We are back from the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) and I am pleased to say we all survived! To say it ran smoothly wouldn’t be completely true, but a lot of the British team across all the disciplines delivered personal best performances and some of those were from the para dressage riders.
Wrapping horses up in cotton wool
A week before we left for WEG, during a normal training session with Reece (Valerius), he knocked himself, causing localised swelling and making him sore. This was the morning the World Class team came for a home visit to check everything was OK.
Thankfully as the team vet and osteopath were with us when it happened, we could act quickly to apply cold compress. We also got my local vet Matthew Barlow to come and scan the leg, just to make sure nothing else had happened.
Thankfully that went well and after a few days the swelling had gone down. He was feeling good, so we slowly built his work back up for the rest of the week before heading to France.
You hear of everyone wrapping their horses up in cotton wool in the weeks leading up to championships. It is so true, you feel so paranoid, but you can only do your best to prevent accidents happening.
The horses travelled as usual on the team lorry, captained by Mark Perry. They arrived in Deauville to stay overnight, before heading to Caen and the venue the following day.
The weather really didn’t make a good start to the trip — apparently it was the most rain Caen has seen in 25 years during August — brilliant timing!
Because the para venue has been built on the racecourse, which is built on marshland, it’s fair to say the rain didn’t really have anywhere to go. Smart planning from Mark and the BEF office meant pallets were used to raise everything in the tack room off the floor, and the organisers did try hard to get the water away, but the arenas suffered. They were fairly solid sand surfaces that didn’t have much give. The warm-up arenas turned into something resembling rice pudding in all the rain and the competition arena became a pond.
Thankfully as the week went on, the weather improved. We had seen the weather forecast before we left, so a quick call into my sponsors and team sponsors Toggi meant we had ordered some extra waterproofs to see us through.
I had the massive honour of being flag bearer for the British team at the opening ceremony. There was a great atmosphere in the D’Ornano stadium where the dressage and showjumping was held, and the roar when the French team walked in was incredible. It was at that point that I wished we had gone to the Paralympic opening ceremony in London.
The trot-up of our horses went well, and Reece managed to keep all fiour feet on the ground, thanks to his ‘bouncers’ — Mark and Ian Hughes the team farrier. They were both very helpful walking him in hand every day, which I was very grateful for. Karen the equine physio worked with Reece daily to maintain his body and Lucy Bell, our team physio, also did a great job keeping my body going too!
I was told I was on the team, who, as we are always being reminded, have never lost team gold at any major championships. Pressure indeed, but, as Angela always reminds me, I can only do my best for myself, and that should be good enough for the team — we can do no more.
Team test day came, and we had a bit of a rubbish draw — third to go and early in the day, but once I had thought about it, I was quite relieved. I had watched the first day of competition where we had Ricky Balshaw and Lee Pearson (1b), and was itching to get my competition started. I’m not a fan of waiting all day, so by 9am we had done our test, which I was pleased with. A solid start, with 74.595%, a good score for the team, and room for improvement for the rest of the competition. It was good to watch the rest of the class, and to find out we led the way until the end.
The individual test came two days later, which was my better test of the two, with more lateral work, which Reece enjoys. We went around the arena and a big applause was heard as our name was read out. Reece had a little scoot for two steps and then was straight back with me to go down the centre line. Not long ago that would really have distracted and upset him.
The test went well, better than the team test. I could present him a little more in the frame, and ride it a bit more. We had one questionable step at the end of my extended canter to collect transition, but apart from that, I was really happy with his test. He concentrated throughout and really had so much powerful energy in there that I could just tilt my pelvis and he would extend — an incredible feeling to be so in tune yet controlled and harmonious. I came out the arena so happy with him, and I could tell Ange was too.
Michele George from Belgium, who won gold in London, had gone in just before me, so everyone was on the edge of their seats watching the running scores. While I was having my tack checked, my score flashed onto the big screen (74.333%) and into second by 0.5%. That realisation of losing our world title was sinking, but I couldn’t have done any more with Reece — he gave me his all and that’s all I can ask.
I was almost teary in the media zone talking about him. I have ridden and owned him for nearly eight years, and for him to produce that test when it was needed was such a heart-warming feeling of pride. It was such an honour for me to ride him, and try and show him off at his best for my country. Of course there was disappointment that we didn’t clinch the world title that I won on Noki in Kentucky in 2010, but there are some things you can’t control.
The freestyle came and we had another chance. It was the last day of the class and of the whole para dressage competition, and I wanted to make it count — we had nothing to lose. I love my music and it suits Reece so well. I love riding him to it and I just wanted to go in that arena and really show that.
The test went so well, his frame was at his best and in true self carriage. I loved it and I think he did too. We rode every step of that test and left nothing in the arena — that was all I could do.
Unfortunately again it was not meant to be. 0.6% off the gold with 78.050% which was more than 2% off our personal best, but the test was definitely the best we have ever done. The only frustrating thing was the difference in scores, the lowest technical score was 69.5% and the highest 78%, the lowest artistic score 78% and highest 86.5% which is massive, but again that is dressage, and happens at all levels. Quite simply it is the nature of the sport that we love.
Masterful dressage riding
We were very fortunate to be able to witness some fantastic performances in the dressage, with some masterful pieces of riding from our team members. One I will remember the most was Michael Eilberg’s grand prix special test. He rode every step and nailed it, getting the most he could from his horse Half Moon Delphi — especially after a difficult ride the previous day. Carl and Charlotte were brilliant as usual, Carl cementing the fact he is the ‘dressage God’, who all can admire, and Gareth (Hughes) rode a brilliant test on a hot Nadonna and was very unfortunate to not get through to the grand prix special.
The whole competition ended with Team GBR at the top of the medal table for the second WEG in a row, which is great news for our training systems and all the team that work so hard to make it happen. I am very proud of the Union Jack we wear, and it is such an honour to be part of a great network and team.
I must say a massive thank you to all of my team that helped me in France, to my home team that give me daily help, and my big team of sponsors and supporters for their continued support. I hope we represented you well and have done you proud.