Athens Paralympic Dressage gold medallist Johnson prepping for Tokyo at Qatar's Al Shaqab event

By Jermaine Craig Time of article published Feb 28, 2020

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DOHA – Philippa Johnson has scaled the very highest heights of her game, now the 2004 Athens Paralympic Para Dressage gold medallist is the wily, grizzled veteran still swinging and punching on the equestrian world stage.

Johnson is one of South African sport’s most colourful and charismatic athletes and as she prepares for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics by competing this week among the world’s top riders at the Longines Arena at Qatar’s Al Shaqab, she is as quirky and feisty as ever.

Johnson is one of the elite riders invited to participate this week at the prestigious Commercial Bank CHI AL SHAQAB event, presented by Longines, which features a total of 88 riders from 23 countries.

She and her chestnut gelding, Lord Louis, performed well in her opening trot in the team test category of the Grade 4 Para Dressage competition, scoring an impressive 70.50% in her first ride in the state-of-the-art Al Shaqab indoor arena.

South African Paralympic Para Dressage rider, Philippa Johnson, in action on Thursday with her chestnut gelding in the Grade 4 team test event in the Para Dressage competition at Chi Al Shaqab in Doha, Qatar, in which she finished in third place. Photo: Mario Grassia/Chi Al Shaqab

While she knows her chances of emulating her Athens gold medal feats in Tokyo are slim against younger and more agile competitors and horses, the 45-year-old Johnson is still a fierce competitor and aiming for at least a podium place at the Paralympics.

“It’s always nice to be back in Qatar and nice to be riding over 70% in my first ride of the competition. This year, being Tokyo, the competitors have all moved up a gear, so I’ve got to be better and sharper.

The other riders, with their new crackerjack horses, all look so big and so impressive, but you can only do what you can control,” Johnson told IOL Sport in a walk-and-trot interview - while still in the saddle - moments after her ride.    

Her opening ride gave her third place in the team test event, behind Brazil’s Rodolpho Riskalla’s 74.50% and narrowly behind the Netherlands’ Lotte Krijnsen’s71.00% in second place. 

Johnson and Lord Louis have been competing together on the world equestrian circuit for eight years now, and like all relationships horse and rider have their ups and downs, and their own moods and eccentricities.

South African Paralympic Para Dressage rider, Philippa Johnson, in action on Thursday with her chestnut gelding in the Grade 4 team test event in the Para Dressage competition at Chi Al Shaqab in Doha, Qatar, in which she finished in third place. Photo: Mario Grassia/Chi Al Shaqab

“We’ve dialled back a bit on competition this year as we focus on Tokyo. Lord Louis is so good and can do everything, he just lacks that little bit of respect for me at times,” Johnson says of her trusted companion.

“It’s my fault. When we got him, he was a bit kookie in the head and could put in some impressive air movements,” Johnson adds of a temperamental quality riders don’t exactly want from their steeds.

“I taught him to be lazy, now I need to teach him to be fast and furious again. It’s like a human relationship, you have to foster it every single day”.

Johnson has two more days of competition remaining in the world-class international equestrian competition, which the Qatar Foundation’s Al Shaqab is organising and hosting for the seventh time, which sees riders competing in the Olympic disciplines of showjumping, dressage, and para dressage.

The event is one of Qatar’s showpiece events showcasing the Middle Eastern country as a top global sporting and events destination. It is one of only five CHI competitions worldwide and the first and only equestrian event of its kind in the Middle East and Asia region.

Al Shaqab’s impressive sprawling facilities, which are distinctively designed in the shape of a horseshoe, cover 980,000 square meters.

South African Paralympic Para Dressage rider, Philippa Johnson, in action on Thursday with her chestnut gelding in the Grade 4 team test event in the Para Dressage competition at Chi Al Shaqab in Doha, Qatar, in which she finished in third place. Photo: Mario Grassia/Chi Al Shaqab

With its Main Arena comprising both an indoor and outdoor venue capable of holding over 5000 spectators, the sprawling Al Shaqab equestrian facility is part of Qatar’s growing reputation on the world stage that showcases its ability to host major international sports events at the highest level.

The Para Dressage competition at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics will be held at the Tokyo Equestrian Park from Thursday 27 to Monday 31 August.

Jermaine Craig

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