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Alex, Paul saddle up

By Mark Etheridge

Two more sportsmen have saddled up and joined the ranks of qualifiers for the 2012 Olympic Games in London later this year.

Following archer Karen Hultzer’s recent qualifying in Morocco, two of our leading equestrian experts have put their hands up and asked to be counted as part of Team South Africa.

Both Alex Peternell and Paul Hart have both come through the ranks in the eventing discipline ÔÇô the classic test of horsemanship that has the rider and mount doing the three disciplines of dressage, cross-country and show jumping. It’s a well known fact that eventing is a supreme test of horse and rider’s stamina, bravery, fitness, talent and hugely importantly, BMT (big match temperament).

In terms of importance this is a groundbreaking news for the South African Equestrian Association, as this is the first time in 20 years that the South African flag will be flown for eventing at an Olympics. The last person to participate in Olympic eventing was David Rissik with his horse Schiroubles in 1992 at the Barcelona Games, the first time South African had been permitted to compete at the Games since 1960 (Rome).

Peternell, based in the United Kingdom for the last few years and Hart have both met the FEI qualification requirements and therefore ÔÇ£will proceed as part of the SASCOC team to London subject to the final SASCOC team announcement to be made on 7 June 2012ÔÇØ.

Hart, based in Johannesburg rider, qualified on his thoroughbred Heartbreak Hill, otherwise known as ÔÇ£HarryÔÇØ while Peternell did the same on his mount, AP Uprising.

South Africa has also qualified three riders in the Para Dressage team event at the London Paralympics ÔÇô Anthony Dawson, Wendy Moller, Philippa Johnson and Marion Milne.
Peternell’s story is a particularly interesting one ÔÇô starting with a sport that one hardly considers an Olympic type code, that of ballet dancing.

“My riding career started in a slightly unusual way and caused me to travel thousands of miles to become the best, suffice to say I have miles yet to go,” he told Road to London from the United Kingdom. “I trained as a ballet dancer for about 12 years and attended The National School of the Arts for dancing in South Africa.┬áIt was during my training sessions that my brother discovered a horse racing yard very near to the studio, one thing led to another (as happens with boys) and we ended up with a TB mare, a perfect first horse!

“We were hooked! I tried to combine dancing and horses but as they both take up more hours than there are in a day it proved impossible to do both to the standard I wanted.┬á During that time I had success in Juniors producing a few ponies to JA.┬áMy favourite, “Lady Jade”, was actually a Soweto rescue case who ended up competing at the FEI Championships in South Africa.”

The equestrian bug had bitten and Peternell soon upped and offed to Europe. “I travelled to Germany as soon as I finished school to work and train at Stal Schockermohle’s.┬áWow, what a culture shock ÔÇô over 200 competition horses, a small army of grooms and riders, vets and farriers on site.┬á I worked hard and after work begged for lessons and rides.┬á I was thrown into the deep end and came out stronger!

“I now run a competition livery yard (West Kington) with my wife who is a dressage rider and trainer.which is a real help keeping on top of my dressage. I competed in my first horse trials less then 10 years ago which means I have achieved a lot in a very short space of time, but I am not slowing down! I have a long way yet before I am satisfied and I like to gallop on.”

Peternell, who left South Africa in 1991, took time out to explain how he qualified. “I had to compete in two separate events to qualify ÔÇô a one-day and a three-day ÔÇô┬áall at three star level. The events where I secured the No1 rider slot I do remember very well. They were at Hartpury and Blenheim.┬á I came fourth at Hartpury, beating some world class riders and even previous medal winners so understandably I was very proud and then at Blenheim I was in the Top Five until the final phase where I made a couple mistakes as my horse was tired after a very gruelling cross-country course of I think six kilometres.

“The competition was very competitive with the likes of the British, Australian, New Zealand and German team riders all competing and wanted the same as I did, to win! Coming up against the best riders in the world is not new to me, this is why I am based in the UK. Every event, no matter what the level, I ride against top riders. Recently I competed in a national level competition at Somerley Park Horse Trials and I think that there were maybe five Badminton or Burghley┬á winners with whom I was competing against. You might be thinking whether I was up to standard…..let’s say I beat a few, not all of them ÔǪ but I’m very determined.”

And as for his Olympic expectations? “Intense, probably exhausting atmosphere, very unreal to think that I will be one of only 100 eventers from all over the world competing for gold. I am not going to pretend that I will win gold but I will give it everything I got! I think the standard at the Games will be unparalleled in both the venue, the course and quality of horse and rider. I have competed in many international events but no event draws the athletes like the Games do!

“My toughest course is without a doubt the first Badminton that I rode. I severed my co-lateral ligament in my knee three weeks before the event. I could not walk and had to use crutches to walk the course, but when I then had a respiratory infection with a very high temperature migraines etc, the sensible thing to do in that situation would be to call it a day and try next year, but I am a determined sort of guy and completed the course and event and ended up being placed in the top third having ridden a good clear XC. My knee was incredibly painful but as they say…..no pain no gain.”

Only one of Peternell will end up heading for London though. As Jane Jackman, chairperson of the SAEA Eventing Technical Committee explains: “There’s only one individual slot available for us at the Games. We tried really hard to get the minimum three riders necessary for the Team Qualifying Competition in the UK in September but unfortunately only Paul and Alex were qualified to enter. One SA rider overseas did not get the final qualification necessary and the African Horse Sickness quarantine restrictions prevented more of our top riders taking their horses out of SA.

“Between now and the end of June they have a specific programme with one particular level of competition requested by our national selectors. Paul will be riding at Jardy in France at the beginning of May and Alex is yet to advise which competition he will enter. The selectors will then decide which athlete will take the slot.┬áNail biting stuff!”


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