High Performance
in Para Dressage

23 August 2017

Britain is the undisputed champion of Para dressage.

The nation has maintained an undefeated team record at every Paralympic Games and European and World Championships since its introduction in 1996.


Not bad going for a small island with a population of 65 million – around 10 million of which are disabled.


According to Para-Equestrian Dressage Performance Manager Sarah Armstrong, the success is down to two things: sheer hard work and the strong foundation provided by the Riding for the Disabled (RDA).


“We are extremely lucky to have the RDA,” she said. “It’s quite a unique thing. Other countries are latching onto it, but Britain has been doing it a long time, and it gives such a great grounding.


“We also have a series of training programmes that help us find talent and help disabled riders make the decision to go from riding therapy to becoming an athlete.”



Sarah was officially appointed as Performance Manager earlier this year, but she was given the role on an interim basis back in 2015, just 10 months before the Rio Olympics.


It was quite an undertaking, considering the team’s previous winning form. However, Sarah was already Head of Performance Operations for the World Class Programme, so she knew the discipline and the riders involved. Under her guidance the team maintained its incredible record.


So what exactly does her job involve?


“I co-ordinate delivery of training for the athletes, and the human and equine sports science support, such as the vet and physiotherapist,” explains Sarah. “Someone has to make decisions and that’s me, but it only works because we are such a close-knit team. That is our strength.”

If I was going to change my career, then why not work at the Olympics?

Team work is vital in any sport, but it is particularly important for disabled athletes, who require specialist equipment, carers and physiotherapists around the clock. Getting a squad to a championship requires a massive logistic effort.


“There is team spirit and camaraderie in all sport, but it’s different in para sport,” states Sarah. “Getting a para rider down the centre line is a team effort because they cannot do it on their own.


“Some lower grades need carers to get on their horse. They also need buggies and a chair – and all that equipment has to get from A to B.


“This is why we tend to hunt as a pack. All the horses are on the way to Sweden on one lorry, and the athletes fly out as a team. That’s really important.”



Details and Timing


Sarah has years of experience ensuring every detail has been attended to, in order to ensure the best performance. She started her career working in the city in asset management, selling shares. It was the minute details and timing of the deals that made a difference, and she now applies the same methodical approach to sport.


“With para dressage it’s about the details,” say Sarah. “The margins are so tight that every single tiny point of a percentage can be the difference between a medal or not. And a horse and rider’s performance depends on the preparation.”


Preparation for the Europeans has been vigilant, as always. Sarah says they have left “no stone unturned” and she is excited about the three new combinations competing in Sweden.


New Combinations


Joining Paralympic gold medallist Sophie Wells, who is competing in her ninth championship, are debutants Suzanna HextNatasha Adkinson and Julie Payne.


“We have some really exiting combinations coming through, and if you’re going to give them the opportunity to compete on a world stage, now is time to do it,” she says.


“It’s not smart taking new combinations to Tokyo, which is why we want to give them experience in the first year of the quad – which goes from one Olympics to the next. The end goal is always the delivery of medals at the Paralympics – the rest is really important, but it’s part of the journey to that goal.”



“When para athletes are in the zone at a competition they get that steely look that says, ‘I’m going to do it and I’m going to smash it’.”

It was the London Olympics that helped Sarah reach her own, personal end goal – which was to combine her passion for horses with her career.


London had just been announced as the venue for the 2012 Games, and Sarah decided she wanted to be a part of it.


“That was my inspiration. I thought if I was going to fundamentally change my career, then why not work at the Olympics?” she laughs. “Then I saw an advert in Horse & Hound for a job with the BEF and thought, ‘I could do that job!’ ”


She certainly could, and Sarah joined the BEF in 2007, delivering operational support at the Hong Kong Olympics, and has been there ever since.


“When I arrived I genuinely thought, what have I come to?” she remembers. “I’d gone from a large international firm to a small federation in sport. It all felt a bit provincial at first, but it’s been a great 10 years. I’m very lucky I don't ever wake up and not want to go to work.”



It’s surprising Sarah finds time to sleep, as alongside her role as Performance Manager, she is still Head of Performance Operations. This job sees her running performance programmes across all disciplines, so how does managing the para dressage squad compare?


“I love working for them because they’re the best, but also because they are really feisty!” Sarah says. “When para athletes are in the zone at a competition they get that steely look that says, ‘I’m going to do it and I’m going to smash it’.


“That’s the same across all disciplines, but I think para athletes have very strong characters and such drive. Their ethos is that their disability is not going to beat them and they want to show the world how good they are.


“They are massively rewarding people to be around.”


Text by Charlotte Ricca-Smith

Images by Liz Gregg & Jon Stroud




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