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What were you doing at 20? I was mostly waitressing, riding a lot of rogue young horses, and making some quite spectacularly bad decisions in sticky-floored university nightclubs, and I’d wager most of you were on a similar path. But Germany’s Anna Lena Schaaf has been putting her mind to some serious stuff: this year alone, she’s become the Reserve Young Rider European Champion, winning team gold in the process, she’s stepped up to CCI4*-S and won on her debut, and now she’s piloted her own Lagona 4 to become the Six-Year-Old World Champion, leading throughout the competition on her debut here. Today, with an extraordinary amount of pressure on her shoulders, she rode with a maturity well beyond her years to coax her mare to a penalty-free round, allowing them to finish on their dressage score of 25.8 and secure the title.
“She was really focused and just only amazing,” says a delighted Anna Lena, who is in the middle of her training at the German Federation headquarters in Warendorf and previously rode on the German junior team coached by Julia Krajewski.
Anna Lena’s family is steeped in eventing, and throughout her career so far, she’s ridden horses bred by her grandparents — but the Oldenburg mare Lagona 4 is the first horse she’s ever bought herself from outside the family production line. From the first time she rode her, it was Lagona’s heart that won her over.
“She only wants to try her best every day. She makes me proud every day — I don’t know if she’s a four-star horse yet, but she really tries her best every day and so maybe she will be, because she has a big heart, and that’s it in the end, I think.”
Though so many horses back off when faced with Le Lion’s extraordinary crowds, Lagona has risen to them throughout the week — and today, as she cantered into the main arena in the wake of the applause for the French rider before her, she did so brimming with the self-confidence that the praise was all for her.
“She was so not impressed by the crowd yesterday, and today she was really like, ‘okay, I’m the best,'” laughs Anna Lena.
Julia Krajewski, who was Anna Lena’s coach when she won team and individual gold at the Junior European Championships in 2019, was quick to praise the rider, who she continues to train alongside at Warendorf: “She’s an excellent rider, as she has proven this weekend and last weekend when she won her first four-star event. The German team always needs new talents, particularly those who are capable of training young horses.”
Last year at this event, we saw the rise of Germany’s next big thing when Sophie Leube took the seven-year-old title — now, we can feasibly expect Anna Lena to follow in her footsteps.
Something funny happens to the Le Lion crowd when Nicolas Touzaint enters the arena: they all begin screaming, and cheering, and stopping just shy of throwing their knickers into the ring for their hero, who possesses the most extraordinary ability to keep his horses focused on the job through all the hullabaloo. This morning, he gave his enthusiastic fans something to really cheer about, delivering a speedy clear that allowed him to finish on his dressage score of 26.8 with the Selle Français gelding Fibonacci de Lessac HDC. That secured him the bronze at worst, but he was able to step into silver medal position when fellow countryman Tom Carlile, who’d been in second throughout the competition with the Upsilon daughter Fair Lady des Broucks, toppled to seventeenth after the mare got spooked by the raucous cheers and tipped an unfortunate three rails.
You don’t often see huge climbs up the leaderboard at Le Lion d’Angers, and it’s even rarer in the six-year-old class — but Italy’s Rebecca Chiappero defied the odds to take the bronze with Irish Sport Horse Bonmahon Chelsea, having started their week in fourteenth place. Adding nothing to their 30.9 dressage yesterday pushed them up to 10th, and their clear round with just 0.8 time today let them keep on rising, much to the rider’s surprise.
“It was unbelievable — I was tenth after cross-country, and so you can imagine that someone might have one down, but this many? I’m over the moon,” she says.
Bonmahon Chelsea’s career so far is the result of a leap of faith: though Rebecca tends to prefer a higher percentage of blood and a much lighter type of horse, she bought him unseen from a video as a three-year-old, and decided to hang onto him on her mother’s recommendation.
“It’s not very easy all the way, because he wasn’t my type of horse, but my mother said, ‘you don’t have to sell this horse — I want to keep it,'” she remembers. “And she was right! You’d think this horse wouldn’t have the blood to gallop and jump, but when you see him move, he’s special. And even if we already had requests to buy him, my mother has always fought for him to stay.”
Along the way, the son of Chellsini Z has proven to have a character as big as his jump.
“He’s a clown,” laughs Rebecca. “You could have him like a dog in your house.”
But even with her fondness for him, Rebecca didn’t necessarily come to Le Lion feeling totally confident that they’d nailed the preparation: “We had our last competition last month, and it wasn’t very good — he had a stop at the water. So you arrive not in the right mood, and yesterday, with all the crowds, I was worried. But he was so focused and did a super clear, and today it was like the crowd was pumping him up.”
