Great Britain and the Netherlands flexed their considerable muscles and claimed two gold medals apiece in the Para,-Equestrian Dressage on a glorious, sun-drenched first day of the FEI European Championships in Gothenburg (SWE).
Julie Payne (GBR) led the charge in Grade I, posting a huge 77.642% score to leave the competition trailing far behind. “That is one of the best feelings I have ever had,” Payne said. “That is the best test I have done on her, she was just so in my hand, if I asked her to correct she was just answering.”
The 55-year-old was riding Athene Lindebjerg, the mare who won triple gold at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games with former rider Sophie Christiansen (GBR). Remarkably, Payne and her new mount have only been together for three months, with the newly-crowned European champion grateful that they “just clicked”. Grade I is for the most severely impaired athletes, with Payne describing her multiple system atrophy (MSA) as like combining motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and chronic fatigue syndrome into one.
German Elke Philipp was delighted to take silver with 73.428%, while Rihards Snikus (LAT) held off the challenge of current freestyle world champion Sara Morganti (ITA) to snatch bronze. Great Britain’s Suzanna Hext, a debutant on the team like compatriot Payne, edged a tight battle for Grade III glory with a score of 71.588%. She was “over the moon” with her horse Abira’s performance.
“He loves a party, loves to show off and that’s exactly what he did today. He is a horse of a lifetime,” she said. Claudia Schmidt (GER) won a second silver for Germany, with a score of 70.617% placing her just ahead of Hext’s teammate, Erin Orford (GBR).
In Grade V, defending European individual champion Frank Hosmar (NED) pushed his long-time rival Sophie Wells (GBR) into silver. “To beat them is always what gets me out of bed,” said Hosmar of his battles with Wells and Rio 2016 freestyle gold medal winner Michele George (BEL), who finished a surprising fifth. “We see each other in the stables, say hello and kiss-kiss, it’s not like we hate each other,” Hosmar laughed, "but it’s fun to beat each other.”
Compatriot Sanne Voets (NED) revealed some timely pre-competition motivation made all the difference for her gold medal-winning routine in Grade IV. “Yesterday in the familiarisation he got really tense and today in the warm-up he was a little tense too, but I said to him ‘c’mon boy, we can do this’ and I'm really, really proud of the way he handled everything,” Voets said after scoring 72.353%.
Belgium’s Manon Claeys claimed silver with a mark of 71.560% and Louise Etzner Jakobsson (SWE) delighted the home crowd by claiming bronze. “I am proud to be a Swede in the Championships here,” Jakobsson said. “I always try to ride like I am home, wherever I am.”
Veteran Pepo Puch (AUT), a former international three-day eventer, defended his European title in Grade II, triumphing with 73.382%, ahead of Nicole de Dulk (NED) and Denmark’s Stinna Tange Kaastrup.
All the medallists will return to the arena tomorrow for the Para Dressage team event, with the first round of the Team Dressage Grand Prix taking place at the Ullevi Stadium just up the road. It promises to be a thrilling few days in Gothenburg.