When watching para-dressage at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, you may have noted there was often a second horse stood quietly beside the arena. This horse is the “friendly” or “companion” horse. Friendly horses occur when a horse is allowed to stand next to the dressage arena in order to keep the competing horse company. 

Unsung Heroes of Para-Dressage: The Friendly Horse

Canadian Para-Dressage Team horse Onyx – owned by his rider, Winona Hartvikson, in partnership with Jane Macdonald and pictured with groom, Courtney Palleson (left) – had an additional duty at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games – to act as a “friendly horse” and provide companionship to other equine competitors during their tests.
Photo Credit: Jon Stroud Media

The tradition of friendly horses started in the very early years of para-dressage. It is a unique part of our equestrian discipline.

In the early years, athletes used to borrow horses to compete on. We would arrive at the competition venue and draw horses’ names out of a hat. We then usually had a few days to get to know the horses before we competed. The horses were supplied by the hosting nation and could be anything from army ceremonial horses to experienced dressage or show jumping horses. Often, they were borrowed from the local riding schools. We quickly discovered that a lot of these borrowed horses were nervous when working alone and so the simplest and safest solution was to have a “friend” in the arena with the competing horse.

Originally to fulfill this goal, the athlete who had just finished competing was required to stay in the field of play whilst the next horse competed – often this worked very well, apart from the occasional fractious or tense horse who wanted to go home or if the athletes were too fatigued to stay on the horse for longer than their test.

The next evolution was to bring in any horse who was likely to stand still and “park” them in the arena. At the Athens 2004 Paralympics, local therapy horses were found and held by a volunteer in the arena for the whole competition. Though they did shift work, allowing for bathroom breaks and rests, this was not ideal for the horses expected to carry out the task. Also, in order to be at an FEI venue, the horses need to be registered with the FEI.

Since then, athletes in Grades I, II and III have all been allowed a friendly horse for safety reasons – but it is the choice of the athlete themselves. It is common for most teams to find a friendly horse within their own ranks, although I have been known to lend Canadian horses to any country that wants or needs a companion horse – as long as I held them. It is a great advantage to get your horse into the field of play for extra arena practice and acclimatisation, providing it likes to stand still and look around. Feeding lots of carrots is a good way to keep them from fidgeting! And of course, sportsmanship should be carried out in the competition arena; we are all friends and should help each other.

Unsung Heroes of Para-Dressage: The Friendly Horse

Roberta Sheffield’s Fairuza can be seen in the background held by groom, Richard Neale, watching Lauren Barwick and Sandrino perform their Freestyle. Fairuza acted as a friendly horse for both Canada and a handful of other counties at Tokyo 2020.
Photo Credit: Jon Stroud Media

A friendly horse can be used to give a competing horse a “lead” to enter the field of play, when nerves kick in. They are required to wear a bridle and no saddle, with rugs if required. No advertising is allowed on the rugs and the horses should be stood at the ‘A’ end of the arena unless the Chief Steward decides it should be positioned elsewhere.

We used to be allowed to place the horse wherever we wanted around the arena, so placing a friendly horse in a “spooky” corner gave the competing horse confidence. Better still, placing a grey horse under the huge score boards often stopped the competing horse from being distracted. Sadly, the FEI caught on to my ruse and now the horses all have to stand in the same place.

Friendly horses are a great way to instill confidence in a competing horse and an even better way for nations and athletes to support each other under pressure. It demonstrates camaraderie and friendship for both human and equine – another tradition in parasport that brings people together. 

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