An exclusive interview with Paralympian Sophie Christiansen (part 2)


Sophie Christiansen

I was really excited last week to share the first part of my interview with Sophie Christiansen, who has just been selected for her fifth Paralympic games in para dressage. If you missed last week's part 1, you can read it here. I am just as excited this week to share part 2 with you: Sophie and I talked progress, coaching, RDA, and how to support our Paralympians in Tokyo. Plus, did you know that this year isn't actually the first time there's been a virtual RDA championships? (I didn't!)

You started as a real grassroots RDA rider, and now you have your Gold Club as a model of support for elite athletes in an expensive sport. Where does para dressage need to go next, and how can we (its supporters) help it make that progress at a grassroots level?

“Back in the day I really used to think there was a massive gap between RDA and para, but I think we’ve closed that gap to some extent with the introduction of the bronze, silver and gold levels in BD, so we’ve done that. I do think that you then get people who see me and my teammates on these amazing horses, and you just can’t go straight from riding an RDA cob straight to riding, say, my horse Stella. I mentor a young rider called Jamie who also rides with my coach, whose RDA group didn’t have the right sort of horses to take him to the next level, so Anna found him a great stepping stone sort of horse who really suits him and the way he rides. It’s about you and your team knowing your weaknesses, and having the right sort of expertise within that team, like a coach who understands what you need to make that next step. You can go a long way on these in-between level horses, and when you get to national level within BD that’s where you get the experience you need to move up.”

Sophie suggested that a next potential area for injecting support and resources into grassroots para dressage would be centred around sourcing these stepping stone horses, and the coaches to go with them. “I find finding these horses impossible: my horsepower is where I’m lagging behind slightly this time. We need something in place to find them, and also to make the rest of the equestrian world aware of what we need, as we were discussing before.

Finance is also a huge factor, and I think it’s really important, for instance, that we can show that para equestrians can get the same number of spectators as able bodied riders. So if you want to support the sport and help it progress, come and watch us compete, or subscribe to Horse & Country and watch the para events there. RDA could also advertise the para events more too. The more spectators, the more money will be generated within the sport: more prize money, more owners, so if one day you want to be like me, there’s more money in the sport.”

I don’t need telling twice – I know I’m more motivated to go and watch more para dressage after having this conversation!

Do you have any advice for other disabled equestrians for competing – at any level?

“It’s just another day in the office! What that means is that you do something over and over again, so when you hit the peak – say, competing at RDA Nationals – it’s second nature. When I train I ride a test at the end of every session, just so it becomes normal, and I also video mine so I can watch and analyse them for what I could do better. Following on from that, some horses can be quite different away from home, so I’ll go to things like arena hires just so that part becomes more normal. I know that’s a bit difficult for some RDA groups, though.”

You’ve experienced many levels of coaching as a disabled athlete, so what does good coaching look like?

“I actually think that this is another thing in para dressage which could improve. In terms of good coaching, I think it’s a bit different for me these days because I do kind of know what I need to do, but it’s all about having good, open communication.” This isn’t a million miles away from previous interviewee Winnie’s answer to a very similar question, so she’s definitely in good company! “Also knowing your rider’s limits. If I say I can’t do something without falling off, that’s one thing, but if I were to come up with an excuse, like ‘I hate doing free walk because I don’t like leaning forward and feeling like I’m in a vulnerable position’, a good coach has to be there to say ‘you have to do it anyway, so how are you going to find a way around that?’. It’s about knowing where to push and where to say “OK” and not push. I think a lot of able bodied coaches struggle with this because they can be terrified of saying something wrong! But actually, I’d rather they just said what they would do so I can figure out how to get there myself.”

Let’s talk about RDA: what’s something it needs more of?

“The reason that I loved RDA so much was that it made me feel less disabled than doing something like typical, boring physio on a mat: I could ride a horse, and that made me like everybody else, including the people who can ride horses and don’t have to do physio. If we have that idea of “what will make these kids feel more normal?” running through everything, that might be achieved by having a young person, a coach or a volunteer, to chat with and to support them who is more on their level. I would’ve loved that as a young RDA rider. I know that getting more young people into RDA is difficult on a practical level, because as we were saying earlier, younger people like us have day jobs and don’t necessarily have lots of time on our hands to give to something like RDA. But I would definitely like to see more young people getting involved in the organisation.

I also think that sometimes these ambitious kids who want to be the next, say, Natasha Baker, get bored when their group can’t support their progress far enough. We need a way to acknowledge when an RDA group can’t take a rider any further, and then have a clear next step or alternative for them. I get a lot of people messaging me and saying ‘what do we do now?’.

I think that those who would be classified into grade 4 or 5 would do well do go more down the able bodied dressage route, because those grades have to compete at such a high level, but maybe have a process to share expertise on disability with able-bodied trainers for their benefit. Then for grades 1-3, where the specialism of RDA is definitely the right option for them, it’s considering their options: can their current group cater to their talents and ambitions with horses, coaching expertise etc, or do they need to move on to another group, or maybe even an able bodied coach who can make it work for them? It can depend so much on things like where you are in the country, the horses your group has available, that sort of thing. Maybe it’s a pathway that needs to be planned out on a regional level? In any case, I’d like to see more sharing of expertise across RDA.”

You’re probably thinking almost entirely about Tokyo and selection and the future right now, I’d love to ask if you’ve got any particular memories about competing as an RDA rider in the past?

“You’re all doing a virtual national championships this year, but interestingly my first official experience of RDA Nationals was also virtual, because of Foot & Mouth. So we obviously had to video it with an ancient video camera and send the video tape off in the post, and when I won I had absolutely no idea what that actually meant – I didn’t know what a big thing that was!”

Finally, what’s the best way to support our para dressage team (and all of our other Paralympians) when they’re in Tokyo?

“Well, behind the scenes maybe pushing Channel 4 for better coverage! I’m worried that the coverage won’t be so good again (we agreed it was sub-par at Rio), and obviously my family and boyfriend can’t come and watch, so I’m really hoping it will be good enough for them to watch my full performance. I’m not holding my breath, though.

We don’t find out the schedules for this sort of thing until we get there, when I have a social media blackout, so I can’t share how and when to watch it. So it would be great if you guys could share that sort of stuff: when to watch, clips of us riding… that’s how we’ll get more people to see what the standard is in para dressage, what type of horses we need. Share, share, share! The support really does mean so much to us all, as well as it being a great way of supporting the sport and its development.”

Sophie with her Tokyo mount Louie

I'm sure you'll all join me in following Sophie's advice and sharing, sharing, sharing support and viewing information for her and the rest of the para dressage field when they head out to Tokyo: whether you're a British supporter like me, or if you're flying a different flag! A huge thank you again to Sophie for finding the time to speak to me in such a down-to-earth and honest interview (we had a few laughs too!): I'll be rooting for you and your teammates in Tokyo.