While many of the riders will be familiar, it is the list of horses competing in the Para dressage competition at this year’s World Equestrian Games (known as WEG) that makes the most interesting reading. Of the eight horses that won individual or freestyle golds at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, only one (The Netherlands’ Sanne Voets’ Demantur N.O.P.) will perform in Tryon, North Carolina, USA.
Likewise, only one gold medal winning horse from the 2014 edition in Normandy France, Italy’s Sara Morganti’s Royal Delight, will compete over the five-day competition, which runs from Tuesday 18 to Saturday 22 September.
Form means nothing
The relative newness of so many partnerships throws the form book of the competition away. That has the greatest impact in the team competition, which takes on an extra level of importance at WEG with the top three teams securing their places at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. And while no one would bet against Great Britain retaining that title – as they have at European, Paralympic, and world level since the mid-nineties - the path to British team glory at WEG is an untested one.
Of the team – Sophie Wells, Lee Pearson, Natasha Baker, and WEG debutant Erin Orford – two (Baker, and Pearson) are on horses which are making their major international debut. The team is also without European, world and Paralympic multi gold medallist Sophie Christiansen, who withdrew herself from the competition.
A resurgent Danish team came the closest to knocking Great Britain off their perch at last year’s European Championships, with the Netherlands finishing in third place. Para dressage fans can expect a similar tussle between those three this time round too, but add a strong German team, and the home-advantaged USA into the mix as well, and who knows what could happen.
The relative newness of some previously well-established partnerships adds an extra frisson to the already supremely competitive individual competitions too. Most of the Rio 2016 gold medal winning riders competing at Tryon do so on newer horses. Great Britain’s highly decorated Lee Pearson, for example, competes in grade II on Styletta while his team mate, triple Rio gold medallist Natasha Baker, rides Mount Saint John Diva Dannebrog. Tryon is both horses’ first major international competition. Likewise, Austria’s Pepo Puch ride Sailor’s Blue for the first time at a WEG too.
There will be a new world champion in grade V, whatever happens, as Belgium’s Michèle George, the current individual and freestyle title holder, withdrew from the competition at the very last minute, citing her horse’s fitness.
There are others poised to make a breakthrough in Tryon too. European grade II champion Stinna Tange Kaastrup of Denmark is having a great year so far and would desperately love to win her first world gold, while Latvia’s Rihards Snikus has gone from being a reliable top five or six finisher to bronze and silver at last year’s Europeans. Brazil’s Sergio Oliva, who won two emotional home bronze medals at Rio 2016, will want to prove those results weren’t a fluke in grade I and his team mate, Rodolpho Riskala, could also well take his next major step forward in grade III.
Canada’s Bert Sheffield was an agonizing fourth place finisher at WEG 2014 and will be looking to improve on that in the grade III contest, while Australia’s Emma Booth could also pose a threat in that grade. Team USA will also hope to take advantage of home soil, and spectators can look out for strong performances from the likes of stalwart Rebecca Hart in grade III and Annie Peavy in grade IV.
Watch out too for the likes of Singapore’s Laurentia Tan, currently ranked in the top spot for grade I, as well as performances from the Japanese team, ahead of their home Paralympic Games in 2020. You can watch Para dressage at the World Equestrian Games live on the International Paralympic Committee’s website.