It might look easy but many say dressage is the toughest equestrian discipline of all.

Dressage is about perfect communication and precision riding. And in the sport of para equestrian, the riders have taken an even tougher path to the Horse of the Year Show competition ring.

Para equestrian is for people with all types of disabilities, says para equestrian Jodie Thorn.

"It is graded into five grades. Grade one is for the most impaired people – the most disability and the most co-ordination and balance issues," she said.

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"I'm in grade one – all of our tests are just a walk.

"Grade five is for the least-impaired riders and they have to do everything up to canter.

"I've got FSH muscular dystrophy which is a degenerative weakness of the muscles. I was diagnosed when I was 12.

"I can swing my leg but I can't squeeze – so I can do little nudges and I use my whip as a go aid but we've trained my horse to go off my breath and my clicks. She should go forward off that and, if she doesn't, I give her a little tap with the whip."

Grade 4 para equestrian Louise Duncan said the sport allowed several aids.

"We are allowed to have rubber bands on our boots to help keep our feet in place, magnets in our stirrups," she said. "If we lose a stirrup, we can find it easier. Bow Balance ones are designed so that when you lose it, it falls a certain way."

"Some riders are allowed Velcro on their reins so that they don't lose it or they are allowed loops in their reins so that they can grab the reins easily when they drop them, or loop them around their hands. There are a lot of different aids available for people.

"I had meningitis when I was 17. I also had a stroke. I was paralysed from the neck down and I was unable to walk. So I had to earn to walk again.

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"I still have issues from my stroke with balance – just everyday things – dexterity with my fingers, strength in my legs and movement."

While equestrianism can be a solitary activity, both riders say para equestrian is anything but.

"It is really a big community and we really support each other," Duncan said.

"We are all there for the ups and the downs, highs and lows.

"It has kept me riding – after my meningitis I was really struggling to be able to compete, because you have to do sitting trot and things like that and I was not able to.

"Para has made a huge difference for me and my confidence and just for me riding. I just love it – it's made the world of difference."

Thorn says para equestrian enables people with a disability to compete on a level playing field.

"We can get out to shows such as this and go and have that big atmosphere and compete in this amazing facility once a year alongside all the other equestrian sports, so it is a really inclusive environment."

Para equestrian is steadily increasing throughout New Zealand, with many groups providing para competitions.

Those interested in taking up the sport should contact Equestrian Sports New Zealand, which has para equestrian as one of its five divisions.

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