Some years back, a wonderful Cretan lady named Anna Karfaki told me, “We are all small gods on Crete.” And while I believed my friend then, I had no idea as to the depth or breadth of her proclamation. Here’s another story of these Crete deities at work in Karteros, on the outskirts of the island’s capital.
When I learned about the exploits of young Michalis Kalarakis and Dimitra Eleni Pantechaki, I was at the Riding Academy of Crete in Karteros with my son Paul, who is taking riding lessons. When I saw the academy’s director, I stopped her to ask about the talented riders, taking note of their disabilities. It was at this point the equestrian coach told me with obvious pride in the pair’s unique achievements.
You see, Michalis and Dimitra (image below) began riding years ago as physical and psychological therapy under the tutelage of Grammatikaki. Now, as I learned, they have achieved a level of competitive excellence no other Greeks have ever managed. Next month, these two determined Cretan athletes will be in Herning, Denmark, from August 6th thru 14th to compete in the Netherlands in Paradressage at the 2022 FEI World Equestrian Games. Their accomplishments are astounding for several reasons.
First, Paradressage is the only Equestrian discipline included in the Paralympic Games. Both of these athletes have the chance to represent Greece at the 2024 Summer Paralympics, also known as the 17th Summer Paralympic Games. So, this first world championships contest can pave their way toward achieving the pinnacle of achievement in their sport.
Second, and more importantly, Michalis and Dimitra began this equestrian journey at the Riding Academy of Crete only with hopes of better coping with and overcoming the developmental issues that so many young disabled people are faced with. Neither of these extraordinary young people had any notions of becoming Olympians, but here they are, proof that anything is possible.
It is not common knowledge, but so-called “horse” therapy is one of the most effective strategies for helping kids and adults with these hurdles. Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) and similar regimens help create a foundation for improved mental, physical, emotional, and social development for individuals with disabilities. Furthermore, horse riding is a proven therapy for people with specific skeletal or motor problems.
I asked Marianna Grammatikaki last week about her vision for these two fine equestrians and for her academy in the future. She told me the first concern/priority is getting Michalis and Dimitra prepared for Denmark and, ultimately, other competitions and Paris. But her greater dream is to promote the kind of therapy that has helped deliver these two extraordinary talents onto the equestrian stage.
I was particularly fascinated with Grammatikaki’s ideas on the therapeutic aspect of the human/horse bond. This has to do with the ability of horses to mirror the feelings of the rider, and the level of confidence and trust working with such large and often intimidating animals can have. The horsewoman pointed out, without demeaning other forms of therapy for the disabled, that there’s a special self-confidence and power gained from riding, especially for the disabled. Watching them mounted and later talking with Michalis and Dimitra, I understood better my child’s enthusiasm for the sport.
Seeing the seemingly impossible take shape in their achievements, my son’s aspirations (and mine for him to an extent)seem all the more attainable. These are his (Paul’s) words, not mine. With the gravity of their efforts and the generosity of their mentor, I realized that the small gods of Crete are at can ride 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 that offers Therapeutic Riding and Horse Therapy.