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Philippa, Verdi star

By Mark Etheridge

Paralympic equestrian ace Philippa Johnson and her horse Verdi were right on the button in Belgium recently as they took part in a new competition.

The competition in question was the CPEDI Breda, part of the Breda Paragames and the first year that equestrian has been included. Up to 3000 participants took part in 25 various sports and 18 countries took part in the equestrian code, double the amount organisers were expecting.

Unfortunately the weather didn’t play ball for the three day of competition and there was heavy rain for all three days of competition.

Said Johnson after the competition: “On Friday’s first day of competition Verdi and I had unfortunately drawn first to go at 8am. We arrived in a downpour to find Verdi’s stable flooded, Chris went scouting around and landed up finding a free stable which was luckily dry! My friend who was plaiting was clever enough to have a miner’s light on her cap so that she had enough light, just as she finished we lost all the lights in the stables! Working with a black horse in a very black stable is interesting to say the least.

“But Verdi landed up doing a brilliant test and we lead up until the second last horse! We were second in the Team Test with 68.13% out of 18 horses.

“Saturday for the Championships we were the very last horse to go in the evening and unfortunately by the time we did our test Verdi was completely fed up with being wet and decided to take exception to something on the long side and just made himself stupidly strong. We finished fifth with 66,08%. Because the number of entries were so high, the organisers had decided that they would combine the first and second day scores and take the top 60% of each grade to ride the musical freestyle. So we made the cut!

“Having learned from our mistakes the night before Sunday Verdi went on to do a incredible musical freestyle and we finished third with 72,50% out of 12 horses.”

This most recent competition was an Olympic qualifier but Johnson was lucky enough to have got her Paralympic qualification behind her last year already, at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, US.

And Johnson was quick point out that she wasn’t the only SA rider to have boasting rights in Belgium. “One of our young riders, Ant Dawson, managed to get himself over there. It’s really great because he has been going over to train in the UK when he can and has found the most fantastic horse to ride and it was very important for him to get himself onto the continent to ride amongst the European riders. He did very well and managed to make the 60% cut for the cur.”

Looking ahead and Johnson’s main goal now is to showcase her new mount. For me at the moment it is really important that I get my new horse Verdi in front of the judges as much as possible. Unfortunately my old horse Benedict was a very firm favourite of all the judges and has left very big hoof prints to follow. Verdi is very different and the judges are having a hard time trying to erase Benedict’s image but I’m starting to see a little ray of hope, it just takes time,” concluded Johnson.

Benedicti is currently enjoying semi-retirement after tendon surgery. Explains Johnson: “He got a bad injury at the beginning of 2009 and we eventually had no option but to operate in October of that year. Initially it went well but then at the start of last year it had all gone wrong and I was advised to not waste any more money and just put him down.”

But that wasn’t an option for Johnson ÔÇô “I told them that wasn’t going to happen, not only because of what I had achieved on this horse also because for the last seven years that I’d been in Belgium, Benedict was the only family I had and there was no way I was just going to throw him away.”

The good news for Benedict is that he may well be flying the international flag again in future, but not the South African flag, the Dutch flag! “Recently, my trainer Chris has started to train a Dutch girl, Nicole den Dulk, who is on a wheelchair, on Benedict and it’s going amazingly well. Even though he’s already 17 years old, when you put him on the field he still behaves like a four-year-old stallion, tail up and snorting!”


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