The next day it was my turn for our Individual test. I’m glad Grade IV were early in the day as I’m not a fan of waiting around, so we had the same routine as before, and Helen treated my legs before my boots went on this time, all about prevention being better than cure. Noki felt good warming up, focused, but the timings didn’t run as smoothly as the last test, and we had a problem getting my training radios off and then didn’t get a chance to do my pirouettes before going in. Noki was a little more apprehensive going into the stadium for the second time, probably because on the first he didn’t know what to expect, so he did get a little tense. But he stayed with me. The test started well, and now I’m stronger within my position I’m not compensating so much for the lateral work or when he goes against me. I had to try and get a little more relaxation into the walk in the Individual, as in the Team test he was a little tense, but there is also a fine line between having him pinging enough for all the advanced work and extensions, then soft enough for the walk work. I really tried to use every inch of the arena to my advantage, and it was all going well until my first medium canter on the diagonal, we came to collected, then it’s a short length of counter canter to a simple change near the corner. I collected him but we obviously had a small miscommunication and he trotted before the simple change. It’s a small mistake that magnifies with it being an important movement, and also comes off the submission mark. I knew at that point I had blown it… That’s just how it is, you can’t win a Gold medal with mistakes unless your close rivals have mistakes too. I knew unless I was to get 10s for the next few movements I would have lost Gold. It didn’t stop me riding the rest of the test, but that’s horses, and I take responsibility for that. We came out half a percent behind Michele George, close, but just not good enough. I am thrilled to come away with the Silver individually, but of course there is part of me that is disappointed. I think if any elite athlete tells you they are happy to settle for less than Gold it’s a lie, just because we are all going for Gold, that’s why we are there, and have got to the level we have, we train to be the best. But at the same time having a good past record puts pressure on you to do the same again, and people sometimes think it will just happen. It doesn’t. We work hard every day trying to cover every angle, improve every part of the puzzle – because Gold medals don’t come that easy, in fact any medal doesn’t come that easy. Our real aim was to come to London and have 3 good tests, because besides the medal targets, I really wanted to feel like I could ride Noki in the arena and produce the harmony we have been training so long for. I wanted to show Noki off at his best and for myself personally I wanted to be someone my trainer, my owners and my whole team could be proud of. I feel I achieved that, I know I definitely felt so proud watching him walk in for his prize giving, it’s such a team effort, and we have come so far with him, that’s my Gold medal.
I’m thrilled that the team won Gold. We had secured it before Sophie Christiansen went in to do her Individual test. Any 3 of the 4 combination scores could have been taken and we would have still won! We won with a Paralympic record score, and Noki and I were the second highest combination.
The 1st September was the first day for individual medals. Tash was early in the Grade IIs again, so I was there early to cheer her on! She rode fab and got a great score, but the 2 German riders put up strong performances which ended up a very close Silver and Bronze in the end. When we found out Tash had won Gold, Lucy jumped on the back of my scooter and we scooted round the other side of the stadium to see her, I knew she would be crying and her mum Lorraine, and then we were all crying. I tell you, it’s catching!! It was what we had dreamed of, and I was so proud of her for doing it! I don’t think I have ever cried so many happy tears for someone else when Tash got on the podium and got her medal, hearing the National Anthem. I was a mess! I had to have serious words with myself after that, as I was pretty exhausted that night, and couldn’t waste any more emotional energy!! Noki went well again in training, we did enough to get him ready for the next day’s competition, but not too much so he would be tired! It’s a fine balance! The British team are so lucky to have the support of UK Sport and Lottery Funding to enable us to have so many support staff to help us do our job. Mark Fisher, the saddler, was there every time I rode to alter the saddle if necessary, as Noki had changed shape through ‘fittening’ up in the last few weeks, so we had a few slipping issues, but all of them sorted immediately by Mark.
Lee went well in his test for a Silver medal, Lee has made it no secret that Gentleman is a bit tricky, and he found that going into the tests there. Lee has been on top for so long, people often say it’s not getting to the top that’s the hardest, it’s staying there, and that certainly is true!
