While it may be a truism to say it’s ‘not all about winning, but as much about taking part’, the Britain’s para-dressage team is proving you can do both very well indeed. As Para-Dressage Performance Manager, Sarah Armstrong commented: ‘They’ve seriously delivered.’
Find out more about what motivates this unbeaten team, how challenges are overcome and how other para riders can follow their footsteps.
By clinching the gold at the 2017 Longines FEI European Championships (FEI EC) in Gothenburg (ahead of Denmark and The Netherlands), the four-member, all-female team retained its European title, and its unbeaten record, having never been beaten at European, Paralympic or World level. As if that wasn’t enough, for three of the team members, it was their first championships.
‘Grit and determination, the hunger to be successful, passion and drive – and repeat!’
That’s Sarah Armstrong commenting about the team’s winning formula, adding that a supportive foundation structure and funding cannot be underestimated. And, as she says, the team delivered – even with three ‘newbies’ on the team, along with young veteran Sophie Wells.
For Sophie, it was her fifth European Championships, and the second for her horse C Fatal Attraction. Nottingham-based Sophie was instrumental in setting up Papplewick RDA. She notes that there are ‘some great riders and trainers in this country’. She adds: ‘My horses inspire me to be a better rider and become a better trainer. I take inspiration from many riders in the Paralympic circuit as well as able bodied.’
That inspiration is echoed by her team-mate, Erin Orford, who began riding at Buckinghamshire RDA. ‘I love the training and working with the horses, and each day I’m inspired by people around me, my coach, friends and competitors to work hard to be a better rider so that I can do my horse justice,’ she says. At the FEI EC, Erin won her first championship medal (bronze) on Pimms. She adds: ‘In 2004, I went out to Athens to watch the Paralympics and seeing the British team receive their gold medals with the national anthem playing in the background made me realise that was what I wanted to do.’
Being part of the team is equally inspiring for both Suzanna Hext and Julie Payne.
Individual Grade III gold medallist, Suzanna comments that she is inspired by ‘training, competing and the thought of riding in the atmosphere at a World and Paralympic games in the future, among a fantastic team.’ And Julie adds that her inspiration comes from ‘other riders number one, plus I want to keep learning and proving you can do the things in life you wish by aiming high.’ At the FEI EC, Julie and Di Redfern’s Athene Lindebjerg (South Bucks RDA) posted a score of 78.107%, just shy of a personal best.
‘Team success over the years is exactly that. The team!’ emphasises Julie. She adds that it’s not just the riders, but also the team behind them – coaches, physio (equine and human), sports psychology, nutritionist, vet, coordinators, logistics, and training. ‘We have an amazing training system,’ she says, adding that ‘representing your country is the ultimate. To show good conduct, skill and success for GB is such an honour.’
Sarah concurs that the immediate support team – ‘the team behind the team’ – has been consistent over the years. She also emphasizes the importance of the lottery funding. ‘It allows us to run the programme, and we cannot underestimate that,’ she says. ‘We get the best training, and the best horse care, which enables us to go and deliver on the world stage, and set people up on the right track.’ Team GBR is backed and managed by the Equestrian World Class Programme, part of UK Sport’s National Lottery-funded investment strategy.
Erin was shortlisted for London 2012, reserve for WEG 2014, reserve for Rio 2016 Paralympics, and reserve for 2017. ‘Having come so close so many times, I couldn’t believe it when I finally got the call,’ she says. ‘I’d worked so hard for such a long time to be given the opportunity, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t waste it – being at a Championship was my first chance to win a medal, I wasn’t just there to make up the numbers. Being part of the team was a huge honour, but also a massive responsibility – so many people would have loved to be in my position, and I was proud and grateful to be involved.’ She adds: ‘As a country, we have a lot of strength in depth across all grades, and the level of competition just to make it onto the team is phenomenal. As a squad, we’re lucky to have a strong and knowledgeable support team around us as well as with our individual teams that drives further improvement.’
