Chinese dressage rider Sarah Rao booked her first victory at an international dressage competition since the start of her CDI career in 2018. A trailblazer for Chinese dressage following in the footsteps of Lina Liu, the 25-year old British based Rao won the Prix St Georges as well as the Inter I freestyle at the CDI Le Mans on 14 - 16 April 2023.
It was the first time ever that the Chinese national anthem was played at an international dressage competition.
Double Win in Le Mans
Rao brought three horses to Le Mans: the 12-year old KWPN gelding Geniaal (by Vivaldi x Biotep) and the 13-year old KWPN gelding Faydirmie ZH (by Zardando x Perion) for the small tour and the 18-year old KWPN bred Grand Prix schoolmaster Alfranco (by Negro x Zevenster) for the big tour.
In a field of 13 competitors, Rao won the Prix St Georges aboard Geniaal on a score of 70.490%. She placed fifth with Faydirmie ZH on 68.775%. The next day she landed second place on Faydirmie in the Intermediaire I with 68.873% while Geniaal had an off day and landed last after a 60.392%. Sarah did not let the set-back on Geniaal shake her and in the Intermediaire I Kur to Music she piloted Faydirmie to the victory with 72.408%.
"Le Mans was a tremendous success," Sarah took to Instagram. "I’m over the moon to have taken the win with Geniaal. It feels amazing to represent Team China, and hear my national anthem which made me so proud. So proud of team Pinfold as well as my horses who have given me their all on this trip."
On Alfranco she posted 67.196%in the 4* Grand Prix and 71.680% in the Kur to Music.
From China to the U.K.
Sarah comes from a horsey family with her father Zongming "Windson" Rao being an avid polo player. He is also the founder and owner of the clothing company Fast Fish.
She discovered a love for riding rather haphazardly at the age of 10 at a riding centre for tourists in China. She did a few laps round the track and it sparked her interest. The next day she returned for lessons. Initially she was only offered show jumping lessons even though she preferred flatwork. She only started doing dressage training when she came to the U.K.
The Chinese double eventing Olympian Alex Hua Tian played a key role in her transit to Great Britain. Based at Pinfold Stables in Cheshiren, U.K, Tian is mutual friends with a friend of Sarah's father and they asked him if Sarah could come over.
"She came over, had fun for a couple of weeks and never left," Tian reminisced. Sarah considers Alex a mentor or "big brother." She has been in the U.K. for almost a decade now and gone from novice to Grand Prix level. Trainer Sarah Higgins explained that Sarah was not confident in her riding at the start, but she empathized with the horses.
Empathy and Self Confidence
Sarah stated that she feels "lost without horses. We connect to our horses emotionally. It takes so much patience, detail, partnership. If you don't connect with your horse emotionally, it's hard to do well in dressage. You need to be there to support them, like you support your family."
Although her training progressed, the competition part did not come easy.
"I spent a long time getting used to training (at home) to performing in front of a big crowd," she said. "First I froze when I got into the arena. Sarah recommended me to see psychologists to get around it. I'm also doing a lot of gym work outside riding, so I do reaction training, balance, stretching as well as agility, plyometrics, which are very fun to do. Those exercises help me with my riding."
Fly the Chinese Flag at Competition
Sarah first represented China at an international Championship in 2019 when she headed to the FEI Asian Championships in Pattaya, Thailand, where she finished fourth in the Inter I and fifth in the Inter I Kur on the now 19-year old Brandenburg bred Waldessarini (by Wolkentanz II x Donnerhall).
She has seven horses at Pinfold and her goal is to go to the 2023 Asian Games in Hanghou, China in September. Her ultimate aim are the 2024 Paris Olympics.
"But my long term is to keep developing myself," she said. "I want to inspire other Chinese riders."
Tian added, "it's so important for Chinese riders to get international exposure, especially the young riders of Sarah's generation. I think for China in this moment of time where our sport is, our industry is, it's growing so fast domestically. we need to encourage our best and brightest and most talented to take that step out of the comfort zone. And I think that Sarah Rao's generation and what she represents is the generation who can do that."
Photos © Les Garennes - Astrid Appels
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