Bundeschampionat 2015: An Intro to Germany’s Young Horse Championships

Maren Engelhardt of Trakehners International attended this year's Bundeschampionat, the official National Championship of the German breed associations, with eight visitors from North America. She's very kindly written a detailed synopsis about the experience for EN, and we're excited to bring you this series on "BuCha" in three parts. First, we learn all about BuCha and its importance as Germany's Young Horse Championships. Many thanks to Maren for writing and to Stephan Bischoff for providing beautiful photos.

Gluecksruf at BuCha. Photo by Stephan Bischoff. Gluecksruf at BuCha. Photo by Stephan Bischoff.

I have been to the BuCha many times, but no year has been quite like this year! Eight visitors from North America made the trek to Warendorf to see the event for the first (or second) time, learn about the judging parameters, experience the thrill and just have a good time.

The idea to bring U.S. riders, breeders, judges and horse enthusiasts over to this event originates with Cheryl Holekamp, who saw the action briefly in 2014 and was dying to understand the judges’ comments, mostly in the dressage ring (we will forgive her for that).

We quickly decided that it would be a good idea to go together, abusing me as an interpreter and knowledge base on the ground, and what can I say … the group got bigger! After the 2015 USEA FEH/YEH Symposium in Ocala, at which I was a guest and showed a number of BuCha videos for analysis of cross country judging, others asked to join.

In the end we were a comfortable “first trial” group on a mission, comprised of avid breeders, eventers, judges and horsefolks, many of which agreed to be interviewed about their experience. One travel companion, Dr. Timothy Holekamp, had another agenda altogether — he is the owner of a young stallion in Germany that competed at the BuCha this year. So not only did we get to experience BuCha, we got the inside look of somebody who was biting his nails for two days hoping to make the finals!

Dr. Joe Dimmek, a former High Performance team rider for Germany and current international eventing judge, was incredibly helpful by finding us a mobile microphone and transmitter system, which allowed everybody to listen in on more or less simultaneous translations. As Cheryl had threatened before, I did spend considerable time alongside the dressage ring, but I have to say — it was worth every minute!

Joe Dimmek and his family were wonderful hosts for the weekend, and he also set up some special events for our group, like a personal tour of the DOKR (the German Olympic Committee for equestrian sports) and a meet and greet with Christoph Hess. So what is the attraction of this Bundeschampionat, an event most horse folks have heard about but very few outside of Germany have actually experienced?

Here is a detailed look at what this is all about. And before we get started, I want to thank my travel companions for a wonderful time, and their sharing of their thoughts and comments on the event, which you’ll find in the upcoming parts of this series.

Naughty Girl. Photo by Stephan Bischoff.

Naughty Girl at BuCha. Photo by Stephan Bischoff.

What is the Bundeschampionat?

The Bundeschampionat (BuCha in short) is the official National Championship of German breed associations. Only German-bred and registered horses and ponies can compete here, meaning a Hanoverian born in Denmark cannot compete, but a German-born Hanoverian with a fully approved KWPN parent can.

About 1,000 horses and ponies qualify for the BuCha each year and compete in dressage, show jumping, eventing, driving and riding horse classes (known in the U.S. as material class). Divisions are set up for 5 and 6-year-old old horses, and in the riding horse classes, 3 and 4-year-old olds compete in different divisions, further separated by gender (one class for mares and geldings, one for stallions). Repeat all of the above for ponies and you’ll get an idea of the scope of this competition: There is no other show like that on the planet.

Ingrid Klimke and FRH Escada JS. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Did you know FRH Escada JS is a BuCha graduate? Photo by Jenni Autry.

A brief history of the BuCha

The first BuCha was conducted in 1976 in Münster, and the first year that event horses took part was 1979. The very first champion ever crowned after a vigorous Intermediate level cross country run was the stallion Tümmler (a Trakehner by Heros out of Tuberose by Burnus AAH) with Martin Plewa riding.

And if there was any indication of what the BuCha would predict in terms of top quality performance horses and riders, this pair was a great first start. Tümmler sired four-star horses, Martin Plewa, a four-star rider, won team gold as the national coach of Germany at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

Since then, many horses that stood at the top of their field at the Bundeschampionat have moved on to successful careers at the international stage, all the way to the World Equestrian Games and Olympics. The flip side is that the BuCha has also become a major marketing tool — just qualifying increases a horse’s value dramatically. However, not doing well can also have the opposite effect.

