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Agility for people with disabilities

There she was, cheerfully chatting to her new friend Rowena Beall at an agility show in Newbury when, in an unguarded moment Sheila Partridge mentioned that she was suffering from arthritis in her knees and would eventually need replacement joints. Conversation then drifted, as it does, to the subject of disabilities and agility came up and that is how Sheila and Richard Partridge got involved with the Alternative Handlers.

Rowena said that she and her husband Steve has recently set up an informal group of disabled agility competitors with a view to demonstrating that it is not necessary to be able bodied to enjoy our sport. By adapting training methods, they believe that most difficulties can be overcome. 

Rowena told me that I could qualify as disabled and invited me to join the group.  At first I thought that my own problems were very minor compared with others and possibly did not count. However, Rowena pointed out that the disability restricted my movements and that I had adjusted my training to take account of this, especially avoiding the need for rapid starting and stopping and violent twists and turns - I have become an expert on blind crosses - and by training my dog in a way which was more comfortable for me.

The upshot of this was that Smokey, my Papillion and I found ourselves at Earls Court demonstrating with Alternative Handlers at Discover Dogs. This was a great success and enormous fun. Angela Lucas has reported on this much more ably that I could.

Going to the  PAWC
Then Rowena mentioned the ParAgility World Championships (PAWC) taking place in Amersfordt, Holland in August and September. We, my husband Richard and I, looked into this and decided that it should be a good event to enter. As we have friends living in the next town, we decided to go for it.

We told the others only to find that we were the only ones in a position to be able to take part in the event so here we are, all chipped, injected, blood tested and passported - The English Team of two - me with Smokey and Richard with Murphy, the infamous Irish Twerphound. He will run in the parallel International Mix & Breed Championship for able-bodied handlers.

The event is now very close on us. Non-plussed, or perhaps slightly plussed, we look forward to the day we leave for Holland.

For more information, visit the Para-Agility web site
We leave for Holland on Tuesday, 29 August for the four days of competition starting on Thursday, 31 August. Susan Rekveld, the Dutch organiser, has been very helpful, and judging from her emails, she seems to be a lovely person. I just love her motto at the bottom of her emails, 'Agility on wheels, that's really fun!' I suspect this sums up the lady.

When ,if , we return I hope to send you a report of the event. We do not expect return home with all of the silver, but we do expect to have a thoroughly enjoyable time mixing with agility people from around the world and being inspired by those with much more severe disabilities that my own.

Watch this space...

The Partridge Family Introduction to International Agility
We Ventured Forth and Came Eleventh

To continue the story, we took up our courage in one hand, a dog each in the other and set off to represent the UK at the 7th International Mix & Breed Championship Agility (IMCA) and 5th ParAgility World Cup (PAWC) in Holland. we survived to tell the tale, so here it is, starting off with a potted history of PAWC and IMCA.

In the year 2000 an Italian lady, Petra Fuchs, founded the International Mix breed Championship Agility (IMCA) in which only non-pedigree dogs could compete.  The first competition was held in November of that year in Parma, Italy.  Two years later, being generous, they allowed pedigree dogs to take part and also organised the first ParAgility World Cup (PAWC).  This year sees the 7th IMCA and 5th PAWC held in Amersfoort, Holland

The Cast

The Partridge Family

  1. Sheila, a lady of uncertain age with four years experience in Agility, suffers from arthritis in her knees and is a member of Alternative Handlers Group which is where she learned of the Para-Agility World Championships (PAWC) to be held in Holland.

  2. Richard, a gentleman of even more uncertain age, also with four years experience in Agility.  On learning of PAWC, he additionally discovers a parallel competition for able-bodied competitors called International Mix & Breed Champion Agility (IMCA) 

  3. Smokey, a three year old rescue Papillon, has been training for two years and, although he has learned all the moves and can turn in very good rounds, is still somewhat 'gobby.' He also has a tendency to lose the plot.

  4. Murphy, the infamous three year old rescue Irish Twerphound, has also been training for two years and has learned the moves, but thinks that Agility is 'fun'  and all those interesting objects in the ring are toys put there for his benefit.

