Erin’s blog: ‘We just missed out on going to Rio’

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As non-travelling reserve for Rio, Para-dressage star Erin Orford didn’t get her chance to compete in Brazil this summer. She brings us up to date with what she’s been up to, and also reflects on some potential changes to Para-equestrian sport…

“Well it’s been a busy year and having just completed our qualification for the Winter Champs with scores of 73% and 75%, our Para 2016 season has come to an end.

The British Dressage National Championships was our last big competition and Pimms danced her hooves off to be crowned National Champion on 71.48% for the second year running. She has been so consistent this year and has improved at each show – her long legs are even starting to understand the concept of the pesky walk pirouette…almost!

I’d also like to welcome my newest sponsor Alice Reins Ltd to the team who make bespoke reins – I really couldn’t live without my custom looped reins and they are great to work with.

Pimms went well at the last two selection trials at both Wellington and Hartpury International but some even stronger performances across the grades meant that we just missed out on being part of the team for Rio.

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We were however, selected as non-travelling reserves, a position I found myself in for the 2014 World Equestrian Games. Knowing that there was still a (albeit unlikely) chance that I could go meant that Rio still had to be our main focus and we continued to attend squad training and anything related alongside the rest of the team.

It’s always a tough place to be, particularly as it would have been my first major championship, but for me the worst-case scenario would have been getting the call and not being able to make the most of the opportunity because I wasn’t ready.

Part of Pimms’ preparation included a demo and music display for the Hampshire Hunt Pony Club and I think it’s fair to say that she loved being in the spotlight, even with kids flying around on bikes and a Shetland Pony Grand National taking place. She did, however, show some slight concern for a small girl that fell off her neon pink chair and rolled down the bank as we were trotting around, promptly stopping to check she was okay before continuing.

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On Thursday 1 September Pimms went fully packed to Kent where all of the team horses were meeting for a pre-flight trot up and general health check from our team vet to make sure they were fit to fly.

It was a bizarre feeling waiting at home for a text to say whether or not I was going to the Paralympics and coming back and having to unpack again knowing that my Paralympic dream was over definitely wasn’t a highlight! So much work, time, money and emotion go into this sport, not just from me but also from the team around me, my family, owner, trainer, home team, sponsors, supporters, the squad and I always feel responsible for their disappointment as well as my own.

But our focus quickly changed to the Nationals, which was just two weeks away, and I was determined to ride well there and finish the season on a good result – mission accomplished!

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(c) Kevin Sparrow

It’s fair to say I followed the Paralympics as closely as possible and it was great to see the British team performed as expected and retained the team gold medal. Britain has won team gold at every major championship since it was first introduced in Atlanta 1996 so the pressure was definitely on and wow did they deliver!

In Para Dressage there are five grades that relate to different levels of disability after classification. Each grade has their own competition, their own set of medals and their own Paralympic Champion for both the Individual and the Freestyle competition.

The team, as in able-bodied dressage, is made up of four riders from the various grades, where there is one drop score. Up until London, Great Britain, alongside other leading nations in Para Dressage, have been allocated up to 7 spaces at major championships, including the Paralympics, but in the run up to London the spaces dropped down to 5 to make way for other Nations. This meant that, should Britain wish to participate in every grade (which in London they did and in Rio they didn’t) there is only space for one British rider in each.

What was noticeable when watching a number of the other sports was that in almost every event there were at least two, often three athletes from one nation battling for the medals. When watching the athletics British championships, qualification for the Olympics was direct and straight forward, where the top two athletes in every event were selected.

To put this into context, if this were the case for our sport I would have probably attended almost every major championship since 2008 rather than awaiting the opportunity to make my debut despite being consistently ranked among the medalists. As if we aren’t already restricted enough, the FEI are considering taking these spaces down to four to work in line with the able-bodied dressage – a bizarre comparison when the Para-Dressage has five times as many medals available.

Initially I had reservations about writing about this topic – I’m not usually one to complain and I will continue to work hard and fight to be the best that I can be and earn my place on the team regardless. However, I’m not the only athlete that has been affected over the years and if we are limited to four riders then it will impact many more – including regular team members, medal winners and titleholders.

Every single one of our riders out in Rio won the maximum amount of medals where at least one was gold, but if Great Britain were only allowed to take four riders, one rider would have missed out on not only the experience, but a Paralympic title. Who knows how many medals individuals have missed out on over the years, the sponsorship or funding opportunities that may have passed them by as a result and the lack of confidence that they might never make it. I urge the FEI to revisit this rule and look beyond the team competition to remember that there are also five separate individual events, for the future of the sport and the quality of the competition.”

Erin

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