Still have Olympic fever? Not to worry, the 2012 London Paralympics kick off today, Aug. 29, with the Opening Ceremonies. Para-dressage starts Aug. 30 with the Grade II and Grade Ib team tests, and the competition runs through Sept. 4. You can find a full schedule of the events on the London 2012 website.
Sixteen countries—Great Britain, Germany, Denmark, Canada, the United States, the Netherlands, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Belgium, South Africa, Australia, France, Singapore, Mexico and Norway—will send teams to London. Eleven other countries also earned invitations to send individual competitors.
The U.S. riders spent a week training with Chef d’Equipe Missy Ransehousen at USET Headquarters in Gladstone, N.J., before heading to London. Meet this year’s team:
Rebecca Hart: age 27, Unionville, Pa.
Lord Ludger: b. g., 20 years, Holsteiner (Lord Calando—Arienne, Land of Kings/Lenz), owned by Jessica Ransehousen.
Though she’s only 27, Rebecca “Becca” Hart will head to London as the team veteran. The five-time U.S. champion is an international veteran, having attended the 2007 Para-Equestrian World Championships (Great Britain), the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Ky.) and the 2008 Paralympics (Hong Kong), where she placed fourth in her freestyle competition.
Hart competes through Prix St. Georges in able-bodied classes and trains with Missy and Jessica Ransehousen at Blue Hill Farm. She paired with Lord Ludger in 2011, and this year she won the national championship on him with a mark of 75.91 percent in the Grade II freestyle.
“ 'LoLu' and I have had quite the year together," said Hart. "He had a little bit of a reputation. Professional able-bodied riders had always ridden him, and when Missy [Ransehousen] asked if I could try him, I said OK. I put the big girl panties on and got on that horse. There was a little bit of a learning curve at first but over this year he has become my horse, which is a really special feeling. He is such a character, and I enjoy him as a horse and as a partner out there in the ring. I feel like he is finally looking to me for answers, and he is right there backing me up.”
Hart has been riding since she was a young child, starting in a hunter/jumper program and switching to dressage after watching the selection trials for the 1996 Paralympics. She has familial spastic paraplegia, a degenerative and genetic condition that causes muscle wasting and paralysis of the lower body. When she’s not riding, Hart works fulltime at Starbucks Corporate.
Jonathan Wentz: age 21, Richardson, Texas
NTEC Richter Scale: b. g., 18 years, Shire cross of unknown breeding, owned by Kai Handt.
Trainer Kai Handt paired up Jonathan Wentz and NTEC Richter Scale, a former Grand Prix horse, in 2009, and since then the pair has been a force to be reckoned with in the ring. They represented the United States at the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games and won the 2011 USEF Para-Equestrian Dressage Championship. Wentz has been working toward attending the Olympics for the last nine years.
"Richter has carried me so far, and I could have never imagined this three years ago when Kai got him. He has really stepped up to the plate as an 18-year-old, and he has delivered what we asked of him," said Wentz. "We considered WEG was going to be his last outing, but he got better and better each year.”
Wentz also serves as a team alternate with Silvano, a 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood who, until this year, competed as a jumper.
A Grade Ib rider, Wentz has suffered from cerebral palsy since birth. He’s a triple major in history, economics and political science at Southern Methodist University (Texas).
Donna Ponessa: age 51, New Windsor, N.Y.
Western Rose: b. m., 9 years, Oldenburg (Wendelin III—Grunwolke, Greenhorn), owned by Wesley Dunham.
Donna Ponessa started in the para world in 2010, and since then she’s already racked up an impressive record. She snagged the top two spots at this year’s USEF Para-Equestrian Dressage Paralymic Selection Trials in the Grade Ia division aboard Western Rose and PG Ganda, with Western Rose scoring a 73.72 percent in the team test.
Ponessa trains with Wesley Dunham of Woodstock Stables in Millbrook, N.Y.
She made her international debut last November in Mexico City at the CPEDI***. She borrowed a mount for the competition, scoring team and individual gold in the Ia division.
Ponessa began riding as a child in the hunter/jumper rings, but when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in college, she had to sell her horse. Always an athlete, she became a top wheelchair tennis player, but she missed riding. In 2007, she managed to get back in the saddle after spending two years developing her muscles so she could breathe without a ventilator. Her diagnosis was changed to rare condition called Devic’s disease, which is similar to MS and may or may not be a form of it. When she’s not in the saddle she’s a program coordinator at Putnam Independent Living Services.