Lee Pearson and Gentleman lead the 1b grade after day one. © Kate Houghton/FEI
Para-Dressage riders made history today: as they rode their dressage tests, they became the first Para-Equestrian athletes to ever compete in a World Equestrian Games.
"It's brilliant just to be involved in such a big event," said Jo Pitt of the British team. "It's bigger than the Paralympics for us. Just to be beside the other able-bodied athletes is really exciting for us."
Britain's Lee Pearson and Gentleman claimed the day's high score of 73.818 to top Grade 1b. The British rider's score left him four full marks ahead of Norway's Jens Lasse Dokkan who steered Lacour into runner-up spot. Four members of the Ground Jury - Prain (FRA) at H, Hofinga (GER) at C, Urban (BEL) at M and Geary (AUS) at B - put Pearson at the top of the leaderboard but Judge at E - Ianonne (ARG) - had Dokkan in No. 1 position. Denmark's Stinna Tange Kaastrup (Labbenhus Snoevs) finished third ahead of Denmark's Valerie Salles (Ocarina Materling) and a total of 12 competitors from nine countries - Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Norway, Denmark, France, Belgium, Brazil, Japan and Israel - took part in this division.
There was a great amount of pressure on Pearson and Gentleman as the German and Dutch riders were scoring well so the team needed a good performance to keep in the medal hunt. But Pearson hasn't won nine Paralympic gold medals for nothing - he pulled a great test out of the bag to win the section convincingly. "I rode a safe test as I was under pressure and I knew we needed a good score. He was relaxed as he can be spooky but I held some back - just you wait until two days time when we do our freestyle!," Pearson said.
"He was good in the contact, good off my leg and despite all the cameras clicking, he listened. No-one goes in that arena not to do their best and I've done what was needed today," Pearson said. "He's really matured since the Olympics and we've really built up trust so I can ask for more in my next tests."
In the Grade Ia British rider Anne Dunham and Teddy scored 71.294 to secure first place, followed by team-mate Sophie Christiansen on Rivaldo of Berkeley.
Dunham has been competing internationally for the last 14 years, hasn't allowed a recent heart operation to stop her in her tracks. Despite being unable to ride for nine months, their test today was accurate with exceptional rhythm.
"I thought the test was pretty good," she said afterwards.
"It was rhythmical and steady, and he (Teddy) seemed to enjoy it. For my first (big test) in two and a half years it was very good. He gave me a very good ride today and his rhythm was excellent. He went everywhere I asked - he enjoyed it I think!" she said.
At just 22, Christiansen is a veteran of the team and her experience showed today as she recovered from an early break of pace to ride a calm and well presented test for 69.529 to finish second behind Dunham.
"I'm very pleased with how he reacted in there - there's a real atmosphere. I experimented with my spurs today and I got a little too much of a reaction! I'll change back for next time!" she said.
When asked about the pressure on the British team as favourites, she said: "There's huge pressure on us - we've never lost the gold since the Championships started. I think all the support we receive in preparing from the World Class and lottery helps us cope with the pressure - it really gives us the upper hand. Plus, I have huge support from my family as many have come from Michigan where my dad is from and many of them have never seen me ride - it's inspiring."
Laura Goldman on Carlingford JD, a flashy black and white Irish Sporthorse gelding, courageously controlled her nerve to place third, making her the highest placed rider for the USA. Goldman is a first-time international competitor, and their walk test netted a provisional score of 68.706.
"I've got to tell you, I was scared!" she said afterwards. "I'm amazed at myself. It's because my horse is fantastic, without him I couldn't do it. And my coach is really on the ball. I hope the sport grows in this this country and we get as strong as the Europeans," she said.
The Dutch dominated Grade 11 in which Gert Bolmer and the aptly-named Triumph pipped team-mate Petra Van de Sane and Toscane by a margin of 0.572, while Germany's Britta Napel and Aquilina finished third ahead of Canada's Lauren Barwick and Maile in fourth.
Barwick and Maile, her 16-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare, scored 69.143%, an excellent result considering the mare injured herself only a few weeks ago. "My mare has had a difficult five weeks and has only been back under saddle for the past week and a half since she injured herself, so I decided to go for a solid but conservative test," said Barwick, who won an individual gold and silver medal in Para-Dressage at 2008 Paralympic Games in Hong Kong.
Riders from six nations competed in this division and Bolmer, who claims he is "an underdog", said afterwards, "it was really hard work, but I think we managed to get him (his horse) right on time. We have had to walk a fine line here to get him fit. He feels now better than he has since we have been here. I am pleased. There are still medals to be won!"
