Rider and groom – meet SA’s only para-equestrian team

Celebrating Rio 2016 Para-equestrian

As South Africans, we proudly celebrate persons with disabilities. We supported the recent Casual Day with great enthusiasm, helping to raise funds for people with disabilities, and we have been glued to the television watching Team SA strut their stuff at the Rio 2016 Paralympics.

One of the most riveting events taking place is the Para-Equestrian Dressage. Watching the harmony that exists between horse and rider as they dance their way around the arena is like watching horse ballet. Philippa Johnson from Cape Town was the only South African woman to be chosen for this year’s event. Philippa has brought home the goods before, winning the first-ever Paralympic equestrian gold medal for SA at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics and achieving silver in the Athens Paralympics in 2004.

From tragedy to glory

Philippa was disabled after a car accident in 1998, losing all her strength in her right arm and 60 percent in her right leg. Within a year she’d learned to ride again. But tragedy struck when, just a day before an important competition, she tried to mount her horse without help and lost her balance and fell, breaking her back. In spite of these physical disabilities, she has become a successful international para-equestrian rider and is the pride of our Paralympian team. (Atlantic Chiropractic Health & Massage, Bio-Dynamics Institute. The Point)

Behind every great woman …

Whilst our athletes are undoubtedly brilliant, they are only as good as the team behind them. In Philippa’s case, she works with experienced groom Mieke Wirix and the world-renowned coach Chis Haazen whose motto is “Laugh every day and love your riding”.

When you are a groom for a para-equestrian rider, it is about so much more than just “brushing the horse”.  In dressage, the rider must prompt the horse to perform intricate movements, such as steps, trots and canters, as well as freestyle routines that are choreographed to music. So you can guess that it takes a special horse to perform this complicated ballet (in Philippa’s case, this is a gorgeous equine fellow named Lord Louis). It also takes a special groom to look after both horse and rider.

The para-equestrian rider may have specific challenges with balance, coordination, timing and strength and often requires physical assistance from the groom. Part of the groom’s responsibility is taking care of the equipment that is used. Special equipment such as Velcro straps or modified saddles may be required and, as the sport has one of the highest injury rates, the groom’s attention to detail has to be exact.

In para-equestrian sport, the horse needs to be especially even-tempered and it is the groom’s job to ensure that the animal maintains its balanced temperament and accepts any special equipment.

It’s hard work

A day in the life of the groom is a long one, beginning with the dawn feeding of grain and supplements and ending when the rider decides to call it a day. The horse’s diet is hugely important and the onus is on the groom to liaise with the vet on this matter. The groom will also collect information for the vet such as temperature and food and liquid intake. Then there are the normal grooming duties of cleaning and exercising, and ensuring the horse is in pristine condition both mentally and physically.


The bond between the groom and the rider is also massively important, given that the para-equestrian has to deal with immense pressure and physical challenges. In the arena of Paralympic equestrian events, a groom needs to be a combination of vet’s assistant/social worker/sports psychologist/friend/supporter. The groom travels extensively to various events so it’s not a job for stay-at-home-lovers or those who do not enjoy the social whirl of the sporting world. But the rewards are many, especially when the groom is there to witness horse and rider achieve the ultimate glory – competition wins and gleaming medals and trophies.

Celebrating support workers

Perhaps, in addition to Casual Day, we need to have a day that celebrates those who work behind  the scenes to support our physically disabled athletes. Go Team SA!

Wellness | Active

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