Photo caption: Great Britain's Lee Pearson riding Zion took today's Grade Ib in Round 1 of the Team competition with an impressive 77.960% at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2014 in Normandy. (Dirk Caremans/FEI)
Team test kicks off Para-Equestrian Dressage in Normandy
The Para-Equestrian Dressage team competition kicked off at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2014 in Normandy (FRA) today with athletes from as far afield as Argentina, Australia, Canada, Israel and the USA at La Prairie racecourse in Caen (FRA).
Hannelore Brenner (GER), defending world champion and double gold medallist at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, earned the top Grade III score of 72.474% on Women Of The World, despite heavy rain. European champion Sanne Voets (NED) on Vedet PB N.O.P. was next in line on 72.053% ahead of Denmark's Annika Lykke Risum with Aros A Fenris in third on a mark of 69.868%.
"I'm really happy to be here with my horse," Brenner said. "It's our eighth championship and every year she is so wonderful. "She is nearly 19 years old and she was really fantastic. There are some things we can do better but I am happy with the ride. I want to ride the best I can with my horse but I know there are some really good horses, so we will see how we can do."
With less than one percentage point separating Brenner and Voets, it is clear that the competition for the individual title in Grade III will be close.
Voets said of her first competition of the Games: "I think we had a very nice test today with a lot of control. I started a little safe because this is a very important test for our team result. Our main goal here is to medal so we're on track for Rio 2016. During the test he was there with me, so I started to take a few more risks. I think every step was a little bit better and that was the goal for today."
Today's competition saw a return to the arena for Risum, just seven months after giving birth to a baby boy. The three-time World silver and Paralympic bronze medallist said: "It was okay but a little bit weak. I think the horse was a little bit tired and maybe I was as well. We had no big mistakes, so that was overall a good test but I could have pushed him a little bit more forward. It's really good to be back, but it's a big challenge as well as I've only been preparing for this event for four months, so with that in mind I am really pleased."
The morning's Grade III competition also saw some younger athletes take to the international stage to represent their countries for the first time, including Canada's Roberta Sheffield and Australia's Elizabeth Sobecki and Chelsea Higgins.
London 2012 stars at Normandy 2014
A field of 25 riders took to the arena for Grade Ib, including all three London 2012 medallists, competing against each other for the first time since the Games in Greenwich Park.
The competition marked a clear return to form for Great Britain's Lee Pearson riding Zion, who took the win with an impressive 77.960% ahead of Austria's individual freestyle London 2012 gold medallist Pepo Puch on Fine Feeling S with 76.520%. Italy's Silvia Veratti on Woikoski Double U were third on 72.000%. London's other gold medallist, Australia's Joann Formosa, winner of the FEI's Against All Odds 2013 award, finished in seventh place on Worldwide PB with 71.200%.
Today's victory for Pearson, his first major international competition since London, was sweet: "He (Zion) went into the arena and he was a bit tense, but I was still really pleased with him and the trot work was phenomenal. He's a brilliant horse to train. He's so laid back and he learns very quickly, I'm very excited about his future career.
"It's an honour to be on the selected squad and put back on the team. I'm still looking forward to the individual test as it has more trot work and from what friends and family have told me his trot today was keeping me above Pepo (Puch). I'm really pleased for the team as well. Days like today you wish it was a medal day."
Puch was equally happy about his performance, particularly given the wet conditions."I am really happy, especially as my horse doesn't like rain", he said. "Normally when it rains she goes back in the stable. It is very nice of her to do this, especially in this rain and with the water on the floor it is not easy to hold the horse in line."
Third placed Veratti was thrilled with her result: "I didn't expect that. I expected a worse position, and I'm staying positive," she said.
This afternoon also saw the début of the youngest competitor in the Para-Equestrian Dressage competition, the USA's Sydney Collier, who is just 16 years old. "It was an incredible experience to be riding with such amazing riders and for my first time my horse was super well behaved," she said.
Day two at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2014 will see athletes in Grades Ia, II and IV take to the arena for Round 1 of the team competition, before Team Round 2 and individual competitions on Wednesday (28 August) to decide the team medals in Normandy.
Road to Rio
The Games in Normandy are also the first opportunity for nations to qualify for Rio, and with three spots up for grabs on Wednesday the competition will be fierce.