…so the first day of competition arrived, and it was the Grade II and Grade Ib kicking things off. Tash wasn’t exactly quiet when she got up at 5am to get ready as she was competing at 9.30 in the morning!! But it was something we both had to get used to as we competed on alternate days so every morning was early! I decided to get up early too and go down to ride before Tash did her test to get it out the way before it got really busy. Noki went well and was feeling ready to start his competition the following day! Tash kicked off in style, going early in a big class, she scored a massive 76% to put her in the lead! But it was a long wait to see if she had done it, but she had and by quite a margin. The weather wasn’t brilliant, so the organisers decided to put sandbags around the arena to stop the boards being blown away. A few riders had problems, as the sand bags were not there when we did the familiarisation, which Petra (Dutch Grade II) complained about. However it was the same for everyone and it was done for safety. I was then treated by Karen and Helen, my pelvis was slightly out and my legs were still bad, so everywhere I went I had my hot water bottle stuffed down my coat, and had some treatment and acupuncture, which, although I don’t like, my legs respond well to, and because they were very tight it wasn’t the most pain free treatment either.
We tried to keep my pre performance routine the same, although it was a bit difficult when Ange was in a different place to me. A 6am start to get the bus to Greenwich, the ‘grab and go’ carts were a god send at that time of the morning, and although the dining hall was vast, it wasn’t quick. I went through my test with Ange as normal before getting on, but as I was putting my boots on and zipping them up it caused my left leg to cramp because of the restriction… so it was great to have Helen on hand (and the hot water bottle) to massage and apply heat to try and settle it down. Luckily we allow for this sort of thing to happen. The warm up went well. Because there were so many arenas, they had each rider in their own arena for the last 25 minutes of their warm up, so there was no dodging other riders and we could just concentrate on ourselves. Noki, Ange and me!
It was very strict with timings so 2 and a half minutes before your test time you have to leave the warm up to walk to the holding area before they take you through the chute to the stadium. It was a good place to do a couple of canter pirouettes to just make him sit a bit more before going in. I trotted through the chute as I thought if he walked in it would give him the chance to be taken aback by the atmosphere in there, so we trotted in, and because it was a British rider, the crowd couldn’t contain themselves and cheered as we entered. I have to say though, that is one of the standout moments of the Games for me. The first time of entering that arena for competition, feeling the atmosphere, seeing the background of the Queen’s House and Canary Warf, and hearing the crowd go crazy for just entering. It was really special. But, we had a job to do! The arena felt calming actually. Although there was the magnitude of the occasion, it felt like the crowd and judges were far enough away from the arena that you had space to do your job without feeling everyone was on top of you. It was quite quiet in there too, even though in the stands the music was quite loud, you could only really hear the shrieks of children. Anyway, I rode my ass off in there, and it totally paid off. Noki was an absolute star, when everyone cheered going in I could feel him pause and look with his eyes, I patted him and it was as if he went ‘ok Mum, that’s cool, I can do this’. You definitely had to have a relationship with your horse for it not to affect them in there and that showed! I couldn’t have been more pleased with my test, he listened to me, we did what we had practised, and we nailed a lot of movements we had really worked on, like the medium canter on a 20m circle which is quite horrible. It was only when we halted and saluted (which we got a 10 for!!) that we really noticed the crowds!! I had to take a minute walking out of the arena to really just take in how many people were there, and how crazy they were going after the test! It was amazing!! I’m so grateful to have the ride on Noki, and so proud of him for trying his best for me in that test. It was very emotional when I came out and was greeted by my support team headed by Ange and a lot of them started crying too! After all, this is what we work for!! The feeling is something I just can’t describe, but it is the best feeling. I don’t ride for these competitions, I ride because I love my horses and love training them, I’m very lucky that this can take us to competitions like this and be rewarded for that. When the score was announced I couldn’t believe it, it was a personal best internationally, I couldn’t ask for more. I did a fairly emotional interview on Channel 4 after that as we are ushered down to the ‘mixed zone’, where all the press are, straight after we get off. I’m known for not being that emotional, we don’t really do crying, unlike my roommate Tash haha, I must have caught it from her! We worked our way through the mixed zone and then at the end a crowd of people had gathered at the accredited entrance, everyone wanted photos and autographs, it was amazing! A bit of a celebrity moment, and a bit surreal, but I’m so grateful for all the support we have received. After that we made our way to the newly named pub ‘Gold and Saddle’ after the amazing equestrian success of Team GB at the Olympics, to meet Jackie and Neil, Noki’s owners, for lunch and my boyfriend and his brother. It was lovely to see everyone as we didn’t get much chance while we were in the ‘bubble’.
