Roberta (Bert) Sheffield has been on a roll. The para-dressage rider, who lives in the UK, has been riding for Canada since 2013 ‒ which has been very fortuitous for the sport in this country. The 34-year-old did a very commendable job at the 2014 World Equestrian Games aboard Bindro T, putting in two solid tests and then finishing just out of the medals in fourth in the Freestyle. The lone Canadian entry at the CHI Al Shaqab in Doha, QAT, which runs March 2-7, 2015, she is thrilled to have been invited to take part in the first-ever CPEDI3* at the Al Shaqab facility. Bert brought her rising star Double Agent (Darcy), an eight-year-old AES (Anglo European) mare that she had loaned to Ashley Gowanlock in 2013 to compete on the British CPEDI3* circuit.

In the Team test at Al Shaqab, Darcy appeared relaxed and supple in the enormous indoor arena, although Sheffield admitted she would have preferred her going a bit more forward. “I would like her to have more energy, and that would have given her a bit more power and allowed her to push through the movements a bit more,” she said. “She’s a very kind and generous horse, but when she’s tired she likes to switch the motor into second gear.” Bert was, however, quite pleased with the score of 70.132%, explaining that part of her “bucket list” was to achieve a 70-plus score in a Team test at an international competition, as her ranking scores for the Individual and Freestyle are all in the 74-75% range. “It’s off the list now!”

The next day’s Individual test was definitely more to her liking in terms of energy, with some great extensions and good work at all gaits. But an unfortunate misstep in a canter-trot transition near the end of the test caused her to lose precious marks, dropping her into second place with 69.431% behind Sanne Voets of The Netherlands.

For the Freestyle on March 7th, Bert will be using her WEG music by Tom Hunt, “Charlotte Dujardin’s music man. It’s not really made for the mare, but she fits.” She would eventually like to personalize a freestyle soundtrack just for Darcy. “For her I would like something a little flowerier, prettier, because she is quite a petite, delicate horse. This music is quite big and ostentatious and powerful and it drowns her a little bit.”

The flashy chestnut mare sports lots of chrome and has a real presence in the ring ‒ and is a bit of a character outside of it. “By nature she is a very calm, very stoic, very sweet horse,” explained Bert. “When she was a baby she had a sickly-sweet treacle-like syrupy personality that I found incredibly difficult to deal with. I like my horses like thugs, where you can push them about and they push back; you have a little tussle and they get over it, they don’t hold a grudge. You have a rapport with them that’s quite a lot of banter. With this mare, you can’t have banter; if you start pushing her she just switches off and goes ‘okay, if you’re not polite then I’ll stop.’ I had to learn a different technique with her to get the energy out of her without causing her stress.”

Bert is coached by British team member Gareth Hughes, which requires a certain level of dedication because his barn is two-and-a-half hours away. “I go for two days every fortnight,” she says. The routine involves a lesson, crashing on the head groom’s couch, another lesson in the morning, then a long drive home.

Bert is pleased with the mare’s progress, and the pair have ventured into “regular” dressage competitions as well recently. “We’ve had a fantastic winter ‒ this mare has come on so much. She won the British Dressage able-bodied Restricted Medium, their Freestyle regional championship for the north. That’s quite a feather in her cap.” The pair also recently won the prestigious BD KBIS National Para Championships.

Bert works hard at her home farm on the east side of the UK, riding hers and other people’s horses, teaching kids aboard nappy ponies, mucking out, and anything else that needs doing. She says that the experience of competing at the CHI in Doha has been an amazing opportunity. “It’s absolutely extraordinary. I have never seen anything like this. It’s a dream; I don’t want to go home! I have to go back to mud, fog, sleet, and wind.”

Events on the horizon for the rest of the competitive season include the Canadian European tour, which will include Mulhouse in France, Überherrn in Germany, and Hartbury in the UK. “I am also going to do Bishop Burton and in October we’ve got the Bury Farm three-star,” says Bert. “We’ve got quite a lot to go to.”

(Look for the final report following tomorrow’s Freestyle)