Natasha Baker: Para riders have been pushed aside *H&H VIP*

  • Opinion

    I have been talking with the Olympia organising committee to try to include para dressage at the show in future. It features at other World Cup shows — there is a para freestyle class at Amsterdam and last year the Swedish para rider Felicia Grimmenhag gave a demonstration with Patrik Kittel at Gothenburg.

    I’ve been on the rampage about this for a while because we don’t get that exposure in this country. We have amazing shows, such as Windsor, Bolesworth, Hickstead and Liverpool, but our para riders don’t get included in these events and it feels as though we’re being pushed to the side.

    We should have our place at some of the UK’s major shows, even if it’s just a five-minute demonstration. It would give our riders and our horses valuable exposure to these arenas and atmospheres. In the Netherlands, even ordinary para shows have much more atmosphere than ours and, as a result, when they get to a championship those horses are not fazed. This is one reason the Dutch team have now caught up with us, and beat us to gold for the first time ever at the World Equestrian Games.

    Sophie Wells has more opportunity to compete at bigger venues as she is a grade V rider who also competes at a high level in able-bodied dressage, but the rest of us don’t have that chance.

    Having para dressage included at shows like Olympia would also give exposure to our sport, and show that we are more than RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association) riders — we ride top-quality sport horses and deserve to be taken seriously as athletes.

    It could also help with sourcing horses, as many people don’t realise the quality of horse that we need at the top. I am currently hunting for a second ride alongside Mount St John Diva Dannebrog, but finding good para horses is so hard.

    We haven’t been given equal opportunities because, until now, we haven’t pushed for it. But now’s the time to say, “What about us?” People fall in love with para dressage once they’ve been given the opportunity to witness it — the London Paralympics proved that.

    The Olympia committee have taken the idea on board — if we can just get our foot in the door, we can build on it.

    Change is needed

    The Olympia grand prix format was interesting — I think the fundamentals were good, as we need to make dressage appeal to a wider audience and make it accessible to those who know nothing about it. Anyone can switch on some showjumping and understand that if a horse knocks a pole down, it isn’t going to win. But dressage is much harder to understand.

    I really liked the Strictly-style scores at Olympia and the rider interviews, but they must make sure it is the right person leading these interviews, who will draw the audience in.

    The FEI do need to make changes to the test itself, though — every rider I spoke to said it didn’t flow. We need more top riders working with the FEI to improve it and seek a compromise, because there is no harm in having two versions of the grand prix, with one being shorter. At shows where there are more than 40 horses doing a grand prix, that’s a very long day for the audience and the judges. A slightly shorter test could work very well.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 10 January 2019