Hallelujah, it’s raining para dressage medals for Britain 

The Freestyle day at any championship always brings mixed emotions – joy because you can’t beat a bit of dancing, but tinged with sadness because it means that competition is coming to an end. Such was the case on Sunday, in Herning. The weather conditions might have been more equine-friendly in the BB Horse Arena for the Orifarm Healthcare FEI World Para Dressage Freestyle Individual Championship presented by JYSK, with more cloud cover, a breeze and a slight drop in temperature, but that certainly didn’t stop the spectator stands from filling.

Georgia Wilson and Sakura

The Grade 2 class was the first to feature British interest, with Georgia Wilson and Sakura taking ‘to the floor’ as the third of the eight competitors. Georgia had already shared that she’d be riding to the music she debuted in Tokyo, so no surprises there, but the Abergele-based athlete certainly had her game face on today. She and ‘Suki’ haven’t experienced the medal podium yet this week and were hungry for a medal.

They started brightly and produced a pleasing, forward rhythm to their intricate floorplan, masterminded by coach and mentor Sophie Wells and set to music featuring the BANNERS song ‘Someone To You’ and Ellie Goulding’s ‘Love Me Like You Do’. The test was mistake-free and Suki’s outline and way of going were really pleasing, showing increased maturity from Tokyo for the eight-year-old mare, who’s owned by Georgia and her parents Geoff and Julie Wilson.

“The judges clearly enjoyed the catchy tunes and routine, too, and awarded an overall percentage of  75.834% and the early lead.

It was really good, I was a bit behind with the music because I’ve collected it [the trot] and I could hear my music and thought ‘I’m going to go behind’, so I quickly cut the corner, then I caught up again. She’s probably a bit too eager sometimes and I have to think ‘don’t jog!

I feel a bit like I want to start all over again because she’s just got better and better, but it’s time to go home and get better and come back again next year. She’s only eight, so I’ve got to keep thinking that and, as she gets stronger, the trot will get better. It’s exciting,”

said a smiling Georgia.

Georgia had laid down her score and all she could do was wait to see if it was enough to secure a medal.

Sophie WELLS (GBR) & Don Cara M – Grade V – Individual – Para Dressage – FEI World Championships Herning 2022 – MCH Arena, Herning, Denmark – 11 August 2022

Lee Pearson and Breezer

Georgia’s mark set the bar for the competitors to better, and new Danish sensations Katrine Kristensen and Goerklintgaards Quater did just that. This duo ooze quality and posted a staggering 80.354% to take the lead, much to the delight of the home crowd. Lee and Breezer’s personal best topped out at 82.447% in Tokyo, so it was a score well within their capabilities.

The pair were another to opt for their Tokyo routine, which is set to music from the hit film Kung Fu Panda, and Lee has packed the floorplan with difficulty. Breezer came in looking confident and, most importantly, relaxed after his previous excitements in the BB Horse Arena. The test flowed well and Lee rode with great positivity and energy to produce trot work with cadence. Steep leg-yields, a 10 metre centre line serpentine and impressive transitions all brought a pleasing test.  

The final score was 78.860%, which was enough for second behind the Dane and just in front of Georgia.

Lee reflected;

It’s remarkable. I was quite adamant I wouldn’t win gold so, to me, the silver is my gold here today. He has got spectacular trot work, but we are aware that the walk needs to be more supple, even when he’s relaxed, and with the great audiences that we’ve had, that just tightens his walk a little bit. I love my horse, but I love the way I rode. I think there’s nothing worse as a rider to be disappointed with your own riding. I think I rode every inch of that test and thoroughly enjoyed it.”

