There’s a real risk that comes with entering an event that falls on your birthday: either you get very lucky and have a good week, probably culminating in a sweaty, sleepy beer in a tent in a field somewhere, or it goes truly, spectacularly wrong, and you trudge home a bit more battered and bruised than you were before, wishing you’d never bothered in the first place.
Switzerland’s Felix Vogg has met both scenarios head on. Last year, he brought twelve-year-old Montelibretti CCI4*-L winner Cayenne to Luhmühlen to contest the CCI4*-S Meßmer Trophy, but ultimately had to withdraw before the final horse inspection after the mare picked up an injury on cross-country, from which she still hasn’t returned to international competition. There’s no doubt this was in the back of his mind as he made his entry for this week’s CCI5*, but understated Felix isn’t one for dramatic emotional displays or histrionics — and so he headed into the competition with fourteen-year-old Colero with a calm pragmatism that has stayed in place all week, right up until the point that he completed his fast clear showjumping round to secure his first-ever five-star victory on his 32nd birthday.
“Last year I didn’t have a good birthday here, because my horse got an injury, but today he paid it back — it’s crazy and amazing,” says Felix, who finished sixth at Kentucky with the Westfalian gelding in 2019 after a stint spent training in the USA with Phillip Dutton and Ann Kursinski. That move came as part of a concerted effort to prepare for the 2018 World Equestrian Games, held in Tryon, North Carolina that year, and demonstrate Felix’s dedication to his ongoing education — a dedication that’s paying off in spades now.
Felix and Colero’s week began with a 29 dressage, which was enough to put them into fourth place at the close of the first phase. Then, after a morning full of issues on Mike Etherington-Smith’s cross-country course yesterday, they delivered one of nine clear rounds inside the time to move up into the lead, capitalising on the downward trajectory of most of their competitors. But their lead was a slim one: they came into today’s finale just one-tenth of a penalty ahead of second-place Tim Price and Vitali, and just one rail covered the top seven on the leaderboard. Felix knew he’d have to go clear — but he also knew that his gelding, who’d had a rail at Kentucky, a rail at the 2018 WEG, and two rails at the Tokyo Olympics, wasn’t always going to find this phase the easiest.
In its own way, though, accepting his horse’s weaknesses allowed him to remove a lot of the pressure of the situation, because he’d already decided to celebrate no matter what happened — and because he knew that whatever came before his round, he would never end up with a rail in hand.
“I knew that already yesterday, because it’s not normal that six [competitors] would knock a fence down, so I knew I had to ride clear. But I just knew he can do it,” says Felix. “I think it took the pressure off — I wasn’t nervous at all, because I knew that even if he didn’t go clear, he’d still have a top placing, and that’s already more than I could ask for.”
Taking the pressure away wasn’t just an important part of getting his own mindset right — it was also crucial for ensuring his quirky, talented gelding was ready to perform at his best.
“You have to have him as your friend,” explains Felix. “He can be like a dog, but he can also be like a total princess, and if you don’t push him to make a mistake, or you don’t go against him in the warm up, he doesn’t [end up making] a mistake in the ring. If you keep him happy and confident, then he’s trying his hardest.”
Sometimes, though, the dream pays off — and it did today for Felix. Despite a couple of audible taps, each of the rails on Marco Behrens’s notoriously tough track stayed in their cups, and Felix became the first Swiss rider to take a five-star victory since 1951, when Hans Schwarzenbach won Badminton aboard Vae Victis. (You can choose to take it as coincidence or good omen that one of Hans’s greatest successes after that five-star win was a team silver medal at the 1960 Olympics, which were held at Pratoni.)
Felix’s victory comes as the latest in a string of Swiss successes, which have made the squad — who arguably one of eventing’s developing nations — a real hot topic in the sport over the last year or so. Their successes this year alone have included individual and team victory in the Pratoni Nations Cup and World Championships test event this spring, and certainly, the squad has flourished under the watchful eye of cross-country coach Andrew Nicholson.
But it would be remiss to suggest that Felix’s win this week is closely intertwined with the success of the nation he rides for. He keeps a separate system, choosing to train with his own coaches – Bettina Hoy on the flat, German team jumping trainer Marcus Döring over fences, and former mentor Michael Jung for cross-country – after some irreconcilable differences arose in the team camp during last year’s Tokyo Olympics.
“For years now, I’ve had my own team, a little bit, so it means even more,” says Felix, who nevertheless remains available for Swiss selection, and will ride on the team at CHIO Aachen in two weeks time as part of the selection process for the World Championships in September. There, he hopes to ride his European Championships mount Cartania, rather than his five-star-winning partner, demonstrating an enviable level of depth in his string.
