Para-equestrians ready to take centre stage at Tokyo 2020

Japan's Grade IV rider Katsuji Takashima and Huzette pose for a selfie after the horse inspection at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
Japan’s Grade IV rider Katsuji Takashima and Huzette pose after the horse inspection at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. © FEI/Liz Gregg

On the 25th anniversary of the introduction of Para Dressage in the Paralympic Games, the field of 77 athletes from 26 countries in Tokyo promises to be the most competitive yet.

The Equestrian Park at Baji Koen for Tokyo 2020 will be the focus of fantastic sporting performances, finesse and artistry over five days of competition. It comes just days after the FEI pledged its support to a global disability movement, #WeThe15.

Everyone has their eye on the top prize in the Team competition, when 15 nations will compete for the honours. Great Britain have been the title holders since the competition started at the Paralympic Games in Atlanta 1996. And, while they remain a strong contender at Tokyo 2020, they face their toughest challenge yet from The Netherlands and the USA.

The Netherlands come into Tokyo 2020 as the current World and European champions and it’s no secret that they are keen to add the Paralympic title to that roster. Fielding a team full of individual World and European champions, they remain a hot tip to do just that.

The USA currently tops the FEI Para Dressage Paralympic Team Ranking and their charge for gold will be led by overall individual world number one, Roxanne Trunnell. Building on strong performances at the FEI World Equestrian Games in 2018 in Tryon (USA), the team has since developed into a Para Dressage powerhouse with high hopes for Tokyo 2020.

Paralympic Games always have an element of surprise and, with just three athlete/horse combinations, team results could turn on the smallest of margins. With Germany, Denmark, Australia, and Belgium in the mix too, it is difficult to predict the outcome.

Latvia's Rihards Snikus with Godiva at the horse inspection with Latvia's team veterinarian Jenis Busers.
Latvia’s Rihards Snikus with Godiva at the horse inspection with Latvia’s team veterinarian Jenis Busers. © FEI/Liz Gregg
The playing field

There are five Grades that make up the Para Dressage competition, with Grade I athletes having the most impairment, and Grade V the least. Grade I athletes compete at walk only, Grade II at trot, and Grade III and above can canter.

While Grade I should be dominated by Roxanne Trunnell, she faces stiff competition from World and European medallists, including current double World champion Sara Morganti (ITA). Singapore’s most decorated Paralympian, Laurentia Tan, will want to add to her medal collection, and World No.2 Rihards Snikus (LAT) is due a Paralympic podium finish, too. Look out for the current European champion, Jens Lasse Dokkan (NOR), who is the only Para Dressage athlete to have competed at every Games since Atlanta 1996.

Lee Pearson (GBR) and Pepo Puch (AUT) went head-to-head for medals at the Paralympic Games in Rio 2016 and constantly tussle for the top spot whenever they compete together. Puch is currently the World No.1 in Grade II, with Pearson third. Extra frisson has been added to this competition with the last-minute inclusion of Great Britain’s Georgia Wilson. Ranked second in the World in the Grade and the athlete who famously beat Puch for the Freestyle title at the FEI European Championships 2019 – her first major competition – she was called up to the British team following the withdrawal of Grade I rider Sophie Christiansen.

It’s going to be a tight tussle at the top in Grade III, which includes Rio 2016 Individual, Freestyle and Team gold medallist Natasha Baker (GBR), as well as Rixt van der Horst (NED), who won Individual, Team and Freestyle gold medals at the World Equestrian Games in 2018). Joining them will be Tobias Thorning Joergensen (DEN), who took Individual and Freestyle gold at the FEI European Championship 2019 in Rotterdam, and is currently ranked number one in the Grade III Para Dressage World Individual Ranking. Also included in the mix is Rebecca Hart (USA), the world No.2 in this Grade, as well as Emma Booth (AUS), and van der Horst’s teammate and Paralympic debutant, Maud De Reu (NED).

Grade IV could prove to be the hottest ticket at the Para Dressage competition, as Sanne Voets (NED) bids to add Paralympic gold to her European and World titles. Riding the brilliant Demantur N.O.P., Voets has come out of the pandemic year looking stronger and more confident than ever. However, Rodolpho Riskalla (BRA), runner-up to Voets in the Individual and Freestyle Tests at the  World Equestrian Games in 2018, will be hot on her heels. They will face competition from Kate Shoemaker (USA), who picked up a Freestyle bronze in Tryon 2018.

In Grade V, Michèle George (BEL) will be looking to add to the Freestyle and Individual gold medals from London 2012 and Freestyle gold in Rio 2016. Her country’s flagbearer at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games’ Opening Ceremony, she is here in Japan with a new horse, Best of 8.

For many years now, the Grade V has been dominated by George, Sophie Wells (GBR), and Frank Hosmar (NED). The trio will be vying for a place on the podium again this week, but will need to look out for the likes of Regine Mispelkamp (GER), Natalia Martianova (RPC), and George’s teammate Kevin Van Ham (BEL).

Competition gets under way on Thursday, August 26, and runs to Monday, August 30. The forecast is for hot weather, and hot competition too.

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