Most horsemen and horsewomen are born into the lifestyle. Villa Maria Academy graduate Rebecca Hart is the opposite. Her introduction was mere happenstance.
Hart and her family were returning from vacation when she spotted a roadside pony ride.
At the time, Hart was a child – 8 or 9 years old – and she begged her father to pull over so that she could ride a pony.
“I was shrieking in the backseat,” she said. “(My father) had to stop. I got on this pony and I was hooked.”
Hart asked her parents if they could find her somewhere to ride near home in Erie. They did, and she began learning from instructor Ray Herhold at Hobby Horse Farm in Fairview. Twenty-five years later, Hart is getting ready to compete in her fourth Paralympic Games in equestrian dressage for Team USA.
Hart was born with a rare genetic disease called hereditary spastic paraplegia, which is a progressive impairment that causes muscle wasting and paralysis from the middle of the back down.
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Despite her disability, she jumped into riding in what she called a normal, able-bodied lesson program.
“I’m a little bit atypical,” she said. “I didn’t start in a therapeutic program.”
In the beginning, Hart trained with hunter jumpers, horses trained specifically for jumps in equestrian. Her family did not own a horse, so she became a “barn rat,” taking care of feed and stalls in order to earn ride-time.
Hart, 36, learned about the sport of paraequestrian in 1998. Before then, she had no idea the sport existed. However, she was hesitant. Paraequestian involved only dressage, a sport where the horse and rider must perform a sequence of predetermined movements. Hart had been familiar only with the jumpers.
Still, Hart made a trip to a clinic in Alpharetta, Georgia, and there she realized her interest in dressage.
“I got to sit on my first ‘dressage’ horse,” she said. “It was fascinating, the amount of communication you can have with a horse. The finesse, the control, the balance and the power that I got out of that horse was astounding to me. I hadn’t experienced it before.”
Hart set her initial goal to compete in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. She traveled with the team as an alternate. While there, she found Norteassa, the horse she would eventually ride at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Hart has competed with different horses at each individual Games. In 2012, she rode Lord Ludger in London and, in 2016, at Rio de Janeiro, she rode Romani.
Hart is looking for her first medal after placing fourth in 2008 and 2012, and finishing ninth in 2016.
In Tokyo, Hart is planning to ride El Corona Texel, a horse owned by sponsor Rowan O’Riley. In the event of “Tex” being unable to compete, Hart has an alternate horse, Fortune 500, which is also owned by O’Riley.
“Luckily, I am my own direct reserve,” she said. “If something would happen to Tex, I would be off the team, but because my other horse, Fortune 500, is also qualified, I have my own reserve.”
Hart found El Corona Texel in the Netherlands and has been working with him for the past four years.
“It was a long process trying to find him,” she said. “You have to find a very specific horse. There’s different types of movement and personality. He’s a very dynamic and talented horse. You need to find a horse that really loves their job, wants to do it and is kind of a showman in their own right. He’s got that personality and flair.”
Hart and Tex will leave the United States for Germany on Saturday. After arriving there, they will be quarantined for 10 days in Aachen, a city on the western border, for 10 days before flying to Tokyo from Liege, Belgium.
While in Aachen, Hart and her team will be quarantined with others getting ready for the Games. She intends to study the competition among European competitors whom she has not seen since before the pandemic.
“We haven’t had any competitions with the European riders, so it’s a little bit harder to see where we’re sitting,” she said.
The flight to Tokyo will be 12 hours long, but Hart says Tex handles the extensive travel quite well. He will be equipped with hay, water and other snacks.
Hart, who was born in Pittsburgh, and her three Team USA teammates are all based in Florida. Hart and Kate Shoemaker live in Wellington. Beatrice de Lavalette lives in Lake Worth Beach and Roxanne Trunnell is from Royal Palm Beach.
Michel Assouline is the chef d’equipe, or lead trainer, for the Team USA Para Dressage Team.
Since Assouline assumed his role, the Americans have risen to the No. 1 ranking in the world, according to the FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale).
Hart is rated No. 12 among individuals while her American teammate, Trunnel, is No. 1. Hart is currently the No. 2 Grade III rider in the world, trailing only Tobias Thorning Joergensen of Denmark.
“Our selectors have chosen a good squad and I very much look forward to the journey to Tokyo,” Assouline said. “We will be facing fierce competition as several top European teams have done extremely well recently at international competitions, but we have done well, too. We have a strong, competitive group.”
The Paralympics will begin Aug. 24 in Tokyo. Para-equestrian will take place at Tokyo Equestrian Park on Aug. 26-30.
“We’re really looking forward to it,” Hart said. “We’ve been training and working really hard with the horses on the conditioning and the fitness to be able to handle the elements of Japan.
“Each Games is different and has its own different set of elements. It’s always an amazing experience to get to represent your country. Equestrian has been my lifelong passion and I’m wildly blessed.”
Contact Josh Reilly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ETNreilly.