There was more than enough drama in the lead-up to Felix’s round that anyone would have forgiven him for succumbing to nerves, but that’s rather part and parcel of Luhmühlen: its showjumping phase is arguably the most difficult in the sport, with tight, jumper-y turns and tricky technical lines and distances, including a double on a related distance to another double this year. It walks and rides like a full-up 1.30m pure showjumping track, rather than an eventing showjumping track, and as a result, we always see considerable influence exerted on Sunday here — both in jumping penalties and time faults, as competitors struggle to make the tough optimum time. In fact, just three of the 21 starters would record totally penalty-free rounds. Felix, of course, was one, and second-placed Kirsty Chabert, who leapt upwards from eleventh after dressage and fourth after cross-country, was another.
“It’s been a whirlwind — she’s been fantastic throughout all three phases,” says Kirsty, who finished on her dressage score of 31.1 to complete her Badminton redemption arc, which saw the pair reroute after picking up three late run-outs in the pathfinder position. Yesterday, though, the thirteen-year-old British-bred mare looked none the worse for wear after her issues at the Gloucestershire venue, and came home a full eight seconds inside the optimum time.
“I had a phenomenal ride on her on cross-country, and actually, I was quite a long way down on my minutes. I came out of the last water and looked at my watch — I’m not a very good timekeeper! — and thought, ‘oh god, I’m a fair way down!’, so I put a bit of leg on her, and off she went.”
Playing catch-up didn’t appear to leave any residual fatigue behind, and Classic bounded her way around the showjumping track today for an easy clear — which put Kirsty in the enviable position of watching the competitors ahead of her fall by the wayside.
“She’s a very, very good jumper; if she has a fence, I have to put my hand up and take full responsibility for it,” says Kirsty. As she went into the ring, though, she was unaware of all the issues the course had caused, nor of the fact that just one rider had managed to jump clear and make the time: “I hadn’t heard anybody — I stayed away, and I didn’t watch anybody,” she says. “I tried to just stick to my plan with her, which was to ride her like a go-kart, or like a pony. That’s how she likes to be ridden.”
Though Kirsty has had the ride on the mare throughout her career, Classic VI isn’t a homebred like the rest of her string — but nevertheless, the pair know one another inside and out, which gave them a useful crutch of communication to rely on this weekend.
“She was bred by Peter Charles, the show jumper, and she’s always been a beautiful mare, but she’s extremely quirky,” says Kirsty. “She’s not a fan of multiple things — vets, farriers, men. She’s very comfortable in her own team, but for her to accept somebody new and to trust somebody is the hardest thing. She’s a mare, so it all comes on her terms. But she’s always had all the beauty, charisma, and ability — it was just a case of harnessing everything. You always dream of the great results, and for me, this is my biggest achievement. It’s been a big team effort from everyone at home to keep her in a happy place — she spends most of her time hacking around the New Forest getting ice cream and enjoying life.”
It feels rather a long time ago since Jonelle Price and Faerie Dianimo won the CCI5* here in 2018, and in many ways, it’s looked as though the seventeen-year-old British-bred mare hit her uppermost peak then, with a number of noncompletions at the level on her record in the years since. But, says her rider, she’s remained as good as she ever was: “She’s just had a few unlucky years,” says Jonelle, who added just 0.4 time today to move from first-phase 14th and second-phase 6th to a final third place. “In 2019 at Burghley she had a reaction to a jab in her neck and wasn’t quite right, and then last year here I had a stupid crash. She hasn’t really been off form, but we just haven’t had a clean run – and she only does one big event a year, because she’s made of glass, so when you only do one a year and you fuck your chance, it’s a long old way to the next!”
Last year’s issue, which came at a single table fence in the latter stages of the course and saw both horse and rider fall after a slight peck on landing, was the one blot in the mare’s Luhmühlen copybook: now, their record at the German fixture consists of a first, second, third “and a little faceplant,” laughs Jonelle, “so it was nice to come back this year and set the record straight, and she deserved every ounce of the podium finish.”
This could well be the last time we see the extravagant mare at this level, because Jonelle has always been keen to ensure her horses get to bow out of the spotlight on a positive note.
