Paradressage Dream with Sarone du Toit

Lusitano - the perfect Paradressage Equine Partner

02.04.2016

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TEXT Lusitano World

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PHOTO Rita Fernandes

Sarone is a para dressage rider who truly inspired all Lusitano World team. Born with Cerebral Palsy, horses entered her life as therapy for her disability. Nowadays Sarone is a remarkable paradressage rider, whose goals include to compete in the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Canada and the 2020 Paralympics. Sarone arrived at Portugal alone, 3 days before the crowed and typical Golega Fair 2015. Her goal: to find a Lusitano Horse to compete in the international para dressage stage. From the 1st minute we meet her we understood she was “special” and her story would be an inspiring example to share. Joy, will and courage are a constant in Sarone’s life that we bring you in this interview by Lusitano World.

Talking with Sarone about her Riding Condition

LW: How did horses become a part of your life?
SdT: I started riding as therapy for my disability, Cerebral Palsy. When I started riding at 6, I could not walk properly and had a lot of mobility and balance issues, I use to fall over a lot! I started competing at 12 and the rest is history. Now, I walk almost normally, but still have some balance issues. I am able to ride a few horses a day and lead a nearly normal, active life.

LW: You were born with Cerebral Palsy – how did your condition influence your development and growth as a rider?
SdT: Cerebral Palsy causes heightened muscle tone, which means I am prone to spasticity, have a decreased range of movement, as well as balance issues. In reality it affects all four my limbs, but it is most noticeable on my left side. Part of having CP means that there is a delay in the nerve signal between the brain and muscles, which is also often interrupted. For instance, I can feel some of my toes move in my head, but I can’t actually move them! This means that learning new motor skills often takes longer than for normal people. So everything happens a bit slower for me and requires a lot more practice and repetition to create an ‘automatic’ muscle response. My responses and motor skills are also slightly delayed so my body a few seconds longer to respond to certain types of stimuli. This has made riding very challenging, but also very rewarding and important. 

It took me 20 years to learn to relax my body on a horse and get my heels almost flat, although I still get muscle tightness and tension when there is unexpected movement or it’s a new horse, saddle or movement.

LW: You have a growing career as Grade III FEI Para Rider - what are your dreams as a dressage sport rider?
SdT: As a Para rider I want to compete in the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Canada and the 2020 Paralympics in the foreseeable future. My focus has now shifted to doing more international competitions in Europe as well as training there. Of course, I would also like to ride Grand Prix against some normal riders!

LW: And you work hard to achieve those goals - tell us a bit more about your path and the equine partners who came along with you in the journey.
SdT: My path with horses has been far from easy, but hard work, dedication and support always wins out. I am very fortunate to have a mother who has always supported my equestrian dreams a 100% and we have both made a lot of sacrifices for it. I frequently went to ride before school, at 5am in the morning, and she was always happy to take me, as well as convincing the schools to give me a week off so that I could go and compete at championships.

I started competing in Para Dressage in 2002 and have always been a Grade 3 rider, because my disability doesn’t get worse. Since then I have won 7 National Championships and been runner up twice. I have also won many Regional championships. I represented South Africa at Junior Internationals and the 2007 World Para Dressage Championships, when I was 17. I always compete at the International Para Competitions in South Africa, frequently winning or being runner up. I have been shortlisted for two Paralympics and World Equestrian Games.

During this path I have had so many fantastic equine partners over the years, from Shilleilagh Shannon and Rosemary, the Vlaamperde, who gave me my first taste (and wins) of competition and Inschallah Diva and Ziza who helped me qualify for Worlds in 2007 and WEG in 2010.

Cerebral Palsy causes heightened muscle tone. This means that learning new motor skills often takes longer than for normal people, what makes riding very challenging, but also very rewarding and important. It took me 20 years to learn to relax my body on a horse. 
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Lusitano – the perfect equine partner

LW. During 2015 you started your search for a new dressage partner. Can you describe what was the “dream horse” you had envisioned?
SdT: During 2015, after qualifying for the Rio 2016 Paralympics, I decided to start looking for a horse in Europe. The ideal para horse has to have a fantastic temperament, be very safe and yet be sensitive. The horse has to be very correct in the way of going, as in Para Dressage correctness is awarded over flashy movement. They have to be robust and reliable so that you can enter the tough International competition season without too much worry. It requires a lot of travelling all over Europe in a relatively short space of time and the horses have to adapt calmly and quietly to new environments quickly. At the same time, I also wanted a horse that would be capable of doing at least National Grand Prix, the budget was very limited as I have no sponsors, so it was a big ask to find everything I needed!

