A very warm welcome to this, the new-look Team GBR and World Class Programme website. Also welcome to my first blog as the British Equestrian Federation's Performance Director.
I write this at the end of a frenetic but hugely enjoyable first three months in the job. I have had to hit the ground running as we are now drawing close to the 1 year countdown to next year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio, and 6 weeks to the start of the first of this summer’s European Championships.
I have finally completed my last day in the Army after 25 years and handed in my military uniform and identity card. I have already put on my new 'uniform', this time blue in colour, and provided by long-standing Team GBR supplier, Toggi.
As I look ahead to the next important months, my first acknowledgement must go to the World Class Programme staff, managers, coordinators, coaches, doctors, vets, farriers and physios. Their extensive knowledge has made my bedding-in period seem easy, although I have tested the patience of many to the limit with endless questions of "why", “where”, "what" and "who"! Between them they have held together the programme brilliantly since Will Connell's departure last year, and for which they have my heart-felt gratitude.
The 2015 competition season has gone well for Team GBR so far. As I write, World Class Programme riders hold the world No 1 spot in our 3 Olympic disciplines; Charlotte Dujardin in Dressage, Scott Brash in Jumping and William Fox-Pitt in Eventing. All have achieved great things already in 2015 with Charlotte and Valegro successfully defending their FEI World Cup Dressage title, William winning his second Badminton title on stallion Chilli Morning and Scott making history in the Aachen Grand Prix by becoming the first rider to win 2 of the 3 legs of the Rolex Grand Slam on Hello Sanctos.
But despite these and other strong results in national and international competitions there is no room for complacency. There are tough challenges ahead, in particular making the most of our last opportunity to achieve Olympic qualification for our Jumping team at the European Championships in Aachen. New Jumping Performance Manager, Di Lampard, has started positively and her squads have already achieved 3 wins out of 5 in the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup competitions (in La Baule, Rome and Rotterdam). All eyes will now switch to the last 2 legs at Hickstead and Dublin in July and August, and which will also act as our Jumping team’s final preparations for the European Championships in Aachen.
In Dressage we were sorry to see European and Olympic squad hopeful Half Moon Delphi, ridden for the last 5 years by Michael Eilberg, sold to a new American owner in June. It is always sad to lose a team horse especially when it might offer an advantage to the competition! Of course having the right horses with the right owners is the life blood of all our equestrian disciplines so I want to look carefully over the coming months at how we might encourage new owners into equestrian sport, and how we might better thank and look after the ones we already have. If there is one message I have for all owners and potential owners now ahead of the Olympics it is “Your country needs you”!
The process to select athletes and horses for the European Championships has started in earnest across the disciplines. The Vaulting team, headed up by Hannah Eccles and Lucy Phillips, who represented Great Britain at last year’s World Equestrian Games in France, has already been announced. The senior vaulters will compete alongside Dressage, Jumping, Reining and Driving athletes in Aachen in August. Eventing and Para-dressage will follow in September at Blair Castle and Deauville respectively. Eventing selection may take a little longer this year with up to 12 horse/rider places available by dint of a ‘home’ championship. Despite this competition for the 12 places will still be extremely hot.
Before then I am leading a team of observers out to the Equestrian Test Event in Rio at the beginning of August. I will be accompanied by Yogi Breisner who is preparing for what will be his 6th Olympic Games. That kind of experience is invaluable and I will be relying heavily on his counsel, and that of all my support staff, throughout the build up to the Games. The Test Event is being run as an Eventing CIC** but we have decided not to send any British horses and athletes to compete. Instead we will use the time in Rio to evaluate the environment and gather vital insights into the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games; we are eagerly anticipating the ‘year to go’ countdown.
Internationally the FEI Sports Forum in April provided much food for thought about the future of equestrian sport; there is clearly a lot of detailed work to do if we are to maintain the relevance of the equestrian disciplines within the Olympic movement, and broaden their appeal to new audiences and new participants, whilst retaining the values and traditions we hold dear. Universality, popularity (TV, media, internet and press), equality and youth engagement are the new mantras for the Olympic movement, and equestrianism will need to reflect them as closely as possible as we look to the future evolution of our sport. We are working closely with British Dressage, British Eventing and British Showjumping and others to make sure the views of all our constituents are fully represented.
For those like me who remember the amazing scenes in London 2012 where our athletes and horses achieved medal success for Team GB and ParalympicsGB beyond all expectations, Rio 2016 is a daunting prospect. We know it is often harder to stay at the top than get there, and other nations have already raised their game as they seek to establish their place in the history books. London 2012 is also a reminder of what can be achieved when a nation pulls together towards a common goal, and it is that spirit that we want to rekindle across the equestrian community as the countdown to Rio begins.
That is why this website is important. We want it to be your window into the activities and accomplishments of the World Class Programme and Equestrian Team GBR. We want you to share our journey as we seek to strengthen our place amongst the top equestrian nations on the world stage. We want you to share the excitement of our successes and the reflections on our disappointments. We want you to share in the story of our incredible athletes and horses, their owners, their grooms, home teams, staff and supporters. Please support us on our website and on social media and join us on the ‘Road to Rio’ as we seek to inspire this and the next generation of riders and athletes!