Britain’s Godfather of Para Dressage Lee Pearson, gave a masterclass in producing magnificent trot work at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games as the first day of para-equestrian competition got under way.
Despite the deluge of rain throughout the afternoon, the Grade Ib Team Test heated up to provide some thrilling competition which rewarded the spectators who braved the weather.
A field of 25 riders took to the arena for Grade Ib, including all three London 2012 medallists, competing against each other for the first time since the Games in Greenwich Park.
The competition marked a clear return to form for Great Britain’s Lee Pearson, who took the win riding Zion with an impressive 77.960% ahead of Austria’s individual freestyle London 2012 gold medallist Pepo Puch on Fine Feeling S with 76.520%. Italy’s Silvia Veratti on Woikoski Double U were third on 72.000%. London’s other gold medallist, Australia’s Joann Formosa, winner of the FEI’s Against All Odds 2013 award, finished in seventh place on Worldwide PB with 71.200%.
It is the first major championship for Pearson’s mount, Zion, who is known for his flowing movement. The horse showed some tension in his walk work but displayed a cadence in his trot that no other rider in the class could match.
Although Pearson and Zion were averaging a score of 77% throughout their test, the initial final mark displayed was only 74.28% which put them into second behind Austria’s Pepo Puch and Fine Feeling S who posted a score of 76.48%. However Pearson’s score was adjusted after the realisation of a calculation error which put him up by more than 3% to give him a final score of 77.96%, good enough to push the Brit into first place.
Pearson was elated to see the increase in his marks. “I’m just really please for the team, it starts us off in a really good place,” he said “it’s days like today you wish it was a medal day!” But Lee has given himself every chance of clinching yet another World gold medal to add to his collection of six.
Considering the electric atmosphere and Zion’s apparent anxiety, the 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood coped well with his first experience of such an environment and worked well throughout the test. “He was quite nervous in the arena but I was still really pleased with him,” he said.
“He (Zion) went into the arena and he was a bit tense, but I was still really pleased with him and the trot work was phenomenal. He’s a brilliant horse to train. He’s so laid back and he learns very quickly, I’m very excited about his future career.
“It’s an honour to be on the selected squad and put back on the team. I’m still looking forward to the individual test as it has more trot work and from what friends and family have told me his trot today was keeping me above Pepo (Puch). I’m really pleased for the team as well. Days like today you wish it was a medal day,” Pearson said.
Puch, previously a 4* eventer before an accident in 2008, showed off the long ranging walk of Fine Feeling S which allowed their marks to creep up throughout the test, despite the foul weather.
“I am really happy, especially as my horse doesn’t like the rain,” Pepo said of the 17-year-old Hanoverian mare. “Normally when it rains, she goes back in the stable, and with the water on the ground today it was not easy to hold the horse on a line.”
A surprise score of 72% gave Italy’s Silvia Verati third place at the end of the day with her own 10-year-old Westphalian gelding, Zadok. “I’m happy, I didn’t expect this – I expected a worse position so I am positive,” she said.
The afternoon also saw the début of the youngest competitor in the Para-Equestrian Dressage competition, the USA’s Sydney Collier, who is just 16 years old. “It was an incredible experience to be riding with such amazing riders and for my first time my horse was super well behaved,” she said.
Britain’s Ricky Balshaw, riding the LJT Engaards Solitaire as an individual, produced a strong test for a score 71% for eighth place.
“We started well but a mistake in the middle where he jogged was costly to be honest. I felt it was very accurate but the test sheets may say different! I’m hoping I can use today’s experience to my advantage as the individual test (on Wednesday) suits me and him better. Hopefully we can put the mistakes behind us and they don’t stay in the judges’ minds,” Balshaw said.
The individual test to come, which contains more trot work and asks for extensions in the gait, will favour Pearson’s horse so it is likely that he will drive a bigger wedge between himself and Puch, whose horse lacks the fluidity in the trot that Zion shows. In the individual rankings there are easily six to eight riders that could put themselves in medal contention by the end of the individual test.
Day two will see athletes in Grades Ia, II and IV take to the arena for Round 1 of the team competition, before Team Round 2 and individual competitions on Wednesday to decide the team medals in Normandy.
These Games are also the first opportunity for nations to qualify for Rio.
The top three Grade III riders currently have just less than 3% separating them, so the competition will be wide open when they ride their individual championship test on Wednesday to determine individual rankings.
The current leader is Hannelore Brenner of Germany riding the nine-year-old Hanoverian mare Women Of The World, scoring 72.47%. Only the previous test ridden by Dutch Rider Sanne Voets, riding 12 year old Dutch Warmblood gelding Vedet PB N.O.P, was close to competing with Brenner for the top spot when she posted a score of 72.05%.
Voet’s lead was short lived and the combination now sit in second place, ahead of Denmark’s Annika Lykke Risum riding the De Niro bred eight-year-old gelding Aros A Fernis with a score of 69.87% to put them in third position.
“I’m really happy to be here with my horse,” Brenner said. “It’s our eighth championship and every year she is so wonderful. “She is nearly 19 years old and she was really fantastic. There are some things we can do better but I am happy with the ride. I want to ride the best I can with my horse but I know there are some really good horses, so we will see how we can do.”
With less than one percentage point separating Brenner and Voets, it is clear that the competition for the individual title in Grade III will be close.
Voets said of her first competition of the Games: “I think we had a very nice test today with a lot of control. I started a little safe because this is a very important test for our team result. Our main goal here is to medal so we’re on track for Rio 2016. During the test he was there with me, so I started to take a few more risks. I think every step was a little bit better and that was the goal for today.”
The competition saw a return to the arena for Risum, just seven months after giving birth to a baby boy. The three-time World silver and Paralympic bronze medallist said: “It was okay but a little bit weak. I think the horse was a little bit tired and maybe I was as well. We had no big mistakes, so that was overall a good test but I could have pushed him a little bit more forward. It’s really good to be back, but it’s a big challenge as well as I’ve only been preparing for this event for four months, so with that in mind I am really pleased.”
The morning’s Grade III competition also saw some younger athletes take to the international stage to represent their countries for the first time, including Canada’s Roberta Sheffield and Australia’s Elizabeth Sobecki and Chelsea Higgins.
Additional reporting: Rob Howell