Thursday, Jun. 13, 2024

As Paris Nears, U.S. Para Dressage Scores A European Hat Trick And No. 1 Ranking

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On June 9, the Perrigo U.S. Para Dressage Team took first at the Hagen CPEDI3* (Germany), rounding out their third European win this spring after first place finishes at the Fontainebleau CPEDI3* (France) in April and the Mannheim CPEDI3*(Germany) in May. In its victory, the team also achieved its highest winning score ever, beating out a record it had broken in Mannheim just weeks earlier. Even more impressive than the number, Chef d’Equipe Michel Assouline said, was the elusive achievement the team’s string of strong performances represents: consistency.

“To me, what stood out is actually not just the scores, but the consistency along the last three shows,” he said. “That was really important to show consistency, which I think is probably the hardest when you are moving up towards a big championship like the Paralympic Games.”

A group of U.S. riders who have been competing in Europe this spring—Rebecca Hart and Floratina, Fiona Howard and Diamond Dunes, Beatrice de Lavalette and Sixth Sense, and Kate Shoemaker and Vianne—have kept their scores hovering around 75%. In Hagen, seven of their eight team tests were above 70%, and U.S. riders won the individual freestyle competition in every grade they were entered in, with Shoemaker and Vianne setting a personal best in Grade IV (78.45%), Hart winning Grade III (79.34%) and Howard topping Grade II (79.02%).

The U.S. Perrigo Para Dressage Team scored its third consecutive European win June 9 at the Hagen CPEDI3* (Germany), led by Fiona Howard and Diamond Dunes, who earned team’s highest combined scores with a 76.26% in the Grade II Grand Prix Test A and a 77.05% in Grand Prix Test B. The competition served as one of two final observation events to select a U.S. team for the 2024 Paris Paralympic Games. Dirk Rüchel Photo

Assouline believes that the strategy of exposing U.S. riders to European competition has improved their performance as they gear up for the 2024 Paralympic Games in September. In the United States, para-dressage riders have a limited group of peers to compete against.

“In the States we’re so isolated, the riders are usually riding against themselves,” Assouline said. “Somebody like Kate Shoemaker, in Grade IV—she’s always the only one in her grade and there’s nobody else to compare with. To me, it’s a disadvantage because you don’t ride up to it; it doesn’t give you a push in your vision.

“It’s a natural process that no matter how good a coach you are, and how you push your rider, that also gives them a push because they can measure where they want to be in real terms,” he continued, describing the advantages of international competition. “Otherwise, it’s all based on theory.”

Following the season in Florida, the riders and horses relocated to Europe in preparation for the championships.

To ensure riders who remained stateside this spring are considered on equal footing with the European-based contingent, the team has arranged for the final selection trial in the U.S., this weekend’s Tryon CPEDI3*, which begins today in Mill Spring, North Carolina, to be as similar as possible, by hiring the same judges who worked the Hagen event.

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“You can be seen for the observation either in Tryon or in Hagen,” Assouline said. “We are going to keep that for the future as well, to keep it easier and more accessible for these riders.”

The Paralympic team is scheduled to be named next week, and those named will ride to Versailles with the pressure of history-making expectations on their shoulders. The U.S., which won its first Paralympic team medal—bronze—in Tokyo, moved into first place in the FEI world rankings this month. 

“Pressure is good,” Assouline said. “You need it, and it’s good for us to see who can cope with it—they have to put up with the pressure.”

The selected horses will travel to France in the middle of August in preparation for the Games, and Assouline and team veterinarian Kim Snyder will perform “constant checks” on the equine athletes at their training camp outside of Versailles. Assouline is already looking forward to keeping his riders in top form during that lull in competition.

“We also have planned to have an international judge that is not judging a championship that year, but somebody very experienced [who] will come to do a mock-up show for them so that they are ready to go,” he said. “Because otherwise it’s a long time without competing.”

Between the team selection this week and the Games at the end of the summer—opening ceremonies are Aug. 28 and para-dressage will take place Sept. 3-6—Assouline says the best strategy will be in maintaining the right program for each pair.

“The important thing is that they maintain good form and that the management is good up to the Games as well, because it’s not just a competition,” he said. “You have to keep a good program to not get your horses tired, not to peak too early, and to maintain a decent level of fitness without putting too much pressure on horses. Otherwise by the time you get to the Games, you’ll be burnt out.”

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