Jump around: para show jumper Claire Pope on para jumping (and why more people should do it)

Claire Pope riding Kinclare Lady (known as Grace, a grey mare) over a blue, green and white fence at Bramham with a large audience watching. Claire has no right arm so is riding using a bar rein. Photo credit: First Class Images

By my own admission, leaving the ground isn't something I include in my skillset as a coach or, indeed, as a rider. My own group is yet to add RDA show jumping to its offering (although never say never, especially with our new arena...) and I think I'd need to do some serious swotting to get my coaching practice up to scratch if and when we do: I used to enjoy jumping as a teenager, but not having had much to do with it in my RDA experience so far means I've filed what I did know quite far down in my head. I have, however, always enjoyed watching both RDA and para show jumping classes at Nationals, so when Claire Pope, one of the people I regularly saw riding in such classes, offered me an insight into her experiences and enthusiasm for para show jumping, I obviously said yes...

Please introduce yourself and how you became a para show jumper

I’m a grade 2 para show jumper, county coach and regional show jumping rep for RDA. I also work full time as a support worker for Mencap and manage to fit in owning my own horse Lu. In 2006 I had a motorbike accident, leaving me without any use of my right arm, which I later had amputated. Once well enough I went for a lesson at the riding school where I used to work, and we were jumping! I had help steering (due to the issues with my right arm) but it felt great. I then found my local RDA group (Bedale) and started volunteering and riding with them. I qualified for the National Championships and when there saw a para SJ demo/competition. I ran down to speak with them, and as they say ‘the rest is history’... although it took a few more years to find a suitable horse to jump at that level. 

Describe para SJ in five words or fewer

I'd choose just three: exciting, nerve-racking, and fun.

Para jumping (PSJ) is graded, but not in quite the same way as para dressage is. How does this work?

Currently PSJ is classified using the same classification profiles as dressage. They are/were looking into having a separate jumping classification as it uses different muscles and balance, but as yet it hasn’t happened. Your profile number will determine what grade you jump at: before they did away with 1A and 1b it was basically the one below your dressage grade, so I was grade 3 for dressage and grade 2 SJ, but am now grade 4 for dressage. PSJ is split into 3 grades: 1 (most impaired) jumping 70cm, 2 jumping 80cm, and 3 jumping 90cm. There is also a section for VI (visually impaired) riders who jump 70cm. You can jump above your grade, but not below. 

Does para jumping link to RDA show jumping at all? Is RDA SJ a good way into para jumping?

If you’ve never jumped before, RDA is the best place to start. RDA SJ competitions are marked like a style class, so take into account how well you ride the course, rhythm, position and correct lines, amongst other things. It's all important for when you move up the levels. RDA starts with poles on the ground for Level 1 and goes up to a full course at 80cm at level 5. Levels 1-3 (60cm ) use the same course to keep it simple. Level 4 is a full course of 8 fences at 70cm with a double, and fillers are introduced, but this course is always the same, and it's not until level 5 that the course changes every time like in PSJ. You can find out more about RDA Show Jumping here.

What do you think para jumping has to offer para athletes that other equestrian disciplines doesn’t?

Show jumping is more exciting than dressage: the adrenaline helps get me round. It’s also better judging as you either knock one down or not, there’s no factoring in of anyone's opinion of how well it went. I can see the appeal there!

Claire jumping her own horse Lu (Lucinda), a black mare, over a light blue and black fence at the BS National Championships in 2021. Photo credit: First Class Images

What’s your favourite thing about para jumping?

Adrenaline! And being able to compete and train at some amazing venues, like the BS National Training Centre, where all the Olympic horses stayed in quarantine. I also enjoy meeting up with the other para show jumpers.

What’s one thing you would do to improve the discipline?

I would like a open class to make it fairer: some combinations regularly jump 1 metre plus, then come down to 80/90cm for para. A 100cm open class for those who jump bigger would encourage more grassroots riders into the graded classes, as would the possibility of a 60/70cm open class for those not ready to jump at their graded height, but who want to take part. 

What do you consider your biggest/proudest achievement in para jumping?

Representing GB in 2019 PSJ in Munich, Germany, coming 4th and 5th. Also riding 2 double clears at Bramham International Horse Trials in the grade 2 class, on 2 different horses: the only two of the day. This slightly beats Germany as Bramham is local to me, I used to go as a kid to watch and I had lots of friends cheering me on. It was really well received and people seemed really interested. Vlogger This Esme also gave us a mention!

How would you recommend a disabled person, whether already a rider or not, should get into para jumping?

If already jumping get in touch with British showjumping (stephanie.toogood@britishshowjumping.co.uk) and register as a club rider for £30 per year, then get out competing. If not yet jumping find your local RDA SJ group or a good local coach if you have a horse of your own.

What advice would you give to RDA groups who don’t yet offer show jumping? Do you think more groups could and should? How should we encourage and support more to do so?

Every group should use poles on the ground: the ones with alternate colours are great for getting riders to aim at the middle (providing they can see, of course!). Level 2 doesn’t need much space, introduced 1 jump at a time, and you can walk around the corners to start with. Riders feel such a sense of achievement when they start jumping. Take one step at a time: you can start trotting round the level 1 course or canter and build up the jumps as they gain confidence. There’s lots of info on the myRDA website and any of the regional show jumping representatives would be happy to offer advice. Keep an eye out for training days too.

What are your hopes for the future of para jumping, and your own ambitions within that?

I hope it continues to grow, especially internationally so it can be recognised as a Paralympic sport. In the UK we are currently one of the only countries where it runs through a governing body (British Show Jumping). In terms of my own ambitions, I'd like to win the grade 2 para league, but need to be able to go fast and steer to be in with a chance of beating some of the other riders. The faster we go the less steering I have, and I don’t think my brain is fast enough. But I’m going to continue training over winter to hopefully come out competitive in spring and for the first PSJ show: watch this space.

Claire with Reiver (a very tall bay!) and Grace having some down time at Bramham Horse Trials!

A huge thank you to Claire for answering my questions and giving such a great insight into para jumping!