LW. Why did you consider the Lusitano breed as a top choice for your Para Dressage equine partner?
SdT: I have always been attracted to the Iberians, especially the Lusitanos, because they are renowned for their temperament, exceptional work ethic and robust hardiness. They also have smoother movement than a lot of the other horse breeds, which helps if you have balance issues.

Furthermore I think the Lusitanos are still bred with the proper functionality in mind, while the breeders are improving the breed for sport. Because of the better functionality, there is less incidence of all the health issues like tendon problems, propensity for colic etc, which all has a severe impact especially in competitive horses. I also specifically liked the classical schooling done in Portugal, because I base my training on this at home.

LW. It was with Lusitano World that you found the perfect horse you felt in love with. Can you describe us how was the search process with LW team?
SdT:
 Lusitano World is super professional during the whole process. After giving Filipa the brief of what was required, she immediately started asking for more information and really took the project on board. I had to let her know on very short notice that I was able to come and view horses. This happened to be during the fantastic Annual Horse Fair at Golega.

From meeting me at the airport, right until the end of my time in Portugal everything was arranged, great accommodation, transport, everything you can think of. What I like the most is that she rides every horse she has to offer that is under saddle, so she can offer you exactly what you are looking for and you fine tune it from there.

The first horses we went to try, she was happy to sit on the horse first and discuss what she is feeling with you. She also paid attention to how I rode and what I required, which was very important. I think I tried almost 20 horses in 5 days in Portugal and Filipa was always there and ready to help, providing suggestions, input and communicating with the owners and riders. During the whole process you could see that she had the best interests at heart, for everyone involved, including the horse. Constant communication and facilitation means that the whole process was easy and mostly stress free even when I was back in SA. Not many people will call you at 10pm on a Friday to discuss your horse!

LW. How important was it for you to have the support and advice of Lusitano World in this process?
SdT: Reliable advice and support during any process is vitally important, but more so if you are dealing with people in a country you don’t know and you don’t speak the language! The advice and support from Lusitano World has always been objective, up front and honest without any hidden agendas (rare in any business). They present you with all the available options, give their input and leave you to make the decisions without any pressure. I know I can always contact Filipa and she will do her best to help, no matter the situation. Throughout this process Lusitano World team become friends with their clients.

Finding “the one” – Boreas d’Alem

LW. You rode Boreas for the 1st time at the crowded Golega Fair. Tell us all about the day you first met and rode Boreas.
SdT: Boreas was actually the first horse that Filipa sent me a video of and we both agreed that he might be a good match. Getting on him the first time was quite daunting, because as anyone who’s been to the Golega Fair can tell you, it is absolutely crazy there! His rider, Nuno warmed him up for me so that I could see how he worked and reacted in a very busy environment. Filipa also rode him a bit with different aids so that I could see how he reacted to a strange rider. Then they got me on - I have some difficulty getting on and need help - and off I went to ride this stallion in a crowded 20x60m indoor with about 12 other horses, including stallions, mares and youngsters. I was nervous but he never put a foot wrong and worked out very fast what I wanted and what the adapted aids meant. In the first ride we were able to do half pass, flying changes and advanced work, including passage and piaffe and even the owner and rider remarked on the quality of the work and that we seemed to connect. He totally convinced me of his temperament that, coupled with light, classical schooling made him very easy to ride after working out the new aids.

 

LW. After riding Boreas for the 2nd time you immediately reserved the horse although you were still going to travel to Spain to see some more horses. Was this the moment you took your decision to have him for life?
SdT: Before going to Portugal I had already been to the Netherlands to try horses. I especially liked Boreas from the first time that I saw his video and he stayed in the back of my mind. I went to try almost 30 horses in Spain, but in general the quality of horses and their schooling was not on the same level as in Portugal. Of those in Portugal my two top choices were Boreas and his brother Zeus - but Boreas just gave me a special feeling and we clicked.

LW. Describe us Boreas, your dream equine partner – what makes him so special?
SdT: Boreas is my little warrior horse, he is just willing to cope with anything you throw at him, whether it is teaching him new aids or taking him to France to do his first ever dressage test at an International Paralympic Qualifier under stressful conditions. Even when he gets tense he is always safe, willing to work and accommodate his rider which is very important. 

He has some tension issues and needs to be competed more, but no-one is perfect. He is very gentle and quiet to handle, not at all like a stallion! He loves scratches, cuddles and hanging out with his human in the stable and his FAVOURITE thing is Palmiers cookies. It’s hard to describe what makes him special, it’s just his personality and the energy he gives off. When I ride him I know we can do Grand Prix together, because we make each other better.

