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With 2017 drawing to a close, we take a quick look back at those moments that made us whoop, cheer and - admit it - shed a tear or two in Para-Dressage.
The highlight of the 17 events on the calendar was without a shadow of doubt the Longines FEI European Championships™ in August in Gothenburg, Sweden. Behind the successes were, as always, some extraordinary stories.
One of the highlights of the Gothenburg event was the performance of Great Britain’s Julie Payne, who was making her senior debut with her mare, Athene Lindebjerg, the former ride of Olympic gold medal-winner Sophie Christiansen.
Payne is a Grade I rider who has described her condition, Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), as Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Motor Neurone Disease and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome rolled into one. As her condition is degenerative, she was reclassified from Grade IV last year. In Gothenburg, she picked up a hat trick of golds in the Individual Championship Test, the Freestyle and the FEI Team Championship Grade I-V, alongside Sophie Wells, Erin Frances Orford and Suzanna Hext.
Hext also won the Individual Championship Test Grade III gold, riding Abira. Hext was long-listed for the Young Rider European team in 2008, competing at two-star level. However, following an accident in 2012, Hext sustained a head injury that affected her vision and coordination and severe nerve damage that left her partially paralysed.
Two years later, though, she returned to the saddle and started competing in Para-Dressage. Hext admitted that seeing her name top the rankings in Gothenburg made her smile so much her cheeks hurt!
After more than 170 days in hospital and nine operations during her toughest times, the Gothenburg golds represented a memorable highlight for Hext.
The role of Para-Dressage in rehabilitation from injury was underlined by Pepo Puch, Austria’s top Para-Dressage rider, who successfully defended his Grade II Individual title at the age of 51 on his Oldenburg gelding Puch.
Puch set himself the goal of taking up the sport as motivation following an accident in 2008 and, having won golds at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games, he has certainly shown how the sport can provide a road to recovery.
Danish rider Stinna Tange Kaastrup has also battled back after suffering more agonies than most. With expectations high ahead of the 2012 Paralympic Games, her horse, Snoevs, tragically died unexpectedly following a blood clot, scuppering Kaastrup’s plans of competing in London.
Kaastrup, who was born without legs, struggled to get amongst the medals on her new ride before switching to Danish Warmblood gelding Smarties. Then Rio came along last year and what Kaastrup described as “the worst night of my life” when she faced an agonising 24-hour wait to see if Smarties would pass a re-inspection. Thankfully, approval followed and two unexpected bronze medals were picked up.
But six years on from a freestyle gold at the 2011 European Championships with Snoevs, Kaastrup claimed gold in Gothenburg in the Grade II freestyle. With Kaastrup having said that she feels that Snoevs is watching over her, her victory was a heart-warming result in an event full of sensational performances.
The high standard of competition bodes well for the World Equestrian Games in Tyron, North Carolina (USA) in 2018. The pressure will be on Great Britain to retain their team world title, but it is getting harder with Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria closing the gap at every major competition.
Before the World Equestrian Games, which will take place from September 11-23, the test event will be held from April 19-22, while a total of 29 events are scheduled for the New Year – proving that Para-Dressage is booming!
Text by Katie Roebuck