Britain fourth and qualification for Paris sealed at FEI Para Dressage World Championships
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The British team of Sophie Wells, Natasha Baker, Sir Lee Pearson and Georgia Wilson have achieved fourth place at the FEI Para World Championships in Herning, securing a spot at Paris 2024 in the process and a place each in tomorrow’s Freestyle finale.
On the first day of team competition, with eight scores over the 70% barrier, the Grade II competition proved a fierce battle, with the judges spoilt for high quality combinations.
As Great Britain set hoof on the hunt for another team medal and Paris 2024 qualification, first up to the plate would be 26-year-old Georgia Wilson with her own, Geoff and Julie Wilson's Sakura (pictured above). Georgia, whose trademark smile is not the only thing to light up the BB Horse Arena, displays great riding and experience beyond her years every time she sets foot on the centre line, and her effort in the team test was super.
Sakura, after appearing to be a bit too on her toes in the individual competition, was a picture of harmony for the team test, to the delight of Georgia who expressed how pleased she was with her dancing partner following their performance: “I felt like I didn’t just go in there and freeze – I actually rode her, rather than being a passenger. She felt a bit more rideable, a bit calmer and was listening to me a bit more. I enjoyed it, even though it was boiling hot.”
This is Georgia's first World Championships, and with a secure score of 72.971% on the card for Great Britain, this talented young rider can certainly be proud of her latest call up to fly the flag.
As Austria enjoyed a super 75.441% performance by the experienced Pepo Puch and Denmark followed suit with Individual gold medallist Katrine Kristensen laying down 77.176%, the standard continued to rise as the centre line beckoned for GBR stalwart Lee Pearson. Lee is one who also never fails to put in a brilliant shift for his country, and although he had a tricky task to hand on Friday with the Stutteri Ask Stadium erupting with energy just as Breezer (pictured below) entered the arena, he managed the disrupted 11-year-old with all his years talent and knowledge. After a few movements, the combination was back on track and went on to show some great quality work with the lid staying on a bubbling Breezer.
"Yesterday, we didn’t realise you didn’t have to take the horses in [to the prize-giving], and we think it might have just unsettled him – he certainly won’t be doing any more prize-givings!” said Lee, reflecting on his bronze medal individual performance notched up earlier in the week.
“The aim was a lovely, relaxed test, but he was a little tight in his back and wanted to trot in every walk section, so I’m incredibly proud that he didn’t. It’s a very difficult test with a hot horse in a big environment, and I would have liked to have earned a slightly higher score for the team, but I’m actually pleased we managed to put a score on the board at all, because there were moments when I had to work really hard to calm him down by sitting really deep in the saddle."
Winning riders have winning mentalities and Lee told a little of the mindset that helps produce such stellar results, "I just tell myself I’m hacking because all my horses hack in walk wonderfully, it’s a mental technique that I use. When I go into the walk, my legs go a little bit numb and it’s not an easy pace for me, but I’m just proud he held it together."
Lee's final result for Great Britain was a solid 73.529%, mission accomplished and a place in the freestyle secured, "I still love him to bits and can’t wait to get back to dancing on Sunday in the freestyle.”
After Sir Lee Pearson and Georgia Wilson's rides yesterday, Britain was 14th overnight; however, the top nine teams had had more riders complete, as only Grades I, II and IV had taken place. Of the teams that had two or fewer scores on the board, Britain was lying fifth, behind the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark and Ireland. So, some ground to make up for a medal, but with Sophie Wells and Natasha Baker yet to ride, both of whom won individual silver medals on Thursday, Britain was optimistic about a top-seven spot to secure that all-important qualification for the Paris Paralympic Games.
With Britain’s main rivals, Denmark and the Netherlands, already asserting their authority on the first day of team competition, and with some strong performances also from the USA, Germany and Ireland, the pressure was on Grade III rider Natasha and team anchor Sophie (Grade V). In true Baker and Wells style however, they seriously showed their mettle this afternoon, helping lift their team up the ranks to just outside the medal zone.
Grade III riders were up first today in the Orifarm Healthcare FEI World Para Dressage Team Championship presented by Pressalit. Under cloudless skies and with the mercury pushing 34 degrees, conditions were once again testing for both horses and riders. In the sun-bathed BB Horse Arena, the competition was as hot as the rising temperature, providing a thrilling afternoon of action as the battle for team medal honours played out.
Natasha and Keystone Dawn Chorus (pictured above), the Dimaggio-sired mare owned by Joanna Jensen, Christian Landolt, Phil and Lorraine Baker, and Natasha herself, presented a beautiful test. The 11-year-old mare is blessed with naturally good hindleg action, and Natasha rides her in a super frame. Plenty of eights were awarded, with four of the five-strong panel awarding an eight for equestrian feel and skill of the athlete. The final aggregate score for the British duo was 73.676%.
