Riesenbeck 2023: Britain’s paras win Bronze in gallant team effort
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An exciting British team, comprising Gabby Blake, Sophie Wells, Charlotte Cundall and Georgia Wilson, has won Bronze behind the Netherlands and Germany at the FEI Para Dressage European Championships in Riesenbeck, together with each athlete securing a place to ride in tomorrow’s Freestyle medal competition. With two new team faces, three horses making their FEI Championship debut, and four new PBs achieved by superb riding, there was much to celebrate with this bright British line-up.
With the Grade I, II and III riders having made their team contribution yesterday, and two strong scores delivered for Great Britain by Gabby Blake (Strong Beau) and Georgia Wilson (Sakura) - read more, day two of the team medal contest began this morning with the Grade V combinations first down the centre line in Riesenbeck. Another hot, sunny day beckoned, as the early riders came forward in front of judges Anne Prain (FRA) at E, Ineke Jansen (NED) at H, Elke Ebert (GER) at C, Eva Andersson (SWE) at M and Sarah Leitch (GBR) at B.
Germany's Individual Bronze medal combination of Regine Mispelkamp and 11-year-old Highlander Delight’s (Florencio x Jazz) set the score to beat at 74.079%, bettered one horse later by reigning Paralympic Champions Michèle George and Best of 8 for Belgium (76.132%). The Belgian challenger, who won Individual Gold on Wednesday, once again piloted the talented, 13-year-old Hanoverian mare into pole position; until Dutch star Frank Hosmar staked his claim on the top spot.
Frank and his faithful campaigner, Alphaville N.O.P. (Sandreo x Iglesias), have played a big part in the Dutch team, winning medals at every Para Dressage championship from London 2012 onwards. Still looking a picture at 18 years of age, Alphaville answered every question asked of him to finish on a winning aggregate score of 76.447% to bolster his nation’s team total and help pave the way for their team victory.
First forward for Great Britain today was Charlotte Cundall and The Veyron Partnership’s Oldenburg gelding, FJ Veyron (Vivaldi x Fidermark), who, already having ridden into fifth place in the Individual competition, looked confident and primed for the task ahead. A beautifully presented test by the former 3* eventer and point-to-point jockey and 13-year-old ‘Duke’, pictured above, delivered a brand-new PB of 73.368% for eventual fifth place in the individual rankings and a fantastic contribution to the British team effort.
“Just what a horse, I mean, he just gave me everything and more in there. I could not have asked for any more from him,” enthused Charlotte after her test. “I’m the luckiest girl in the world to be riding him.
“I don’t know the facts, but I think it’s well over a percent above my personal best before today. I had a little secret goal again – it was probably around 70% – so to get 73% and be up there on the leaderboard as well, where we are at the moment, it's hopefully a good score for the team.
“I feel so lucky to be here, and have all the support of UK Sport, the National Lottery players helping us to get here,” continued Charlotte. “Today, I felt a bit more like I belonged in there (the arena). Yesterday, for the first championship test, I felt ‘gosh should I be here?’, but I guess having a good day yesterday gave me a bit of confidence to go in there, and leave nothing in there. We just gave it absolutely everything."
Charlotte has some special words embroidered inside her jacket, which have great meaning. “It’s been a really long journey to get here, and this red collar is so symbolic in British Equestrian. It was always my dream when I was doing Ponies, Juniors and Young Riders in eventing to get the red collar. Obviously, a turn of events meant I could no longer event,” said Charlotte referring to the life-changing falls that brought her eventing career to an end. “So I had to change my dream and I ended up with a red collar; so the words say, “I had a dream”.
Speaking about how she’s channelled her talent into a new discipline, Charlotte says; “I competed up to what is now 4* in eventing, and it is different, but I guess a lot of the fundamentals of being able to prepare and campaign, and ride in the environment – that’s similar. I wish I knew what I know now in dressage, when I was eventing, as hopefully I would have got some better marks. I think it exposes things and makes you realise ‘God, I didn’t know how to ride a half pass back then!’
“Being able to cope and just get in there and give it your all. I never thought when I had to focus purely on dressage that I’d get the adrenaline rush that I did eventing and point-to-pointing, but I absolutely do. Things happen for a reason sometimes, and you just change your dream and go down another path.
“It’s taken a lot of work and a lot of support from lots of people,” says Charlotte. “I have a weakness down my left side from the nerve damage from two major back injuries, so the horses are incredible because they have to slightly adjust to you because of crookedness or weakness in the aids. I work closely with my coach, Ian Woodhead, and find ways around things, and they (the horses) adjust.”
Charlotte’s test included a 9 and several marks of 8, including four 8s for her bold extended canter. “I thought why not,” smiled Charlotte. “You’re in there, it’s the second last movement, my left extended I love, and I just thought ‘we’re two movements from the end, we’ve got to go for it, try to get as high a mark as possible’. That’s one of his super-strengths, and I used to be able to gallop when I was eventing, so it’s just the same really.
