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After a day of drama, intrigue and nail-biting tension, Great Britain squeezed through to retain their FEI Para-Equestrian Dressage European Championships team title by the slimmest of margins, relying on a magical final ride from superstar debutant, Julie Payne with the mare Athene Lindebjerg.

Great Britain take gold in the Para Dressage Team Competition at the Longines FEI European Championships 2017 in Gothenburg, Sweden. From left to right: Susanna Hext (Grade III), Erin Orford (Grade III), Julie Payne (Grade I) and Sophie Wells (Grade V). (photo © FEI/Liz Gregg)

Fresh from individual Grade I gold on day one, Payne entered Gothenburg’s Heden Arena late on Tuesday afternoon knowing she needed a score of 75.000% or above to prevent a bullish Danish quartet from making history.
“I have never seen everyone so nervous,” said Erin Orford (GBR) who had earlier ridden Dior to a score of 68.853%. “We were all watching the live stream on FEI.tv to get the running average!”
They need never have doubted Payne, as the 55-year-old and her mount danced their way to 78.107%, the highest score of the week so far.
“She is just unbelievable,” said Orford afterwards.
Payne is certainly that and more. She revealed after her record ride that she’d been “fighting her body all day”.
“I was saying to my legs ‘work’, they were saying ‘I don’t want to’. When they worked, my pelvis said ‘I won’t move’ and I was saying ‘yes, c’mon you’ve got to move’. It took everything I’ve got and bless her she (Athene Lindebjerg – the horse Great Britain’s Sophie Christiansen rode to three gold medals at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games) gave me everything.” Stated Britain’s double gold medal debutante Julie Payne.

Thanks to scores of 73.581% from nine-time major championship rider Sophie Wells (GBR), on C Fatal Attraction, and 72.088% from Grade III individual gold medallist Suzanna Hext (GBR) on Abira, Great Britain triumphed by a margin of just 3.425% over Denmark.
“If nothing else happens in my life, this has just been the absolute pinnacle of my life, it’s an absolute dream and now I’m going to cry,” Payne said.
Inspired from the off by Stinna Kaastrup (DEN), who scored 74.000% on Horesbo Smarties in the very first ride of the day, the Danes gave the all-conquering Brits a mighty scare. Teammates Annika Risum (DEN) riding Aros A Fenris and Tobias Joergensen (DEN) on Bruunholms Caribian, both got marks above 70.000% in a wonderfully consistent display before Susanne Sunesen (DEN) and her mount CSK’s Que Faire stepped up.
The 40-year-old laid down a serious marker, scoring 74.175% in her nation’s final ride of the day. An experienced campaigner, Sunesen is used to finishing behind Great Britain.
“It would have been wonderful to beat them but I love the Brits, they keep the level up, they are wonderful horse people.” Denmark’s team bronze medallist Susanne Sunesen said.

For much for the competition, the Dutch, bronze medallists behind Great Britain at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, had been right in the hunt with both Frank Hosmar on Aplhaville N.O.P. and Nicole den Dulk riding Wallace N.O.P., scoring more than 73.000% in the morning session.
But it was not to be, with Sanne Voets (NED) having to put up with another agonising defeat to her rivals, her 70.575% in tandem with Demantur enough only to see the Netherlands secure bronze.
“I was the one saying we would win team gold and I blew it,” said Voets. The individual Grade IV gold medallist did, however, share the crowd’s enthusiasm and revel in the excitement of the event.
“It’s good for the sport that it’s this exciting, till the last rider. I think the last time it came down to the last rider was 100 years ago!”
Team bronze medallist Sanne Voets (NED) stated.

Para Dressage action continues tomorrow with the much anticipated Freestyle to Music. The Heden Arena will be rocking from 9.00 CEST. Just down the road, the Dressage Grand Prix concludes with the team medals in the Ullevi Stadium. Don’t miss it!

by Luke Norman