Our riders achieved so much out in Rio and I was delighted for all of them. Maintaining their unbeaten run under such pressure was fantastic. I was especially pleased for Sophie Wells. She’s been waiting for that individual gold for four years and she’s one of the most hardworking, dedicated people I’ve ever met, not just with her horses but in life.
The selectors had an extremely difficult job in deciding who should be on the team. They look at past performance and have to estimate what will happen. Many people have said that Lee Pearson should have been on the team. Granted, the scores Lee produced would not have been our discard score had he been, but the selectors aren’t psychic — they have to go on the information they have, which is a lot more than the public have.
How great it is that we can win team gold by such a considerable margin, even when the team wasn’t made up of the four highest scoring combinations. I definitely thought this was the competition where we would get a run for our money, where if we didn’t win gold it would be understandable. The Dutch did everything right in the run-up; I expected them to score higher.
Lee and I are like brothers and I was so thrilled he won the freestyle. He was upset by London and deserved gold here. To see him so emotional proved how much it meant. In Beijing he said to me, “Rick, I just can’t cry on the podium.” It took his 11th gold medal to make him cry. The huge teams behind the scenes deserve all the success too. The medal is the rider and the ribbon is the team holding it around the rider’s neck.
Are riders are risk?
Para dressage is almost a different sport now compared to when I started competing internationally 15 years ago. It’s a lot more professional — I remember the parties at shows, with fake legs flying around, wheelchair races and general carnage. But there’s more money involved now, people have to take it even more seriously.
The biggest change was swapping to own-horse competitions. It’s more subjective now, but the standard and the horsepower has shot up, which is great. However, with that comes the issue of safety. There were a lot of major spooks in Rio that could have turned into accidents, as well as one bad fall, and I was worried for some of the riders.
Some riders with severe disabilities are on horses that they cannot cope with and it’s dangerous. Yes, they’re talented and have balls of steel, and are willing to risk injury to win a medal, but they shouldn’t have to. It’s one of the reasons I retired from the sport — I don’t want to injure myself to the extent that I can’t work, or provide for a family. Riders with disabilities are more vulnerable than able-bodied riders.
We have fantastic horsepower now — the horse I won silver with in Beijing wouldn’t be in the top 10 now — and I’m not suggesting the quality of horses should diminish, but there’s a misconception that talented horses have to be nuts. The best thing that could happen for para dressage may, ironically, be the worst thing — somebody getting badly hurt, or worse — for the sport to recognise the situation.
For dressage and para dressage to survive it needs to appeal to a modern audience and spectators should be able to clap when a rider finishes a test. It shouldn’t matter if a baby cries, or there’s a Mexican wave. There are several horses who didn’t look at a thing in Rio, and it proves they are out there.
Ref Horse & Hound; 22 September 2016