Sophie Wells blog: Our para horses need more exposure

  • We’re now back from the European Championships in Herning, Denmark, and have just started to recover! It was an amazing trip.

    The horses left for the Arrow in Kent on the Friday morning to meet up with the rest of the para team to continue their journey with Mark Perry. Ange (Angela Weiss) drove Reece (Valerius) down to Kent as she was travelling with him in the road crew, and I would catch up with them in Denmark, and in the mean time stay at home and ride all the horses left behind.

    A massive amount of praise and thanks should be given to the road crew which was headed by Mark, supported by team vet and osteopath Rod and Karen, and a few grooms. It was a very long journey of 3 days to get from the horses’ UK homes to Denmark — though they were thoroughly well looked after, with frequent stops to check they are well throughout the journey.

    I met up with the rest of the team at Stanstead on Saturday evening, ready to fly on Sunday morning. It’s always a nerve wracking time before a major championship, wrapping the horses in cotton wool, let alone ensuring that they peak at the right time.

    I was relieved to see Reece looking in good spirits when he arrived in Denmark, but that was soon to change. Less that an hour later I was called to the stables because he had had an accident in his box and got his head trapped. The stables had bars on the front, with a little window that could be opened on the door. We think Reece got his rubbery lips through the bars and pulled the peg out and released the window so he got his head through, it then closed on him and he panicked pulling his head back and grazing all around his jaw and neck.

    Thankfully with several British team vets on standby, there was a vet nearby to check him over before Rod got to him. Rod and Karen did a great job getting him back to fitness.

    The scene is set

    Over the next 24 hours the grounds changed from a county show type area, a little bit like Stoneleigh, to a competition venue for a 3-discipline European Championships.

    This was the first time we [paras] have been at the same time and venue as dressage and showjumping. For me it just brought positives. Inspiration being one massive plus; watching the best horses and riders in training and competition was an incredible inspiration to me. Watching different training methods, riding styles, and horses, I tried to soak up as much as I could.

    Monday was used as familiarisation for us in our competition arena just outside the main stadium. It was also next to the huge shopping village with the potential for more spectators than previous Europeans/Worlds, and with more atmosphere! Just what everyone involved in para dressage has been asking for.

    Reece had a really light stretch to get his body moving on the first day, but I was very aware that the journey would catch up with him. We also got into a routine with Helen Mathie, the physio, to keep my legs working and pain down as much as possible.

    Another nerve wracker

    Tuesday brought the trot up, and a nerve wracking day for me with Reece’s behaviour! He has developed an international reputation for being rather lively and expressive during these occasions. However I was very proud when he trotted there and back, keeping all 4 feet on the floor!

    We had another chance of arena familiarisation, and I picked Reece up a bit more to do some canter work, and prepare for the team test the next day. He was causing me some concern in not eating his hard feed since arriving. Initially I put it down to the trauma of his mishap, but it continued, so a few texts to D&H nutritionist, Rachel Sainsbury, — who has known him and all his quirky habits for 4 years — and we decided to cut everything back and feed it all separately, and finally started to get feed into him on the Wednesday!

    I was really looking forward to the team test and I felt like I had waited a year since London to have the chance to put things right and try to get back on top. Because we don’t get the opportunity to compete internationally very often, its hard to gauge where you are until you compete at the big competitions.

    Warming up he felt quite tired, not suprising with the journey, trauma and lack of eating! But for the team test we needed a safe good score, and solid test to start our competition. Thankfully we managed to pull that off, but it was worrying me that his energy wasn’t there, but once he started eating after the test I felt happier!

    Because we were the first grade of the competition, there were score board problems, but I didn’t know that when the provisional score came up at 69% and my heart sank! I was drawn early in a fairly big class, so it was a horrible wait, but good chance to watch the competition. My score was confirmed as 74% an hour and a half later! This gave me a 4% lead from the first day which was great, but by no means made me relaxed as the same happened in London.

    Ricky also competed on the first day, with his new Lady Joseph Trust horse, but made a good impression on the judges and began to build their confidence coming second to the current Paralympic champion, Pepo Puch.

