Just one year after the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ in Normandy (FRA), the region, which is steeped in equestrian sport, will once again be welcoming spectators with open arms, and with free entry, to France’s very first FEI European Para-Equestrian Dressage Championships.
British riders have been the ones to beat for pretty much the entire history of Para-Equestrian Dressage, but over the last few years there have been signs of a real challenge to this dominance from other European athletes.
While Team GBR is as determined as ever to keep the top spot, a number of key rivalries are developing in the sport’s five grades, including a fascinating head-to-head between the Netherlands and Germany.
Grade Ia has, for the last few years at least, been dominated by Britain’s Sophie Christiansen. She famously took three gold medals - team, individual and freestyle - at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, and swiftly repeated this at the JYSK FEI European Para-Equestrian Dressage Championships 2013.
At last year’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™, Christiansen was a hot favourite to repeat “the triple” and become one of the few athletes to hold Paralympic, European and World titles simultaneously. While she smoothly took the individual honours in Normandy, Italy’s Sara Morganti, who won individual and freestyle bronze at the 2013 Europeans, beat Christiansen in the freestyle with a superb display of horsemanship to the My Fair Lady soundtrack.
Both athletes will also have to tackle the challenge posed by Great Britain’s Anne Dunham, who won consecutive gold medals at four Paralympic Games starting in Atlanta in 1996, and is Christiansen’s closest domestic rival. Dunham took home double silver and team gold at the 2013 Europeans, and is definitely one to watch in Deauville.
Great Britain’s Lee Pearson, the 10-time Paralympic gold medalist, had a disappointing London 2012 by his own high standards. He was aiming for his 11th gold medal, which would have matched the tally achieved by wheelchair racer Tanni Grey-Thompson, but although Pearson was on the gold medal winning team in London, he had to settle for freestyle bronze and individual silver. He wasn’t selected for the 2013 Europeans but, used to overcoming challenges, Pearson worked solidly on his new horse, Zion, to come storming back at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2014 to take the team, individual and freestyle Ib titles.
In Deauville, Pearson will once again be up against the London 2012 winner, and current double European champion and World silver medalist, Austria’s Pepo Puch.
But it’s not just Pearson and Puch in the running for the medals. Add in the Netherlands’ double World bronze winning Nicole Den Dulk to the mix, and then stir in former World Champion Stinna Tange Kaastrup of Denmark, the double bronze medalist at the 2013 Europeans, and the Grade Ib competition could be the most exciting of these Championships.
The real surprise of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2014 was the sudden emergence of Dutch superstar Rixt Van Der Horst in Grade II. Competing at her first major international, the young rider knocked outright favourite Natasha Baker (GBR), the London 2012 individual and freestyle gold medalist and triple gold medalist at the 2013 Europeans, off the top of the podium to take both individual titles.
Since then, Van Der Horst has used that experience to rack up a slew of top scores in competitions across Europe, and will definitely be out to prove that the Worlds was not a one-off.
Baker, on exciting new horse Sooki St James, will also be aiming to lay the crucial groundwork ahead of next year’s Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, which she says is now her number one focus.
Germany’s Hannelore Brenner and the Netherlands’ Sanne Voets will be going head-to-head in Grade III. Until the 2013 Europeans, Brenner had won pretty much every major championship she competed in, scoring straight golds at the 2008 and 2012 Paralympic Games and the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2010 in Kentucky (USA).
But that changed in 2013, when Voets took the European title in the freestyle, a feat she repeated at last year’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ in Normandy. Home advantage could well come into play this year too. France has its best chance of a Grade III medal at these Championships with José Letarte, who took double bronze at the 2013 Europeans.
Belgium’s Michèle George is the rider to beat in the Grade IV competition, and Britain’s Sophie Wells will be out to do just that. Following World and European success in 2010 and 2011 respectively, Wells was hoping home advantage would swing things her way at London 2012, but it was not to be, and she took individual and freestyle silver behind George.
The pendulum swung back in Wells’ favour at the 2013 Europeans, but while the British athlete swept up three golds, setting the stage for a mighty battle in Normandy last year, it was George who topped the podium in Normandy, taking both titles in a thrilling competition.
The Netherlands’ Frank Hosmar is also a force to be reckoned with in Grade IV. He won individual and freestyle bronze at London 2012 and in Normandy last year, behind George and Wells, and double silver at the 2013 Europeans.
As with all the Dutch riders, the sense of imminent breakthrough at the FEI European Para-Equestrian Dressage Championships 2015 is strong.