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On horseback, disabled Paralympians find 'freedom'
[RIO DE JANEIRO] They hobble, they sit in wheelchairs waiting to be pushed, they look helpless. Then the Paralympian riders mount their glossy horses and are transformed.
"It gives me my freedom, it gives me back my freedom," said veteran British Paralympic rider Anne Dunham, who is just a couple weeks short of 68 and has been confined to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis since she was 30.
That feeling of liberty was something expressed by rider after rider at the Paralympic dressage contest in Rio's equestrian center on Monday.
Competing in the most seriously disabled 1a category, riders talked about two distinct realities.
One is being on the ground, trapped in a crippled body. The other is being in the saddle, gifted with all the strength of a large, beautiful animal.
"I'm an equal to many people and actually I'm better than a lot of people once I'm on my horse, because I can ride," said five-time Paralympian Dunham, whose horse is called Lucas Normark.
"He's one of my best friends and he takes me around the great, wide open world." Gemma Rose Foo, from Singapore, who is just 20 and is unable to walk without help as a result of lifelong cerebral palsy, smiled joyfully when asked to describe the experience of riding.
"The horse is like legs for you," she said.
Paralympians do not participate in the riskier jumping disciplines of their able-bodied comrades. Dressage is about maintaining perfect control while performing a memorised sequence of moves.
For safety, a so-called "friendly horse" is brought to stand at the edge of the course to reassure and calm the competition horse. Riders with poor eyesight or concentration have a "caller" on hand to shout instructions.
But any form of riding remains loaded with potential danger, especially for athletes who may not be able to protect themselves during falls.
Ms Foo said that while training in Germany this March, her horse was spooked by a loud noise and she tumbled off, rupturing her spleen and forcing her into intensive therapy so that she could make it to Rio.
Just learning to ride in the first place can be the most fearsome challenge of all.
Robyn Andrews, 33, was a gifted child figure skater in Canada when she was found to have a brain tumour. Then surgeons hit the main artery while trying to relieve pressure on her brain and she suffered a massive stroke.
Ms Andrews was completely paralysed.
"She couldn't blink," her mother Diana said.
At 17, Ms Andrews entered a therapeutic riding course - not so much to learn equestrianism as how to function at all. Progress was gruelling: eight years passed before she could even stay on the horse without someone there to hold her on.
Now she's a Paralympian. Dressage even brings back some of the old thrill she once knew on the figure skating rink.
"There's a similarity," she said.
"There are the patterns and you have to remember it."
Finland's Katja Karjalainen also sees the horse as a kind of door back to happier times.
Ms Karjalainen, 54, is badly disabled, having lost coordination in her legs and all but a little eyesight in one eye due to a severe neurological condition that struck when she was 26.
Once, though, before the crumbling of her body, she was fit and agile.
"When I was healthy, I was running hurdles, so running is something for me, always has been," she says.
Then she closes her ruined eyes and smiles.
"When I'm on horseback I have a memory of my life before my disease," she says.