    Because the competition ran alongside the able-bodied dressage and showjumping, the grades were split over 2 days for the team and individual, and freestyle on the last day. I like the format for this as it gives the horses a bit of a breather between test days, as 3 intense days of competition in a row is quite tiring!

    Grade Ia, II and III competed on the Thursday, finding a few problems with the layout. When the grade II were competing, the crowd was streaming from the shopping village to the main stadium for the start of the jumping. It’s hard because we want to be involved with the other disciplines, we want more exposure and opportunity to create more interest, yet there was a lot of people complaining about it. I think the horses need more exposure to crowds, which at the end of the day, crowds can’t be controlled, but can be educated, and I think we need to push through and continue to try and do that.

    My second day of competition went really well, I wasn’t on until later in the day, so there was more time for the nerves to build up. I knew that I had to repeat what I had done on the first day, but better. I know Reece has the ability, and I wanted to show that off. He’s come such a long way and he’s really ready now and I needed to prove that — for all my hard work this year, from everything from the gym to all the little details, and for everyone that has helped me get here!

    He felt on great form warming up and Angela was on my case for getting him really concentrating and making sure I wasn’t leaving anything to chance. The test went smoothly, I really went for the higher marks and we came out with 75.643%. I definitely thought it was one of the best tests he’s done. It was again a long wait to see what the other riders would produce. In the end Dutch Frank Hosmar got silver with 71% and Danish Line Kongensgaard, a young rider new to paras, pulled off a great test for bronze and her first championship medal.

    I did get a bit emotional on the podium listening to the national anthem; I had been hungry for it all year, and it had come off. We also won team gold, which is still a massive achievement to hold onto the unbeaten title, and with the biggest margin so far. We need to make sure we keep it up and keep pushing the boundaries and using the new sports science and technology to our advantage, just like other sports.

    Breaking the 80% barrier

    The last day of competition was when I was most nervous, I’m not sure why, except I was last on of the whole day, and I wanted to give him the best ride to round off the week.

    The scores had been quite reserved and no one had broken the 80% barrier, so that’s what my aim was, but not expecting to be able to achieve it — but aim high! This was the day when he felt at his best. I only walked him out the day before, so he felt recovered and raring to go. He really was on fire, and I just had to control it!

    I love my music, a Hans Zimmer compilation, I chose it all myself after trawling through hundreds of pieces to find what I had imagined. It’s a bit dark and dramatic, but I wanted to make an impression. He was awesome in the test and he gave me his all, I couldn’t have asked for more.

    Frank came out with 76% so I knew I needed to go some to beat that! When I came out and stretched him off, the feeling of pride in him was immense, then when my score came through on the score board, 80.25% I burst into tears, and im not an emotional type of person, but when I went over to Angela, she was crying too! The best way to end a fantastic week. The venue, weather, people and team were great.

    After the medal ceremony (in which Reece made an appearance, anchored either side by Ange and Mark), and after press, we rushed off to watch Carl ride his freestyle, I think it’s fair to say he is the dressage God at the moment — he makes it look so easy, with amazing skill.

    We the watched Valegro and Damon Hill. I love both horses, but it was clear Charlotte had it on the day. To be able to witness the best grand prix that anyone has ever seen, and the hardest battle for medals in the special, with every medallist going wrong. But to be able to witness the best dressage in the world in the flesh, is amazing.

    I would like to say a massive thank you to my team at home; Ange who is a massive support as is my boyfriend Nathan, to grooms, physios, farrier, vet, nutritionist and coaches, my team of personal sponsors whom I wouldn’t be able to do the day-to-day life without. And finally the World Class team and staff, UK sport and Lottery funding, that allows me to ride for my job.

    Back at home, with lots to look forward to, I got back to getting all the horses back into work. With nationals now only just over a week away, it was back to work and I couldn’t wait to see my boys that I had left at home. Noki (Pinocchio) is preparing for the inter II at the nationals, Reece the inter I, David (Forever Himself) in the grade IV para class, and Emma Sheardown’s horse Ed in the Ia para class. We are also preparing Ed for sale, to enable Emma to go on and get a horse to prepare for Rio, so lots of advertising and looking for horses again!


    You may like...