Rachel Hughes with HPH Benedict. Credit: Hans.Photography

London Paralympian Rachel Hughes now has Tokyo 2020 in her sight and this week heads to Australia to chase her remaining two necessary selection scores.

The Pokeno mum of two competed aboard Rimini Park Emmerich at the 2012 Paralympic Games and now has a new star in her stable who she thinks has the talent to go far. HPH Benedict is a rising nine-year-old Hanoverian by Ballettmeister, out of Kinnordy Widia. He is owned by Rachel and her mum Lois Kesseler.

The Grade IV para rider gained two of the four necessary scores at the 2019 Horse of the Year Show with a 71.34% in the individual championship test and a 71.125% in the team test. Rachel and Ben need four scores over 70% with the best two averaging 72% from FEI Individual Championship and FEI Team tests. They are also hoping to gain their Certificate of Capability for Tokyo.

On Wednesday (November 6) they head to Australia to prepare for two CPDI3* Tokyo qualifiers. She will base on the Mornington Peninsula with Kiwi dressage rider Vay Snyman and train with Spencer Wilton. “That in itself is a huge opportunity,” she says. Her usual trainer, Philipp Oxenius, will also be in Australia with her along with husband Gwyn Hughes.

Their first competition is the Carlton Performance Horses 3* Spectacular at Boneo followed four weeks later by the Victorian Dressage Festival. Rachel has competed at both before and is looking forward to the challenge of taking on the cream of the trans-Tasman crop.

“This is the two pinnacle para selection events for Tokyo so all of the Australian riders on the long list will be there. If we don’t produce the scores we need, this will still be a massive education opportunity for us as a partnership – the training with Spencer, competition at that level, the surfaces, the exposure to those kinds of judges . . . it will all help us both so much. He is still young enough that when Paris comes around, he will only be 12.”

Ben has taken a while to grow into himself. At just over 17hh and with a neck like a stallion, he needed time to develop. “He’s finally stopped growing and has got stronger and become more than I ever dreamed he would be.” He’s scored two 75%s and a 74% in his last three starts. “He’s trending the right way. He finds the test easier now,” says Rachel. “It used to be a struggle to get him around but now he is working a level beyond the test. He is doing passage, piaffe half-steps and changes and has settled into the work so well. To be honest, it is terrifying when you get a horse so good.”

He’s become the pampered baby of the house for Rachel and Gwyn, who was not at all horsey when they met. Now it is him who does all the ground work, feeding and rugging. “He spends hours researching feed and supplements and walks him miles at shows,” she says of her husband of two years and partner of five. “He is a good soul.”

Rachel and Gwyn with HPH Benedict. Credit: Hans.Photography

The other rock in her world is her mum Lois. “It is so nice to be believed in by your mum. When you have her saying you are cool and she believes in what you are doing, what else do you need?”

Rachel bought the chestnut gelding newly-broken rising five-year-old from Stacey Hartshorne. “We were on our way to Australia to compete and have a look at a horse over there when a friend pointed out the advert to me,” says Rachel. “I called Stacey and she said ‘I am going to be completely honest with you – he has bucked me off spectacularly and I am in no rush to bring him back in. Give me a few weeks and you can have the first sit on him’.”
But just a couple of days later, Stacey called her back to say there were three people keen to see him on the lunge and happy to buy him without even sitting on him.

“Mentally I wasn’t prepared to buy something I hadn’t ridden but we did end up buying him off the lunge,” says Rachel. “He was absolutely perfect the day we lunged him. He had the most amazing movement and never put a foot wrong. Even Stacey was surprised. He was vetted and bought while I was away.”

The horse has turned out to be just as spectacular as she hoped. “He is truly phenomenal.” He has also bucked her off in the early days, breaking a hand, and a vertebrae in her back. “I don’t blame him at all,” says Rachel. “And it’s certainly not his fault I don’t just fall but instead go splat like blancmange.”

They compete in both para and able-bodied dressage at Grade IV and Level 3 respectively. Last season Ben won the Dressage New Zealand National Gold Series for the country based on the highest percentage and aggregate for all Level 3 horses.

She’s hoping to get him to Grand Prix and looks to her long-time trainer Louisa Hill to help her get there.

“I am so excited for the growth we are seeing (from Ben),” says Rachel. “The experience is going to be incredible – to be offshore and in front of those top judges, on good surfaces and just to see what he has got. I can’t wait.”

By Diana Dobson – HP Media Liaison
Photos by Han. Photography