“It’s kind of a relief, and just a pleasure to have her here, because she’s been such a phenomenal mare. She went Advanced when she was eight — she did the CCI4*-L at Blenheim at eight and won the eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S there as a nine-year-old, so she’s been a pretty special mare. It’s nice to finish up on a good one,” says Jonelle. That ‘good one’ did take some fighting for, though. The pair climbed from 14th place after dressage, having delivered a 31.6 that certainly isn’t out of character, but is also miles off the 27.1 she posted when winning here four years ago.
“As much as she’s brilliant in every respect, she’s a right madam and she’s as hot as you like,” explains Jonelle. “So the dressage is quite hard work, and it’s not because she’s not capable. She can easily go from an 8 or a 9 to a 3 or a 4, and I’m afraid that’s just her. Even though she’s seventeen years of age, she’s not got any better. We sort of managed to keep a lid on it on Friday, but certainly when I was stood in the prize giving, I couldn’t help but think what might have been.”
The ‘what might have beens’ can go both ways, though.
“In theory, she should be able to go out there and make a pretty tidy job of cross-country, but last year, I had a silly mistake and paid a pretty heavy price, so you can never rest on your laurels. It was a relief, really, to tick the box and do all the right things, and she gave me a really lovely ride. She’s a little bit unorthodox; I think she’s got double-jointed front limbs or something, because you see one leg up there and one leg up there, but you know that she’s always fighting for the fence and looking for the flags. I always liken her to a tumble dryer — you sort of just sit on top and get rocked around, but she’s always trying to do the right thing.”
In today’s final phase, she had to use every last ounce of her pony power to come home without knocking a rail, and she did so happily, looking as though yesterday’s efforts had barely touched the sides.
“She’s not very big — she’s probably all of 15.3hh, and she’s petite enough that she wears pony tack,” says Jonelle. “She’s seventeen now, so she doesn’t often come out particularly sprightly, and we’re surrounded by all these younger horses jumping these massive fences, and I’m tiptoeing down to my 1.10m vertical. But I know her so well, and I know she’s going to go in the ring and fight for me — and sure enough, once she’s over the first fence she was like, ‘oh, crikey, that’s big!’ And then she takes it up a gear and fights her way around.”
The USA’s Lauren Nicholson and Jacqueline Mars’s 15-year-old Anglo Arab Vermiculus have been playing Chutes and Ladders with the leaderboard through the week: they began in second place behind Bubby Upton and Cannavaro on their first-phase score of 26.7, then dropped to seventh after ‘Bug’ opted to trot in a few combinations on yesterday’s cross-country track, adding 5.2 time penalties in the process. Today, though, he dug deep to find his way over every one of the big, square oxers and airy uprights on the track, and Lauren was able to use his diminutive size and enviable power to purr through the inside lines, coming home just two seconds over the 85 seconds of allowed time to finish fourth.
“It’s his seventh five-star, and he tried his guts out,” says Lauren, who’s previously piloted the gelding to top-ten finishes at Burghley and Kentucky. “The bigger the atmosphere, the better he is; he knows when it’s an occasion and he tries a little harder.”
Luhmühlen certainly delivers an atmosphere: with its colourful banners, dramatic musical introductions for each rider, and close, keen crowds, it creates a real pressure cooker environment that horses either thrive or wilt in — but in any case, it’s always an enormous educational opportunity. Not that experienced Bug needed an education, mind you: for Lauren, this was just another golden opportunity to prove that the gelding can cope with huge pressure and tough conditions. And unlike many of his competitors, who looked tired after yesterday’s efforts in the oppressive heat, Bug was fit and fresh today.
“That’s when you love to have a little Arabian,” laughs Lauren, who has spent the winter training with Australian show jumper Scott Keach. “We’ve been doing a lot of 1.40s and mini-prixs and stuff, so that all paid off. Scott also flew in this weekend just to help us with the showjumping, which was really nice of him, and it made a big difference. The sport’s just gotten to that level: you have to be a specialist in all three phases, and I think it’s going to keep going more in that direction.”
Scott, who previously evented at the Olympics before returning nearly three decades on to compete in the showjumping there, has helped to consolidate Lauren’s warm-up into a low-quantity, high-quality system that keeps her horses fresh and ready to give their all in the ring.
“He hasn’t changed a lot about my warm-up, but he and David [O’Connor] have kind of the same philosophy. Scott understands that you’re not going to have a show jumper on the Sunday; you have to work with what you have, and he’s very into just doing a couple of jumps — especially with these guys that know their jobs. You’re just trying to get the right shape and the right feel before you go in, so it’s just five or six good jumps and not wasting any jumps on a Sunday.”
