Britain and Denmark shared the major honors in the para equestrian dressage at the Longines FEI European Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden this week.
It has been another glorious Championships for the Brits who, despite fielding three debutants, take home six of the 11 gold medals on offer. But Denmark will be proud of how far they pushed their illustrious rivals on day two and three, with their dynamic mixture of teenage talent and seasoned know-how promising much for the future.
Luke Norman reports on the action from the Heden Arena.
Julie Payne (GBR) led the charge in Grade I, posting a huge 77.642% score to leave the competition trailing far behind.
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. 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.
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.
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.
After a day of drama, intrigue and nail-biting tension, Great Britain squeezed through to retain their Championships team title by the slimmest of margins, relying on a magical final ride from superstar debutant Julie Payne with the mare Athene Lindebjerg.
Fresh from individual Grade I gold on day one, Payne entered Gothenburg’s Heden Arena late on Tuesday afternoon knowing she needed a score of 75.000% or above to prevent a bullish Danish quartet from making history.
“I have never seen everyone so nervous,” said Erin Orford (GBR) who had earlier ridden Dior to a score of 68.853%. “We were all watching the live stream on FEI.tv to get the running average!”
They need never have doubted Payne, as the 55-year-old and her mount danced their way to 78.107%, the highest score of the week so far.
“She is just unbelievable,” said Orford afterwards.
Payne is certainly that and more. She revealed after her record ride that she’d been “fighting her body all day”.
Thanks to scores of 73.581% from nine-time major championship rider Sophie Wells (GBR), on C Fatal Attraction, and 72.088% from Grade III individual gold medallist Suzanna Hext (GBR) on Abira, Great Britain triumphed by a margin of just 3.425% over Denmark.
“If nothing else happens in my life, this has just been the absolute pinnacle of my life, it’s an absolute dream and now I’m going to cry,” Payne said.
Inspired from the off by Stinna Kaastrup, who scored 74.000% on Horsebo Smarties in the very first ride of the day, the Danes gave the all-conquering Brits a mighty scare. Teammates Annika Risum riding Aros A Fenris and Tobias Joergensen on Bruunholms Caribian, both got marks above 70.000% in a wonderfully consistent display before Susanne Sunesen and her mount CSK’s Que Faire stepped up.
The 40-year-old laid down a serious marker, scoring 74.175% in her nation’s final ride of the day. An experienced campaigner, Sunesen is used to finishing behind Great Britain.
“It would have been wonderful to beat them but I love the Brits, they keep the level up, they are wonderful horse people,” Sunesen said.
For much for the competition, the Dutch, bronze medallists behind Great Britain at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, had been right in the hunt with both Frank Hosmar on Aplhaville N.O.P. and Nicole den Dulk riding Wallace N.O.P., scoring more than 73.000% in the morning session.
But it was not to be, with Sanne Voets (NED) having to put up with another agonising defeat to her rivals, her 70.575% in tandem with Demantur enough only to see the Netherlands secure bronze.
“I was the one saying we would win team gold and I blew it,” said Voets. The individual Grade IV gold medallist did, however, share the crowd’s enthusiasm and revel in the excitement of the event.
“It’s good for the sport that it’s this exciting, till the last rider. I think the last time it came down to the last rider was 100 years ago!” Voets said.
Freestyle to Music
Denmark again went head-to-head with Britain as the two nations dominated a compelling final day of Freestyle to Music action.
Once again Great Britain edged ahead of the Scandinavians at the finish, a bold ride from serial winner Sophie Wells (GBR) on C Fatal Attraction giving them a third Freestyle gold of the day, one clear of Denmark’s haul.
The first of Great Britain’s triple Championship gold medal-winning newcomers, Suzanna Hext, kicked proceedings off riding Abira in the Grade III finale. The individual and team champion responded to the imposing marker of 76.173% set by Germany’s Steffen Zeibig and Feel Good with a confident ride to edge another gold, this time by 0.233%.
“Coming to my first Championships is enough, winning three gold medals is insane!” Hext said.
