With Paris 2024 qualification in the bag, British para dressage is taking stock and reviewing how it can sharpen its world-leading edge on an increasingly competitive global stage.
Britain has blazed a trail since 1996, but now other nations have caught up. The Brits bagged seven medals at the 2022 World Championships, yet there’s no getting away from the fact that Britain finished off the team podium for the first time. The standard was outstanding and the closeness of the results made for exciting sport.
So how does Britain push forward?
The answer, from those H&H approached, is that horsepower is critical as is increasing and nurturing rider talent. Horses and riders need greater exposure to busy show environments as they progress through their education and development. To source and afford the horsepower needed, a greater understanding in the wider equine marketplace of the qualities para horses require is needed. And riders need owners. The solution to many of these points lies in a much closer relationship between able-bodied and para sport.
British Equestrian para dressage performance manager Georgina Sharples reflected on the worldwide and national growth of the sport, adding London remains a “watershed moment”, but the sport has “grown exponentially” since then.
“Just in Britain, we’ve gone from 80 to 250 active para riders in the past four years,” she told H&H.
“If you project that to the rest of the globe, I think it starts to explain the competitiveness and acceleration of para sport and para dressage.
“Tiny margins will forever now separate medals and I think people will be talking about podiums rather than golds, as they do in Olympic sport. There’s absolutely no room for error.”
The increase in both standard and international interest are welcomed.
“That’s what makes sport exciting, that’s what athletes want,” she says, adding that with that comes a “rallying cry” to support British para dressage.
“We absolutely can’t overlook the need for owners and we have some incredible ones.
“The need for owners to invest in horsepower has never been more important; it is increasingly difficult for riders just to go it alone, with the kind of horse they need.”
That links to the desire for greater overlap between the able-bodied and para fixtures, which Ms Sharples and riders both highlighted. It’s on the cards – and is particularly important post-Brexit, which makes competing abroad more challenging and costly.
“Integration is very much about the development of horse and rider, but it’s also letting as many people as possible see para dressage, who’ll perhaps then think, ‘I could be involved in that’ at any level – as a rider, an official or owner. We need people to get involved,” she said.
Natasha Baker has long advocated for more para sport at British shows and told H&H it’s important from many angles. Those include education, better exposure of horses and riders to championship-like atmospheres, and in terms of marketplace.
Speaking generally, she said horsepower is a key factor where other nations have overtaken Britain, giving the example of the Dutch NOP scheme, which provides financial support to secure top horses.
“There’s a lot of horses out there and they are not all going to make it to grand prix. It’s tapping into the professional riders that we have in this country,” she said, explaining that is how she found Keystone Dawn Chorus.
“That’s why I think Hartpury International is so great, we compete in the outdoor arena and a lot of the professional riders are there, sitting on the bank, hopefully seeing the standard of horses we need. Every year someone new comes up to me and says, ‘Wow, I didn’t know what the horsepower was like’.”
She adds more consistent exposure to bigger crowds and competitions is another area that sets European nations apart.
“Getting more exposure to bigger atmospheres – and from a young age – I think would really help our horses,” she said.
In terms of British talent coming through, Keysoe CPEDI (see report, 13 October) was a place to spot horses and riders on the rise, including exciting six-year-olds partnered by Sophie Wells, Georgia Wilson and Erin Orford.
Ms Sharples praised the current para pathway, noting that being the best in the world isn’t just about having “three combinations to go and win medals”, but about the bigger picture of growing a sport. Other developments include the forthcoming launch of British Dressage’s para academy, and how the 2023 Europeans is likely to be used to develop combinations with future championships in mind.
She stressed that British Equestrian always wants to hear from owners and sellers of prospective para horses. The type of horse needed varies between grades, and between riders, so a horse that may not suit one para rider may well suit another.
Sophie Christiansen and Erin both echoed the points raised.
“We pushed the boundary with horses in 2012 – nobody had seen a horse walk like Rio [Janerio 6],” Sophie told H&H. “That’s why we broke the world record. It was, ‘Wow, that’s the calibre of horse paras can ride.’ Now, all the other countries have caught up. You would see some amazing horses with riders that maybe weren’t [at that level], or amazing riders with lesser horses. Now, there’s talented riders on talented horses with big financial backing from their country and equestrian community.”
She added that British sport needs to attract investment, in particular for horsepower, if it is to avoid becoming elitist.
Both riders also touched on areas where the sport could improve globally, from classification and grading, to enabling nations to send combinations in all five grades to European Championships.
“The other nations have always had nice horses,” Erin said to H&H. “Over the past few years, I think they’ve all massively upped their game with their riding and professionalism. We’ve gone from having a bit of breathing room to having none.
“It makes the sport interesting and more competitive. It pushes us to be better.”
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