Almost one month ago, Rachel Gross and Rio Rio set off for JFK with my dear friend and fellow Stoneleigh Burnham School graduate, Susan McLean (who generously donated her time and trailer)!
Missy Ransehousen and I caught up to them at Jeanette and Chris Haazen's stable in Neeroenteren, Belgium, home base for our dear friends, James Dwyer and Philippa Johnson-Dwyer. Always a good traveler, Rio settled right in to her shed-row box next to James' horses, Orlando (Ben) and his lovely mare, Fleur.
We set off for the first competition, a CPEDI3* at Waregem, in caravan with James and Philippa in their car and trailer, followed by Missy driving our little red rented horse box. (The speed limit for trucks in Belgium is 90 k/hour, much slower than Missy has ever driven any vehicle!)
The venue at Waregem is an extensive riding school, next to a beautiful green racecourse, accommodating steeplechases and trotting races! I had never seen such an eclectic collection of horses - from schools of kids on ponies to jumpers to driving horses! The outdoor competition area was expansive and the indoor schooling area, currently more than adequate, is under construction to add even more space!
I was a little disappointed to find only three riders in my 1a classification but one of them was the Belgian National Champion and the other, a lovely little girl from Hong Kong, was coached by the very successful British coach, Clive Milliken. After a brilliant ride on the first day, Rio was consistently in a very close second place despite needing more activity in subsequent tests. We left Waregem excited about the judges' feedback regarding Rio's world class potential and determined to improve her energy and her scores!
Back in Neeroenteren, with almost a week before we had to leave for Germany, we practiced diligently but also managed day trips to Antwerp, Düsseldorf and Waterloo! We were very lucky to spend time with James and Philippa at their tiny "chalet", enjoying delicious chicken dinners and equine philosophy. Both Paralympic medal winners and competitors in able-bodied dressage and totally invested in their horse's well-being, they share a unique and professional perspective. Many thanks to Philippa, James, Jeanette and Chris for our lovely time with them!
Sadly, on Friday morning, we left our friends in Belgium for the Mai-Market Horse Show at Mannheim, Germany. Usually, CPEDI3* are fairly well-regulated because there are many competitors with a limited ability to control their horses. This is not the case at Mannheim! All levels of Para Dressage competitors warm up next to galloping jumpers and prancing dressage horses with flags snapping and loud-speakers blaring. I have never been more grateful for Rio's phlegmatic temperament! (Thank you very much to Marion Dressel-O'Connor and Jessica Wisdom for her extensive showing background!)
The day of the Team test was cold and rainy and Rio and I earned 69.2% in a sluggish test to place fifth (behind two WEG medalists and two riders on 69.7). The German team coach kindly reassured us that we had a lovely horse and the that scores were very close. Probably the lowest point of the trip, we consoled ourselves with watching the jumper show and eating bratwurst…
Monday was a beautiful, bright and breezy day....and I didn't ride until almost 4 o'clock...way too much suspense but perfect for a brief early ride for Rio and a little shorter final warm-up.
Thanks to Missy and Rachel's equine intuition, Rio was wonderful! Along with the advice of the coach from the Netherlands, "Ride for the fastest time!", we had a very snappy test! Still in fifth place but with a 70.1%, the improvement was spectacular!
We were able to maintain Rio's momentum through the musical freestyle the next day to score 74% for third place behind Sara Morganti with 80% and Elke Philips with 75% (both medal winners in the Freestyle at the World Equestrian Games)!
There were two objectives for this trip to Europe. The first was to qualify for the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro next year and the second was to show the European judges what a good horse Rio Rio is. We have had resounding success on both counts!
Many thanks to Missy and Rachel for pushing me all over Belgium! And to Jessica Ransehousen for all her input last winter! And to the Blue Hill Gang and my family!
Especially this year, I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of my friends and supporters in the community. Thank you so much for all your help in making my dream come true!
Please stay tuned in for the National Championship in Houston at the end of October and the final qualifying CPEDI3*s in Wellington next January and, of course, the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, in September of 2016!