Teenager Tobias Joergensen (DEN) on Bruunhiolms Caribian opened up Denmark’s account for the day with bronze behind Zeibig. The 17-year-old hails from a fine line of Para Dressage athletes, as his mother Line Joergensen (DEN) competed at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
Inevitably, Great Britain’s Julie Payne was not going to let a day go past at without producing a huge score and grabbing another gold in Grade I. She and her incomparable mare Athene Lindebjerg showed the virtues of doing the simple things to perfection as they strutted to 80.393%, comfortably the highest mark of the week.
Three rides, three gold medals and the three highest scores of the Championship.
“I’ve certainly had more than my 15 minutes of fame,” said the ever-modest Payne.
Rihards Snikus (LAT) on King of the Dance and Elke Philipp (GER) on Regaliz swapped places from Monday’s individual test, taking silver and bronze in the Freestyle respectively.
In the fourth category of the day, Denmark hit back once again with Susanne Sunesen levelling the tally at two gold medals each. The Dane broke the home crowd’s hearts on the way by snatching gold from Louise Jakobsson and Zernard with the final ride of Grade IV. Sunesen has a wonderfully symbiotic relationship with her horse CSK’s Que Faire.
“Before I got my injury (a farm accident in 2006 left her with incomplete paraplegia) I was riding her, until she was six years old, then she had a foal, then I got my injury and I rode her a little bit after. And then I had a foal (her daughter Sara was in the crowd) and she had another foal and then I started riding her again,” Sunesen said.
A disappointed Sanne Voets (NED), riding Demantur, took Grade IV bronze.
And then it was the moment for two-time Paralympic gold medallist Sophie Wells (GBR) to shine in the final test of the Para Dressage Championships. She and C Fatal Attraction knew what they had to beat: Frank Hosmar (NED) and Alphaville N.O.P.’s impressive 76.955%.
“I had no idea what I was going to get out there, but he pulled it out of the bag when it mattered,” Wells said.
The duo stormed to a Championship closing gold with 78.350%. Switzerland’s Nicole Geiger picked up her second bronze of the week with Phal de Lafayette.
1, Great Britain (GBR) – 223,776
2, Denmark (DEN) – 220,351
3, Netherlands (NED)- 216,965
1, Sophie Wells/C Fatal Attraction (GBR) 73.581
2, Frank Hosmar/Alphaville N.O.P. (NED) 73.360
3, Michele George/Fusion Old (BEL) 70.232
1, Susanne Jensby Sunesen/CSK’s Que Faire (DEN) 74.175
2, Louise Etzner Jakobsson/Zernard (SWE) 72.600
3, Annika Lykke Dalskovrisum/Aros A Fenris (DEN) 71.350
1, Tobias Thorning Joergensen/Bruunholms Caribian (DEN) 72.176
2, Suzanna Hext/Abira (GBR) 72.088
3, Steffen Zeibig/Feel Good (GER) 70.912
1, Stinna Tange Kaastrup/Horsebo Smarties (DEN) 74.000
2, Pepo Puch/Fontainenoir (AUT) 73.818
3, Nicole den Duik/Wallace N.O.P. (NED) 73.030
1, Julie Payne/Athene Lindebjerg (GBR) 78.107
2, Elke Philipp/Regaliz (GER) 74.714
3, Sara Morganti/Royal Delight (ITA) 74.428
Individual result – Freestyle
1, Sophie Wells/C Fatal Attraction (GBR) 78.350
2, Frank Hosmar/Alphaville N.O.P (NED) 76.955
3, Nicole Geiger/Phal de Lafayette (SUI) 71.310
1, Susanne Jensby Sunesen/CSK’s Que Faire (DEN) 77.125
2, Louise Etzner Jakobsson/Zernard (SWE) 74.425
3, Sanne Voets/Demantur (NED) 74.300
1, Suzanna Hext/Abira (GBR) 76.406
2, Steffen Zeibig/Feel Good (GER) 76.173
3, Tobias Thorning Joergensen/Bruunholms Caribian (DEN) 76.126
1, Stinna Tange Kaastrup/Horsebo Smarties (DEN) 77.060
2, Nicole den Dulk/Wallace N.O.P (NED) 76.720
3, Alina Rosenberg/Nea’s Daboun (GER) 71.413
1, Julie Payne/Athene Lindebjerg (GBR) 80.393
2, Rihards Snikus/King Of The Dance (LAT) 77.360
3, Elke Philipp/Regaliz (GER) 76.433