At the end of the first two days, all the team riders (Lee, Deb, Sophie and myself) had got really good 70%+ scores for the Team test which put us in the lead overnight. No partying that night, not until the end of all competition as we still had a lot of work to do!!
…Tuesday was the last chance for us to get into the field of play, so we all decided we would like a run through of one of our tests. I chose the Team test as we had had a lot of emphasis on it from the team as it was quite important to go towards the team medal, that GB have never lost at a major championship since the sport began in 1996. No pressure! So I trotted through the chute, and straight in, dodging the other riders, but got a good feel as to what it would be like, and let Noki know that going in there meant business, and I could make any corrections then too.
The next day was trot up day! The horses were turned out immaculately, Michelle Tipper was grooming for me and Lee for this competition, much to Amie’s disappointment, but accreditation had to be done before she joined us. Next time! But Michelle did a great job turning them out, and thankfully all the British horses passed the trot up without a problem, so we could get on with training for that day. I only wanted to give him a stretch as he had worked for a couple of days and needed an easier day before the competition started. It’s funny how everyone’s routines are different on the team, but they all seem to work for each individual and it does show many paths lead to the same goal…
It was also the Opening Ceremony on Wednesday too. We had been strongly advised not to go, and we all, except Lee, decided to stay in. I really wanted to go, but I know all the standing around for hours in the cold would be negative to my performance, especially as I have problems with my nerves anyway. I was a bit gutted we couldn’t all watch the Opening Ceremony together with the rest of our support team, they all had a party at the hotel in Greenwich and we just had to stay in our flat, which was a bit of a downer considering what a big occasion it was. We had a TV appearance at the beginning of the ceremony at 8pm, pretty prime time! We did it at Paralympic GB House, then the girls, Lucy and Pippa (Pippa was our press officer for the games and also works for the BEF), had a girly night in, opening the balcony door so we could hear the roar of the stadium live as well as seeing it on the TV whilst wearing our very fetching white tracksuits! I would have loved to have experienced the feeling of walking in the stadium and hearing the crowd go mad for Team GB, maybe next time! It was probably a good thing we didn’t go as my legs took a turn for the worse that night. I had tried to keep things under control, I bought a scooter that I could whizz about on instead of loading my nerves with the walking, but I think the stress of the occasion, the long days, lack of sleep (as I wasn’t sleeping very well anyway while we were away), caught up and my legs suffered. People always think it’s funny when I whack out a hot water bottle which I take everywhere, along with my crutches, even in the summer. When my legs go, the nerves go into overload, my lower legs cramp up and it’s a really horrible nervy pain, that makes it difficult to walk, and I lose a lot of the power in my legs because of it. Heat really helps the muscles to try and relax and keeping weight off them helps too. I just hate not being able to do stuff. We have controlled it for a while with medication, but despite upping the dosage it couldn’t control it this time. My scooter then decided to die on me the next day, turns out the fuse had blown in the charger socket, so it had to be taken off to be mended, leaving me with my crutches. A fly then decided to try and commit suicide by flying into my eye, still being a problem hours later, leading our team doc to clean it, put anaesthetic drops in and having antibiotic drops, slightly dramatic for a pesky little fly! But the important thing was I still managed to ride and Noki was a star. I often have to carry 2 whips when my legs are bad to back up my leg aids so he is quite used to it. And as long as I can ride I’m happy…
“So being the first day, I just took Noki for a little stretch in walk and trot, to get him used to the arenas and surface, as it did have a slightly funny feeling about it in a couple of areas. We had a press conference over the weekend, where the press was invited to ask questions with us all sat there which was quite good. I really think we had a great team this year, a good mix of experience and youth, Tash and I were always referred to as debutantes, and the other 3 as veterans! We all get on really well, support each other and socialised together especially the girls sharing a flat with Helen Mathie our physio, and Lucy Bell, who is a physio and carer for this trip, but also is Chef d’Equipe for the Vaulting teams, so is very experienced with major competitions too.