The structured support system for disabled riders is an important factor, comments Suzanne. ‘Right from the RDA, to the Talent Pathways that set you on the right path, to having the ability to gain a place on the Lottery Funded World Class Programme – we have a fantastic team around us on the World Class Programme. At international level, it’s much harder to compete successfully without the whole team support. It’s a huge team effort. In Great Britain we have a huge depth of talent, and with access to a network of help and support, this talent is being nurtured to produce personal bests and medals on a world stage.’ She adds: ‘I was proud to represent ‘Team GBR’ at my first Championship. The team atmosphere really made it something special to be a part of and to be included in.’
Sophie Wells comments on the ‘brilliant support structure in the world-class programme, thanks to UK Sport and National Lottery funding.’ She adds: ‘We are very fortunate, but we also all work very hard individually to build horse power, and work on a daily basis to better ourselves as riders to do the horses and programme justice.’
Sophie, Julie, and Suzanna all echo Erin’s feeling of the honour of being part of the team. ‘It’s an honour to represent your country every time, and we must never forget that,’ comments Sophie. ‘Retaining the team title is a big challenge but every time we have managed it, it makes you very proud!’
As Sarah comments: ‘We have to acknowledge the other nations are getting better.’
That means Team GB has to hone its approach. ‘We have to find little things, pertinent to the individual or the whole team,’ explains Sarah.
As an example, she notes this year’s travel to Gothenburg. ‘It was 700 miles, and three days for the horses. So, we changed the airflow in the horseboxes, added another stopover, and had professional grooms. We always take a vet. And the horses arrived fresher, and better rested.’
It’s not just about the horses, either. In cold climate, athletes have down coats, and hot water bottles; in Rio, it was air-conditioning.|
‘We have to adapt to suit circumstances, and be forward thinking,’ emphasises Sarah.
Sarah also notes the need to secure increasingly bigger, more powerful horses: ‘quality horses, which have very trainable temperaments.’
The next two challenges will be North America in 2018, and Tokyo in 2020.
‘We have a strategy to minimise fatigue,’ says Sarah, adding that the climate in each location will be challenging, along with jet lag from the time differences. The coaching team, Ferdi Eilberg, Angela Weiss, and Nina Venables provides support to the para-dressage programme to develop potential and ensure training programmes are in place.
Sarah adds: ‘We’re very lucky to have a supportive structure, as no other nation has that foundation.’
Dreams Come True
For other disabled riders, the team’s advice is to enjoy what you do, have fun, and do your best. As Julie comments: ‘I would say to any rider, keep going for what you enjoy, if you enjoy your riding, you will ride to your best, and that will produce results.’
Erin sees many opportunities: ‘From riding at your local RDA to competing internationally, there are so many opportunities to train and compete at all levels, which is great to encourage individuals to get involved and for rider’s development.’ She adds: ‘Find a trainer or someone to help you who isn’t afraid to think outside the box. Take every opportunity that comes your way, don’t be afraid to fail and remember that it’s your ability not disability that counts. You can learn a lot by watching other riders but most of all make sure you enjoy what you do – it’s supposed to be fun! Surround yourself with people who encourage you to be the best that you can be.’
For Sophie, it’s all about loving the horses, loving the sport, and, ‘always reflecting on your progression. Sometimes the smallest things can give a great feeling and that must not get lost in competition scores and placings.’
Suzanna emphasises the importance of ‘exploring what availability there is around you to be a part of your local RDA group. It’s a great way to spend time in the saddle and make great friends.’ She adds: ’Being part of your local RDA brings exciting opportunities to compete in the future. Dreams really do come true…’
Providing incentives ‘Oh I could do that!’ underpins the pathway, comments Sarah. ‘That foundation structure, the place where people can go with the idea of not necessarily becoming athletes, just to be active,’ she adds. ‘That’s what can turn disability into ability, and we, in this country, can do that. The sport is open to everybody; you don’t have to be young, don’t have to have amazing talent. That is our strength.’
Perhaps the last word can go to Julie, as she adds: ‘I love setting an example of what can be achieved with hard work, perseverance and enjoying horses.’
A fitting echo of the RDA ethos that it’s what you can do that counts!
NOTE: This article first published in the RDA magazine, Winter 2017.