Trio of Personal Bests Boosts Marie Vonderheyden to Para Dressage Glory at AGDF

Mar 5, 2024 - 11:38 AM

By Alice Collins for Wellington International 

Para international action, sponsored by Fair Sky Farm, Adequan®, Mission Control and ProElite®, was featured across the Grades in Week 3 of the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival (AGDF) in Wellington, Florida. AGDF 2024 runs through March 31.


It was the Grade I French rider Marie Vonderheyden who was crowned the week’s overall High Point Champion on Sunday, January 28, after an epic three days of competition. She rode her own 11-year-old Hanoverian Bombastic D Arion (by Callaho’s Benicio) to a trio of personal bests, blowing their previous high scores out of the water by huge margins. They topped 72% in both the Grand Prix A and B tests, then posted a commanding 75.223% in the Freestyle. 

The overall champions were calculated with 40% weighting on each of the Grand Prix tests, and 20% for the Freestyle. Last year’s champion, Beatrice De Lavalette (USA), finished reserve champion.  

Vonderheyden is a former FEI level event rider, but a hacking accident in 2015 left her with a traumatic brain injury and in a coma. She was unable to speak or swallow, her memory was largely erased and the right side of her body was paralyzed. Following multiple brain surgeries and extensive therapies, she returned to the international ring in 2019 as a Para equestrian. She competes at Grade I — the Grade for the most severely impaired riders. 

The 33-year-old was delighted to claim the champion’s sash during AGDF 3, saying, “It’s awesome and has given me motivation for the season. It’s super cool, especially as this is pretty new music and it was the first international show with this freestyle. Bombastic is exceptional. He has come on very far and is a big mover, a real athlete. My body moves in a weird way — I have to work on that — and on the left side I have tingling. I need to work hard to control my body and my breathing.

“Every morning and evening I stretch myself to be able to ride and be better for my horse. I do a lot [physically] in order to be able to move better in my sport. I need to be good for the horse, and he needs to be a perfect guy when we have a competition,” she added.  


Vonderheyden has even more reason to be excited this year as she has been chosen as a torch bearer for the 2024 Paris Olympics. In the immediate term, she will stay in Wellington until the end of March before returning to Europe and eyeing a place on the French squad for the Paris Paralympics this summer. 

Grade II rider Beatrice De Lavalette scooped two wins aboard her partner of two years, Sixth Sense. The 14-year-old Oldenburg gelding scored over 71% in all three tests. In the Grade II Freestyle, they posted 73.656%, but were pipped to the win by fellow American Fiona Howard, who rode Fleuresse 4 to 75.678%. 


De Lavalette, who lost both of her lower legs in the 2016 Brussels Airport bombing, said, “The first day we had some issues in the warm-up and that affected the trot in the ring, but on Saturday the horse was perfect. In the freestyle he was a little below the vertical, but still good, and I was glad he didn’t didn’t freak out at the music — a violin remix of popular songs — as this was the first time we did it together in the ring.”

The 25-year-old De Lavalette has forged a strong bond with the son of Sir Donnerhall, who is owned by her parents Elizabeth and Nicolas De Lavalette. “It was tough in the beginning getting to know each other as he’d never done Para before and my position wasn’t what it is now on the horse,” she said. “I was leaning back a lot more as a counterbalance, because from the waist down there’s nothing to really hold me up. 

“After Doha in February last year I left Sixth Sense at Kasselmanns [in Germany] for a few months and after that the connection between us was much better,” she continued. “Then when I came back I switched to training with Jen Baumert and it’s been amazing. The connection has grown so much, and how much we’ve improved is incredible.”

De Lavalette — who made her international debut on Sixth Sense at AGDF in 2022 — will return to Hof Kasselmann in April for the summer season, and is another athlete eyeing selection for the Paris Games. 

Howard’s Oldenburg mare Fleuresse 4, by For Romance, is only seven and is a relatively new ride for her. She is owned by the rider together with Elizabeth Bagsby, Julian Howard and Sharon Day. This was only their second international show together. Howard suffers from dystonia, a neuromuscular condition that causes involuntary muscle contractions and twisting. She is also a former FEI level Reining competitor. 

“I’m still figuring Fleuresse out,” explained the 34-year-old. “We improved every single day, which is great. She’s never been in a stadium like Global, so I was just seeing how she was going to be, and I think I learned a lot. For a young horse and with my disability it’s a lot of adapting and figuring out what works.

“For the Freestyle, I basically trotted two circles in the warmup and she felt ready. When the music started, she clicked with me. She needs to gain some strength but she’s so talented and I feel like I need to keep getting better so I can do her justice and she can show how cool she is,” added Howard, who has been traveling back and forth to Europe where Jagger, her more experienced horse, is currently based.    


She is grateful for the opportunity to show at AGDF, adding, “Global is the best place to set you up for championships. The stadium arena gives you the championships feeling — it’s the one place that really gives you that. It’s a tough arena, but it’s the best preparation in the lead-up to Paris.”  


At Grade III, Canada’s Lauren Barwick racked up a pair of wins on her own 12-year-old Westfalian gelding, Sandrino (by Spirit Of Westfalia). They were pipped in the Grand Prix A test by Rebecca Hart (USA) and El Corona Texel, but topped the Grand Prix B with 70.889%, before heading up the freestyle with 74.211%. 

In the Grade V, Cynthia Screnci’s two horses duked it out. In the Grand Prix A test, her own and Volado Farms’s 17-year-old KWPN gelding Sir Chipoli came out on top with 69.914%. In the Grand Prix B test her other horse, the inexperienced For Memory 4 — a decade younger than Sir Chipoli — squeaked ahead by just 0.04 percentage points, claiming the class with 68.772%. The seven-year-old Hanoverian by For Dance was competing in his first CPEDI at Grand Prix level. In the uncontested Freestyle, Screnci and Sir Chipoli posted an uncharacteristically low score of 62.767% after they failed to show any shoulder-in left or trot half-pass left, which carries a double coefficient. 

Sunday’s action wraps up week three of the 12-week 2024 AGDF. International competition resumes February 7-12 with a CDI3* and FEI Dressage World Cupshow, as well as extensive competition in the national arenas. The next Para Dressage international takes place during AGDF9 (March 7-10). For more information and results, visit

Categories: News, Press Releases

Social Bar

Shopping Cart

Like Box

Most Popular

Like Box

Rider Spotlight

Charity Spotlight

Horse Spotlight

Trainer Spotlight