UK-based Australian Isabel English took fourth place with Cil Dara Dallas, an Australian Sport Horse gelding by Diarado, who looks rather like what you’d get if you asked any horse-mad 13-year-old girl to describe her dream horse. Leggy, dappled, and with enormous doe eyes, the gelding’s certainly a bit of a pin-up — but his 29.9 first-phase score, penalty-free cross-country round, and today’s classy clear proved that the homebred is much more than that. Slightly frustratingly for Bella, they picked up two time penalties in today’s finale, in which the clock was surprisingly hard to catch — just one second less would have earned them a podium place, but the disappointment can’t be too deep-seated for the rider and her family, whose breeding programme back home in Australia is proving a real success.
Germany’s Julia Krajewski took fifth place with the Hanoverian gelding ChinTonic 3, who had one green rail but has looked incredibly impressive all week long. By Contendro and out of a Heraldik mare, ChinTonic — who won last year’s German Bundeschampionate — is a full brother to fischerChipmunk FRH, who has competed at the World Equestrian Games with Julia and the Tokyo Olympics with Michael Jung. That’s reason enough to get excited, of course, but even more compelling is the fact that ChinTonic has now massively outperformed his ultra-famous brother at Le Lion: Chipmunk made one appearance here, competing in the seven-year-old class in 2015, but finished 29th after picking up 20 penalties across the country. We’ll need to wait a couple more years before we see if ChinTonic has what it takes to battle it out at the very top level, but at the moment, he looks to be a fierce contender in Julia’s hunt to defend her Olympic gold in three years’ time.
The US’s Caroline Martin finished in 20th place with the exciting King’s Especiale after loping their way to a totally penalty-free round — one of just six to be delivered across the 42 starters. For Caroline, who hopes to produce the KWPN son of Connect as a team horse for the USA, his three solid performances through the week, plus his first-ever exposure to championship atmosphere and the rigamarole of international travel, have earned him the horsey equivalent of a Master’s degree. We look forward to seeing him hop over the pond again to earn his phD.
Le Lion, like all French fixtures, comes complete with its own set of funny little traditions, and among its best-loved and longest-standing is its use of Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’ as its de facto theme song. It’s used to herald the start of each session of dressage, occasionally blares out of a speaker at a trot-up with neither warning nor explanation and, of course, it’s used to usher the competitors into the arena for the prizegiving ceremony when all is said and done.
“It feels like a good omen, doesn’t it?” I said to a fellow journalist this morning as we stamped our feet against the chill of the final horse inspection. “She’s come to the competition a Cute Girl, and she’ll leave it a pretty woman. Or something like that, anyway.”
Okay, alright, I put my hands up: it’s cheesier than a Frenchman’s shopping basket, and I did get laughed down by the journalist. But I wasn’t wrong. And when Australia’s Kevin McNab delivered a foot-perfect clear round to take a pillar to post victory in the Seven-Year-Old World Championship with Scuderia 1918’s Holsteiner mare Cute Girl, I certainly let myself bask in the glory of that distinctive opening arpeggio.
This is the second year in a row wherein the seven-year-old winner has seemed to be fated after a bit of bad luck the year prior. In 2020, we saw Germany’s Sophie Leube win this class with the Trakehner stallion Sweetwaters Ziethen TSF, a year after horrendous conditions on the final day cost him his shot at the six-year-old title when he skidded into the base of a fence and wasn’t able to take off. This time around, it was the turn of Cute Girl, who was so impressive in the first two phases of her six-year-old appearance but was unfortunately eliminated when her rider missed a fence on cross-country — the first time he’d ever made such a mistake, and surely the last time we’ll ever see it happen for poor, abashed Kevin. But what a redemption arc this week has proven to be: they took the lead at the tail end of the first phase on a sparkling score of 26.9, added nothing to it across the country, and delivered the goods again with style and confidence today to make the mare our new Seven-Year-Old World Champion.
“She’s been so good,” says Kevin. “She feels so much more mature this year than she did last year, and I know last year she was in a good place.”
What has made the mare so special throughout her career so far is her drive and focus — that extra little bit of sparkle that could make her tricky, but instead makes her competitive. That made her the perfect candidate for a much-anticipated return visit to Le Lion: “it’s one of those events that we love coming to, and it’s great when you’re on this end of the podium,” say the rider, who is based in Surrey, England, with a laugh. “But it’s always a great event regardless, and I think it’s a great event for the horses for the future, so even if we weren’t winning we’d still enjoy it!”
Enjoy it they certainly did — the extended McNab clan, which includes fellow competitors Isabel English and Avery Klunick, both of whom are based with Kevin and his wife Emma, have been a tight-knit and positive bunch this week, and all of them turned out in force to watch Kevin and Cute Girl deliver their final performance. And as it turned out, Cute Girl enjoyed it just as much as her support crew did.
