After a tense week of competition, the final day at the Hippodrome in La Prairie racecourse finishes with all five grades competing in the Freestyle tests at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Fifteen medals gleamed in the sun after the top riders from each grade battled it out for Freestyle glory.
First to go were the grade II riders, where The Netherland’s Rixt van der Horst doubled her gold tally to take the title on Uneik with a score of 76.35%. “This is a dream come true,” she said. “I tried to relax and enjoy it because I had nothing to lose. Maybe tomorrow I will realise I am double world champion!”
This is Rixt’s first major international and her first ever Freestlye test which was aptly named “Flying High”.
Narrowly missing out on gold, just 0.1% behind Rixt was Canadian rider Lauren Barwick on a score of 76.25% and third place went to The Netherlands once more, this time to Demi Vermeulen riding her 12 year old Dutch Warmblood mare, Vaness: “I am very happy, still a little bit disappointed with the score but I have to enjoy that I have a medal,” she said.
Barwick, who also won individual bronze on Thursday, and Equine Canada’s 13-year-old Oldenburg mare, Off to Paris, followed through on her prediction that she and her talented mare had a great Freestyle and were going to be a medal threat at the games.
“It’s very gratifying to be a double medallist here for Canada, and it just feels like we are on track for Brazil. We have two more years to prepare, and I feel that my mare is really settleing in to her job. My mare was super. We are going to build on her performances her today,” Barwick said.
“To be 0.1% away from a gold medal makes me feel like, in my mind, my mare performed like a gold medal champion today.”
Britain’s Natasha Baker and Cabral had hoped to bounce back from the previous day’s defeat but ‘JP’ hadn’t forgotten the dragons at the C end of the arena which completely put him off his stride. From the first halt it was clear that he wasn’t going to settle and Baker did her best to keep things on track, cleverly managing to weave her compulsory movements in. Some of the walk was great, boosted by a perfect choice of music but the damage had been done. 66.55% was the final mark which left them out of the medals.
Far from the tearful rider who was clearly frustrated by the Thursday’s disappointment, this time she saw the funny side/ “To be honest I just don’t know what to say; it’s just not been my competition really but that’s horses for you! I knew as soon as I got into the first halt he saw people walking past, I was in trouble as much of the test goes towards that corner where he was scared. One of those things but happy I managed to get in my compulsories (movements); it really was freestyle! Inside, I just had to laugh as I knew that was my lot. I’ll live to fight another day – bring on Canada!”
Grade Ia also saw the form book thrown out the window with British favourite Sophie Christiansen - whose mission it was to complete her hat-trick of Paralympic, European and World titles and in doing so retain her triple World Champion status – but she came away with silver. She was beaten by Italy’s Sarah Morganti who scored an enormous 78.80% to take the gold on board Royal Delight.
“I can’t believe it,” Morganti said of the win, “the horse was beautiful, we both love this test, she was on the music and was perfect, we couldn’t have done more.” Morganti confessed that this medal has surpassed her expectations, “I hoped and worked a lot for a medal, I dreamed of a gold so this is just a dream come true.” The nine year old mare has a long and illustrious career ahead of her under this up and coming rider.
Christiansen achieved a score of 77.55% with Janeiro 6, and was very emotional as this is the last competition with her current trainer Clive Milkins, who has worked with her throughout her incredibly successful career. “I wanted a gold for Clive,” she said, “but I am content with silver, we couldn’t have done any more in that arena,” Christiansen said.
“I rode the best test I could. It shows how much the standard has gone up since London 2012, which is great for the sport. I’m looking forward to the next two years and digging deep. It’s good that this happens now, instead of at Rio.”
The bronze medal went to German rider Elke Phillip riding her seven year old Hanoverian gelding Regaliz to a score of 76.75%.
Christiansen said afterwards: “I went in there wanting to enjoy it; I just love that music. I’m really happy that there are others coming through in (grade) Ia as it’s good for the sport. I’m just a bit emotional; I’m actually content with silver. Reflection is my worst and best trait!”
The grade Ib Freestyle competition went true to form and gold was once more in the ownership of Great Britain’s Lee Pearson. He rode the flamboyant Zion to the highest score of the entire week at the Hippodrome.
