In a day of fierce competition at the Longines FEI Para Dressage European Championships, it was a privilege to witness great sport, nail biting drama and one of the closest medal battles the sport of para dressage has ever witnessed. Great Britain’s foursome of Sophie Wells, Erin Orford, Suzanna Hext and Julie Payne rose to the biggest challenge of their riding lives to win the team gold medal in tough competition. Britain has had the luxury of arriving at most championships as favourites but this year, it had a considerably different dynamic. Three Championship debutantes who, from the minute they were selected, had the pressure of maintaining an unbeaten run in every Paralympic, World and European Championship on their shoulders. But this is a quartet that didn’t let any of that pressure get to them and they met every challenge head on and rode with confidence and composure worthy of their gold medal.
Sophie Wells got day two at the Gothenburg city centre Heden Arena underway in the Grade 5 competition. Riding Charlotte Hogg’s C Fatal Attraction, Sophie had a much happier round today as ‘Jorge’ was clearly more at ease with his surroundings and let his rider take control rather than the other way round as it was yesterday. Any mistakes were minor; the quality of the trot work from the Fidertanz 10-year-old was excellent. The judges agreed on 73.581% which was just the opening the British team needed on a day which promised to be full of tension.
A relieved Sophie said; “That was a bit more like it! I’m much happier with him today, much more what I know he can do. He’s never been a one test horse, I knew he was a Championship horse. He’s a confidence horse and the more confident he becomes, the more he shows off. I think he’s very talented and I love riding him; he’s just a ball of energy.”
It was then on to the Grade 3 duo who both impressed yesterday and we needed much of the same today to keep the team on track. Neither disappointed. First of the Brits was Erin Orford with Annabel Whittet’s Dior III. The Dimaggio 14-year-old was again relaxed but today showed more purpose in her work with ‘punchy’ trot work. 68.853% was the final score which left a few feeling a bit disappointed, none more so than Erin. “The quality of work felt better today than yesterday but I’m a little disappointed with the mark; I really wanted to put something stronger forward for the team,” said Erin. “She felt more confident and came into her own a little more. I actually enjoyed it a bit more today, I could trust her and she had more confidence and so did I.”
The pressure levels rose as riders from Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy all kept the leader boards churning with 70%+ scores and then it was the turn of Suzanna Hext and Abira, owned by Pammy and Charlie Hutton, to make their mark on the team standings.
The Cornish rider piloted the 17 year old with what appeared effortless skill but Suzanna’s accident means that during every test, she battles with her body with every muscle going into spasm and fighting against the commands from the brain. But Suzanna has quite a bond with her bay partner and he was out to help his rider every step of the way. The only minor blip was a small communication error going into the second walk pirouette where it looked like Abira thought the aid was for walk to canter but quick thinking from Suzanna meant the error was quickly rectified and 72.088% was the score and a great boost to the team total.
Afterwards, Suzanna told us; “I had a great feeling from him today, a lot of the test was better except our blip in the walk pirouette. Unfortunately it overlaps two movements so was expensive. I guess I did feel that the pressure was on but you have to put that to one side. I’m looking forward to tomorrow, I have a difficult freestyle and when you put the music on, Abira rises a level, but hopefully not too much!”
She added; “I owe so much to Pammy and Charlie, in letting me ride Abira, they gave me my life back.”
At the lunch break, it was calculators at the ready to try and work out what was required by a number of the final riders to go for many countries. All four scores were in the clubhouse for Denmark so they were the team to beat with a very healthy 220.351. The Dutch were still in touch with the British snapping at everyone’s heels. It was going to be a head to head with Elke Phillip for Germany, Sanne Voets for the Netherlands and Julie Payne for Britain.
Sanne’s round with Demantur showed some tension for a total of 70.575% which gave some breathing space for Julie and Di Redfern’s Athene Lindejberg.
The tension levels began to reach boiling point…74.627% was the magic number. That was the mark Julie had to achieve but the rider from Oxfordshire was blissfully unaware, choosing not to be told what score she needed, and who could blame her?
Julie and Athene entered the arena like they owned it. The Gribaldi-sired mare sauntered around with long, liquid strides, hitting every marker with exacting precision. Just a half step to the left in the final halt with the hind left was the only negative to be seen.
It felt like forever as around 30 Team GBR support team and an expectant audience awaited the final score…78.107%. They’d done it, gold was Britain’s once again.
With a look of great relief, Julie commented; “That was the hardest test of my life! It took everything I had but she certainly gave me her everything too! I’ve not been great today in myself, spending much of the day in the toilet but I just had to get through it. I keep talking to my body ‘come on brain, come on legs, come on arms, come on seat’ – none of them would work as I wanted! But, bless her, she didn’t take advantage. I wanted so much to do it for the team so I just rode to my best ability and to show her best off too, hoping that would be enough.”
Seeing the Union Flag next to the team in the gold medal position has become a familiar sight in para dressage but, with a team
of three debutantes and our most experienced rider partnering a young horse, this year was always going to be a challenge to retain the title. Four determined riders, four talented horses and a support team which attends to every detail arrived in Gothenburg full of hope, that team ended today with the gold medal they so desperately wanted and completely deserved.
Gold – GBR, 223.776
Silver – DEN, 220.351
Bronze – NED, 216.965
Full results and times for tomorrow - click here.
Article Source: British Dressage News
Image courtesy BD Image Archive
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