Friday, March 26, 2021

Of The Disabled Equestrian: The Carriage Driver by Su Zi

Image: Bob Giles in his riding gear sitting on a black carriage. A white and brown horse is pulling him. The grass beneath is lush and the sky is a pure blue with trees lining the background. In front, on the bottom of the picture is a white fence with the letter "C" on it.

Horses are beautiful beings who have had their existence cast with us humans, and our civilization has been built because of their kindness in lending us their bodies, and their lives. For those of us whose bodies are atypical, it might seem to be an impossibility to meld our lives with that of a horse, but the growing programs for therapeutic equestrianism tell us, yes, it’s possible: there’s even a World Championship for Para Equestrians, with teams from many countries. Equestrianism in itself is a faceted art form, with practitioners in disciplines as varied as leaping fences and dancing in an arena, cross-country eventing to dressage to reining to carriage driving. The partnership with horses is as varied as the cultures of our Earth, because horses have been involved in human lives globally for long in our history.

Art is more than a painting in a museum. The Arts have a history and it involves real world craftsmanship, it involves all the methods of perception we have counted. The Arts also involve collaboration—Alexander Calder did not personally weld his monumental sculptures—and that craftsmanship too has a history. So it is with the horse: centuries of communication between them and us, and some of it about them to ourselves. As our culture may know ballet as art, or music as art, so too is our dance with horses an art. It’s also a physical art, because equestrianism is dancing and doing so with a partner who does not speak as we speak to each other. For those of us who speak differently, or move differently, whose strength is less than other humans, the interaction with horses opens a new view— their language, their physical beingness in our shared world.

Among equestrianism’s more exotic pursuits is the elevation of carriage driving—upon which our civilization was built—to a collaborative ballet between horse and human via the vehicle; a sight which is occasional in our culture, still with us thanks to Her and His Highnesses of England, and to the Hollywood western or occasional gladiator morality play. And thanks due to the interest of a then-young His Royal Highness, carriage driving has become an evolving sport. As para equestrianism in the saddle has evolved to include both world competitors and aide for veterans and autistic children, it behooves consideration of the art of carriage driving as well: there are those who have carriages that accept wheelchairs and who climb the logistical mountain of traveling with personal mobility aids and prosthetics, the horse and their food, equipment and special vehicles to a gathering of equestrians —the horse show.

Image: A red golf cart with a disability placard sits on the grass at sunset. 

Carriage Driving Horse Shows are specialized events, because some of the competitional elements require land— and land is ever the subject of contention among humans. It’s not as often that one sees a horse-drawn vehicle, and it’s to our loss and sometimes shame as a species. As humans consider their varying forms of existence, and as certain cultures of the globe consider social issues, and as we encounter these social issues under the mortal threat of Covid, our conversation must include disability. Carriage Driving does include disability, and even the Facebook group has over a thousand followers. There are Driving for the Disabled facilities established and more needed. “Horses are healing on so many different levels” says Boots Wright, a carriage driver of 35 years, who was “flung out of a carriage in 2008” and has had “several head injuries”. It is her red golf cart with the disability tag, and it is her international standing as an esteemed carriage driving equestrian that earned Wright the Chef D’Equip position at the 2012 World Equestrian event in Brade, Holland—and where USA ParaDriver Diane Kastema took home the gold for us.

There are associations for world equestrianism, the Federale Equestrian International, which is the governing body for that level of equestrian sport. In the United States, the American Driving Association both governs competition and seeks to include all carriage drivers of every level. To this end, Wright was involved when the ADS “events community was tasked with the creation of a program in 2017” that included Disability Dispensations, so that disabled equestrians could participate in their beloved pursuit.  

Wright fully acknowledges the art in carriage driving, and said in an in-person interview, that carriage driving is art, “because you’re not sitting on the horse, you are sitting behind it. You have two hands and only have hands, eyes, and voice [with which] to see and appreciate the horse’s body language. It can’t be taught by rote; the techniques can be taught, but the way you perceive things is in your own head.” As the artist brings the dream to the physical world, this is a physical display, a ballet, a performance of, as Wright says, “heightened senses”. Anyone who has experienced art can testify to the exhilaration of being engaged in the shared vision between artist and recipient. So too it is to see a horse swirling their beautiful bodies in concert with the hands that wisely guide. An interesting aspect to equestrianism is that the human in partnership with the horse, melds to the watching eye, becomes a centaur, a mythic being. Disabled drivers on the box can become elegance incarnate.

While indubitably every disabled person ought to have the choice of equine assisted therapy, not everyone wants to be an athlete; and while there is a para-equestrian riding team of serious athletes which has serious support, this is not as true among Disabled Competitive Carriage Drivers. Competitive Carriage Driving is itself a sport of mere thousands, with severe curtaining of travel and gathering, that events are happening at all with safety protocols is a testament of love.  The competitors are an open mix of professional equestrians and devoted amateurs, of backyard horse owners and of ones of deeper resources, and there is no distinction once the horse enters the arena at A. Although there are a few, specialized patterns for Disabled Drivers, Wright—who is a long-certified judge—says “I judge the horse not the driver [and that she doesn’t] classify or qualify a person’s disabilities”. It is the horse dancing with the human, abled or disabled, it is their performance together which is on stage.

Because of Covid’s many delays, the World Para Driving event has been rescheduled to this summer of 2021 in Shildau, Germany. Wright will be among the judges there. In the USA, there are fully capable disabled carriage drivers who are skilled enough, talented enough, dedicated enough to go as the team for America.  In the past, disabled veteran Bob Giles brought us home the silver medal, and the American team of disabled drivers have brought home bronze and gold too. Yet, this team is ever struggling for support that matches their own serious endeavor. Whilst the dark view of disability might view this as a social status quo, Covid is changing our culture and new conversations surround diversity. There are strenuous efforts to include disability in all diversity discussions, and this ought to be true for disabled athletes. As the horse equalizes us all as human, so too the horse does in carriage driving to those on the box. It’s just past time to give our support to the disabled, to disabled athletes, to disabled equestrian athletes and to both carriage driving, disabled carriage drivers and the extraordinary endeavor these athletes have made to perform as our team on the world stage.


Photographs taken at Grand Oaks CDE in January 2021. They are taken from a judge's viewpoint. 

The 2021 FEI World Championships for Singles Para Driving will take place Thursday, the 5th of August through Sunday, the 8th in Germany.
Su Zi is a poet/writer and artist/printmaker and edits, designs and constructs the eco-feminist poetry chapbook series Red Mare
Publications include poetry, essays, stories and reviews that date back to pre-cyber publishing, including when Exquisite Corpse was a vertical print publication, and a few editions of New American Writing. More recent publications include Red FezAlien Buddha and Thrice. A resident of the Ocala National Forest, with a dedicated commitment to providing a safe feeding respite for wild birds, and for a haphazard gardening practice that serves as a life model for all aspects of her work.

No comments:

Post a Comment