Content courtesy of British Equestrian
It was another day of sun-drenched skies and tropical temperatures at the BB Horse Arena, for the decisive final grades of the Orifarm Healthcare FEI World Para Dressage Team Championship. With Grades 1, 2 and 4 completed yesterday, it was the turn of the threes and fives to perform and put forward their best score towards the team total. After day one, it looked as though the Netherlands and Denmark would be in a straight dogfight for the gold medal, while five nations – Britain included – were in the hunt for the bronze medal or one of the four additional Paris 2024 Paralympic Games qualification places up for grabs.
Natasha Baker and Keystone Dawn Chorus
Our sole representative in the Grade 3 was Natasha Baker and the British-bred Keystone Dawn Chorus, owned by Joanna Jensen, Christinan Landolt, Phil and Lorraine Baker, and Natasha herself. Natasha was certainly hoping for a less eventful ride today because ‘Lottie’ was certainly on her toes for the individual round. They started brightly, with the Dimaggio-sired mare in a forward rhythm, but looking more rideable than their day one test. The walk turn-on-the-haunches were particularly pleasing and scored highly. As the test progressed, Lottie seemed to get a bit more onward bound and wasn’t giving Tash the easiest of rides but, ever the professional, she kept everything together to keep the scores coming in.
The judging panel of E – Jeannette Wolfs (NED), H – Kjell Myhre (NOR), C – Kristi Wysocki (USA), M – John Robinson (GBR), and B – Suzanne Cunningham (AUS) awarded Natasha and Lottie 73.970%, which was a good contribution to the team score in the push for a Paris qualification spot.
“Some bits were better, but I still felt marginally out of control,” explained Natasha. “I was literally out of my saddle for that last halt, she was just powering down the centre line. Some bits were a lot better, I think mostly on the left rein, I had a little but more control. I actually got some leg yield steps today, so that was good. But yeah, just still so keen in there,” she declared.
“I was not expecting that when I went into the test the other day at all, and I think being so much weaker at the moment, physically, I just can’t hold her together as well as I would like to. And it’s amazing having that much power, but you need to be able to control it, and I just don’t think I feel strong enough at the moment to be able to do that. But it’s great to be that way round rather than having to motivate them because that’s not fun,” she went on to say.
The Uxbridge-based rider found plenty of positives to take from her test. “She went in there, the atmosphere didn’t faze her, she wasn’t fussed by the clapping. Coming here, our focus is so long-term towards Paris and this is such a great, great opportunity for her to come to this kind of event. We have got such low mileage compared to everybody else that’s here as well, I’ve literally done one competition this year and that set me back, then obviously being ill set me back so I’ve come here probably the most ill-prepared I’ve been coming into a championship, ever. All you can do is do your best on the day and I think I’ve done that with everything that’s been thrown at me this year – I don’t think I could have done anymore if I’m being honest.”
Sophie Wells and Don Cara M
Our final rider, Sophie Wells, would need every bit of her two decades of championship experience to conjure a medal-winning score from Rowland Kinch’s low-milage Don Cara M in the notoriously competitive Grade 5. ‘Don’ is still new to the upper echelons of para dressage, but is proving a very able dancing partner. However, today would be a test of his training, bravery and ability – that being said, there wouldn’t be a better pilot in the plate to get the best from the Don Jovi-sired 13-year-old.
In spite of having had a long, anxious wait to perform, the test started brightly, with the sensitive black gelding sweeping effortlessly around the arena despite the extreme heat, and the judges rewarded the pleasing work with plenty of eights – it was the start the team needed.
There was a stumble in the shoulder- in right, where the marks dropped slightly, but composure returned and the marks moved back up. Both simple changes of leg impressed for eights and nines, and a final flourish saw plenty of eights on the scoreboard. Pre-calculations estimated that Sophie and Don needed a 78%+ score to put us amongst the fight for bronze. The final score was announced as 76.190% – a fabulous score, but it looked just a smidge short of a medal.
Reflecting on going last for the team, Sophie said; “Obviously it was hard to go last in the and the other guys didn’t have their perfect ride, so I just tried to stay focused on what me and Donnie could do, and not try too hard. There’s only so much we can do, waiting to go and trying not to think about what we might need because you really can’t do anything about it. So, you’ve just got to go in a ride the best dressage that you can and be able to look back and be proud of the ride that you had.”
On her test, she shared; “Yeah, I’m really proud. He felt really with me – we had a couple of tiny little things, but we seem to have got a bit of a better score. Everyone is closer and obviously further ahead of us now – there’s much less wiggle room – we have to have almost our personal best rides to be in the medals. The other guys did a great job and they posted good scores, but good scores don’t cut it these days.
“I think, as our partnership grows, he will trust me more and I’ll know him more. We have a bit of a process that we go through, but as he gets better and I can get to him quicker, you want to get to him a bit more, so that’s all just art of the process and he’s still got loads more in there, which is just really nice, and I don’t want to push too hard too soon and upset him and upset the balance.
“I’ve been campaigning with him all year, we’ve not really dropped it down apart from the end of last year, so we’ve had a good build-up to it, but at the same time we’re only two-and-a-half years in and that’s the longest time he’s had a single rider, so I think there’s still loads more to come”
In the end, team gold went to the Netherlands and, in doing so, they defend the title they won in Tryon 2018 – the first time the British team hadn’t taken the gold since 1996. Second spot went to the home team of Denmark while, in a late swoop, the team from the USA claimed bronze. Britain finished fourth, the first time we’ve not featured on a podium in nearly 30 years of competition, such is the fiercely competitive nature of international para dressage currently. The remaining Paris qualification places go to Belgium, Germany and Italy.
Sophie summed up; “Qualifying for Paris – that’s what we came in here to do and I think even last night we were quite aware that gold and silver were out of the question, but that we might be able to push for bronze depending on how Natasha went this morning. But qualification for Paris is a tick – hopefully, we go home, regroup and get them into some good competitions.”