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2021 really is shaping up to be Great Britain’s golden year: after taking the top honours at Tokyo, they duly won the SAP Nations Cup competition at CHIO Aachen last week and now, they come into the FEI European Championships in Avenches, Switzerland, as the firm favourites with their strong all-female squad.
And what a start they’ve got off to as we wrap up the first day of dressage: after 34 of 67 competitors, Britain doesn’t just find itself in the lead — though it certainly does do that, with an enviable margin of nearly twelve points — its riders are also first, second, and eighth on the leaderboard.
Though Piggy March and her championship debutant Brookfield Inocent dominated the standings for much of the day on their impressive 23.3, which they delivered as British pathfinders, the end-of-day lead would ultimately go to fellow countrywoman Nicola Wilson, who piloted the ten-year-old Holsteiner JL Dublin to a 20.9. The exceptional score isn’t just an international personal best for JL Dublin — it’s the best test of Nicola’s career, too.
“What a fabulous horse he is,” she beams, visibly emotional after extricating herself from a sea of hugs and back-slaps. Hopes have certainly been high for ‘Dubs’ (Diarado x Zarinna, by Cantano), who won his sophomore CCI4*-L over the achingly tough Bicton course back in June and followed it up with a win in Hartpury’s CCI4*-S last month. That summer of dreams made his spot on the squad look nearly guaranteed, but in life and in horses, nothing is ever set in stone — not even an excellent performance from an undeniable talent. But the gelding, whose ‘JL’ prefix is a nod to owners Jo and James Lambert and Deirdre Johnston, produced a test brimming with sparkle and bolstered by a maturity beyond his years to affirm his selection for his first-ever championship.
“He’s really come of age this year, and he’s just getting better and better weekly, it feels,” says Nicola. “He was such a professional in there; I didn’t do a great deal [in the warm-up] because I thought he was on the money. I just worked as much as I needed to and he went in there — and he loved it. He loves to show off; he’s confident now in himself, which perhaps he wasn’t before, and I think he thought, ‘oh, these people have all come to see me! I’m going to show my best.’ And he did: he was so clever, really level-headed, and he stayed with me throughout. He was amazing — and I just needed to remember where I was going!”
Ten is young by anyone’s reckoning for a horse at championship level, and although JL Dublin is evidently mature beyond his years, he’s very low-mileage at this stage in his career, due in part to difficulty of competing through the pandemic, as well as to a rider injury that sidelined Nicola and, as such, her string.
“He’s still young for this level; I had a neck injury, so he missed half a year a few years ago, and then of course there was COVID — but even though he’s not been on the competition field [as much], he’s still trained and got stronger and more established in his mind, and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
In fact, the extra time spent at home may well have contributed to the natural progression of the big, strong gelding, who makes his nineteenth FEI start this week.
“It was very definitely a positive time,” says Nicola. “It’s allowed him to get a little bit stronger and more able to cope with the demands of dressage, and to carry himself. To go in there, and to have such a level-headed brain, and to stay focused from the beginning of the week — we’re only on phase one, and there’s an awful lot more to go, but he’s been superb up to now.”
Though Badminton victor Piggy March couldn’t quite hang onto the lead, she remains in an enviable second place at the end of the day with twelve-year-old Brookfield Inocent.
“I was really pleased — just over the moon, to be honest,” says Piggy, who had initially been named to the Tokyo team as travelling reserve with Bthhe gelding, whose owners decided against putting through the stress of travelling to the other side of the world without any likelihood of running. What was no doubt an emotional hurdle for the rider, who has previously missed out on Olympic trips due to horse injury, is proving to be a boon for the Brits as they tackle this week’s championship, and Brookfield Inocent, who finished second in his CCI5* debut at Pau last year, certainly lived up to his reputation for dressage prowess when he duly delivered a 23.3 in the ring today.
“I think that’s probably one of the best tests he’s ever done,” says Piggy, who has delivered scores as low as 21.8 at four-star with the Irish-bred gelding (Inocent x Shalies Pet, by Kings Servant). “[It was] just the consistency to his work and his mind all the way through. You could give him another ten goes, and I don’t think he could do any better. He gave it his all; he gave me his all, and that’s all we can ask for.”
