When double Paralympic silver medal winner and current individual World champion Rihards Snikus stopped in the middle of his ride that was superior until this point, the audience held their breath. Pointing with his index finger in the air, he was looking for the way to yet another gold medal.
The first of three classes of Grade I at the European Para Dressage Championships in Riesenbeck in the northwest of Germany, the individual class on Tuesday, the 5th September 2023, turned out to be a thriller.
In a field of 14 riders of 13 different nations contested for the first of two sets of possible individual medals in sweltering heat, with a late summer heatwave having hit Germany the weekend before after some rather cold and rainy days.
Luckily at Ludger Beerbaum’s superlative facility a huge indoor arena just opposite the competition arena offered a significantly cooler preparation of horse and rider for the few minutes spent in the unrelenting sun outside.
It would also be the place to hide from the burning sunshine and cool down as much as possible for officials, grooms, journalists and photographers whenever the opportunity arose.
In Grade I many of the horses are warmed up and made ready for their moment to shine by so-called „coach-riders“, who loosen them in trot and canter, for the simple fact that the majority of Grade I riders (the grade where the riders with the most severe disabilities contest) are physically unable to do it themselves.
The whole class in Grade I is ridden in medium walk and includes different riding figures like voltes, a serpentine, half circles and a gradual stretch of the horse. There are three halts within the individual test of which one has to be shown with 5 seconds of immobility, something which seems an absolute impossibility of way too many highly trained Grand Prix horses!
In Riesenbeck Grade I was judged by German Elke Ebert who also judges much at CDI level, Eva Andersson from Sweden, Sarah Leitch from Great Britain, French Anne Prain and Dutch Ineke Jansen. It might be quite surprising to hear that these five judges in their scoring had four different winners and occasionally differed quite a lot in the percentage they awarded.
First of the riders who belonged to the extended circle of possible medal candidates, Austrian Julia Sciancalepore started as fourth rider.
The still only 28-year-old is already a two-time Paralympian and had enjoyed a pretty successful outdoor season in the lead-up to Riesenbeck, with high placings and wins at international shows in Germany, Austria and Hungary. Her 11-year-old Hanoverian Heinrich (by Heinrich Heine x De Niro) certainly did not disappoint with showing an obedient performance and no major mistakes, Julia seemed to play it safe and did not risk all. Also the sparkle and expression in his walk which Heinrich had shown at the CPEDI in Mannheim in early May could not be reproduced to the same extent on that particular day. So with 72.208% not yet a medal for this sympathetic combination from Carinthia, but with a 6th place still their best placing at a European Championships to that date.
Italy’s Sara Morganti, the most highly decorated Para-dressage rider in the history of her country, brought the tall and big framed Belgian mare Mariebelle (by Lissaro van de Helle x Lys de Damen) in an attempt to add another medal to her already impressive collection. The 11-year-old mare is no newcomer to the international scene, having been Sara’s back-up for Tokyo 2021, but so far the 47-year-old from Pisa had ridden her incredible mare Rhinelander Royal Delight (by Royaldik) since the London 2012 Paralympics who is a different type of horse.
Having achieved wins at the CPEDI in Stadl Paura and having placed 3 times 2nd behind Rihards Snikus at the CPEDI Waregem before, Morganti could certainly be considered one of the few most likely to challenge Snikus.
However, we all know that sometimes the difference between madness and genius in a horse is a thin line and the Italian had to suffer one of exactly those days. Deciding something towards the judges’ boxes on the short side was very spooky, Mariebelle made no secret of it. Her petite rider who is coached by Alessandro Benedetti and Italian national coach Laura Conz, then gave then a masterclass how to handle such situation and give the horse her confidence back. Although the tension resulting from the beginning of their ride did not disappear throughout the five minutes in the ring, Morganti bravely battled through the figures, containing her mare in the most sensitive way.
With 67.125% they stayed way below their possibilities, ending in 11th place, but Sara Morganti gave a brilliant example for all able bodied riders who think to solve similar situations through pressure and strength which is all the often the case, but just adds to the tension.
As the only country with two Grade I riders, Italy then earned a top placing through 20-year-young Carola Semperboni who showed a ride of remarkable fluency on the oldest horse in the field. At 18, Paul, the brown Westfalian by Poland x Focus, helped his rider to a 5th place.
Germany’s hope for a medal was certainly the peculiar looking Lipizzan mare Nautika (by Pluto Darina x Favory Santa) who had started her life as a driving horse before joining Martina Benzinger a few years ago. Having been „Miss Consistency“ the past two seasons, the small mare fits her likewise tiny rider like glove. After the disappointment of dropping out of the German para team briefly before the departure to the Herning World championships last year due to the mare’s lameness, Benzinger at the age of 62 finally made it to her first para championships. Nautika continued where she left off at her last show before Riesenbeck and impressed with her pretty metronome-like regularity of walk in which each step seems to be of exactly the same length.