Often, big stallion stations or riders that make it their professional goal to develop horses specifically for this event stand in front despite maybe not having the best day of their lives. It is a show based mostly on judging and scores, not necessarily objective faults (like rails and time), so it comes with all the baggage attached.

Nevertheless, to see the current level of German horse breeding, this event is second to none and a must-see for horse lovers everywhere. Specifically in eventing, it is quite noteworthy to see that of the current 16 German High Performance team horses, no less than 11 went through the BuCha path.

That doesn’t mean that all good horses had to win here first — in fact, the current Burghley winner and multiple gold medalist La Biosthetique Sam FBW was not a horse the judges cared for much. However, he went through the program, and that is probably more of a path to success than anything else. Four-star winners fischerRocana FST, FRH Escada JS and Horseware Hale Bob are definitely great examples of young promising horses that went through BuCha and later turned out to be the real deal.

The Qualification System

Qualification events for the BuCha are held during the entire spring and early summer season in Germany beginning in late March and early April. The different disciplines require different qualification criteria. The only exceptions are all riding horse and pony classes. Here, the individual breed registries can nominate the best riding horses from their internal riding horse championships to represent the breed in Warendorf.

In eventing, 5-year-old horses have to score at least twice 80% or better at a BuCha qualifier in a Training level Young Event Horse class and score at least one 70% at a BuCha qualifier in a Preliminary Young Event Horse class. In addition, all 5-year-old horses that have their required scores from Young Event Horse classes must place in a regular open Training level event. The qualification has to be obtained at three different venues.

Six-year-old old horses have to score at least 80% or better twice at a BuCha qualifier in a Preliminary level Young Event Horse class. In addition, all 6-year-old horses that have their required scores from Young Event Horse classes must place in a regular open Preliminary level event or CIC*/CCI* with no more than 55 points from dressage, maximum 8 points from stadium and max 24 time faults cross country. Again, the qualification has to be obtained at three different venues.

The Judging System

Young Event Horse classes are cross country runs only, evaluated for jumping scope and technique, rideability (adjustability before and after jumps, approach to the jump, fluidity and rhythm of the entire run, etc.), gallop and faults (time and jump). The major focus of this system is to determine and judge whether the horses are on the right training path for a successful career as event horses, meaning the traditional training scale is just as important as a good jump or efficient gallop.

This is often overlooked by newcomers. The ideal is a fluid, harmonic and efficient cross country performance with a focus on the skill and characteristics of the horse, not the rider. Yet those cannot be seen entirely isolated from the rider’s presentation.

For rideability, jumping manner and ability to gallop, the judges use a score sheet from 10-0. From this score, the following penalties are deducted: first stop/refusal/runout is minus 0.5 points; second stop is minus 1 point. A second stop/refusal at the same jump sees 2 points deducted. Third stop automatically eliminates the pair. Every second over the optimum time is minus 0.1 points. If the rider/horse falls, the pair is eliminated. The same is true if the pair does not meet maximum time. Dangerous riding results in a deduction of 2.5 points.

Determining rideability

The horse should be presented in such a way that it can rhythmically approach all jumps. That rhythm should not be broken other than if required e.g. by changes in the terrain. It is absolutely paramount to keep the clock in focus — not making the time means not riding efficiently and is penalized not only by deducting points, but a lower overall score for rideability.

The horse needs to be easy to regulate and adjust as different efforts are cleared on the way. The maintenance of a forward momentum is important. The horse’s posture is also a focus — the nose should clearly be in front of the vertical at all times, the neck extended enough to allow for balance, and there should be a trusting, soft connection between the mouth and rider’s hands at all times.

Agility and maneuverability are also hallmark features of good rideability, meaning the rider can make adjustments to the course, the horse stays balanced and connected and is therefore efficient. This particular cross country course in Warendorf asks for a lot of the latter — it twists and turns many times, horses often cross their own path, jumps are mostly coming up very fast behind bend lines or curves, lie in shadow or are drops.