He proved that he’s back on top with a masterful freestyle display to music including Superman, Mission Impossible, We are the Champions and Fame which he had used for the 2007 World Championships. Pearson upped the technicality to match his music choice and wowed the crowds (which included a 25-strong contingent of family and friends all sporting matching ‘Go Lee’ shirts) and the judges to be the first, and only, competitor to break the magic barrier with 80.05% and take the gold. This gave him the hat-trick of golds, the first time he’s done that since the last World Equestrian Games in 2010.
“I’m only disappointed I didn’t beat Charlotte Dujardin’s score!” he joked.
“It has been an amazing competition for me. I’ve trusted this horse for years and this week he has proven me right. He’s been through a lot over the last five years and I’m over the moon. I don’t think he could have gone any better today.
“People always told me he is not a world championship horse, well … he is now!”
Pearson’s strongest competition came from Austrian rider Pepo Puch all week and he claimed the silver medal with a score of exactly 78%, “today we danced to our Rio themed carnival music and the horse and I had a great time,” he said of his test.
“Fine Time S is a hormonal diva but she has tried hard for me all week.” Puch is extremely pleased to be coming away with his medals, “I have been injured all season and very nearly didn’t make it here,” he said, “so to come away with two silvers after little training is great.” Third place went to Dutch rider Nicole Den Dulk riding Wallace with a score of 75.15%
In a repeat of history from the grade III Freestyle at the 2013 European Championships, The Netherlands’ Sanne Voets took the gold ahead of her rival, Individual Champion Hannelore Brenner from Germany. Sanne rides at small tour level during the winter season and produced some polished flying changes and lateral work to receive a score of 77.45%. “I just can’t believe it yet!” she laughed, “this is the reward for a lot of hard work, the partnership I have with my horse is indescribably special and he tried so hard for me today.”
Hannelore finished on a score of 76.2% with her mare Women Of The World to claim the silver which will accompany her gold from yesterday. The Freestyle music for this combination matched them perfectly, and they looked harmonious throughout.
“I am very happy about my horse because she was so engaged and willing to work, it was a beautiful feeling,” she said. Brenner was pleased with her medal colour also, “I am happy with my riding and if there is someone better then that is OK, I am happy with the silver.”
The bronze medal went to Denmark’s Annika Lykke Risum, watched by her seven-month-old baby Alexander, on Aros A Fenris with 73.050%. This result will have made up for her disappointment in the lack of a medal on the Individual Championship day.
Canada’s Roberta Sheffield, who lives in Bourne, Lincolnshire, UK, rode a lovely test but finished just out of the medals in fourth place with a score of 70.200% riding Bindro T, an eight-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding.
“This is my first big championships - my first major Games – riding for Canada, and my goal here was to get through to the Freestyle and get it done, and we did it,” Sheffield said.
“I’m so pleased that we put in a good performance. My horse is only eight years old and in his first year of international competition, and I have only been riding him since March, so I could not be more thrilled with how we did at these Games. I have had a fantastic experience here at WEG.”
The grade IV freestyle test was won by current Paralympic champion, Belgian rider Michele George. Crowned the Individual World Champion earlier in the week, George now adds Freestyle gold to her collection. She rode FBW Rainman to a score of 78.65%, “I am really excited and happy,” she said, “it’s another dream come true, but it was a very hard competition because I know Sophie is very strong in her Kur.”
Great Britain’s Sophie Wells was once more denied the gold by just 0.6% with a score of 78.05% on board Valerius. She rode a determined, immaculate test with an extremely complex and brave floorplan that split the judges with scores ranging from 73% to 81%.
Wells was visibly disappointed with her marks but was pleased with her performance. “I am really pleased with how the test went, I rode every step and couldn’t have done any more,” she said, “I am really pleased with my horse though, I am so proud of him.
“When there is seven or eight percent difference in the scores the judges are maybe looking at different things and it’s difficult to come away with anything. I’m pleased with his performance; there was a mistake at the end of my medium canter but I really thought the rest was good enough.”
Third place went to Dutch rider Frank Hosmar who piloted Alphaville N.O.P to a score of 75.95% to clinch the bronze once more.