“Some bits were better, but I still felt marginally out of control,” smiled Natasha. “It’s amazing having that much power, but you need to be able to control it. Even so, it’s great to be that way round rather than having to motivate them, because that’s not fun.
“She went in there, the atmosphere didn’t faze her, and she wasn’t fussed by the clapping,” she continued. “Coming here, our focus is long term – it’s Paris. You know, this is just a great opportunity for her to come to this kind of event. We have got such low mileage, so to still be cracking the 70s is good. All you can do is your best on the day, and I think we’ve done that.”
Heading the Grade III contest was Denmark’s Tobias Thorning Jørgensen with the charming grey mare Jolene Hill (Blue Hors Schufro Hit x Windsor). This pair, who won the Grade III individual gold medal earlier in the week, delivered a supple and precise test, the mare showing much scope with great swing and connection through the body. They posted a score of 79.265% to spearhead the Danish side to team gold. Second place belonged to USA’s Rebecca Hart with 13-year-old Wynton son El Corona Texel who posted 74.706%.
The Grade V was the final category forward in today’s thrilling medal decider. Denmark’s Nicole Johnsen and Moromax set the early standard putting a strong score of 73.310% on the table, surpassed three horses later by Frank Hosmar and Alphaville N.O.P. (75.786%), a combination that was on the Dutch gold medal-winning team at Tryon in 2018. At this point, the Dutch moved into provisional first place.
Three horses later, it was the turn of Sophie Wells with Rowland Kinch’s Don Cara M (by Don Jovi). This combination (pictured above), who were part of the British gold-medal-winning team in Tokyo, faced a big challenge. With Paralympic qualification hanging in the balance plus the potential to achieve bronze if they posted +78%, the pressure was certainly on, but boy, did they deliver!
An expressive and enthusiastic test from Sophie and this talented yet sensitive gelding earned a super final total of 76.190%. A minor disruption of balance in a shoulder-in towards C cost a few marks in an otherwise polished performance. Strong marks, including nines for simple changes, and two 8.5s for equestrian feel and skill of the athlete, concluding in a brilliant contribution towards the team total.
Top scorer in the Grade V was Belgium’s Michèle George and bay mare Best of 8 (Bonifatius x Maurice) who scored 78.405%. This combination won Grade V Individual gold earlier in the week.
“It was hard to go last in the team anyway,” said Sophie afterwards. “And the other guys didn’t have the perfect ride, so I just tried to stay focused on what me and Donnie could do, and not try too hard - try to not try, and still do enough.
“We said this morning that what will be will be, and that has been the case. You just have to go in and ride the best dressage you can, and just be able to look back and be proud of the ride we had. And I was really proud. He felt really with me. We had tiny little things, but overall I was very happy with him.”
When asked about the pressure, Sophie said; “My first championships in 2009, I wasn’t thinking about it at all. But it’s hard not to think about it now. Everyone is closer and some are further ahead of us now, and there’s much less wiggle room. We have to almost have our personal best rides to be in the medals. The others did a great job and posted good scores, but good scores don’t cut it these days.
“The arena here is a bit smaller (than in Tokyo) and things are a bit more on top of you, but as our partnership grows, he (Don Cara M) will trust me more, and I’ll know him more and how we have to prepare him. We have a process that we go through, but as he gets better and I can get to him quicker, we’ll then want to get a bit more. That’s all just part of the process. He’s still got loads more in there, which is what’s really nice. I don’t want to push too hard too soon and then upset the balance.
And what was your favourite part? “Finishing!” laughed Sophie. “I was so trying to be in the moment, then when finished it was, “Yeah, we’ve done it!”
“Qualifying for Paris is what we came in here to do. Overnight, we were quite aware that gold and silver were out of the question, but we thought we might be able to push for bronze, but qualification for Paris is a tick. We go home, regroup and get them into some good competitions. We’ve had a good build up, but still, we’re only two and half years in, and that’s the longest he’s had a single rider. I think there’s still loads more to come.”
Orifarm Healthcare FEI World Para Dressage Team Championship presented by Pressalit
1. Netherlands – 230.225
2. Denmark – 229.751
3. United States of America – 225.335
4. Great Britain – 223.395
5. Belgium – 223.164
6. Germany – 221.273
7. Italy – 219.202
8. France – 214.994
9. Ireland – 213.871
10. Austria – 213.755
11. Brazil – 208.671
12. Norway – 208.594
13. Australia – 205.391
14. Sweden – 204.268
15. Canada – 203.452
16. Poland – 198.033
17. Japan – 190.492
18. Spain – 188.143
Photo © Kevin Sparrow