Born with a very rare genetic condition called hereditary spastic paraplegia (HSP) that keeps her from walking across a room unaided, six-time U.S. National Champion para-equestrian rider Rebecca Hart has set her sights on winning Gold at the 2014 AllTech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 (WEG) in Normandy in August.
After winning her sixth national championship on June 6, placing fourth and just behind the Bronze at the Para-Olympics in 2008 and 2012, Hart is determined to make it to the podium this time around. Hart recently returned from Denmark where she purchased what she believes is just the right mare for the job, Romani, from the prestigious Straight Horse Farm.
“What is special about this horse is she combines the athleticism and skill of a high- performance dressage horse with a very giving and adaptable intelligence and temperament,” says Hart. “It took a long time to find her, but with a horse like Romani, gold is definitely in reach.”
Riders like Hart, whose legs are less responsive and nimble than more able-bodied riders, require an animal with just the right mix of attitude and performance. If the horse is too responsive, then Hart will have trouble controlling the animal. If the horse is to slow, then Hart will not be able to complete the complex and precision steps Dressage demands.
This requires para-equestrian riders to become far more proficient than their able-bodied counterparts.
Backed by sponsors Starbucks, Margaret Duprey of Cherry Knoll Farm, William and Sandy Kimmel, and many friends and family, Hart is also riding in support of the Spastic Paraplegia Foundation and its efforts to find a cure for HSP and its ultra-rare cousin, primary lateral sclerosis (PLS). Both HSP and PLS are related to other serious central nervous systems disorders like ALS and Huntington's disease.
This year's WEG is special because it is the only international competition where para-athletes compete on the same stage as their able-bodied counterparts. Usually, para-equestrian competitions are held in the same venues but on separate dates thus lowering the profile of the riders.
“To be able to be there, we can show we are high-powered riders and equally qualified to compete on any stage in the world,” says Hart. “Yes, we have disabilities, but our abilities parallel those of able-bodied competitors. Having our events going off at the same time, being side by side, we can effectively demonstrate this.”
Rio or Bust
While the WEGs are perhaps more prestigious than the Olympics, Hart has her sights set squarely on winning Gold in Rio in 2016. If she is successful, she will significantly raise the profile of American para-equestrian riders everywhere and give the sport the big boost it needs to survive and flourish in the U.S.
“That is our ultimate goal,” says Hart. “I've been close to the podium a couple of times, and it would be as much their win as it would be my own. It would be amazing to stand on the podium and see our flag go up.”
Hart rides out of Blue Hill Farms in Unionville, PA. and, like all top-level athletes, trains at least six days a week — in between fund raising events and a full time job as a financial analyst as well as another part time job at Starbucks. She will be heading to West Palm Beach FL. in March to compete in the Certified Para-Equestrian Dressage International (CPEDI) qualifier and then on to Europe for two more qualifiers in Belgium and France.
About HSP and PLS
Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP) is a group of rare, inherited neurological disorders. Their primary symptoms are progressive spasticity and weakness of the leg and hip muscles. Researchers estimate that some 30 different types of HSP exist. The HSP incidence rate in the United States is 20,000 people. Worldwide it is estimated there are 180,000 affected individuals of all ages, genders and nationalities.
Research is progressing rapidly, and it is hoped that advances in the understanding of HSP will lead to treatments for other related disorders as well such Charcot Marie Tooth – Type II, neuropathies, ataxias, MS, Parkinson's, Huntington's, ALS, PLS, and a host of other rare and widely feared conditions.
Primary Lateral Sclerosis (PLS) is a group of ultra-rare neurological disorders caused primarily by degeneration of the upper motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord, which results in increasing spasticity and weakness of voluntary muscles. It is often referred to as a benign variant of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig's disease. The primary difference between the ALS and PLS is, in PLS, the spinal motor neurons, or lower motor neurons (LMNs), stay intact. Thus, there is no muscle wasting (amyotrophy), which is the symptom that ultimately causes fatal complications in ALS.
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