Piggy, who’s ranked fourth in the FEI world rankings, is one of the sport’s most consistently successful competitors — who among us can forget her 2019 season, in which she broke the record for the most international wins in a year, after all — but this championship presents a unique new challenge as she takes on the pathfinder role for the first time.
“I’ve never done that before, but hopefully [my test] gives confidence or a good vibe for everyone else,” she says. “When [Performance Manager] Dickie [Waygood] asked me [to be pathfinder], he said, ‘are you alright with that?’ And I said, ‘surely I’m old enough now to have to just get on with something like that and deal with it!'”
Great Britain enjoys a late draw of eleventh out of thirteen teams, which provides something of a benefit on Saturday: “Thankfully, we’re not number one to go, so there is still a footprint on the ground — but something like that, you just deal with. At the end of the day, it’s another day of sport; it’s what we do all the time. You’ve just got to get on with it and go — but hopefully I’ll be able to be of use to the others, which is the whole point.”
There’s a long way to go until Saturday, of course, and in amongst all the celebrations of a job well done today, there’s also a palpable sense of relief at having nailed the assignment.
“A swear word didn’t enter my mind once in the test, which is usually a good sign that there wasn’t a blunder somewhere,” laughs Piggy.
Though it’s all to easy to assume that Britain’s got the gold medal sewn up once again, they certainly have strong competition — not least from the reigning champions, the formidable German team. One of their number, the enormously experienced Andreas Dibowski, made a super start to his eighth European Championships, putting a 25.6 on the board with the 12-year-old Hanoverian mare FRH Corrida (Contendro x Expo, by Espri)
“I hope it’s always like this, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” says ‘Dibo’ with a laugh. “But I had a good feeling all the days, all the weeks before. I was very, very hopeful that I come over 70%, and at the end, it’s not my job [to mark the test]. I’ve tried to make the best, and it works today, and I’m really happy that the judges saw the same that I felt.”
For Dibo, this week’s competition has been a long time coming: he and Corrida were Germany’s travelling reserves for Tokyo, which meant that the mare had to be fit and ready to run, and then sit and wait through the Games in case she was needed as a substitute for any phase. Ultimately, she wasn’t — and now, Dibo says, she’s raring to go and tackle the challenge she’s been set up for for so many long months.
“After Tokyo, she was so fit and so motivated for the next competitions, and also in training,” he says. “I had always a good feeling, and so I expected a good result.”
That motivation gave Dibo the freedom to ask for a little bit more push, resulting in an extravagant, balanced extended trot — his highlight of the mistake-free test.
“I had a good transition, and then I” — he clicks for emphasis — “picked her up a little bit and said, ‘okay, now we try to make the best of what is possible.’ She gave me the feeling that I can risk enough, and that worked.”
Dibo, who will leave the start box as the second rider of the German team, comes to Avenches hoping to improve upon Germany’s slightly disappointing fourth-place finish in Tokyo — but with his decades of experience at the top of the sport, which includes four World Equestrian Games and three Olympic runs, he’s also pragmatic about how easily fates and fortunes can change in a team competition.
“We are a strong team, and we are looking forward, and sure, our gold [is to win gold] — and at the end of the day, we have to try our best,” he says. “We will see on Sunday afternoon if it works or not. But we saw in Tokyo how quick problems can happen, and especially with problems that you don’t expect — and then you’re between the gold and nothing. So that’s our thought, and that’s what makes it so interesting for us.”
One of those unexpected problems that skewed the team result in Tokyo was the activation of the new yellow MIMclips. Designed for use on corner fences, they’re more easily activated than the red MIMs that have been widely used over the last few years, and Dibo worries that this, in conjunction with the lack of appeals available for riders who feel that they weren’t saved from a fall by an activated clip, will eventually lead to unsafe, backwards cross-country riding.