When asked to sum his week in Herning up, Lee answered;

I’m very grateful for being here. Very grateful that they have made a real effort to bring audiences in because, as you’ve seen, a lot of the para horses are nervous of audiences, so it needs to happen, and it’s nice to show off what we do as well, and how amazingly talented and inspiring the other riders are. The food has been amazing, I might just come to Denmark just to sit in restaurants and just eat food! It’s been the best venue for food, I think, and I’ve been professional for 24 years, so that’s quite a big statement! The volunteers are always amazing – wherever we go, nobody has been unhelpful at all or unfriendly. Okay, maybe the security guard, but I was probably where I shouldn’t have been, anyway! It’s also felt like a fierce competition, which has been good.”

The final threat to the medals came in the shape of seasoned competitor Pepo Puch from Austria and his equally experienced Sailor Blue. The horse can be a bit sharp at times, but equally can walk for a ten when relaxed. During Sunday, he was the former and very much on his toes, to score below their normally high total, which meant Denmark claimed the gold and our two riders completed the podium with Lee in silver and a well-deserved bronze for Georgia – her first ever World Championship medal.

It’s amazing,”

I didn’t think I would end up getting one, but it’s really good and I’m really happy to go home with a medal. She’s been getting better over the week and I had that buzz in my tummy just before we went in. We gave it our best shot to get 75%+ at the World Championships, so I couldn’t ask for anything more!”

Georgia said upon hearing she’d scooped a bronze

 And how will she celebrate?

I’ll probably eat a lot of food and just celebrate with the whole team and my coach Sophie Wells, who I couldn’t do it without,”

she beamed.

Natasha Baker and Keystone Dawn Chorus

Natasha Baker has made no secret this week that she’s not had the best time in preparing Keystone Dawn Chorus, or ‘Lottie’, for these championships. While they competed successfully in Tokyo last year, their partnership is still relatively young and will only improve with time. A severely disrupted training and competition plan due to illness and Natasha’s wedding meant they just hadn’t had much time between the whiteboards in the run-up to travelling to Herning. Ever the professional, though, Grade 3 athlete Natasha brought her A-game to Denmark and would do all she possibly could to get world class scores from her Dimaggio mare, who’s owned by Joanna Jensen, Christian Landolt, Phil and Lorraine Baker, and Natasha herself.

However, a difficult time in the warm-up didn’t help them to the best start. Lottie was certainly on her toes and wasn’t quite in the mood to give her rider an easy time. A final call from the stewards brought them forward to the arena, but not quite in the state of readiness, Natasha had visualised. Things took a turn for the worst when the Uxbridge-based athlete then caught the A marker with her foot as she entered down the centreline. Fortunately, Lottie has a forgiving nature and didn’t let it overly startle her, and they were soon into their routine. The marks soon started to pour in as their Avatar-inspired music filled the speakers.

They got through the test unscathed with some real highlights and, while it might not have been quite what they were hoping to finish on, it was far from the disaster Natasha suffered on the freestyle day of her last World Championships in Tryon, when she parted company from Mount St John Diva Dannebrog. She and Lottie would have a score on the board – a most credible 76.628%.

It proved to be enough to secure a bronze medal – ironically, Natasha’s first ever World Championship freestyle medal. Just a shade ahead was Lotte Krijnsen from the Netherlands riding Rosenstolz for 76.673%, with the runaway winners being Tobias Thorning Joergensen and Jolene Hill with a whopping 86.513%, nearly a ten percent margin of victory for the Danish duo.

That was the worst warm-up ever, she was so tense today!”

declared Natasha.

She’s come into season, which I think was actually why we had the sassiness and why the sassiness is increasing as the week goes on. Yeah, she was proper sassy today! I spent probably about five minutes of my 20-minute warm in trot and the rest of it in walk, I literally didn’t even trot in the 10 minute box. I went around the edge of the arena and didn’t trot – I was like, ‘right, just going to save it for the test and just see what happens.

I caught my foot and, of course, I can’t feel it! I luckily managed to catch up with my music through the test, so that was really good. To be honest, I’m just pleased I went in today, I honestly am! I think what made it worse for me is that I had serious flashbacks of 2018 and that’s how Diva went into the arena in 2018. I honestly was so close to being like, ‘I can’t do this’, but I’m so pleased I did.

