NZL-Anne Watts rides Joseph’s Dream. Final-1st. Jamarqui Equestrian FEI Para Grand Prix Musical Freestyle GD 1V 2023. 2023 NZL-Bates NZ Dressage Championships. NEC Taupo. Friday 24 March. Copyright Photo: Libby Law Photography

Two Pukekawa Para-Equestrians will be travelling to Boneo, Melbourne next week to compete at FEI level on the same horse.  It’s the kind of arrangement you’d seldom see among able-bodied riders but a testament to their long-standing friendship.

Aptly-named 10-year-old gelding Joseph’s Dream (GT Jake) is owned by Anne Watts who will be riding him in the 3*.  Nicola Essex-Wills’ riding horse is not yet ready for international competition, so she was delighted when Anne generously offered Joseph for her to ride in the 2* at the same event.

“Anne has had Joseph since he was a 4-year-old and she’s done a great job with him.  He’s been beautifully schooled and he’s been ridden by a Para-rider all his life.  So, he’s like riding a Lamborghini.  I have been dying to get on him for years!” says Nicola.

Nicola is a Grade II rider, and competing at the new qualification standard of 2* level means she will be able to progress to 3* during the coming season.  She says she is motivated to achieve this milestone, as her rheumatoid arthritis is increasingly limiting her mobility.

“I’ve been waiting a long time to get this opportunity but my disability is deteriorating and I may be unable to ride at all sooner rather than later.  You can’t delay.  So when Anne said, “ jump on JJ” I was very excited, and it all happened within a few weeks,” she says.

Nicola Lives in Pukekawa with husband David, whom she married in April.  She  was Fully Classified as Para in 2010 after her condition began to severely impair her strength and mobility. 

“To compensate I use bridging reins with ladders and hand-loops, will carry two whips and use magnetic stirrups.  Being allowed my compensating aids as a Para means I can once again pursue my love of riding and competing for which I am thankful.”

She is a national riders’ rep for Para-Equestrian as well as a committee member of the Waikato Dressage Group.

Long time friend Anne has ridden all her life, farm hacking, pony club games and frivolity as kids do, across most equestrian disciplines.  In 2011, she had a fall while hunting, resulting in incomplete tetraplegia due to spinal cord damage that limits her motor and sensory functions.  A Grade IV Para rider, Anne competes up to level 6 alongside her able-bodied peers.

Both riders attended ESNZ’s Para camp in Cambridge recently, where Anne says she learned a lot more about getting to the Paralympics, which is her goal. 

“The Para camp was just fantastic.   I learned so much because I’ve been doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but you don’t sort of know if you’re doing the right thing or not,” she says.

She says that New Zealand hasn’t got the money to send riders overseas, so you need to be on top of your game in order to demonstrate achievement, gain recognition for it and get big opportunities like the Para-Olympics.

“I’ve just fudged along and done it myself.  The people at the camp were amazing, we need these people to come and talk to us.  I learned that yes, I’m probably doing the wrong thing and on the other hand I’m doing the right thing.  But without doing it, you are nowhere,” she says.

The camp motivated Anne to support her friend and go for it.  

“Nicola is starting that journey and we are in a Para family.  We all support each other, so if there is something we can do for one another, you have got to do it.  I’m doing that for Nicola – even if she gets a better percentage than me!” Anne laughs.

“I’m so pleased that she’s considering riding my horse.  So, that’s the way we do it.”

NZL-Nicola Essex rides Mirako SP. 2020 NZL-Bates Saddles NZ Dressage Championships. NEC Taupo. Saturday 21 November 2020. Copyright Photo: Libby Law Photography

The two riders live near each other and have bonded strongly over their shared passion for riding. 

“Luckily we can ride the same horse, as we are closer to our grades but use different aids and he responds to both,” says Anne.

Nicola says the prospect of climbing on another person’s horse to compete at an international FEI competition does not phase her in the slightest.

“I’ve ridden Joseph three times and will get to ride him again when I get to Australia.  I’ve been known to get on a horse and literally go down the [dressage arena] centre line!  I consider it a skill; some call it madness!” she says.

They will head to Melbourne next Tuesday, and Joseph will travel with IRT a few days later.  Nicola will travel with her mum Sally, also a Para-Equestrian, her aunt and a close friend who are all keen to see her compete at 2*.

“I need to get in the 60s, but underneath I’m always riding to win,” says Nicola.

ESNZ Sport Manager Para-Equestrian Samantha Jones says she is delighted the trip is coming together for the riders, and admires Anne’s gesture of sharing her horse with her friend so they can both achieve their individual goals.

“It will be good for the riders to get some more runs on the board, and there is still time for a chance to qualify for the Paralympics,” says Sam.

“We are very fortunate to have these FEI qualifiers nearby in Australia, and we would love to plan an FEI Para-Equestrian event here sometime in the future.”

She says she will be following the riders with great enthusiasm, as they both share a strong determination and are very driven in their sport.