By Lindsay Y. McCall
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
Rebecca Hart, a prominent para dressage rider, is honest and open when reflecting on her journey. As she overcame anger and found a sense of belonging through horses—winning numerous accolades and representing the United States on the international stage—she both found and revealed her resilience and dedication.
“I was angry at my disability,” the 39-year-old said. “I didn’t want that to be who I was. Horses helped me break through that anger; they liberated me, and the horse world gave me a place to belong.”
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Rebecca discovered her love for horses while managing her rare genetic disease, Familial Spastic Paraplegia, which causes weakness and stiffness in the leg muscles. Her start in the equestrian world and the introduction to para dressage were pivotal experiences that shaped her life. Under the guidance of Jessica and Missy Ransehousen, Rebecca earned a spot on the Paralympic equestrian team right out of high school.
“I remember stepping off the plane for my first Games as a teenager and how surreal that moment felt,” Rebecca said, adding that it still resonates as one of her three favorite moments in life.
Over the next two decades, she went on to attain 11 national championship titles, participate in four Paralympic Games and achieve remarkable success at world championships. Her medals include a bronze and silver at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games, a bronze medal in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and double bronze medals in Herning at the FEI World Championships in 2022. But for Rebecca, her success wouldn’t be success if she couldn’t help grow the sport she loves and pave the way for other disabled riders.
Challenges and Triumphs
Rebecca traveled the world, relocated to South Florida, navigated transitions in horses, owners and trainers, and feels fortunate to have found a team along the way that stands behind her. The team at Fair Sky Farm in Wellington, Florida, includes trainer Jen Baumert, owner and friend Rowan O’Riley and many others. “I have had so much success and the best owners, grooms and
friends that have helped me achieve that success,” she said.
Recognizing the importance of self-care both mentally and physically, Rebecca has recently prioritized her well-being. This balance and the intricacies of managing a progressive disability while excelling as an athlete are showcased in the new movie, “Para Gold,” produced by Ron Davis of Docutainment. “Para Gold” captures the triumphs and struggles faced by international para dressage athletes, including Rebecca, on their road to Tokyo.
“There are many exciting and difficult moments in the film,” said Rebecca, who relies on her support team even more than other Paralympians. “Unfortunately, with my disease, we are constantly adjusting and changing as we face new challenges. It’s a progressive disease that continues to affect me more each week, with tighter muscles, spasticity and weakness. Some days I’m fine and then the next day, a simple task or even a movement that was easy before becomes difficult. Luckily, I have the best support team and as my disease progresses and my muscles continue to change, we will continue to look for options in and out of the saddle and what’s best for my competitive future in this sport. I am so thankful for my trainers, owners and friends I have made over the years, and supporters that share this dream with me and who have been there when the U.S. team stood on the podium in Tokyo.”
Tokyo 2020 was a culmination of hard work for Rebecca and the United States Para Dressage Team. “Standing on the podium in Tokyo and watching our flag go up was my second favorite moment in this sport,” Rebecca said. “The emotions that began to flow that day were due to all those times I was almost there, and how far our team has come. I remember those final moments and feeling the pressure and determination that I needed to earn a certain score to lock in the win for the United States. The memory that I helped contribute to the first U.S. Paralympic Games medal will always be with me.”
Strengthening Para Dressage
After Tokyo, Rebecca and her partner, El Corona Texel, returned to Florida with their support team to celebrate their accomplishments and take a quick break before training and competing in the FEI World Para Dressage Championships in Herning, Denmark, in 2022. “From Tokyo to Herning was a whirlwind,” Rebecca said. “Our U.S. Team was on fire. I couldn’t help but remember the infancy of the para dressage discipline and those first big international horse shows. I remember our very passionate para dressage supporter, Hope Hand, president of the United States Para Equestrian Association, who sadly passed away a year ago, working tirelessly, traveling with our team to help the riders and market the para dressage discipline as a high-performance sport that was parallel to able-bodied dressage.
