Carolyn Lieutenant’s good friend Judy Cubitt had persuaded Carolyn in 1997 to take on the job as the coach of the fledgling Australian para equestrian team. With an eye on the coming Sydney 2000 Olympics, Australia needed to build up a strong para equestrian team for the Paralympics, and Judy knew Carolyn had all the discipline and attributes required.
Carolyn was hesitant at first, but after a whirlwind tour of overseas para equestrian competitions, she agreed to take on the role. “This was the most inspiring time of my life,” says Carolyn. “I was always coaching, judging and riding and competing in my own able-bodied world, never thinking that there was a group of such talented people and riders as I came across in the para equestrian movement. It was a new world of dressage for me. The riders, with their will and attitude and exceptional courage, all took it on with positivity and enthusiasm that made me feel somewhat humble, lucky and proud all at the same time. It was a real insight into elite riders.”
As well as Carolyn and Judy, Sue Cusack was a prime mover behind the development of the para movement in Australia. She was the national coaching coordinator for international competition and vice-president of the International Para Equestrian Committee. Their mission was to form a solid team for the 2000 Paralympics from scratch, as we did not have any qualified riders. It was full steam ahead as only Carolyn can do. It was trips to all the states around Australia sourcing riders for the Paralympics, and it was quite a time with Carolyn finding several riders with potential. They then needed to go through the strict assessment to become graded at a level 1 to 4 (these days there is also Grade 5).
A squad was formed and started regular clinics at Kurrajong Equestrian Centre, owned by Gill Rickard and Pat Bakarich in the Blue Mountains out of Sydney. The centre was ideal with an indoor and outdoor arena and plenty of accommodation for horses as well as riders. Gill, herself an international rider having represented Australia at the WEG in Stockholm, knew the pressure of riding at that level and the mental strength required. It was here that Gill also became keenly interested in the para coaching and the Paralympic push, and was later to actually take over Carolyn’s role. Before the Paralympics, Gill was named assistant coach, and between Carolyn and Gill what an amazing duo.
The Australian Para Dressage Championships were staged in Queensland in 1998 to see how the riders would fare under competition pressure, and they showed much potential. Carolyn took two horses up for riders at the championships, including the wonderful Temuchin.
“Riders with physical disabilities and the will to triumph were so inspiring,” Carolyn recalls. “As a coach — after I overcame my intimidation in respect to being so careful with them — it was onwards and upwards. There was little difference between coaching them and the able-bodied riders. Sometimes it was a little frustrating, as it did not always go to plan due to so many reasons, from fatigue to lack of coordination. I had riders who could not see, could not walk well, riders who were in wheelchairs and riders that also had learning disabilities and concentration and memory lapses. It was confronting and challenging to say the least, but I have to say I loved the challenge and how I was able to find ways around communication of horse and rider, from aids that were allowed in competition, to harmonious riding.