By Mark Etheridge
Almost unheralded in the mainstream media, a small team of South African equestrian aces recently rode their way into the international history books.
The World Equestrian Games (WEG) took place in Caen, France and for the first time ever a South African dressage team was represented.
Making the experience all the more worthwhile was that due to the country being listed in French the rainbow nation had the honour of entering the stadium first during the team parades.
‘It was incredible,’ raved Jenny Neill, the first Chef d’Equipe of an SA dressage team at the Games.
‘It was very inspiring and emotional to hear the support for South Africa. There were many South African flags flying around the stadium.’
The team was made up for four dressage riders and two para-dressage combinations.
They were: Nicole Smith (riding Victoria), Chere Burger (Adelprag Anders 451), Denise Hallion (Wervelwind) and Tanya Seymour (Ramouneur 6) while three-time Paralympian Philippa Johnson-Dwyer on Verdi and Victoria Ford (Almar B) made up the pair of para-dressage entrants. Ingeborg Sanne was the Chef d’Equipe for the para-riders.
Neill went the way of Burger for the team’s first rider. ‘I believed that the “wow’ factor of her horse Anders, the Friesian Stallion would be a good start for Team South Africa, as it was the first time a Friesian has ever competed at a World Dressage Championship.
‘Nicole Smith is our top scoring competitor and I had decided that she would be our number four rider which was the last horse of the competition.
On to the first day of competition proper .’Chere had a good warm up with her coach Imke Bartels and was first to compete for South Africa and she entered the arena to huge applause. She started very well with scores in the 70’s but unfortunately after the extended canter the horse got a little strong and made a few mistakes but she still achieved a very credible score of 64.929% and came 82nd.
‘Tanya competed in the second session and was the last competitor of that day but the weather was awful and did not stop raining. Tanya and Ramoneur had a good warm up with their coach, Johnny Hilberath but as she started her test the horse was very tense and was not listening to any of her aids. She had a tough time but stuck it out to the end. Her score was 55.257% and came 98th.’
The second day saw Hallion getting the action underway.
Added Neill: ‘Denise had a good warm up with coach Carl Hester. Wervelwind is young and perhaps WEG 2014 was a year too early for this horse. She did her best but unfortunately the horse made some mistakes which caused the marks to drop but she still achieved a score of 61.243% and came 93rd.’
Then it was on to Smith and Victoria. ‘Nicole had an interesting warm up as her coach Hubertus Schmidt had to warm up the Korean rider at the same time as Nicole, so he did well with two headsets!
‘Nicole was our final horse and also the 100th horse and last dressage horse of the Grand Prix competition. Nicole and Victoria performed their best Grand Prix ever. The stadium erupted when she was finished which was very moving to see. Her score was 68.757% and she ended 48th.’
The team result was very uplifting for the South Africans, and the sport of dressage back home. ‘We came 20th and beat all the WEG Team Competition “first timers”, as well as beating Norway, Ireland, Luxembourg and Brazil which is a huge accomplishment for South African dressage!’
Putting the team result into perspective is the fact that the sport’s governing body FEI has around 130 member nations.
‘In the para-dressage section we could not field a team but Philippa Johnson-Dwyer competed as an Individual and did us very proud – she qualified for the Final (Grade IV Para Dressage Freestyle Final) and came fifth with a score of 70.750%’
On going forward and Neill is most upbeat about the code. ‘This puts us in good stead to try qualify a dressage team for the Olympic Games, we will have to participate at the 2016 Olympic Qualifier for our groups but if we achieve the same scores or better we should get the second team spot for our groups.
‘Australia qualified for one team spot at WEG. Also, Nicole beat all other Group F Individuals. There’s just so much to look forward to and we will continue to try find some funding for our dressage riders to assist them with the Rio 2016 Olympic campaign.’