CHIO Aachen is a little bit of an odd duck on the international eventing calendar. The eventing competition is a 4*-S — not even a 4*-L — and a team competition but not part of the FEI Nations Cup. Yet it commands a great amount of attention and importance.
Nestled near the juncture where Germany meets the Netherlands and Belgium, Aachen first held a horse show in 1924 and has hosted a show nearly every year since. After hosting the 2006 FEI World Equestrian Games, Aachen continued holding vibrant team competitions annually in eventing, show jumping, dressage, combined driving and vaulting. Known appropriately as the World Equestrian Festival, Aachen attracts more than 350,000 spectators across 10 thrilling days of competition.
For pure show jumping and dressage, Aachen is considered the most prestigious horse show in Europe. For eventing, the CCIO4*-S at Aachen is considered to be the closest event to a true championship outside of the Olympics and WEG. Show jumping is held in the colossal Hauptstadion, which seats 40,000 people and is about twice the size of the main stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park. The cross country course ends in the main stadium in front of packed stands and an exuberant crowd.
While technically a CCI4*-S track, Rüdiger Schwarz’s twisting, technical cross country course would better be described as more of a 7-minute championship course. The top teams in the world send their best horses to Aachen for a reason: It takes an extremely strong performance across all three phases to be competitive at this venue.
Case in point: Take a look at the last six winners of the event, all German and all eventual five-star winners and/or European or world champions.
2014 – Sandra Auffarth and Opgun Louvo
2015 – Ingrid Klimke and SAP Escada FRH
2016 – Michael Jung and fischerTakinou
2017 – Ingrid Klimke and SAP Hale Bob OLD
2018 – Julia Krajewski and Chipmunk FRH
2019 – Ingrid Klimke and SAP Hale Bob OLD
While the vast majority of powerhouse eventing nations have sent teams annually to Aachen since the venue first started hosting a CICO3* in 2007, the U.S. did not send a team until 2013. David O’Connor, who coached the U.S. team at the time, corrected this oversight, as he rightly realized Aachen’s value as the closest simulation to a true championship the U.S. can experience apart from the Olympics and WEG.
The U.S. team’s relationship with Aachen had a rather inauspicious start. The first team sent in 2013 — made up of Tiana Coudray and Ringwood Magister, Clark Montgomery and Universe, Marilyn Little and RF Smoke on the Water, and Will Faudree and Pawlow — was the only team not to complete that year. Tiana and Ringwood Magister finished 10th as the highest placed U.S. pair, with Clark and Universe finishing 35th as the only other pair on the team to complete.
The U.S. did not send a team to Aachen in 2014 due to resources being allocated to WEG that year. Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen competed as individuals but were eliminated on cross country.
The following year in 2015 saw a full U.S. team return to Aachen with a much more positive result. While Colleen Rutledge and Covert Rights were eliminated on cross country, three of the four team members completed. Phillip Dutton and Fernhill Cubalawn led the way for the team in 12th place, with Lauren Kieffer finishing 15th aboard Veronica.
Lynn Symansky and Donner picked up 20 jumping penalties on cross country, but still delivered what proved to be an important counting score for the team. When Britain’s Holly Woodhead and DHI Lupison were ultimately eliminated due to missing a flag, the British team lost their spot on the podium, with the U.S. team boosted up to finish in third place.
In 2016 the U.S. returned with a team hoping to once again top the podium, but things did not go to plan. Hannah Sue Burnett and Harbour Pilot and Phillip Dutton and Indian Mill both delivered clear cross country rounds for the team to finish 11th and 17th, respectively. But Lauren Kieffer and Landmark’s Monte Carlo and Matt Brown and Super Socks BCF both added 20 jumping penalties, which resulted in the team finishing sixth. This is the only year in which all four U.S. team riders completed.
In 2017, the U.S. did not send a full team. Hannah Sue Burnett and RF Demeter represented the U.S. as individuals and delivered the best American result at Aachen to date, finishing in seventh individually. Lauren Kieffer and Veronica also represented the U.S. as individuals but were eliminated on cross country.
In 2018, Kim Severson and Cooley Cross Border and Buck Davidson and Carlevo jumped clear cross country rounds, albeit with double-digit time penalties, to finish 21st and 23rd, respectively. Lauren Kieffer and Landmark’s Monte Carlo were close to their minute markers when they picked up 20 jumping penalties at the second water complex. Will Coleman and OBOS O’Reilly were eliminated on refusals.
In 2019, a slip on the flat at the end of the course brought Liz Halliday-Sharp and Deniro Z‘s day to an early finish; Phillip Dutton and Z suffered a dramatic parting of company while tackling the corner in the water; and Caroline Martin, making her Aachen debut with Islandwood Captain Jack, finished 21st.
The event was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, and was postponed from July to September this year.
The U.S. has now sent teams to Aachen on five different occasions. Three of those five teams completed and delivered a third-place podium finish in 2015, sixth-place finish in 2016 and fourth-place finish in 2018. A U.S. team has yet to deliver three counting scores without cross country jumping penalties at Aachen.
Can they turn it around in 2021?
The U.S. team:
- Will Coleman and Off The Record, a 2009 Irish Sport Horse gelding owned by the Off the Record Syndicate
- Sydney Elliott and QC Diamantaire, a 2010 Oldenburg gelding owned by Carol Stephens
- Ariel Grald and Leamore Master Plan, a 2009 Irish Sport Horse gelding owned by Annie Eldridge
- Tamie Smith and Mai Baum, a 2006 German Sport Horse gelding owned by Alexandra Ahearn, Ellen Ahearn, and Eric Markell
Lauren Nicholson and Vermiculus are competing as individuals.
As U.S. Chef d’Equipe Erik Duvander explained to EN in 2018, “Aachen is important to me because it’s the only time you can practice a real team championship feeling. It’s quite unique. If we want to be competitive, we need to have our team well planned ahead, and we need to target certain combinations for the right reasons.”
The caliber of the competition provides the U.S. an opportunity to not just play for a participation ribbon, but play to win.
“We also need to have more self belief so that our riders ride forward distances on the cross country and don’t play it a little bit too safe by adding a stride. It is a trick to get around this course if you want to win, which I also think is very possible for us, but you have to really understand what you are dealing with,” Erik said.
“The cross country is very specific here. It rides faster than anywhere else. It’s turning and very technical at a four-star level — not size-wise, but when you put speed on it, even the best riders make mistakes. Our riders need to understand how to prepare for a course like this.”
This year’s team has all the pieces in place to put Team USA on the podium in Aachen. Best of luck to all!