LW. Why is Boreas a horse that suits Para Dressage?
SdT: As mentioned before, you need a very good temperament in a Para horse. That, along with his correctness and sensitivity makes him ideal for Para at an international level. He has expressive movement, while still being very smooth and easy. He is very easy to handle and never takes advantage of a situation. Even after standing for 2 days next to a mare in transport from Portugal to France, he arrived at the competition calm and ready to work, with no tiredness. He went into the huge competition indoor, with all its decorations and noise and did his first ever dressage test calmly, quietly and obediently. Not much can beat the extraordinary work ethic, adaptability and big hearts of the Lusitanos.

Competing with Boreas at an International Para Dressage level

LW. What are your goals with Boreas d’Alem?
SdT: My goals for the remainder of the year is to provide Boreas with competition exposure, structure his training so that he becomes completely well rounded and we are ready to start our campaign for 2018 WEG. This will be hard to achieve, since I have no sponsors yet and I am still based in South Africa.

LW. How are you planning to qualify for the ParaDressage World Equestrian Games 2018?
SdT: The qualification period for WEG 2018 starts on 1 January 2017, so we will possibly start in Genemuiden in January, or otherwise start with the summer internationals in France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

LW. We know you are starting a competition fundraising project – Lusitano World will join this project as an image sponsor. Who are your current sponsors and what other kind of sponsors are you looking for?
SdT: During the training period and competition in France, I was very lucky that the Almeida family allowed me to stay at the stud and train with their rider Nuno Silva, they have made sure that keeping Boreas with them has been stress free and affordable. Costa Brandão Transport sponsored part of Boreas’ transport to France and made sure he arrived ready to go. I can really recommend their services, they are super professional and really look after their clients. We are looking for sponsors to help with the training and keeping costs of Boreas, training trips for me to Europe, competition entry fees as well as equipment and services: farriery, health maintenance and transport. Even a few small sponsorships on a continual basis will make it much easier to achieve our dream and showcase this fantastic breed on the international stage.

LW. What are your thoughts about the Lusitano Breed in dressage sports in general? And in Para Dressage?
SdT: I think the Lusitanos are fantastic for dressage, especially now that the breeders are breeding more sport horses, while maintaining the correctness, integrity and functionality of the breed. There is a reason that the breed was the first dressage horses in the classical schools. For Para dressage specifically, I think they are fantastic, because they have such fantastic temperaments and are so reliable. The smooth but expressive movement, but sensitive nature makes them ideal for riders with impaired mobility. I think as a whole, Lusitanos are undervalued as a sport horse and have a lot to give (Internationally Rubi AR and Batuta are great examples) especially with the new breeding programs that combine Lusitano with Warmblood, giving you the best of both worlds.


LW. Do you think your story will inspire others to have a better look at the Lusitano Breed and consider it for Para Dressage and Dressage competitions?
SdT: I really hope so, it’s time for the breed to go out there and show the world how fantastic they are as sport horses. I think they can play a big role in getting international dressage back on track, away from the flashy manufactured movements, to what it should be, a horse and rider dancing lightly in harmony.

I think the Lusitanos are fantastic for dressage, especially now that the breeders are breeding more sport horses, while maintaining the correctness, integrity and functionality of the breed.

LW. You are a very inspiring rider, with lots of energy, incredible feeling and a true will to succeed. What makes you keep forward despite all obstacles?
SdT: Some days you might feel like giving up. Some days you will give up and that’s OK. But if you really, truly give up then you throw all your hard work from yesterday down the drain and you have to start over. Sometimes there might be years that you feel like you are getting nowhere, or can’t see where you are going… But keep going, because eventually you will arrive where you need to be and have the view you were meant to have.

LW. What would be your advice to any (para)dressage riders to achieve their goals and fulfill their dreams?

SdT: Work hard and when you’re done, work a bit more. Always be humble and grateful. Be willing to learn from everyone and everything, even the tough situations. Sometimes you might only learn what NOT to do. That’s fine, you’ve learnt. Do not be too hard on yourself, you’ll become your own worst enemy, always try and be a bit better than you were the day before, in everything you do, but it is OK if you fail sometimes. Make sure your goals are adaptable, because life changes, so don’t be so stuck on a goal that you get tunnel vision and can’t adapt. Very important is to understand that there will always be politics in sport, but DON’T get involved, even when it is/feels personal, because it doesn’t matter. It only benefits the other people by breaking you down. You are there to ride and do the best that you can do on that day. Keep your head down, treat everybody with respect and courtesy and carry on, no matter what the situation.