It was the best of the three tests, for sure. I’m just so proud of her because she looked after me,” said an emotional Natasha. “She’s just amazing and I love her to pieces. I know that she’s super-talented and I know that she is such a good girl and I’ve just got to – I think from having so many spooky horses – I’ve just got to trust her more and trust that she is going to take care of me in the arena, and she did. I think I had better control of that today, slightly better, so yeah, I’m going home with a real positive, which is lovely – especially after my last two world championships.

I just couldn’t be more pleased with her and the way that she’s been and she’s just awesome. I’m just absolutely over the moon with her, honestly. I could not be more proud of her, I’m very thankful that she looked after me,”

she said with a tear in her eye.

Sophie Wells and Don Cara M

The Grade 5 competition was our Herning freestyle finale and, as ever, it proved compelling watching for the enthusiastic crowd. Fifth to go, Sophie was the first of the serious medal contenders to start, riding Rowland Kinch’s Don Cara M. ‘Donnie’ is notoriously noise-sensitive, but Sophie has put in the hours to acclimatise him since Tokyo, where he didn’t settle well on Freestyle day.

The hard work and dedication were repaid in dividends as the black Don Jovi gelding danced his socks off as ‘A Million Dreams’ from the Greatest Showman and ‘Something Like This’ by The Chainsmokers and Coldplay played in the arena. The trot work was expressive – and with a real wow factor – and, importantly, Donnie was taking instructions from his rider without question or hesitation, and began to relax and enjoy the music. The final mark topped out at 79.255% – not quite the 80%+ personal best they earned at Keysoe this spring, but Herning is a completely different stage.

He was just another level today. If I can get that and keep it consistent throughout the test and throughout the straight test, he’s got so much potential, but it’s just timing – I don’t want to ask too much too soon, then lose his confidence because it’s taken so long to get him confident,”

said a delighted Sophie.

When he first went in and everyone clapped, he was like ‘okay, it’s fine’, then really knuckled down again and that’s amazing. Everyone has had to cope with the crowds and stuff, but it’s part of a championship isn’t it. We have the extra buzz there, so for him to cope with that, that’s great. Last year in Tokyo, it went really quite wrong, and we’ve done loads and loads of work on it, and to get 6% more today is just fab. I know there’s loads more in there as well.

His lateral work is really good, so expressive, and obviously the extended trots were really good. Because he is such an elegant horse – yes, he’s powerful, but it’s not to the level of some horses I’ve had before, so – we just wanted to pick music that enhanced his elegance and didn’t overpower him because you want it to lift him, rather than over-power him. I was listening to it before I got on, and I didn’t know if I needed to stop listening to it because I was getting goosebumps already, and I’m not sure if that’s the right thing to have before I go for my test,”

she explained.

The score put them in the lead, but a late charge from Sophie’s main rivals, Frank Hosmar riding Alphaville NOP for the Netherlands and Michele George with Best of 8, relegated Sophie and Donnie to third, but the Nottinghamshire rider was left delighted.

After the medal ceremony, she reflected:

I never thought I’d get to a place where, if I didn’t win gold on the first day, it actually didn’t matter. I literally had no disappointment inside of me when I found that out and that’s really nice – of course, I’m still competitive, but I’ve got so many more important things than that now and, yes, I will obviously be driving to be the best that I can be and show him off to be the best of his ability and any other horses, but it’s not necessarily about the medals at the end of the day and that’s just a really nice place to be.”

she concluded.

Ending on a high

Four medals from four tests on the final day was a great outcome for the British camp, and they leave Herning with a sense of satisfaction. The all-important Paris qualification is secured and each combination takes away at least one medal – seven in total. All week, the sense of camaraderie in the team has been astounding, both between the four riders and within the support network that gets them to the arena. An amazing network of owners, grooms, equine and human practitioners, support staff and, of course, family and friends – many who were missing in Tokyo – made Herning memorable for all the right reasons. Let the preparations for Paris begin!

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