The British para dressage shortlist for this September’s World Equestrian Games (WEG) contains a mix of old names and new faces — there are so many riders deserving of a place on the team this year that it’s very hard to predict who will be selected to make up the team of four.
I would extremely surprised if Sophie Wells was not called up to make her 12th team appearance for Britain. She had her double 2017 European champion, Charlotte Hogg’s 11-year-old C Fatal Attraction, on super form at the Harpury CPEDI3* last week — a crucial show for riders and selectors.
Sophie, 28, had her first taste of being the most experienced team member in Gothenburg last year, and she rose to it superbly, leading the all-female squad to team gold once more and following it up with an individual gold and silver in grade V ranks.
Natasha Baker is the other rider I fully expect to make the team. With Emma Blundell’s sparky chestnut mare, Mount St John Diva Dannebrog (pictured top), Natasha has stormed back to the top of grade III after a year out of competition. She and Diva have barely been beaten since teaming up in January, producing consistent mid-70s scores that will prove invaluable as Britain vie to continue their unbeaten streak in increasingly competitive company.
Last year was something of a transition year for para dressage, as major players such as Natasha, Lee Pearson and Sophie Christiansen took a year out after Rio. But the combinations who stepped up to fill their shoes in Gothenburg did so extremely successfully and, for the most part, are back in contention this year alongside the more established names, meaning it’s tough to predict who might take the final two team spots.
One of those who made her championship debut last year was Suzanna Hext, coming home from Sweden with triple gold. Her medal-winning partner, the Hutton family’s legendary now-18-year-old gelding Abira, is currently out with an injury, but the 13-year-old LJT Enggaards Solitaire has stepped up to the plate this year. The Blue Hors Soprano son is no stranger to the sport — he won medals for Britain at both the 2013 Europeans and the 2014 WEG under Ricky Balshaw — but has had some mixed results with Suz over the past few months, posting scores up to 77% before appearing to divide the judges at Hartpury with some staggering discrepencies. Suz has had the added challenge of adjusting to her new grade II tests, having been reclassified from a III, and this championship could come before the pair have really hit their best at the level. Then again, there’s everything to suggest they could peak in Tryon.
Erin Orford is another who helped Britain to gold last year, and also picked up individual bronze too, a super achievement having been called up from the reserve squad at the last minute with Annabel Whittet’s Dimaggio mare Dior. They’ve been on great form since, with a strong of scores in the 70s during 2018, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had the chance to represent their country once again.
One of the most exciting horses in action at Hartpury was Lee Pearson’s young home-bred mare Styletta. The pair blitzed the grade II team and individual tests, though had to settle for second in the freestyle after the dainty daughter of Sandros Dancer reacted to the loud music with tension. The grade II section is always highly competitive but Lee is one of the most experienced para riders in the world and has such strong partnerships with his horses as, unlike many riders in his grade, he trains them himself. This talented mare could well be his ticket back onto the team.
Sophie Christiansen is another championship veteran back on the team shortlist after a year away from the sport. She has returned to the arena after a huge, brave life change, with a new horse in Amazing Romance (Harry) and a new trainer in Rob Trowbridge. While she and Harry have had some brilliant grade I results in their first year together, they’re still getting to know each other and it showed at Hartpury, the nine-year-old gelding making Sophie’s life quite tricky at times. At their best, this pair definitely have the potential to bring home the medals Sophie is used to, but the selectors look for consistency and reliability, and there’s a question mark over whether Harry will produce the goods in the highly pressurised setting of the World Games. He might need another year to be ready to show his best at a championship, but then again his other performances this year have been fantastic.
At the other end of the experience spectrum is the 17-year-old grade IV rider Izzy Palmer, who was listed as a reserve for Gothenburg with Sophie Wells’ Touchdown M. It should come as no surprise that Izzy is back on a team shortlist again this year — she and Touch were national champions in 2017 and winter champions earlier this year, before going on to win all three of their classes at Hartpury. Izzy, who is trained and mentored by Sophie Wells, rides with exceptional maturity, and could well be a solid team member if the selectors decide she is ready for the challenge.
Another grade IV rider you wouldn’t be a fool to take a punt on making her championship debut this year is blind rider Nicky Greenhill with the nine-year-old Benetton Dream mare Betty Boo. The pair have just a handful of results under their belt, and Hartpury was their first international together, but they are well capable of scores in the 70s as they showed last week. Nicky would be my outside choice for a spot.
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Georgia Wilson, 22, is the final rider to be listed, with her own Midnight Z. The pair, another trained by Sophie Wells, had a super week at Hartpury, banking a win, a second and a third, all with plus-70% in grade II ranks, and look to be serious future team contenders. My feeling is that next year’s Europeans is a more realistic target for them, but they are fully deserving of their place on this shortlist.
It’s a tough task, predicting the four combinations who will be selected to make the trip out to the USA in September but, crystal ball in hand, my choice would have to be Sophie Wells, Natasha Baker, Lee Pearson and Sophie Christiansen, with Suzanna Hext and Erin Orford as reserves. We’ll find out if I’m right in just a few weeks…
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