Liz Halliday-Sharp and Cooley Quicksilver ensured there’d be two Americans in the top ten after delivering the first clear round inside the time of the day to an enormous tumult of applause. That boosted them back up to fifth place, where they’d been after dressage, though 6 time penalties had dropped them to tenth after cross-country. For Liz, who has long had Luhmühlen in mind for the eleven-year-old, it’s been an enormously positive, affirmative experience to bring him here and feel him thrive in the circumstances.
“He’s still a relatively young horse, and he just tried his guts out for me the entire time,” says Liz, who rides him for the Monster Partnership, formed by the Desino brothers of Ocala Horse Properties. “He was just incredible today; being one of only three clear and inside the time is amazing, and he really rose to the occasion — I think it’s the best round he’s ever jumped.”
Yesterday’s 6 time penalties came, in hindsight, from nursing the young horse rather more than he necessarily needed, though Liz doesn’t regret the education he received, nor the fact-finding she was able to do on course — especially in the tough conditions.
“He’s recovered incredibly well, which is really cool after a hot day yesterday,” she says. “It’s his first Luhmühlen, and I’d love to bring him back next year, because another year stronger and I think I’ll be able to make the time on him. I’ve got to sort of knife in a little bit more, but I’m thrilled with him right now — he couldn’t have tried any harder. He’s a momentum horse, and you’ve got to ride him that way. I think I’ve always looked after him a bit at things like the big oxers, because he’s not a power horse, he’s more of an athletic type, so I’ve always had to package him. But at a few of the fences yesterday I sort of thought, ‘I don’t think he needs that anymore!’ So maybe I overdid it where I didn’t need to — now, I’m taking that away with me, and next time I’ll roll him in a little more and just trust him a little more to get the job done.”
Kylie Roddy only stepped up to five-star at Pau last October, where she finished in an impressive eleventh place with the consistent, kind SRS Kan Do — and now, after pulling up late on course at Badminton due to a lost front shoe, she, like Kirsty Chabert, has chased down redemption in Germany. Though she did pull a rail at fence seven, she was delighted to very nearly finish on her 31.4 dressage, giving her the top-ten five-star placing that some riders spend a lifetime chasing.
“The rail was completely my fault, so I feel like I let him down a bit, because he was jumping his little socks off,” says Kylie. “But for me, I think I just don’t have enough experience in the final phase — I don’t go showjumping in the winter or anything, and so actually, I probably need to do a little bit of self-reflection!”
Kylie rides ‘George’ for the Fox family, whose son, Michael, initially piloted the horse at the lower levels before securing a role in Downton Abbey, which meant that he couldn’t risk a riding injury. Over the last number of years, Kylie and George have built up a super relationship, and every competition becomes a vital building block as they navigate the unfamiliar terrain of the upper echelons of sport together.
“I’m always proud of him,” she says with a smile. “At Badminton, when the shoe came off, I thought, ‘well, I can’t not be happy with him, because everything’s done is so good’. We controlled the controllables, but the uncontrollables got us that day,” she says. “I keep calling that his ‘five-star short’ — and then we came here and capitalised on that.”
With an enormous accomplishment in the bag, Kylie wants to encourage other riders to keep plugging away at their biggest dreams: “I hope I can be an inspiration to people like me, because it’s taken me a long time to get here,” she says.
We know which lorry we’d like to be in on the way back to England tonight: “Fiona Kashel and I came down together, and we’re both forty this year, so we’re the Naughty and Forty lorry,” laughs Kylie. “And our horses are the same age — they both ended up at Le Lion together as seven-year-olds, and we bought them both from Richard Sheane’s [Cooley Farm]. And both of our grooms are the same age, too — I was like, ‘this is really freaky! There are too many things in parallel!'”
We’re a firm believer that you’ve got to take the good omens as they come, and Kylie and Fiona certainly did: “we’ve had a scream together all week,” they tell us, but they also finished next to one another in the standings. Fiona took seventh place with her five-star debutant WSF Carthago, climbing from overnight eleventh after romping across the finish just two seconds over the time allowed.
“The showjumping would definitely be my strongest phase, and he does a good job, but anything can happen and I think that’s why I have time penalties on cross-country and showjumping — because I want to be on the perfect stride,” says Fiona, who made her five-star debut at Badminton this spring with another horse.
“Badminton was my childhood dream, but this week is different — but the best week of eventing,” she continues. “Like, Badminton was the best because it’s the lifetime of dreaming, but this has definitely been my best week of the ‘non-lifetime dreams’!”