Benzinger rode with a very consistent and smooth contact throughout her ride and it is probably not surprising that her pink nosed mare is not in need of a tight noseband, but like quite a few Grade I horses wears a really loose one which is more for decoration than any (in that case dispensable) function.
With 74.833% the dynamic duo from the east of Germany took the lead and when they remained there after the ride of Herning bronze medalist Michael Murphy from Ireland with the tallest horse of the class, the former Grand Prix mount Cleverboy (by Vivaldi-Kennedy), the longed for medal became real. The petite Murphy and the huge Cleverboy might be a contrasting pair, but the more impressive is the harmony and ease in which both perform.
Latvian favourite for gold, 35-year-old Rihards Snikus, then turned the Grade I class a thriller. Already the vet-check on Monday morning caused tingling nerves when his multi-medallist King of the Dance, bred in his home country by Kadillak LS x Kings LS, was only passed on re-inspection. In the arena the strong boned bright brown gelding looked his usual self, marching off in his characteristic style caused by the impression that he was born with an infallible metronome. All those who believe a Grade I competition is something to fall asleep, should experience the magic that comes from Snikus and his soft eyed horse. It is less their nonetheless outstanding technical execution, but their true partnership that creates real goosebumps. Looking like again nothing could stop them, Snikus’ first time ever error of course seemed to severely threaten another medal in his impressive collection while he was desperately trying to understand the judge. It took awful long seconds, feeling like an eternity, in which the spectators suffered with Snikus, until he finally picked up the correct way again, although with a bit less panache from King’s side as it seemed.
"I was very shocked that I made an ‘error of course’ as that has never happened to me before," said Snikus at the end of the test. "I think King of the Dance was also a little confused and it took us a few movements to get back into the zone after that, but then we were back and focused and made a strong finish."
In the end the dynamic duo still won, but less than half a percent ahead of Martina Benzinger and with some disagreement between the judges of who only two saw him as the winner in their percentages. Benzinger in turn almost saw her silver medal turned to bronze at the end of the ride of young Gabby Blake and her charismatic Connemara-pony Strong Beau (by Spinway Blackthorn x Balda Beau) who were second to last starter. The British team newcomer from Lincolnshire certainly was in with a good placing after her season with remarkable placings in Addington, Kronenberg, Waregem and Hartpury and which had earned her a spot on the always hotly contested British para team, but not many might have expected a medal at first attempt.
Strong Beau was truly on a mission from the moment the slightly chubby flea bitten grey entered the para stadium. Perhaps not blessed with the same huge walk horses like King or Cleverboy own, he made more than up for it with his fluency, correctness and beautiful contact in which he went from the beginning to the end, always looking happy and relaxed in his work. With 74.583% they took a very well deserved bronze which was wildly cheered by the big British support team in Riesenbeck.
The individual class at the Europeans has proved once again that the interest in this class in growing, that many different type of horses (and not necessarily the most expensive and fancy ones) are in with a chance if they are well trained and that the circle of riders who can take a medal is likewise growing, making this Grade I exciting and an aspiration for riders who only just joined the sport. In that sense the lowest grade of the five FEI para grades reflects the original idea of horse sports: That the best trained horse and rider should take the honours.
Grade I Riders and Their Team Championship Effort
Grade I continued at the Europeans on Thursday 8 September 2023, with the team test which not only counted for the riders’ teams, but only served as the second qualification for the freestyle finals on Saturday on which riders are going to contest for another set of individual medals.
Sara Morganti and Mariebelle turned the tables after a disappointing start in the individual competition and showed their full potential to the finest. 4 of 5 judges put them not only in first position, but the Italian pair got a whopping score of 78.250 % which not even the freshly crowned European champion Rihards Snikus and King of the Dance could achieve. With 77.583% the Latvian duo came 2nd this time, followed by Ireland’s young Michael Murphy and Cleverboy in 3rd position this time, contributing 75,792% to an Irish team result.
Close on their heels Tuesday’s silver medalists Martina Benzinger and Nautika with 75.333% in the determined attempt to get a team medal for Germany on their home turf.
The bronze medal winners from two days ago, Gabby Blake and Strong Beau, confirmed their good form with a fifth place and 74,417% for Britain.
The team class confirmed the impression from the individual class that several pairs are in for medals and because of that the day form becomes decisive, making the sport exciting for all involved.
Text and Photos © Silke Rottermann for Eurodressage (this article expresses Silke Rottermann’s eye-witness account and opinion about the competition).
Scores: 2023 European Para Dressage Championships
Eurodressage Coverage of the 2023 European Dressage and Para Dressage Championships