Tokyo 2020: Takeaways from Para equestrian

Strongest ever competition with expert display from rising stars in Para equestrian at Tokyo 2020 17 Sep 2021
Woman riding a horse
Sanne Voets was one of the Para equestrian stars at Tokyo 2020 by winning two golds
By Ruth Faulkner I For the IPC

As the curtain came down on Para equestrian, the new ones to watch for the future rose up. After a Games that could signal a changing of the guard in the sport, we reflect on the biggest moments from Tokyo 2020.

Denmark unseats Great Britain in Grade III

British rider Natasha Baker came to Tokyo as a Paralympic champion with five medals to her name from London 2012 and Rio 2016. But with her new horse Lottie less experienced, her focus was more on Paris 2024.

At the same time, Dane Tobias Thorning Jorgensen cemented his rising star status by producing stunning performances in the individual and individual freestyle tests, beating Baker to the gold medal twice in Tokyo.

Only 21 years old, Jorgensen admitted that Baker’s reputation and experience encouraged him to try to pull some tricks out of the bag to beat her.

“I wanted to show the world what I can do,” he said. “I really wanted to show that I am the best. And so I rode all the time, to the edge of being too much.”

Baker and Lottie still took home one gold from the team event, which Great Britain won to much surprise despite all riding inexperienced horses.

25 year wait over for USA 

World number one Roxanne Trunnell lived up to her reputation by claiming golds in the Grade I individual and individual freestyle tests, bringing home the first, and second, Paralympic equestrian gold for USA in quarter of a century.

Placing 10th at Rio 2016, Trunnell has risen quickly up the ranks, which she hope will also raise awareness of the sport in her country.

"The better we start to do, people know about us, and that makes people more aware. Competing in LA (Los Angeles 2028 Paralympic Games) is on my schedule," she said.

Para dressage competition reaches new level

Tokyo 2020 can be seen as arguably the strongest competition in Paralympic Games history, with higher than ever scores being reached, with all individual freestyle gold medallists recording scores of more than 80, a benchmark in dressage.

“Para dressage is coming so close to dressage, in what judges want to see from horse and rider,” said Rihards Snikus of Latvia, who won Grade I individual freestyle silver.

“Ten years ago, or even in Rio (2016), it was like for Grade 1 you needed a fluent horse who just walked and did nothing. So it is wonderful that the riders can show great technique."

Incredible stories of perseverance shine through

What really wowed the world however, were the incredible personal stories of perseverance in light of extreme hardships shared by a number of Para athletes.

Philippa Johnson-Dwyer of South Africa was one such story, in the year leading up to Tokyo 2020 she battled cancer and underwent open heart surgery. But nothing would stop her from representing her country in Para equestrian for the fifth time. “There was never any doubt in my mind that we would get here. Come hell or high water, kicking, screaming, we were going to get here. And then to be able to make the final, that was my goal,” the 46-year-old said. 

While Sara Morganti of Italy shared her experience with MS and the drive that earned her bronze in the Grade I individual test. "Unfortunately, I have a form of MS which is progressive, so in these five years (since Rio 2016) there has been a progression of the symptoms. It becomes harder and harder to train, and to compete. But I really want to compete. And so I tried to find the adjustments to the new health issues, such as special stirrups which allow me to continue riding.”

Finally, Sweden’s Louise Etzner Jakobsson managed not only to compete, but to take silver despite having broken her leg only two months before competition. She was simply not going to take no for an answer. “Mentally I decided I am going to fix it. There’s no other conclusion. I told my doctor that (the cast) has to be taken off at that day as I have to ride," she said.