“She felt really good in there. She wasn’t affected by the atmosphere; she was really focused and easy to ride. The time was a little tight, so we had to keep travelling, but she gave me a great round and she felt really careful, so it looked good at the end of the day,” says Kevin.
Despite some initial misgivings about whether the quirky, spooky Outback would suit Le Lion’s full-on atmosphere, Laura Collett‘s commitment to the long game has paid dividends this week: though he’s not totally over his suspicion of crowds (or the French), the Trakehner gelding by Duke of Hearts took confidence from his positive experience in Aachen’s novelty Ride & Drive class last month and stayed totally with his rider throughout the week’s competition. Three excellent performances, starting with a 27.2 dressage score, allowed them to remain in second place from start to finish, and Laura is delighted to head into her final event of the 2021 season with a Reserve World Champion in her string. But although his clear round today looked smooth and easy, that belied the true difficulty of the challenge laid out for these talented young horses.
“It was a really tough showjumping track — the time was really tight, and the atmosphere is like Badminton,” says Laura. “These young horses haven’t experienced that, so I was so proud of my horse for going in there and listening to me, which is what he’s done all week. That’s really made the difference; he’s trusted me and come up with the answers, so I’m over the moon with him.”
Great Britain’s Selina Milnes climbed from an initial fourth place after dressage to eventual bronze with Cooley Snapchat, whose tight, tidy, and gravity-defying jump made a clear round seem almost an inevitability. But like her competitors, Selina went into the ring achingly aware of how tricky the course was — and how tough the time allowed would be to catch. In the end, she didn’t quite manage to get it; Cooley Snapchat lost some time in the air, ultimately adding 0.8 penalties for finishing two seconds into the red, but such was the influence of today’s finale that that was enough to secure the pair a podium position, particularly after a rail and time penalties dropped previously fourth-placed Sarah Bullimore and Evita AP down to eleventh, giving Selena a slight buffer.
“I watched the first ten go and I didn’t see one clear — and everyone was having time faults,” says Selina. “I was like, ‘oh, no, here we go!’ But he just rises to the occasion and the atmosphere actually lifts him, I think, and he went in there and jumped his little socks off.”
The Irish Sport Horse gelding by Kannan has been competitive in his seven-year-old season, winning at Novice and Intermediate and logging top ten finishes at CCI3*-S and CCI2*-L — but even so, Selina wasn’t always sure about aiming for Le Lion at the end of the year.
“I was a little bit worried when we came, thinking would the atmosphere [would be tough for him], but he’s just shone,” says Selina, who last rode here 15 years ago with a horse who would go on to CCI5* level. “It’s my favourite event, and I’ve been desperate to come back — I’ve had horses qualified, but then I’ve injured myself before we’ve got here!”
Gemma Tattersall‘s Johansome really is, well, so handsome, and the Dutch Warmblood son of Lexicon proved that he’s more than just a pretty face this week, climbing up to eventual fourth place from initial 11th by finishing on his dressage score of 29.8.
Hayden Hankey made up some of the ground lost yesterday, when he and the OBOS Quality gelding Heads Up dropped from third to seventh with their two time penalties accrued across the country, by jumping a solid clear for just 0.4 time today. That allowed them to step back up into fifth place, and proved once again how much potential the lanky gelding has as he matures over the next couple of years.
Cole Horn finished 31st with MBF Cooley Permission To Land, completing their first trip abroad — on what is just Cole’s 13th FEI start — with a showjumping round that saw them knock two rails and add 1.2 time penalties. The pair, who received the US Eventing Holekamp/Turner Grant to compete here, did so with two sets of eyes firmly looking to the future, and the education and experience the amassed will prove a vital stepping stone en route to bigger things to come.
The same can certainly be said for Avery Klunick and Pisco Sour, who moved over to the UK in June to base themselves with the McNabs. After a steady clear yesterday, in which Avery opted to focus on giving her horse a confidence-building experience, she came out mounted on a fresh, bright-eyed horse today, and together, the pair pinged their way to one of the day’s rare clear rounds. Though their 1.6 time penalties would stop them from joining the elite eleven who added nothing in this phase, the pair’s three positive phases give them a great starting point in their ongoing journey across the pond.
“I’ve told Kevin that I’m a piece of coal, and he has to help turn me into a diamond,” jokes Avery, who works full time in finance and focuses all her precious riding time on Pisco, her only horse.
And so we come to the end of another incredible week at Le Lion d’Angers — but don’t put your berets away just yet, folks. We’re on the road again, and this time we’re heading south to Les 5 Etoiles de Pau, the final CCI5* of the 2021 season, which kicks off on Thursday morning. Jump in and join us for the ride.