British para-equestrian Lee Pearson has made it back into the top tier of the sport and to the top of the podium, winning Grade Ib individual gold at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy, writes Rob Howell.
It has been four years since Pearson has worn gold, at the last World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. At London 2012 he took silver and bronze in the individual tests, something of a shock result at the time, and gold in the team competition, and then missed the cut for selection for the British team at last year’s European Championships.
Overall, Pearson has won 32 Paralympic, world and European titles in his career. On Wednesday he rode Zion to score 77.310% ahead of his London 2012 rival and freestyle gold medallist Pepo Puch of Austria. Riding Fine Feeling S, Puch scored 74.793% to take silver, while the bronze went to Nicole Den Dulk of The Netherlands, riding Wallace to score 71.621%.
Clearly moved by his victory, Pearson said: “I just love that horse. He gives me everything. He was still a bit aware of his surroundings within the arena, which is quite novel because normally he’s totally focused on me, but he stayed really relaxed.
“It’s been a tough journey, what with London and not getting selected for the Europeans and a tough five years personally as well. It’s also been tough with this horse. A lot of people didn’t have faith in him, but I always have from day one. We’ve had our problems – he broke my back in four places – but I adore riding him. I ride him outdoors on my own and we’re just two naughty beans that have fun together. We make the perfect pair.
“I don’t love too many horses, they are all treated equally in my yard, but I do love him and we have proved quite a few people wrong and it means a lot.”
London 2012 individual bronze medallist, and current European champion Puch said of his silver: “At the beginning I was quite afraid about my score. I had to wait and wait as I rode at the beginning, so I had the whole day waiting but I’m really happy with the silver. I was sitting and watching my colleagues and watching the Austrian rider in the Dressage arena. That’s the good thing about these Games, we have a lot of disciplines taking place.”
Puch had competed at previous Games as an able bodied rider before an accident caused his disability. He added: “I know them all and this is my third discipline at a World Equestrian Games.”
In taking the bronze, The Netherlands’ Den Dulk won her first major international medal and had a smile that looked as if she had won gold. “I have no words,” she said. “This was out of this world. I have so much emotion. My whole goal was just to come high enough to ride in the freestyle and now I am standing here with a medal. It’s unbelievable. Pepo is my ultimate hero in Para-Equestrian Dressage and I have just been beside him on the stage.”
Pearson’ss final main challenger came in the form of squad-mate Ricky Balshaw and LJT Engaards Solitaire. It was a positive start but ‘Sid’ looked a little off colour and wasn’t his sprightly self to give 69.414%, leaving them out of the medals.
Afterwards Balshaw said; “I’m gutted. He was a little flat in there. I had a mistake in the walk pirouette right in front of two judges so it cost me. It just didn’t happen for me today. I’ll look at the criticisms on the score sheets and see what can be worked on. My coach (Michel Assouline) was pleased with the test so not sure what went wrong, just one of those days.”
After the final rider from Ireland, Breda Bernie, had been Pearson could finally breathe a sigh of relief and let it sink in that he’d successfully defended his World title, this time with equine partner Zion.
“It’s a feeling of elation and relief. Years of hard work … the hard time at London … the hard time since London … not being selected for the Europeans … doing my farm up … putting other people’s trust in this horse … all paid off today,” Pearson said.
“The support from friends, family, supporters, sponsors, UK Sport World Class programme plus an amazing horse has been brilliant. To be selected and to come here is amazing. It’s been great to have the chance to compete against Pepo (Puch) since he beat me in London and come and beat him on a different horse is satisfying.”
Grade Ib results
1 Lee Pearson (GBR) – 77.310%
2 Pepo Puch (AUT) – 74.793%
3 Nicole Den Dulk (NED) – 71.621%
Earlier in the day, Germany’s Hannelore Brenner had claimed the first gold medal of the Para-Equestrian Dressage competition at Games.
Brenner, riding Women of the World, successfully defended her 2010 world individual title against Sanne Voets of The Netherlands, and Susanne Jensby Sunesen of Denmark.
The double London 2012 gold medallist scored 73.610% to Voets’ 73.146%, riding Vedet PB. Sunesen, on Thy’s Que Faire, scored 71.976%.
After receiving her medal, Brenner, 51, said: “I am really happy. The ride was wonderful and I am so happy that it was enough for the first place. You don’t know till the end of the competition and I didn’t stay to watch as I don’t have the nerves for that, but I looked at the live score when Sanne was riding. I think it took a year off my life!
“It could be the last time with my horse because she is 19 years old so I am very emotional, more than the other years.”
The first and second place results in the Grade III echo those of last year’s European Championships. Voets reflected on that and said: “Last year in Herning I won the same medal in the same test and the difference between me and Hannelore was quite big, but now we are getting closer every time. It’s going to be exciting in the freestyle.” Voets won the freestyle competition at the Europeans, with Brenner taking the silver.
Sunesen’s bronze is her first major international medal, having come fifth at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. “It is wonderful,” she said. “I nearly cried when I got to the podium and I am just so happy. It means a lot to break through.”
Thursdaysees the final individual tests decided as Grades Ia, II and IV riders take to the arena. The team competition will also be decided with the top three teams earning the first places at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
1 Hannelore Brenner (GER) – 73.610%
2 Sanne Voets (NED) – 73.146%
3 Susanne Jensby Sunesen (DEN) – 71.976%