What is Para Dressage?

By Natalie South – Rockability Dressage


When riders are asked about their favourite dressage riders, people will always say Charlotte Dujardin, or Carl Hester. As much as I do like these two riders, I would have to say my favourite riders are Lee Pearson and Stiina Kaarstrup. These two aren’t dressage riders. They are para dressage riders.


So, what actually is para dressage?

Well, grab a cuppa, and settle down for a bit of an insight into the world of para dressage!


First things first, the “para” in para dressage means parallel (not paralympic, which is what people usually think it means!). Para dressage is dressage, but created for riders with a disability, or impairment. Just because we have a disability, doesn’t mean we don’t want to compete. Parallel dressage – we want to be treated the same as non-para dressage riders.

Riders who compete in para dressage are put through a classification process, and they are graded according to their impairment. The grades range from Grade 1 (the most impaired) to Grade 5 (the least impaired). Riders compete within their grades (so, essentially people with the most similar impairments), to ensure the competition is on a level playing field, and no one is at a disadvantage due to their impairment.

Just like non-para dressage, we have the same competition structure of Bronze, Silver and Gold levels. Each grade has one bronze test, one silver test and two gold tests.


One thing that sets us apart are approved use of compensating aids. These are aids that the BEF/FEI approve, to enable us to ride, and ensure we are on that level playing field I mentioned earlier. To be able to have compensating aids, we have to go through a process of requesting the aids, and they go through a panel of classifying physiotherapists, who look through the request and the supporting evidence to decide if we are allowed the aids we have applied for.

Compensating aids are not there to put us at an advantage, they are simply there to compensate for our physical limitations, to enable us to ride a horse. Compensating aids come in a TON of different forms, a lot of which you probably can’t see. To give you an example of what it may include, on my compensating aids, I have:

  • Rubber bands to stirrups – these are to hold my feet in the stirrups, as without them, my feet would come out
  • Voice – usually, you would get marks deducted for use of voice, but the horses I ride are “voice activated” to back up my lack of leg aid, so I am allowed to use my voice without any penalty
  • Two whips – similar to voice, I use two whips to act as my legs, as my legs are pretty ineffective! So, having a whip on either side means I can use them as though they are my legs.


When we look at the different Grades of rider, it doesn’t mean the difficulty level of the test, it’s our grade of impairment. Put simply, Grade 1 tests are walk only, Grade 2 tests are walk and a little bit of trot, Grade 3 is walk and more complex trot movements, Grade 4 is walk, trot and canter, and Grade 5 is walk, trot and more complex canter movements. Just because our grades dictate what movements we perform in the para dressage tests, it doesn’t necessarily mean we cannot do the more complex movements in our lessons. Also, a lot of para riders choose to compete at non-para competition too. So don’t be alarmed if you see riders with compensating aids!


So, what if you want to get involved in para dressage? I would definitely recommend contacting your local RDA centre (even if you are not disabled, they are always looking for volunteers!), and begin the journey there. The RDA has yearly dressage regional competitions, and a yearly National Championship competition at Hartpury College. I started my para dressage journey through RDA. Even if you’re not sure you could do it, give it a go, it’s definitely worth it! There is even a whole route of para showjumping, if dressage isn’t your thing.

So, hopefully see you out and about at a competition soon!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *