Pearson primed for pleasant shock

Gifted British rider has overcome surprise at selection to press for success in Sydney.

Gifted British rider has overcome surprise at selection to press for success in Sydney.

Despite the many obstacles he has had to do battle with, Lee Pearson can count one special blessing. He is a gifted horseman, blessed with natural balance and an intuitive feel for getting the best out of any horse he rides.

Next Wednesday, the 26-year-old rider from Staffordshire will be hoping to use his talent effectively when he rides a borrowed horse in the dressage tests at the Paralympic Games in Sydney.

Pearson will be one of seven British riders competing against 23 other nations for nine sets of medals - one for the individual championship and another for the freestyle to music in each of four grades, plus the team medals. They have a reputation to live up to since Britain's 1996 team won three gold, three silver and two bronze medals in Atlanta.

Pearson suffers from a rare condition called arthrogryphosis multiplex congenita, which meant that the muscles in his arms and legs grew as scar tissue in the womb and in turn bent the bones in all four limbs, a condition which necessitated 14 major operations by the age of five and another when he was nine. Having spent the first five years of his life in a wheelchair, he says that learning to walk - with full-length steel and leather callipers - "was a long struggle".

The positive attitude of his parents - David, who is a lorry driver, and Lynda, who is the manager of a psychiatric hospital - Pearson was encouraged to participate in a sport. He chose riding, which he loved from his first lessons at the age of nine.

It was when he started riding horses owned by a local school teacher, Elsie Wilkinson, that Pearson (then a teenager) began to be aware of his own potential. "I owe a great deal to her," he said. "She pushed me and gave me the confidence to realise my talent. I did cross-country and long distance rides with her - and my first dressage test on a horse called Tacky."

Pearson contacted the Riding for the Disabled Association about two and half years ago in order to discover whether they ran any competitions. His extensive riding experience had led the Association to believe that he suffered just a slight disability, so his appearance at their offices in full-length crutches was quite a surprise for them.

But when Pearson discards the crutches and is helped up on to a horse, the transformation is amazing. At a distance he could pass for John Whitaker schooling one of his horses on the flat. He is quiet, totally focused and in harmony with his mount.

Disabled riders are divided into four grades with Grade I being for the most severely handicapped, as Pearson was classified after tests by two physiotherapists."I wasn't only surprised, I was upset because the Grade I test is limited to walk and trot."

Although he would like the test to include canter, Pearson has come to appreciate that some Grade I riders would not be able to cope. Walking and trotting, though, are areas in which Person excels. "I have quite a lot of strength in my back, but the commands I give with hands and legs are obviously lighter. I have to get on the same wavelength as the horse and let him know I still mean what I'm telling him."

Pearson's record in RDA competitions includes a clutch of gold medals (team, individual championship and freestyle to music) at last year's World Championships in Denmark. He seemed an obvious choice for the Paralympics but, with 13 possible riders being reduced to a squad of seven, he found the trials quite fraught.

"I knew I had a fighting chance, but I was still very shocked when they told me I'd been chosen," he said. Now he is hoping for a few more equally pleasant shocks in Sydney.

GREAT BRITAIN EQUESTRIAN SQUAD FOR PARALYMPIC GAMES (Sydney, dressage tests 25 to 28 October): A Dunham, D Criddle, K Gebbie, J Jackson, L Pearson, N Tustain, D Tubbs. Chef d'equipe: A Cutcliffe. Travelling Coaches: J Goldsmith, D Foale.