Saturday, Sep. 23, 2023

From The Magazine: The Brits Will Have To Fight For Their Paralympic Gold



Editor’s Note: Para-dressage competition at the Tokyo Paralympic Games begins Thursday. Check our handy “What You Need To Know” for information on how to follow the competition from home, and read on for predictions on how the competition could shake out from former Irish Paralympian James Dwyer.

The para-dressage teams at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, Aug. 24-Sept. 5, will have only three riders this year, and I think that will make a big difference. Because you don’t have the drop score, everybody has to be on their game. It’s going to put pressure on every country.

In previous years, most teams would make sure to have several Grade I, II and III riders because they would often get high scores. But what we’re seeing now is that the judges are scoring Grade IV and V higher. The caliber of horses competing in the Paralympics has improved dramatically, and now even the Grade IV and V riders are getting in the mid-70s up to 80s, and they’re hitting at 80 percent in their freestyle.

Whoever wins a medal, they’ll be wanting to get 74, 76 percent and above. A 70 might have won you a medal four or five years ago, but not any longer. That’s what makes this a very exciting Games, especially with the team medals.

Since para-equestrian was added to the Paralympics in Atlanta in 1996, in every Games we all would have said, “Yes, Great Britain will get the gold,” but I think that’s changing. This year is going to be quite exciting, with more teams that could take that top position.

The Netherlands has the best shot at ending the British team’s win streak, especially considering the Dutch won the gold medal in the FEI World Equestrian Games (North Carolina) in 2018. They are very strong, and Denmark as well. Those two teams have the best shot at getting gold; they both have riders who can score well.

Great Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark are going to be very hard to beat.

Behind them, you have Germany—who you can’t discount—Belgium and then, of course, the United States. The U.S. should be tracking right up there to get on the podium. France, too, if they have a good day, could medal.


1. Roxanne Trunnell predicitionsweb

Current World No. 1 Roxanne Trunnell and Dolton could lead the United States to its first podium finish in the team competition since para-dressage joined the Paralympic Games in 1996. Mollie Bailey Photo

With the Paralympics being a year later, for a lot of teams it’s been a different preparation for these Games, but everybody is in the same boat. A lot of the riders in Great Britain and Ireland didn’t quite get over to Europe as much as they probably would have liked because of COVID-19. Some countries have tried to get out, so I think some of the judges have seen the riders.

And, in these Games, the travel to Tokyo could well play a factor: How the horses handle pre-travel quarantine and travel to Tokyo could have a big impact, and then hopefully the riders also travel well and can put their game face on.

It’s always difficult for the U.S. riders, especially when they don’t get to Europe to be seen, but they had quite a few competitions in Florida, in front of a lot of the judges that will be in Tokyo. They also had quite a successful World Equestrian Games, so I think straight away the judges will be thinking, “OK, these are people we need to watch.” When the judges have that idea, they will take more and more notice. So the U.S. could have a good day, and if not as a team, I think individually some of the riders have a good chance to be on the podium.


Grade I is quite difficult to predict because there are quite a few riders with a good chance at medaling.

I was so sorry to hear that Great Britain’s Sophie Christiansen withdrew from the Games due to a veterinary concern. She is a super competitor, and for this to happen so close to the Games is heartbreaking for her. But Grade I is still very open; it is a strong group of riders. Sara Morganti from Italy has a pair of gold medals from the WEG. And, of course, there’s Roxanne Trunnell of the U.S., who has super scores and is the current World No. 1 and world record holder.

Jens Lasse Dokkan of Norway and Rihards Snikus of Latvia also have a shot. And my own teammate, Michael Murphy of Ireland, is a contender with his new horse, Cleverboy, who has gone to two shows and gotten marks above 76, including an 80% on his freestyle at Hartpury (Great Britain).

I think those four or five people have a good chance to podium.


For Grade II, Pepo Puch of Austria and Lee Pearson of Great Britain, who has medaled every year since 2000, will be on top. Behind them, U.S. rider Beatrice De Lavalette will have a good chance, but you can’t discount either Heidemarie Dresing of Germany or Katrine Kristensen of Denmark. It will be a fight for bronze.

Grade III is another strong grade that should produce exciting competition among four or more top riders: Lauren Barwick and Roberta Sheffield from Canada; Tobias Thorning Joergensen from Denmark; Rixt van der Horst from the Netherlands; and Great Britain’s Natasha Baker, another reigning WEG and Paralympic medalist, all will be going for gold. Natasha has been kind of quiet since WEG, so I haven’t seen her or her horse, but she is always strong, and Great Britain wouldn’t be sending her if they didn’t think she could get high scores.

FEI World Equestrian Games™ Tryon USA

Individual Grade III medalists from the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games (N.C.) (from left) Natasha Baker (Great Britain), Rixt van der Horst (the Netherlands) and Rebecca Hart (United States) could all be back on the podium in Tokyo. FEI Photo

I also can’t forget my old stablemate from Blue Hill Farm in Unionville, Pennsylvania, Becca Hart, who is also very strong. And then Ann Cathrin Lübbe from Norway could be a threat. She competed in Grade IV in Rio, but she’s since been downgraded to a Grade III.

Grade IV usually has seven, eight or even 10 top riders who are close in scores. For sure, Sanne Voets from the Netherlands and the Brazilian rider Rodolpho Riskalla will be fighting for gold. Then you have Manon Claeys from Belgium and Susanne Jensby Sunesen from Denmark who are very strong. The American rider Kate Shoemaker, she’s done very well in Florida. She has been posting quite impressive scores. She’s another one who, if everything goes right for her, she could get a medal.

Sanne Voets Mollie WEG_web

Dutch rider Sanne Voets is leading the Grade IV standings with Demantur and will be a threat for winning gold in Tokyo. Mollie Bailey Photo

For Grade V, the main three are Sophie Wells of Great Britain, Frank Hosmar of the Netherlands and Michèle George of Belgium.
The other strong contenders in that grade are Natalia Martianova from Russia, who has done very well, and Kevin Van Ham from Belgium.

James Dwyer was a member of the bronze-medal-winning Irish para- dressage team in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. He was diagnosed with cancer at 16 that ultimately led to the amputation of his leg above the knee in 1997. He returned to riding six months later, and in 2002 he joined the Irish para-equestrian team. In 2004, he moved to Unionville, Pennsylvania, to train with U.S. dressage rider Jessica Ransehousen. He rode at two Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (2010 and 2014) and was the highest-placed Irish para-dressage rider in 2010. In 2014, he moved to Belgium and married South African para-dressage rider Philippa Johnson-Dwyer.

This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our Aug. 23, 2021 issue.

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