As every athlete knows it can take a long time to find the right horse, and for Para athletes it can be even more of a challenge. But there are plenty of suitable candidates out there if you look in the right place, and sometimes they come along in the most unexpected ways….
When Ireland’s Michael Murphy was setting off for CPEDI at München-Riem, Germany last month he had just one target in mind, posting a qualifying score for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games with a mark of 62% or above. So when he won the Grade 1 Team Test with 73.393%, topped the Individual with 76.488% and was runner-up in the Kur to Music with 78.4% it was much more than mission accomplished. He looks well set to achieve his lifetime dream of Paralympic participation in Tokyo in a few months time.
“I’ve never had scores like those before!” says the 24-year-old British-based rider. His success was the result of hard work, a great support team that includes his mother, Sue, and his trainer Elder Klatzko and of course his fabulous new horse - the aptly named Cleverboy whose stable-name is Charlie.
“He’s brilliant for Para, he’s so kind and so willing and he just wants to please”, Murphy points out.
The 14-year-old KWPN gelding competed up to Grand Prix level with British rider Bronte Watson who always wanted Charlie to continue in sport when his main career came to an end. Watson already had a plan in mind when she took him to the CDI3* at Keysoe (GBR) last October where the Irish athlete tried him and the result was a perfect match.
“Charlie loves going places and being involved in things, you can do anything with him, he is the safest horse!”, Watson says. “I used to loan him to other people for prize-givings because he just loves the attention, and going to Michael is everything I could have wished for him because all this horse has ever wanted is to feel special and I know he’ll be very happy!”
The quality of horses competing in Para Dressage today is top-notch, and another rider who enjoyed a great run at München-Riem was 36-year-old Rodolpho Riskalla from Brazil who finished third in the Grade IV Team Test and second in the Individual before winning the Kur with the fabulous Don Frederic 3. Just two weeks earlier the pair won Individual Grade IV in Mannheim (GER).
Riskalla knows he is very fortunate to have the support of top owners. Back in 2017 he had no horse to step in for Warenne who took him to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games on his home soil, less than a year after losing both feet, all the fingers on his right hand and some from the left due to the effects of a devastating bout of bacterial meningitis.
But a chance meeting with Olympian, Germany’s Ann-Kathrin Linsenhoff, led to the generous offer of Don Henrico, a grandson of Donnerhall, with whom he collected two silver medals at the FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2018 in Tryon, USA.
Then Don Frederic arrived at Ann-Kathrin’s Gestut Schafhof early in 2019. Riskalla’s sister, Victoria, was working there at the time and reckoned the new arrival would suit her brother admirably, and that summer Rodolpho was invited to try the horse who was subsequently purchased for him by Brazilian friends and sponsors, Tania Loeb Wald and her husband Arnaldo.
“I’m hoping Don Frederic will be the one to take me to Tokyo!”, Riskalla says.
He is not the first Para-Dressage athlete that Ann-Kathrin Linsenhoff has supported. She is delighted to be involved but says she needs a personal attachment to the individual concerned, “and in the case of Rodolpho he is such a remarkable personality that it’s a pleasure to help him!
“I have a lot of respect for the strength and the power these sports people have in their situation, and I am very thankful that I can help. These Para riders are role models”, says the lady who won Dressage team gold for Germany at the Olympic Games in Seoul (KOR) in 1988.
Great Britain’s Natasha Baker already has five Paralympic gold medals in her trophy cabinet and is hoping to add some more this summer. However this time around the 31-year-old rider won’t be relying on Cabral, the former event horse who changed his career-path to become a true legend when carrying her to double-gold in London in 2012 and triple gold at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Cabral, better known as JP, passed away in 2017 and the search for his replacement hasn’t been easy. But with her new ride, Keystone Dawn Chorus, Baker is right back in the game and battling for a spot in the British team for Tokyo.
The 10-year-old mare is jointly owned by Christian Landolt and the skin-care company Childs Farm, and the relationship between Landolt and Baker is a close one….”Christian is like my big brother!”, says the Paralympic star.
They first met when she was on the hunt for a horse at just the right time, because Landolt realised that Cabral wasn’t brave enough to continue Eventing and wanted to find a new outlet for him. “He wasn’t going to be a Jumper or a Dressage horse either, so I wondered if he would do Para? I really wanted him to go to a home where he could do something right”, says the man who competes in Eventing and Advanced level Dressage and is also a national Dressage, FEI Eventing and Para Dressage judge.
As history would reveal, Cabral found the perfect home. “With Tash it all fell into place”, Landolt says.
Baker competes in Grade lll, and says the calibre of Para Dressage horses has rapidly improved since the London Games. “The perception of the kind of horses we should compete has changed, and many of us now have top sport horses”, she says.
Her new ride Keystone Dawn Chorus is better known as Lottie. “She is so powerful and I’m so lucky with her, she’s the first horse I’ve taken to an open field for a big canter and it was such a wonderful feeling that I cried my eyes out afterwards!”, Baker says.
Finding the right horse is no easy task however. “They are like the smallest needle in the biggest haystack! Sometimes us riders fall in love with a horse but it may not be right for us, so somebody has to have the courage to say no, it’s not suitable. They must be safe, and they must be sensible”, she points out.
Christian Landolt believes there are many more Para horses out there just waiting to be found if owners were just a bit more flexible about the expectations they have for them.
“When we have a horse we shouldn’t be greedy and try to sell them for the most money we can get, we need to listen to them and try to find a job they will excel at. And it doesn’t matter what that job is - whether it’s a happy hacker or Grand Prix or Para - as long as they, and their rider, enjoy it then that’s all we should be trying to achieve”, he says.
One owner who has found the perfect path for her horse is Swedish athlete Johanna Forssell. The 25-year-old Dressage rider who was seriously injured in a car crash in January 2019 is keen to get back in the competition ring with her lovely mare, Feldnoble, but has decided to pass over the ride to Para-athlete Felicia Grimmenhag while continuing her recovery. It was a very generous offer that 27-year-old Grimmenhag could hardly resist.
Forssell is set to become a Para rider herself, but feels that her 12-year-old horse is too much for her just yet. So, knowing that Grimmenhag was looking for a replacement ride following the retirement of Tarot E, who carried her to the European Championships in both Gothenburg in 2017 and Rotterdam in 2019, contacted her on social media. Grimmenhag could hardly believe her luck, and a hastily-organised test ride proved that the new pairing just might work well.
Feldnoble competed in the 4-year-old category at the Danish Young Horse Championships in 2016 with Patricia Florin and is still on a learning curve, so Forssell sees the new arrangement as ideal because Grimmenhag will provide the nine-year-old with plenty of useful experience. Both parties will benefit, and the horse will mature in good hands.
It wasn’t an easy decision to make because the much-loved horse has been in Forssell’s stable for the last five years. But the slight chance that the new pairing might make the cut for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics gives an extra edge of excitement to it all.
And Forssell also has her dream.
“When I heard that Felicia was looking for a new horse there was no question about it. I'd been in contact with her previously about me getting back up on the horse and where to begin. Para-riding was a completely new world for me, and Felicia has been such a great support. Since she has so much more experience than me I felt like this was the perfect opportunity for all of us.
“Of course it's hard to be away from my dear Feldnoble, but I also know she is well taken care of by Felicia. We are in constant contact and I follow along on both their journeys.
“In the meantime I'm training every day, getting stronger so that I can compete again. My goal is to compete at the highest level of Para Dressage, and hopefully Feldnoble will be with me when that time comes!”