“Hope pushed to find owners for riders to borrow horses from and so much more. She was one of many para dressage supporters who became a huge part of making this sport what it currently is,” Rebecca continued. “This sport was tiny in the U.S. when we started. When we would travel or see horses overseas, we would realize what we needed to do to get better. Hope knocked down doors to make this sport recognized and respected as a parallel athletic equestrian discipline. She would be so proud of what para dressage is, even a year after her passing. The horses are amazing, we have more top-rated coaches and owners than ever before, and our horsepower and depth are spectacular.”
Hope wasn’t the only one helping to grow the sport. Rebecca’s success helped to keep the discipline in the limelight, getting show managers talking and owners from the sport of dressage paying attention. “I am so grateful for the connections in the equestrian community and how much crossover now occurs between the Paralympic and Olympic equestrian sports,” she said. “We have overcome the obstacles of having to prove ourselves as equals to able-bodied athletes and shown that we deserve to be watched.”
As a veteran athlete, Rebecca has taken on the role of a mentor and hopes to pave an easier path for future generations of disabled equestrians. She’s experienced many defining moments in her life, breaking down barriers, making connections and adjusting her riding and lifestyle, and wants to make it easier for future generations of disabled equestrians.
“It’s been fabulous to see these new riders and horses and witness their enthusiasm as they compete in their first-ever CPEDI,” she said. “Being part of their journey has allowed me to relive the nerves I once felt.”
While assisting younger athletes, Rebecca has started to conceptualize a dream: She wants to provide opportunities for young riders who lack the necessary financial backing. “I didn’t have access to top horses, and I want to make it easier for other riders,” she said. “I would love to establish a foundation that can offer support to riders who have the dream and desire but lack the framework to set it up themselves. I have always wanted to give back to the sport that has defined me, and this is a quiet project I’ve been contemplating. I’m excited to discuss it further in the future.”
Continuing the Dream
Rebecca’s daily lifestyle helps keep her body in the best possible shape while keeping her involved in the community and keeping her mind strong—a balance she also advocates for her horses. She starts her day before sunrise at Starbucks—not just picking up coffee but serving it. She has worked at Starbucks for 15 years, over 10 of which have been at the Wellington location. As a Starbucks employee, Rebecca is eligible for the Starbucks Elite Athlete Program, which has continued to sponsor her on her para dressage journey.
From Starbucks, she heads to work out or to Fair Sky Farm, where she rides, has lessons and spends time with her horses. “It’s important to me that my horses have a quality equine life,” Rebecca said. “They get plenty of turnout and relaxation time, and when we’re in the ring, we keep their minds busy, so they continue to love their work.”
In 2023, Rebecca created a new partnership with Pan Am Games horse Floratina. “I’m excited about this new partnership,” she said. “Floratina is another example of para dressage crossing into the able-bodied world and making those connections.”
Floratina was ridden by international rider Lindsay Kellock and is owned by Chloe Gasiorowski. “Floratina is just an amazing mare, so kind, so adaptable, and just wants to work with you,” she said. “As an equestrian, there’s this whole silent language and ability to connect with an animal and have them perform for you. Floratina picked up that connection immediately with me.”
As the Paris 2024 Olympics and Paralympics approach, Rebecca is eagerly looking forward to taking both horses, El Corona Texel and Floratina, along with her friend and owner Rowan O’Riley, to Europe, including Hungary, Austria and Poland. Rebecca has cherished what the equestrian sport has given her, the connections she has made and the opportunity to learn new languages and the chance to travel the world.
However, as she reflects on her pinnacle memories, her third favorite moment in this sport was in 2018 when the World Equestrian Games were hosted in the United States, and Rebecca’s family was in the stands, cheering her on in person. “Standing on the podium in 2018 was the first time I ever stood there, long before the Tokyo Paralympics or the World Championships,” she said. “It was the first time I won a medal; it happened in the United States, on our home turf, and I will always cherish that memory because my parents and family were right there in the audience experiencing it with me.”
Follow Rebecca on Instagram @rebeccahart136
For more information on watching the movie ParaGold, visit paragoldmovie.com
Photos by Melissa Fuller, melissafullerphotography33.mypixieset.com