Dance critic Judith Mackrell reviews the GB para-equestrian team

Will they have rhythm? Can their bodies bring physical expression to their sporting discipline?
‘You really do feel as though you’re dancing’ … Sophie Wells.
‘You really do feel as though you’re dancing’ … Sophie Wells. Photograph: Sarah Lee for
‘You really do feel as though you’re dancing’ … Sophie Wells. Photograph: Sarah Lee for
Judith Mackrell
Sun 15 Jul 2012 15.00 EDT

There are moments during the Hartpury Festival of Dressage when the horses look as if they are genuinely dancing. With their tightly plaited manes and long ballerina necks, they perform tightly controlled pirouettes and piaffes with impressive finesse; they float across the arena with a silken stride that is like a horsey grand jeté.

There are moments, too, during this Gloucestershire event, when the relationship between the animals and their riders seems as intimately and rhythmically attuned as a human pas de deux. But I'm disappointed to discover that competition dressage doesn't include the most dancerly of the moves – the showy caprioles and levades ("airs above the ground") that are the trademark of outfits such as the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. And while I can appreciate the nuances of gait, rhythm and floor pattern that these horses and riders have to master, to my untutored eye, one competing pair starts to look very like another.

Except, that is, in the para-equestrian freestyle event. This category can include riders with cerebral palsy, blindness, or those who have lost one or even both legs: and the compensating ways in which they handle their horses bring as much physical expression to the event as the music to which their dressage moves have been choreographed.

James Dwyer is a stocky Irishman, whose leg was amputated after he developed cancer: and when he rides he has to use his torso vey dynamically, leaning sideways or backwards to recalibrate his balance.

Sophie Wells, 22, is one of Britain's most successful para competitors. She was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome, which left her with extensive nerve damage in her lower legs, loss of feeling and movement in her feet, and several fingers missing – disabilities that ought to make a rider's co-ordination and balance very difficult. Yet Wells, for whom London will be a first Paralympics, says she has felt an affinity with horses since she was a child: "They're so intelligent and sensitive."

She was two when she first got on a pony; seven when she had her first riding lesson. But Wells found it difficult to make progress: "Because I couldn't hold the reins properly, when I started jumping fences I kept falling off."

Dressage, which she started aged 10, proved the ideal alternative. She could use special looped reins that hooked over one finger, and careful training at the gym allowed her to develop compensatory core strength. She's good enough now to compete in able-bodied events. But what's tough for Wells is the unpredictable nature of her condition. On bad days, the damage in her legs can trigger such cramps and loss of power that she can't walk. And while she can depend on her horses to look after her – "they're amazing, they can sense what mood you're in as soon as you get on" – she's not permitted any change in the classification of her disability: Wells has to remain at level four (the most able-bodied) even when her condition ought to place her in competition with less able-bodied riders.

But while winning matters, performing is as important. "In freestyle," Wells explains, "when you've got the right music and you're in rhythm with your horse, it's great. Yyou really do feel as though you're dancing. For most paras, riding is a way of expressing yourself, and the journey you've been on to overcome your disability. It's wonderful to be on a horse: to feel so free, and be good at something other people can't do."Sophie Wells's cultural life

Films: "I hate anything violent, or bad. So I prefer so rom-coms and re-runs of Friends."

Books: Too tired to read anything but dressage books.

Music: Ed Sheeran and Hans Zimmer, a film composer whose music Wells frequently uses in her freestyle routines.

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