Riders from the Riding Academy of Crete head to the FEI World Equestrian Games

A few years ago, a wonderful Cretan lady named Anna Karfaki said to me, “We are all little gods in Crete.” And while I believed my friend then, I had no idea the depth or breadth of her proclamation. Here is another story of these Cretan deities at work in Karteros, on the outskirts of the island’s capital.

When I learned of the exploits of young Michalis Kalarakis and Dimitra Eleni Pantechaki, I was at Riding Academy of Crete in Karteros with my son Paul, who is taking riding lessons. When I saw the director of the academy, I stopped her to ask her about talented riders, taking note of their handicap. That’s when the equestrian trainer told me with obvious pride in the pair’s unique accomplishments.

You see, Michalis and Dimitra (image below) started rolling years ago as physical and psychological therapy under the tutelage of Grammatikaki. Now, as I learned, they have reached a level of competitive excellence that no other Greek has ever reached. Next month, these two determined Cretan athletes will be in Herning, Denmark, from August 6-14 to compete in the Netherlands in Para Dressage at the 2022 FEI World Equestrian Games. Their accomplishments are amazing for several reasons.

Dimitra Eleni Pantechaki at the European Championships in 2019 – Courtesy of his Facebook

First, Para-addressing is the only equestrian discipline included in the Paralympic Games. These two athletes have the chance to represent Greece at the 2024 Summer Paralympic Games, also known as the 17th Paralympic Summer Games. Thus, this first world championship contest can pave the way to reaching the pinnacle of success in their sport.

Second, and more importantly, Michalis and Dimitra started this riding journey at Crete Riding Academy purely in hopes of better coping with and overcoming the developmental challenges that so many disabled youngsters face. None of these extraordinary youngsters had the idea of ​​becoming an Olympian, but here they are, proof that anything is possible.

It’s not common knowledge, but so-called “equine” therapy is one of the most effective strategies for helping children and adults overcome these obstacles. Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) and similar regimens help create a foundation for improved mental, physical, emotional, and social development for people with disabilities. Additionally, horseback riding is a proven therapy for people with specific skeletal or motor problems.

Marianna Grammatikaki in a tender moment with a friend from her academy in Karteros Beach, Crete – Riding Academy of Crete

I asked Marianna Grammatikaki last week about her vision for these two beautiful riders and her academy in the future. She told me that the first concern/priority was to prepare Michalis and Dimitra for Denmark and eventually other competitions and Paris. But his biggest dream is to promote the type of therapy that helped bring these two extraordinary talents onto the equestrian scene.

I was particularly fascinated by Grammatikaki’s ideas on the therapeutic aspect of the human/horse bond. It has to do with the ability of horses to reflect the feelings of the rider, and the level of trust and confidence that working with such large and often intimidating animals can bring. The rider pointed out, without denigrating other forms of therapy for the disabled, that there is a particular self-confidence and power acquired on horseback, especially for the disabled. Watching them ride and then talking with Michalis and Dimitra, I better understood my child’s enthusiasm for this sport.

Seeing the impossible unfold in their accomplishments makes my son’s aspirations (and mine for him to some extent) seem all the more attainable. These are his (Paul’s) words, not mine. With the seriousness of their efforts and the generosity of their mentor, I realized that the lesser gods of Crete are on horseback too.

The Riding Academy of Crete is part of the official union of the Greek Equestrian Federation. The academy is also one of the only equestrian centers in Greece to offer therapeutic riding and equestrian therapy.

Clyde P. Johnson