Sophie Christiansen OBE
Sophie Christiansen is a Para-equestrian Dressage rider who competes for Great Britain and is riding at the World Equestrian Games. Born with quadriplegic cerebral palsy, she is in the most disabled category for Para Dressage, Grade 1a. She went to a normal infant school with a special unit attached, where the visiting physiotherapists took the disabled pupils to the local Riding for the Disabled Association group in Warfield every couple of weeks. Aged six, she loved the freedom horses gave her and continued riding at different RDA groups.
At 13, Sophie was told about South Bucks RDA, which specialises in Para Dressage. Having always been quite sporty, finding a sport at which she could excel was exciting. She quickly rose up the ranks and was selected for the World Class Start and Potential Squad in 2002. She then became the youngest rider to compete at a Paralympic Games when she went to Athens in 2004 and won a bronze medal. Since then she has won numerous World and European titles and is currently five-time Paralympic champion.
Not just an athlete, Sophie also graduated with a First Class Masters degree in mathematics from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2011 and is patron and ambassador to a number of charities.
Tell us how your preparations for WEG have been going?
Since my operation in January, life has been quite challenging. The operation went really well but I had to have 3 months off riding, which I spent rehabbing. As soon I got the all clear from my consultant, I was out competing the following week in order to get to the selection trials at Hickstead in June and then in Hartpury in July and was thrilled to be selected for the WEG. In April my coach, Clive Milkins, announced that he was going to emigrate to Hong Kong in November, which was a massive change for my regime. So obviously I had all that going on, looking for a new trainer and I also started an internship to start a career – all these changes have been quite intense but I have got my head round it and I have a week to focus on just my riding and then I leave for WEG.
(c) Leslie Bliss
Who are you riding at WEG?
I am riding Rio, the same horse that I rode at London 2012 and also the Europeans. He is a Rheinlander, from Germany. I bought him from the Eilberg family in 2011 and Michael used to ride him and won the Advanced Medium National Championships on him in 2008. Michael is also going to WEG.
How has life changed since London 2012?
Riding wise I found it quite difficult because London was the ultimate achievement; since then I have been chasing that winning feeling. I have now bought a new horse, she’s young and I’m training her with the aim of Rio 2016 in mind. Unfortunately Rio will be old for the 2016 Games and for my own mind I need to aim for it on a new horse.
Where do you all keep your medals?
My brother made me a trophy cabinet but it is full! Hint hint!
What or who inspires you within the equestrian world? Past and present
When I was younger, I went to the Athens Paralympics when I was just 16 and I was so young and I needed people to look up to and to guide me. My squad consisted of Lee Pearson and Nicola Tustain and they were so experienced and I looked up to them with regard to how to treat going into a massive competition and how to engage with the media at such a young age.
Do you have a favourite equestrian possession?
My looped reins are a necessity but also let me do what I love and I couldn’t ride without them as maintaining a constant grip for long periods of time is difficult.
Is there an all time favourite yard/stables that you’ve been too? And why?
I went to Vienna on holiday as a tourist and visited the Spanish Riding School and the indoor arena blew me away.
Which country in your opinion does equestrian best? And why?
I cannot stress how well Great Britain supports and promotes Para Dressage, in terms of the grass roots RDA system which provides a great base to progress up to sport riding and as Paralympians we really are treated equally with Olympians and that goes for every sport. We get funding to help for our team support : doctors, osteopaths, farriers and physio, psychologists and vets in a way that we couldn’t do it without them.
(c) Leslie Bliss
What would you like your legacy to be?
I think the media during London 2012 caught on to the fact that I am quite opinionated but have a brain with it and therefore they asked me political questions outside of Paralympic sport… I would like my legacy to be that I used the platform that I have to talk about disability in order to help everyone not just paralympians.
Do you have an equestrian hero?
Recently it has to be Charlotte Dujardin. I greatly admire her talent but for me, the way she deals with the pressure of being the best in the world is phenomenal.
What is the quality that you most like in a horse?
For me, because I only compete at walk, the walk has to be stunning and also the temperament is vital.
If you weren’t a dressage rider, what would you be doing?
I have a 1st class Masters degree in Maths and I am in the middle of a finance internship in Finance at Goldman Sachs. If I wasn’t doing sport, I would be working in finance training to be an accountant.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you have been given? Who gave it to you?
In the build up to London 2012, I wasn’t quite clicking with my horse, Rio, because I was so desperate to go to London and win. People automatically assumed that because I won gold in Beijing, that I was going to win at London. But the reality was that being selected for London was far more difficult than actually competing there because of how competitive the talent pool was. Part way through selection, I went to a conference and heard a guy called Leon Taylor speak. He was an ex-Olympic diver and mentor to Tom Daley and he spoke about the highs and lows of diving. His speech struck a chord with me and I realised I wasn’t the only one going through the pressures of poor performance and the desperation to succeed. After the conference I had a chat with him and asked him if he would be my mentor and the best piece of advice he gave me, after we had talked for quite a bit, was just to have fun. Once I got a smile back on my face I instantly relaxed and my results rocketed again. My smile became quite famous!
Tell us something about yourself that only you know?
There isn’t much that I haven’t told everyone!
What would be your message to the equestrian world?
Leading on from my advice from Leon, I think we can learn a lot from other sports and my advice would be that there are people out there facing the same problems and talking about it is good and will help.
Do you have a secret superstition before an event?
I used to have lucky socks when I was younger but not now. I wore a pair when I won my bronze medal in Athens…they were Union Jack socks! And I used to wear them whenever I competed but now I create my own luck!
What are your top 5 indispensable pieces of kit, for you or your horse?
I have a Fairfax saddle which has been amazing and is so comfortable and I will be riding in it at WEG. I also use the Fairfax performance girth, which lets the horse be much freer
I also have a browband that my coach bought for my horse for Beijing and every horse since then has worn it at all the top competitions
I now use a breastplate which is unconventional in dressage but it aids my safety and stabilizes my hands especially in the free walk
Rio is quite sensitive and his Weatherbeeta fly rug helps enormously at this time of year along with his red, white and blue fly hood
I find doing jodphurs up really tricky but I have a pair of white elasticated ones, which were made for me but it would be great to know if anyone makes these for retail…so if anyone out there can help me, please let me know.
Against The Clock…
Dick Francis or Jilly Cooper?
Royal Ascot or Cheltenham Festival?
Hickstead or Hartpury?
Bling or no Bling?
Sand or Snow?
Tea or G&T?
Depends on the time!
Bay or grey?
Sophie will be competing at WEG and trying for the ‘Triple Triple’, which is 3 gold medals at all the major events: The Europeans, Paralympics and the World Equestrian Games. We wish Sophie and all the Team GB riders all the very best for a fantastic Games.
Read Horse & Hound’s Bluffer’s Guide to Para Dressage at WEG for a brilliant insight into everything you need to know about the riders, the medals and the format of the competition.
Listen to Sophie’s story on BBC Radio 4’s No Triumph, No Tragedy here
Later in the year, Sophie will be taking on another challenge in the form of the longest zipwire in Europe in aid of the children’s charity SPARKS. This was supposed to happen in 2013 but due to her fall from Rio, where Sophie broke her left clavicle, this has been rearranged to this autumn.
Please donate on Sophie’s JustGiving page and help raise much needed funds for SPARKS, which funds life-saving medical research into conditions affecting babies, childrens and mums-to-be. Thank you.