“The rein-back and the simple change on the centre line are double-mark movements, so they’re really costly if they don’t go well, so we really focus on those in training,” she explained. “To look from the outside, the test is fundamentally a Medium test – there are no flying changes – but the placement of the movements is so exposing of the training, so it’s really working on the basics and having everything really secure, so you can go in there and deliver when it matters.”
Drawn as the penultimate competitor on the running order, Paralympic, World and European gold medallist Sophie Wells OBE gave young protégé LJT Egebjerggards Samoa, pictured above, another sensational ride. Skilfully giving the young mare confidence and ensuring she has a good experience at her first Championships, Sophie’s kind and skilled riding produced a beautiful performance from the talented ‘Diana’ to score a new combination PB of 74.079% and finish equal third in the individual rankings.
The St Schufro x Gribaldi seven-year-old, owned by The Lady Joseph Trust, is a phenomenal talent - balletic and full of expression - with copious enthusiasm that is tactfully managed by her rider. The pressure was on Sophie as team anchor, but she knew what she had to do and delivered it for the team.
“OMG I’m so proud of her,” said Sophie speaking after her test. “I’m not gonna lie, I think that’s one of the hardest tests I’ve ever ridden. She’s on 30%. I’m having to literally be like ‘less, less, less, less’. I think the day when I can put my foot on the accelerator, it will be phenomenal. We had a couple of heart in mouth moments, but it was a couple of steps and she came back, and it was fine.
“I’m so proud of her. You always feel the pressure going last on the team, and it’s always how it falls as to which Grade is last, but for three or four years I’ve been last every time. And waiting is so hard! It just makes it worse. But Charlotte did a phenomenal job. I went into the warm-up when she’d just got her score and I thought, that makes my life easier. That definitely took the pressure off me, and I thought I just need to get around and have a good ride, and we nailed the bits that we needed to nail. There’s lots in there that we need to improve on, but she’s only seven."
And how does Sophie manage the pressure? “I just have to do loads of breathing. The last three years, I’ve been on very hot horses that need a lot of relaxation, and relaxation from me. As soon as your muscles tense, it just fuels the horse, and it’s so hard. So I just try to stay in my own lane and concentrate on what I am doing.
“I kept busy this morning. I ride her twice anyway on competition day, so that helps. We’ve had some early starts. Our team physio is amazing – she’s done physio at 05:45 the last couple of mornings for me, but we’ve got a routine and it works. We’re super-lucky that we’ve got a great team around us. Diana’s got everything that she could possibly need; I’ve had everything I could possibly need, and that’s thanks to UK Sport and National Lottery. We’ve got some great people and that makes our lives easier to concentrate on what we’re doing, but it’s never easy. I never try and look at the scores – I never want to know what I have to get.
“Going in today, I just had to go and give her the best ride she could have and hopefully the team result looks after itself. I came in with less pressure about a team medal, as last year we had our best team and we didn’t medal as a team. This year, we’ve got two new riders and a new horse as well, so it’s a very, very green team but an amazing team to be a part of and they’ve all been fabulous all week and it’s been a really nice atmosphere.
“Once you’ve got to a major Championships, I tried to tell Charlotte, you’ve almost then got this new respect, and also hopefully she’s got the belief that she deserves to be there as well, and that makes you ride better and the judges will give you more marks. It’s a massive hurdle to get on it (a team).
“There are two Grade 5s on the team - I’m so unbelievably proud of that, and as Brits we’ve never had that,” added Sophie. “Other nations have, but we’ve always been strong with the low grades, so I think for the Grade, it’s fab. Charlotte’s amazing, Georgia and Gabby – I’ve had a lot to do with them over the last six or seven years – so I’m incredibly proud of them. It’s really exciting and we’ve got more horses at home; and we’ll see Tash (Natasha Baker) getting back in shape all ready for next year as well, so hopefully we’ve started to get our way back towards the top of the podium, but whatever happens today, whatever the outcome, we gave it our all and I think out-performed ourselves and what was expected, and we can’t do any more than that.”
A long wait ensued while the Grade IV team riders rode their hotly contested Grand Prix B competition. High-scoring rides by Demi Haerkens and Sanne Voets gave the Netherlands a firm grip on Gold, with Germany taking second spot on the podium and Great Britain a well-deserved Bronze.
British Dressage congratulates Gabby, Charlotte, Sophie and Georgia for their fantastic medal effort, as well as Chef d’Equipe Georgina Sharples, the dedicated owners behind each horse and the wider support network at British Equestrian.
1. Netherlands – 232.637
2. Germany – 226.979
3. Great Britain – 222.663
4. Italy – 221.983
5. Belgium – 221.102
6. Denmark – 218.501
7. France – 217.190
8. Sweden – 214.277
9. Austria – 210.958
10. Ireland – 210.214
11. Norway – 208.252
12. Spain – 202.866
13. Poland – 198.473
Photos © Kevin Sparrow Photography