Finding a Paris 2024 horse, spiralling costs and implications for future of the sport

  • Eight-time Paralympic gold medallist Sophie Christiansen has voiced concerns over what increasing financial pressures on riders mean for the future of the sport.

    The grade I rider, who is searching for her Paris 2024 gold medal contender, spoke to H&H to share the challenges she – and others – are facing.

    The standard of horses and competition continues to rise, but prize money remains low, and attracting owners continues to be challenging.

    “We have been strong in grade I for so long, with Anne Dunham and me, and now I just don’t know how any grade I is going to be able to afford the horsepower required without taking owners,” said Sophie.

    “I’m concerned about what the future of para dressage is – if riders have to find that kind of money, we will become elitist.”

    “Able-bodied riders and riders in the higher grades can ride for owners. Owners want to see their horses going up the able-bodied levels, which I can’t do. So we struggle getting owners in the lower grades, which makes it even more important to be able to buy your own horse.”

    Athletes’ funding is linked to results. While Sophie works part-time as well, the reality is that without winning medals, that funding will drop.

    Prize money in international para dressage typically lags far behind the able-bodied Olympic disciplines, and is not mandated in FEI rules in the same way.

    There were renewed calls from members of the British squad at Tokyo for major shows to include para sport as part of their programmes, with riders highlighting the need to attract owners and raise awareness of what the sport is about.

    At the FEI para dressage forum, proposals for para World Cup and Nations Cup series were shared, with hopes these could boost the sport.

    Sophie said while she welcomes the suggestions, the financial side continues to pose a challenge.

    “My first thought was ‘this is amazing’. However, we have no prize money,” she said. “In order to go to these competitions, athletes have to fund it themselves. We are lucky in Britain that UK Sport can help. But I still have to pay my staff, I need my trainer and my carer.”

    Sophie added that the qualities horses need are “so specific” for each grade and while she competes in walk, her horses are trained to advanced medium level.

    “The standard in Tokyo was extremely high, especially in grade I where you just have one pace, so the walk has to be just phenomenal,” she said, adding that she watched and applauded from afar.

    “That’s why it is always helpful to get a horse with a bit of experience in able-bodied, although that obviously puts the prices up.

    “We are talking about a walk that in able-bodied tests would score a 10 every time. Within the walk, it has to be really consistent, regular rhythm, consistent in frame and obviously temperament is key. Because of my disability, I’m not always quick enough to reassure my horses, so they have to be really brave and know their job.

    “Quite often, people think bombproof means lazy. They have to be forward thinking as well, as my legs aren’t strong enough to keep them going. Good para horses are horses that have a great work ethic, will really try and are forward thinking, but maybe don’t have the ability or confirmation to go all the way to grand prix.”

    She added she is looking to buy, or would “love” to ride for an owner, and is ultimately looking for a competition horse, with the aforementioned qualities, who has presence in the arena.

    “I want to put myself in a position where I know I can win gold in Paris,” she said.

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