Other members of the castSusan Rekveld

  • Susan Rekveld is a Dutch disabled (wheelchair-bound) agility handler of some considerable repute and ability who organised the event. She has a wonderful attitude and personality and was able to give us enormous and invaluable help. Her motto is 'Agility on wheels, that’s really fun!'

  • The Judges - two from Holland, one from Hungary - had the difficult task of setting courses which were do-able for beginners yet challenging for Senior dogs and handlers. This was made more challenging by the fact that some courses were for able bodied handlers, others for people with varying disabilities.

  • The Extras - About 200 other competitors from many counties took part in the competition including, of course, two from UK, but also 20 odd from Holland, 15 from Italy and several from Germany, Czech Republic. There were also representatives from Slovenia, Japan, Finland, Rumania and other places. For a full list, I suggest you visit the website.

The venue
 Amersfoort, Holland is a beautiful, small city with a traditional centre.  The event was held in an indoor sports hall offering splendid facilities. The running surface was carpet.

The Event
The competition was divided into three categories, with all classes run in the three usual sizes - Small, Medium and Large.

  1. PAWC - all disabled and sub-divided into four classes depending upon disability

  2. IMCA Individual

  3. IMCA Teams - each team consisting of four handlers

Flying the flag

Let the competition begin
Thursday was taken up with Registration, a check of all dogs by a local vet and a training session for all competitors giving  us and the dogs a useful opportunity to acclimatise to the conditions.  Notably our dogs went well, which gave us a sense of confidence albeit false. In the evening we were invited to a BBQ where we all had a chance to meet each other and relax in the lull before the storm.

Friday, after the razzmattaz of the Opening Ceremony, the competition started in earnest. The opening competition was for IMCA Individual Large Jumping (gulp) including Richard and Murphy. Moving quickly on...  we soon came to the Small PAWC Jumping, where Sheila and Smokey strutted their stuff.  Perhaps we’ll gloss over this, too.

Saturday was mainly teams, with all the partisan cheering that goes with this and one run in Agility for Sheila and Smokey. Smokes was well on his way for a podium place when he decided that seesaws are best jumped off!! Big 'E'.

Sunday saw another run each with a further collection of 'E's. Frustratingly the mutts were very good except for one little bit of mind blowing daftness, but hey ho.

We did not go expecting to win Gold, so were not disappointed in that respect. However, when all of the points were added up we were amazed to find that we came 11th our of 15. When you take into account that this score is taken from the total points of the whole team, and we were only two against much larger teams, we feel pretty chuffed.

So... conclusions
Was it enjoyable? You betcha! The event was extremely well organised in a very friendly way.  Add-ons were that Susan cheerfully found us a very good campsite locally - we took our caravan - and arranged an appointment for the local vet to carry out the check DEFRA decrees we need to bring our pets back to UK.  All of the organisers were very friendly and helpful.  Their regret was that they were too busy to relax and get to know others as we could.

We met some lovely Agility people, but then that's no surprise. All agility people are nice!

At the higher levels of IMCA the standard of competition was very, very good. The event attracted national champions from, at least, Holland, Italy and  the Czech Republic. In some counties the IMCA is so popular that there are qualifying competitions for the 20 places maximum allowed.

To see the PAWC handlers was amazing. It is humbling to see how the disabled handlers overcome their disadvantages and complete the courses. One particular moment came at the final presentation when the Czech national anthem was played. It became apparent that the winner, Marie Pangracova, was completely deaf. A friend opposite her was signing the words to the anthem and Marie was signing them in unison, this being the only way she could 'visualise' the tune. The burly German chap next to her dissolved in emotional tears, and I defy anybody there to say that their eyes were completely dry.

We were constantly asked why, as Agility started in England, there were so few English representatives. That’s a bit of a tricky one to answer without being snooty and admitting that we tend only to support the 'posher' Championships. We did, however, say that we would vigorously wave the IMCA and PAWC flag.

Would we go again?
Next year the Championship will be in Girona, Spain. We have already declared our hope to go. If anybody else out there is brave or daft enough to follow let's make a team!

There is a whole lot more information on the web site, www.para-agility.nl  where there are zillions of photo’s, courses, details of competitors and Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

Photos by Ron Baltus