“You have to collect them more before an [obstacle] like that, and I think it’s not the right way for cross-country riding, because we know that the horse has to jump effectively. It’s a part of cross-country that you sometimes touch the fences — but then, the consequence [of the clip activation] is that the riders think they have to prepare the horses more [for the fence] and that makes it more dangerous. We all have to learn to ride carefully, it’s true. But it’s the wrong way when we are afraid to touch the fences.”
Germany also holds onto fourth place overnight, though Christoph Wahler and Carjatan S, who finished second at Luhmühlen CCI5* earlier this summer, compete as individuals rather than as part of the team effort — an omission that pushes Germany into third in the rankings. They earned a respectable 26 today with their relaxed, flowing test, which comes as something of a return to form in this phase after Luhmühlen: though they’re very capable of topping the leaderboard in any company, and Christoph’s education in this phase is bolstered by the part he plays in his family’s dressage stud and production business, they posted an uncharacteristic 32.1 there when the horse bubbled over and broke in the extended trot, which came early in the test. That was partly a consequence of a new fitness regime, which proved valuable and effective in the jumping phases, and since then, Carjatan has learned to settle into his work even while at his physical peak.
The test that’s being used for this championship is also almost totally opposed to the Luhmühlen test, which asked for power and pace early on and tempted fit horses to the brink. Today’s test, on the other hand, begins with a reasonably fiddly trot section: horses have to tackle shoulder-ins on the long sides, 10 meter demi-voltes back to the track, half-passes, and a halt and rein back in the midst of all of this, before heading into a reasonably lengthy walk section, the canter work, and finally, the extended trot. For horses prone to exuberance, this could be a boon, giving them plenty to focus on before asking for pure power.
“Today was just better; this test doesn’t usually suit him, because he likes tests where he can do a lot of extended work, so for this test we kept him particularly calm and slow with everything,” he explains. “Whereas, once you can go to medium and then extended right at the beginning, you can go in and risk it a little bit during all this. He was soft in the turns and the bends, and did good lateral work, and usually, when I go in there I can feel how the whole test is going to be once I do the shoulder-in and the first half-pass, because then I know whether he’s truly relaxed or not. And he did, and he walked super. I messed up the first change; that was not for him to blame, and afterwards, some parts were pretty good and some parts were good.”
Rounding out the top five overnight is something of a surprise entity: Austria’s Robert Mandl and his 12-year-old Oldenburg Sacré-Coeur only contested their first-ever FEI event back in 2016, but despite their relative inexperience, they’ve gone from strength to strength on a remarkable career trajectory. Robert, who rode pure dressage to Grand Prix before picking up jumping and, eventually, eventing, competed with Sacré-Coeur in the 2019 ‘Rural Riders’ CCI3*-S European Cup, a competition designed to give amateur riders and emerging competitors a chance to experience a championship, and now they find themselves representing Austria as part of the team at the European Championship — and they rose to the occasion in fine style, scoring a huge personal best of 26.3 to take fifth place at this early stage with a ‘clear round’ test.
“I’m very, very happy that the dressage is a good start to the event,” he says. “I know the horse can do a very low score, but in the last three or four four-stars, every time I have a mistake in the [test], so that was very good for me.”
Sacré-Coeur isn’t just a competitive partner for Robert, who has only ever evented one other horse and has climbed the levels in tandem with his Euros partner — he’s also a part of the family.
“At home, my daughter can ride him,” says Robert fondly. “He’s a very careful horse, and sometimes a bit spooky, and I hope the cross-country is not a problem for me!”
Tomorrow sees the final 33 competitors come forward to perform their tests, and there are plenty of highlights on the line-up, including World Champions Ros Canter and Allstar B, Michael Jung and fischerWild Wave, Kitty King and Vendredi Biats, who were the highest-placed Brits at the 2019 European Championships, Swiss superstar Felix Vogg and Cartania, Ireland’s Padraig McCarthy and Leonidas II, and, of course, the return of reigning two-time European Champions Ingrid Klimke and SAP Hale Bob OLD. But before we dive into tomorrow’s action, we’ve got plenty more to come from day one at the Europeans — so stay tuned, grab yourself some fondue, and let’s Go Eventing!