. Maybe I’ll save that for my next series of blunders…