We had our allocated training times each day, and Sunday was the first day that anyone was allowed a slot in the ‘field of play’! Because we were only allocated half an hour, I decided to ride Noki in the morning in another arena then walk with him stretched out in the afternoon in the main arena. It’s worked well in the past as he gets a good couple of sessions out of the stable instead of hand walking all the time, and it gets him relaxed in the arena. We had a similar routine on the next day except I picked him up to give him a trot around and in the arena. Outside the riding, I had a small drama in that my phone stopped working, ok but it is a vital time to keep communication and the phones we were allocated for the games were £10 from Tesco and had buttons which we had to learn to use all over again!!…Not brilliant so I felt pretty stranded without any communication! Turned out that my phone had completely died, so a trip to Westfield that evening to get it sorted, even though it was bank holiday they were still open until 10pm, which was amazing!! I did a deal with Apple so that I could get a replacement then and there and could carry on as normal!”
“We arrived at Arrow and got Noki settled in his stable, unloaded the lorry and stacked our pallet. Each horse had its own pallet of feed and hay or haylage. All the feed bags and supplements had to be new and unopened, and the pallet wrapped in cellophane. Emma Kent, who has been back and forth training with Ange with her horse, has been looking for another horse for Rio for a while. She found one she really liked and got it to come to the Arrow while we were there that evening for us to see. He looked lovely and Emma looked confident on him, which is a big step. We all headed back to the hotel and out for dinner that night before trying to get a good night’s sleep for the last leg of our journey to Greenwich.
The next morning we arrived at the Arrow to find a massive red coach to take the 5 riders and 4 support staff into the Olympic village, it was certainly spacious! It was quite weird only going 18 miles down the road, but it was only then that we allowed ourselves to get excited at last… It’s so hard to stop yourself getting excited in the run up, as we all know anything can happen with horses. We got to the Olympic village and had a quick tour around the dining hall, gym, non alcoholic club, shopping including post office, dry cleaners, bank, salon – it was surreal! We got news through that the horses had arrived safely on Mark Perry Transport, and everyone was setting up the stables. We were due to head over on the buses that would take us from the village to Greenwich Park each day, however by then it was 4pm Friday night, traffic was terrible, so the decision was made to stay in the village and unpack. So we decided to decorate our rooms too! Tash (Natasha Baker) and I were sharing a room and had received loads of good luck cards that we put up with flags and bunting to make it a bit more homely.
Next day was our first trip out to Greenwich to see the horses and the venue. Obviously we had seen the main arena stadium, or ‘field of play’, when we went to see the dressage at the Olympics. But it was quite impressive behind the scenes! A massive veterinary centre which included X-rays, theatre, padded box and farrier’s forge – where they could even make shoes! A big stable block full of wash down boxes, the stables were all completely rubber matted, even the walk ways, and we even had a tack room each! There were 5 outdoor arenas, 1 covered arena, 1 lunge pen, the stadium, gallop track, a medical centre and dining area for all support staff and riders. I think we were very lucky to have such amazing facilities, and then to think that it was all temporary and built on stilts or crates. Just amazing.”
“Well it wasn’t the easiest run up to leaving for London! I was getting Noki out for the farrier on the Monday before leaving on the Thursday and I took his boots off to find a splint sticking out of his leg! Obviously I was slightly panicky, but we trotted him up and he looked good, we lunged him and he was fine, we prodded and poked, and he didn’t seem sore. The only way I can think he did it is he crosses his legs and scratches each leg with the other one, not normal, but when he does it he tried to push his stable boots down. There only seems to be so much you can do to wrap them up in cotton wool and stop them self harming!! Mark, my farrier, looked at it and seemed happy, then the World Class Farrier, Ian Hughes, came the next day to shoe Ange’s horses and had a good look at him, and there still didn’t seem to be a problem. Typical when only a few days before we had a home visit from the World Class Vet, Osteopath and Farrier. This was also after the last day of substitution, where I could swap for my reserve horse, Reece, so thank goodness everything was ok. I had my last few gym sessions with my Biomechanics coach Teresa Dixon, having recovered well after being kicked by Reece, and I definitely felt I was going into the games as fit and strong as I have ever been.