Bolmer bought Triumph in March 2009, and at the time it was an emergency because his other horse was injured. "I needed a horse for the selection trial for the European Championships. He has developed really well since then," he said.
In Grade 111 it was Germany who held the whip hand when Hannelore Brenner and her Hanoverian, Women of the World, pipped Denmark's Annik Lykke Dalskov (Preussen Wind) by almost a three-point margin. "For the first test it was OK, because it was a little bit safe," Brenner said.
"I wanted to keep him in front of my aids. It's not too easy, because there are only short trots (in this test) but I'm very satisfied with my horse," she said. Australia's Sharon Jarvis (Applewood Odorado) slotted into third here ahead of The Netherlands' Glasten Krapels (Matador) in fourth, and eight riders competed.
Belgium's Michele George joined the winner's circle when topping Grade IV with a test from FBW Rainman that put them almost two marks ahead of runner-up Frank Hosmar (Tiesto) from The Netherlands. Danish athlete, Henrik Weber Sibbesen (Rexton Royal) took third ahead of Philippa Mary Johnson (Verdi) from the Republic of South Africa. There were 12 competitors in the Grade IV line-up.
US rider Susan Treabess, who placed 10th in the grade IV section on Moneypenny, said her goal was to have a clean test. "This has been a goal of mine for five years, and I've been riding this horse for three years to get ready. I show Prix St Georges/Intermediaire I in able-bodied dressage. The horses have to be about the same level to do this. Really, this is way more competitive than Prix St Georges in California. You have to have a quality horse to compete here."
As athletes finished their tests and rode out of the arena, their faces reflected the pay-off of competing on the world stage. Some have undergone tremendous struggles to get here, not only with their own limitations, but also with their horses, who have to be just as fit and as trusting as any other horse at the Games.
"I hope other sports come see our sport," said Lauren Barwick of Canada. "There are a lot of misconceptions about our abilities to ride, the quality of horses that we have and what we are doing.
"I hope some of the other sports take advantage of us being here to come and watch Para-Dressage, so they will have a clear understanding of what it is.
"Once we get on the horse, a lot of time you don't know what our disability is," Barwick said. "It is also great for us to go out and watch the best in the world compete, which inspires us to what the possibilities are."
From afar, you can hardly tell that many of these athletes are disabled. And, similar to other athletes at the Games, the riders are their own worst critics, finishing their tests and discussing what went wrong and what they could improve.
The sport has been gaining recognition since 1996, when it was included in the Paralympic Games. In 2006, Para-Dressage became an FEI regulated sport, meaning that the 2010 Games would mark its debut with the seven other disciplines competing in the World Equestrian Games.
"It feels a bit like the Paralympics," said Gert Bolmer from The Netherlands. "It is nice to be a part of the whole team. It is really good promotion for our sport."
Many spectators dotted the stands of the covered arena, and some came over just to watch these unique athletes.
Scores in today's team tests will be added to performances in the individual tests over the next two days before the team medals and first set of individual medals will be awarded. There are five grades of Para Dressage.
The Para Dressage Championship is taking place in the Alltech Arena which last week was the venue for the reining championship. And the para-dressage riders found the atmosphere just as electrifying as the reiners did. "My horse never heard so many cameras clicking going down the centre-line, but he was good today!" said Lee Pearson. "Even if he does a test like that again in two days I'll be well pleased," he said.
Para-Dressage competition continues with the Individual Championship Tests on Wednesday and Thursday. Individual Freestyle will run on Friday and Saturday.
Grade 1a - 1, Teddy (Anne Dunham) GBR 71.294; 2, Rlivaldo de Berkeley (Sophie Christiansen) GBR 69.529; 3, Carlingford (Laura Goldman) USA 68.706.
Grade 1b - 1, Gentleman (Lee Pearson) GBR 73.818; 2, Lacour (Jens Lasse Dokkan) NOR 69.818; 3, Labbenhus Snoevs (Stinna Tinge Kaastrup) DEN 68.636.
Grade 11 - 1, Triumph (Gert Bolmer) NED 71.810; 2, Toscane (Petra Van de Sande) NED 71.238; 3, Aquilina (Britta Napel) GER 70.952.
Grade 111 - 1, Women of the World (Hannelore Brenner) GER 73.556; 2, Preussen Wind (Annika Lykke Dalskov) DEN 70.593; 3, Applewood Odorado (Sharon Jarvis) AUS 67.704.
Grade IV - 1, FBW Rainman (Michele George) BEL 70.687; 2, Tiesto (Frank Hosmar) NED 68.875; 3, Rexton Royal (Henrik Weber Sibbesen) DEN 68.500.