Special Olympics equestrian is all about chemistry

Ireland's Déarbháil Savage guides her horse Pepper before she competes in the equestrian competition at the Special Olympics World Games Tim Rasmussen/ESPN

LOS ANGELES -- Imagine you are entering the biggest competition of your life, and you have one teammate. You don't meet that teammate until three days before the event. And then, once you do, you only get to practice together for an hour -- in an event where you are judged on, among other things, how well you operate in harmony. Good luck!

Such is the unique challenge facing equestrian athletes at the Special Olympics World Games. They leave their trusted companions at home and fly, in many cases thousands of miles, to compete with a horse they have never met. The only reassurance is that everyone deals with the same circumstances.

Wednesday morning at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Griffith Park, 92 of the 132 athletes mounted their animals for the first day of competition (the rest of the field will finish Thursday). The horses' manes were braided just so. They looked happy, at ease, mirroring the temperament of their riders. This was no coincidence.

If you think it's tough to find a good racquetball partner, try finding a compatible horse as a rider with an intellectual disability. Nuance goes a long way in this matchmaking process.

Just how personal is the bond between animal and human for equestrian competitors? Joanna Piango, 11, did not tell her home horse, Hailey, that she was going to be riding another steed in L.A. because she worried that she would hurt Hailey's feelings.

"She would've been too sad," said Piango, who is competing for Trinidad and Tobago in all three disciplines -- equitation, dressage and trail walking -- with Lilly.

Luckily, Lilly and Hailey have more in common than just an affinity for hay. "Hailey listens to me when I speak to her," Piango said. "It's nothing different to me. I felt a connection with Lilly right away. She listens to me too, and she understands what I'm saying. You just have to keep talking to her and she'll do what you want her to do."

Errol Grant, Piango's coach, has been working with horses since 1968. He specializes in therapeutic horses, which in Trinidad and Tobago double as police steeds. If there is a match between horse and rider, the horse tends to follow the rider naturally, he said. But this is not guaranteed.

"It's like driving an automatic and suddenly you have to drive a manual," South African coach Renae Erasmus said.

On Sunday and Monday, riders were given two horses from which to choose. Each horse had been carefully selected from a pool of 90 that were loaned by owners from as nearby as a few miles and as far away as Arizona and San Francisco. (World Games riders filled out a questionnaire last fall with their height and weight and the size and build of the horse they ride at home, as well as their preference for temperament and idiosyncrasies like whether a horse gets moving quickly or slowly and how much it bounces.)

If the rider declined the first horse here, he or she was required to pick the second horse; you couldn't go back to the first one. It seems a bit random, but it might be the most important part of the competition.

"When the match is right, it looks easy and effortless," said Brie Doherty, the head riding instructor at an L.A.-based therapeutic riding program called Ride On, who is one of the horsemasters at the World Games. "I have to commend these athletes. They're so much more open to the matches than a lot of people are. They take the horses as they come. There's no ego involved. It's just, 'I will take this horse and it will work for me, and we will do this.'"

Earning a medal-worthy score is a factor of how comfortable you look on the horse and how well you can steer and control it. To prepare for the World Games, Team USA's 10 athletes mounted random steeds for much of the spring. "We tried to get them to ride at least four or five horses a month strictly to train for this event," assistant coach Julie Coon said. For the most part, their matches have proved seamless.

Jason Chu, 23, of Great Britain, entered Wednesday's equitation event with high hopes thanks to his bond with George.

"Good thing I found my lucky horse," said Chu, who rides Licorice when he's at home. "He trusted my moves."

And vice versa.