We left for the official meeting point, Mark Perry’s Arrow yard, on Thursday 23rd, to get there for 3pm. I came to start the lorry after it was all packed, and nothing! Arghhhhhhhh! Timing!!! So we spent the next hour on the phone to Dad so he could talk me through connecting everything to jump start it. I was quite proud of myself that I managed to do it on my own and was thankful I had an emergency breakdown kit in the lorry! So we then got Noki on the lorry, an hour and a half late, and we were half an hour down the road when I realised that with everything going on, my last job was to get Noki’s ice boots out of the freezer and I had forgotten! So a quick call home, and Amie had to drop everything and try and catch us up. In the meantime we had to stop for fuel and we were in two minds whether to turn the lorry off in case it didn’t start! So finally we were on our way, hoping that we had had our share of bad luck…”
5 gold, 5 silver, 1 bronze
Information sourced from the British Equestrian Federation
Britain surpassed its total medal tally record of 10 set at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics today. Competing in the freestyle, Sophie Christiansen became Britain’s first athlete to secure three gold medals at these Games, while Deb Criddle and Sophie Wells earned another silver each.
Performance Director Will Connell said: “At Beijing, we won 10 medals with seven riders. Here we’ve won 11 medals with five riders and exceeded our target. This is the first time anyone has won medals in all five grades in the individual and freestyle.”
Grade IV Freestyle
Despite Sophie Wells producing another personal best of 81.15% in the freestyle, it was not enough for gold and she had to settle for her second silver of the Games.
The medal positions remained the exact same as in the individual test with the 38-year-old Belgian professional rider and trainer Michele George and Rainman also producing a personal best of 82.1% and setting a Paralympic record.
Michele had to work hard to contain the 10-year-old gelding by Rubicell, a gift from her husband as a three-year-old, as the atmosphere got to him.
“He was a little bit hot and tense today. I could feel his heart beating, so it was not as easy as it was two days ago. The freestyle is not our favourite,” said Michele before declaring Greenwich Park “the best venue ever”.
An exhausted and slightly disappointed Sophie said: “I had to take some risks to have the chance of beating Michele today. She’s been on good form at this competition. Some of the risks paid off, some maybe didn’t. I had a small mistake in the tempi changes down the centre line that affected the last halt.
“I don’t think I could have done any more preparation wise. I’m absolutely thrilled with my horse. He coped like a star in this atmosphere. It’s been an absolute dream to compete in this competition and represent the country. I don’t know how I will be able to top this.”
Bronze went to Adelinde Cornelissen’s pupil, Holland’s Frank Hosmar and the seven-year-old Dutch-bred gelding Alphaville, by Sandreo.
He said: “It was only Alphaville’s third competition this season and his first time competing in the freestyle, so he did well.”
Team manager David Hunter said: “The atmosphere here has been a huge bonus. There has been great feeling. The spectators have been so caring, some knowledgeable, some not, but so enthused. It is the biggest audience (11,000) any para-equestrian competitor of any nation has ever ridden in front of.”
It is the first time many have experienced a feature unique to the sport dubbed “butterfly waving”. This is when the audience are asked not to clap until horse and handler are reunited after the test, particularly in Grade Ia, and show their appreciation by waving, either hands or flags.
The silence is incredibly powerful and moving as David explains: “It is so special and poignant.”
Para Equestrian has been developing as an international sport over the last 25 years.
Para Dressage is open to all riders with disabilities who have been classified by either RDA or FEI via the Para Dressage Committee. Para riders may take part in able-bodied competitions using their compensating aids with a dispensation certificate. There is no age limit on participation.
What are the different classifications?
Para dressage riders have different classifications to determine how the physical disability affects the function of the individual. Individuals are assessed by trained, certificated physiotherapists following internationally agreed criteria. Riders do not need to be mounted to be classified but classifiers will observe the athletes mounted to check the viability of their decisions.
Riders who compete in para dressage are classified by their physical disability, not their riding skill.
They are rated according to their disability profile and classification, receiving a “Grade,” and then are judged against other riders who have been given the same Grade. The Grades are Ia, Ib, II, II, IV with Ia being the most seriously impaired and Grade IV the least.
Sophie Wells and Pinocchio. Photo from Mirrors for Training
We are pleased to announce our sponsored rider Sophie Wells has been picked for the London Paralympics 2012.
Sophie has been selected with her horse Pinocchio and Valerius as her direct reserve.
Sophie says “I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for your continued support, and I will do my very best to do you proud!! Very exciting!!!”
We will be supporting her and wish the very best of luck – not that she’ll need it!!