Para-Dressage athletes will make history when compete alongside their jumping and dressage counterparts at European level for the first time later this month.
The para-equestrians are lining up for the ECCO FEI European Championships 2013 in Herning, Denmark, which will be Denmark’s biggest sporting fixture of the year.
Thousands of spectators are expected to enjoy a feast of equestrian excellence at the MCH and JYSK Arenas during the six-day fixture, which begins on 20 August. The para-dressage riders will compete on August 21.
The home supporters will have plenty to cheer about, because their para-dressage riders are in flying form, having enjoyed a successful team outing in Mannheim, Germany just two months ago. At the previous European championships in Moorsele, Belgium in 2011, the British were the dominant force, but Denmark’s Stinna Kastrup prevented them from making a clean sweep of the medals and Danish athletes will be sure to put pressure on the rest once again this time around.
A total of 62 competitors from 20 nations will line out, and the battle for the team medals in the JYSK FEI European Para-Dressage Championships begins on 21 August. Following their phenomenal success at the London 2012 Paralympic Games there is no doubting the extraordinary strength of the British contingent who achieved a record haul of 11 medals, while the German Paralympic squad also exceeded all their previous accomplishments when taking seven medals in total.
At the 2011 FEI European Championships in Moorsele, the British already had the team and three individual titles under their belt before adding four more on the final afternoon. While many of the British contingent were seasoned campaigners, the 2011 fixture also saw the emergence of many new names including Helen Kearney, who put her name into the record books when clinching Ireland’s very first medal. Kearney went on to Olympic glory last summer, taking a further three medals there, and, flying in the face of a progressive degenerative disorder, the 24-year-old who also graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree from University College Dublin in 2012, will be back in action at Herning with her horse, Mr Cool, under the watchful eye of trainer Heike Holstein.
Kearney is just one of the very many athletes whose spirit, courage, determination and skill has inspired colossal interest in the sport of Para-Dressage, which has continued to go from strength to strength in recent years. Britain’s Sophie Christiansen is another. A three-time Olympian, the 25-year-old received an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) award following her fabulous hat-trick of Olympic gold medals won at Greenwich Park last summer.
From the host-nation perspective, all eyes will be on Kaastrup, who took double-bronze and Freestyle gold at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010 before going on to team and individual silver along with Freestyle gold in Grade 1b at the Europeans in Moorsele a year later. From there, her sights were then firmly set on Paralympic honours last summer only for tragedy to strike when her wonderful New Forest pony, Labbenhus Snovs, just 145cms tall and the perfect partner for his talented rider, died suddenly in the lead-up to the Games.
The 18-year-old athlete, who lives in Fyn, the third-largest of Denmark’s islands, was devastated. She had been riding Snovs since she was 13 years old and always described him as her “very best friend”. But, demonstrating the awe-inspiring resilience that places Para-Dressage athletes above all others, she has re-grouped and re-organised herself.
With her new horse, Steffi Graff, Kaastrup finished third in Grade 1b Freestyle and individual competitions at the British Festival of Dressage in Hartpury in early July. Kaastrup got Steffi Graf only four months earlier, but the partnership established itself almost immediately. “She is the most amazing horse I have ever met! From the first time I sat on her back she just accepted me and understood my signals. She gave me back the joy of riding, because every training session with her is a thrill!” the Danish rider enthused.
Looking forward to Herning she continued: “I missed riding for our amazing team last year (at the London 2012 Paralympic Games), and it is so impressive that the people behind the show have made it possible to combine three Championships (Dressage, Jumping and Para-Dressage) in one giant show on Danish ground. Also, of course, I want to show everyone that I’ve still got it. I can’t wait!” she said. She sees Herning as one more milestone on the road to yet another goal, the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, but she knows there is a lot more work to do before she gets there.
And on the form they showed at Hartpury (GBR), the British squad is going to present formidable opposition to all others at the JYSK FEI European Para-Dressage Championships in Herning. They proved unbeatable at their home fixture and, with Christiansen, Natasha Baker, Ricky Balshaw, Sophie Wells and the evergreen Anne Dunham at their disposal, they will be the ones to beat.
But as Kaastrup recently pointed out, “in riding and working with horses everything can happen. I think almost everybody on the (Danish) team has learned that lesson. So nothing is 100 percent certain until you are riding down the centre-line at these great events.”
The JYSK FEI European Para-Dressage team medals will be decided on Tuesday, August 22, the individual medals will be awarded on Saturday the 24th, and the Freestyle medals will be presented on the final day of the Championships, Sunday, August 25.