This year everybody was focused on the FIFA World Cup - which was exciting and wonderful and got to show off our beautiful country at it’s best. What a lot of people didn’t know was that South African sporting history was being made in another sport, equestrian.
This year was the first time ever that South Africa managed to send an almost full team to the Alltech World Equestrian Games, held in Lexington, Kentucky, USA, sending competitors for six of the eight disciplines.
It was also the first time that Para Equestrian Dressage was included in an able bodied World Games. We had a team of five riders: Marion Milne (1b)*, Antony Dawson (2), Wendy Moller (2), Cathy Lloyd (4) and me, Philippa Johnson, grade 4.
Our riders prepared for months with a combination of competitions (under international judges), clinics (with international judges) and testing at the high performance centre where they did it all.
The World Games were difficult for South Africa’s equestrians as they had to find, and then ride, borrowed horses. Fortunately I am based in Europe so I was able to take my new young horse, Verdi. The SA based riders went over to the States several weeks before - to get used to the horses that had been found for them - and I met them in Lexington. Everyone was so impressed that SA had managed to put together such a team and were most impressed at the progress our riders have made.
Unfortunately, when merging for the first time with able bodied sport, the organizers don’t quite know how to deal with us Paras!! The venue was enormous but the buzz of being there could not be killed. The organisers were very nervous and wanted to keep us as safe as possible, but this ended up with us being pushed into a very quiet corner. They were probably expecting a bunch of cripples to come wobbling around on horse back, and were quite unprepared for the fire power that came into that arena!!
I was surprised to see how much the quality of the horses and riders has gone up in the past two years. Even the Grade I & II riders are now pulling in on international dressage horses, quite thrilling!! All in all it was a great experience for our riders, and for our sport, and another step towards being recognised as the athletes that we are and not for the disabilities we have!
* Para Dressage riders are classified into four Grades with Grade 1 being for riders with a high degree of disability such as wheel-chair users whereas Grade 4 riders have lesser impairments. Tests for Grades 1 and 2 are walk and trot only, although Grade 2 riders may canter in freestyle. The Grade 3 test includes walking, trotting and cantering and may include shoulder in, half pass and a flying change during freestyle. Grade 4s may include Prix St. George movements.