The criteria to judge jumping manner and style focus on the rhythmical, willing and efficient jumping over all obstacles with a clearly visible bascule, but no over-jumping. The jumping ability (in terms of height) is only looked at for the level the horse is competing at; in other words, nobody is predicting potential jumping ability at advanced levels in the future.

For horses, “adjustability” here is meant as the ability to help itself. It is no big deal if a couple of jumps are not ideal (too big, too close), but if a pattern of this emerges, it is penalized heavily. The right take-off point is very important. “Bascule” refers to the lengthening of the neck from the withers in combination with letting this movement develop across the entire topline and back.

The relatively low jumps in combination with the higher speed allow for some compromise in this regard. In fact, judges are deliberately not looking for the big scopey jumper that spends valuable seconds in the air at each jump. However, just as much as they like to see efficiency, a tight back or inelastic top line will be reason to lower the score.

The technique the horse displays will make sure of a secure landing and an efficient clearing of the obstacle. Hence, it is important to have good technique, especially in the front arm and shoulder.

Finally, the last big topic is gallop. Unlike in the U.S., where the Young Horse programs aim at predicting upper-level potential (including the gallop, of course), the BuCha judges are only judging what they see that day and don’t attempt to predict the future. Therefore, ground cover, balance, rhythm and economics of the gallop weigh the most.

It is important to keep in mind that speed alone is of no relevance — the time is to be made, but it is of no help to run faster than optimum time. Likewise, different anatomical characteristics like size do not necessarily define a good or bad gallop — short-strided horses can be highly effective and efficient and tire less quickly than long-strided horses.

On the flip side, the latter may be much faster than one would think just by watching their slower repetition. Light-footedness is also an important hallmark and a characteristic often pointed out by the judges; uphill tendency in the gallop would be just as well. Lastly, the judges always point out that the motor function is more important than absolute stride length.

Collnisckhen. Photo by Stephan Bischoff.

Collnisckhen at BuCha. Photo by Stephan Bischoff.

Path to the Finals in Warendorf

Those horses and riders that show up in Warendorf during the first week of September have four long, hard days ahead of them. To reach the finals on Sunday, which typically see 15 to 20 horses depending on the initial class size, all 5-year-old horses first run a Young Event Horse class at Training level, with the top 10 to 15 pairs automatically moving to the finals. Everybody else goes to consolidation rounds on Friday, at the same level, of which the top five horses move to finals.

The finalists then meet again on Saturday, for a First level dressage test and a 1.10-meter stadium round, again scored for rideability, jumping technique and scope, counting time and jump faults as regular show jumping rounds do. Qualification rounds for the 6-year-old horses are the same, but all at Preliminary level.

In the finals on Sunday, all 5-year-old horses have a clean slate cross country but bring their scores from dressage and stadium to the table. They count as single scores. The cross country finals then are at a higher level, the 5-year-old horses competing at Prelim, the 6-year-old horses at Intermediate, and cross country counts double compared to dressage and show jumping. In addition, the 6-year-olds have their dressage at Second level and jump as 1.15 to 2-meter course.

The BuCha is notorious for extreme difficulty — check out the photo gallery below to see some jumps and combinations, which easily make it into two-star competitions elsewhere. Another outstanding difficulty is the terrain — or better the lack of it. The course is short, very fast, with drops into shady areas, and with two sets of inclines containing jumps. Overall, some 25 efforts in the 6-year-old division are crammed into a tight, narrow space on a small green field.

Many of the 5-year-old finalists struggle with this added difficulty after such a harrowing week, and their lack of experience really shows here. In 2015, of the 20 horses in the finals, 10 did not finish because they had a refusal and the riders decided to try another day, retiring on course because horses were just confused.

There is always plenty of critique, especially after the 5-year-old round, and this year one of the loudest opponents was Elmar Lesch, without doubt one of Germany’s best young horse producers who knows what he is doing. After a less than ideal round with his first horse, he spared his second ride the trip altogether and withdrew before cross country.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, which will take a detailed look at the competitors at BuCha and which horses ultimately took home the coveted top prize in the Young Event Horse 5- and 6-year-old finals.