Fiona’s meticulously prepared warm-up was disrupted by the day’s sole freak accident: Great Britain’s David Doel, who was in the ring ahead of Fiona and jumping for thirteenth place with Ferro Point, was forced to leave his horse’s breastplate off today as the result of some harmless bruising that would have been aggravated by the tack. About halfway through his round, his saddle started to slide backwards, and though he made an extraordinary effort of maintaining his balance and composure, a twisting jump over the penultimate fence skewed the saddle to the side, and he was thrown as his horse jumped the final fence. It would take several achingly long minutes before a panicked Ferro Point could be caught, which meant that Fiona had to think on her feet in the ring.
“My horse would be one of those where he has a switch, and then he just goes,” says Fiona. “So I walked into the other warm-up area and just had a walk around, and then I did one big oxer — and actually, I didn’t jump that big of an oxer before I’d planned to go in, butI saw Liz Halliday-Sharp jump a massive oxer, I was like, ‘should I do a big one?!’ Then David had his fall and I went for it. And now I’ve finished in the top ten at a five-star — how incredible is that?!”
Oliver Townend, who had both debutants in the top ten last night after coming home clear and inside the time on each, finished eighth with Lukas, who knocked the third fence but didn’t change his place on the leaderboard, while Dreamliner, who had been third overnight, slipped to twelfth after pulling four rails, including the first element of each double and the middle element of the treble combination. Likewise, Tim Price, second overnight by a tenth of a penalty with Vitali, knocked three rails and picked up 2.4 time penalties to slide to tenth place, while his other debutant ride, Spartaco, added just 0.8 time and climbed from twelfth to ninth.
We saw a jolly group of completions for the North American crew today: Matt Flynn and Wizzerd delivered an excellent, stylish clear for 0.8 time penalties and seventeenth place, while Canada’s Karl Slezak and Fernhill Wishes tipped fence eight and added 1.6 time penalties to finish fourteenth.
This afternoon’s CCI4*-S Meßmer Trophy also exerted its fair share of influence, though the course was redesigned for this class. Two horses were withdrawn between the final horse inspection and the start of showjumping, bringing the field down to 38 competitors — and of those, just six jumped clear and inside the time. Ultimately, it would be overnight leader Michael Jung who would take the win, and the German national championship title, for the third time on a third different horse. His mount this week, the eleven-year-old Highlighter, has been jointly produced by himself and former stable rider Pietro Grandis, and over the last season, we’ve seen him really blossom into a consistent, formidable competitor.
That growth was put to the test today.
“The course here is so challenging, partly because of the big atmosphere, and partly because the ground in the arena isn’t actually that level — it’s a bit uphill and a bit downhill,” says Michael, who won this class with fischerChipmunk last year. “It’s not much of a slope, but it changes the balance of your horse. Also, the time is very tough, and if you have to go more forward, it’s also harder to keep your horse balanced, so those are the two big points you need to have in mind.”
There aren’t many riders who could get away with cantering into the first fence on an angle, but Michi did just that, cutting off a valuable split second and letting him get up on the clock from his earliest strides — and Highlighter, who has previously gone under the radar and sometimes been underwhelming in competition, really showed his class and education.
“I’m very happy about him,” says Michi with a smile. “He’s had super performances all season, and he’s getting better and better, especially here in Luhmühlen. He’s given me a super feeling in all three phases, and he’s so relaxed and concentrated, so that really helps a lot for the rider.”
Dirk Schrade, who had originally intended to contest the five-star with Casino 80, will no doubt be delighted at his last-minute decision to switch after a surprise fall in the water in an ostensibly easy run at Baborowko CCI3*-S two weeks ago. Throughout the week, the horse has delivered again and again; he was at his very best in the dressage, shelving the nervous interpretive dancing of last year’s European Championships to earn a 26.4 and third place, and then he was bold and rideable across the country for just 3.2 time penalties, keeping him in the same position. Today, when overnight runner-up Jérôme Robiné took a pole at the penultimate fence with Black Ice, Dirk was able to slip neatly through the open door and take second with one of those six totally penalty-free clears.
“It was a great round, and he’s a great horse, and I’m so lucky to have him, thanks to Freya Reithmeyer,” says Dirk, who previously rode his top horse Hop And Skip for this loyal owner. “After he retired, we were looking for a long time for a new horse, and we’ve got that now and have been building it up over two years. The partnership is super now, and we proved that after the not-so-good weekend at Baborowko we can come back again, which shows that we have a good partnership — so I’m very happy about that.”
Former World Champion Sandra Auffarth took third place with the Polish nine-year-old Rosveel, completing a steady weekend-long climb from seventh place after the first phase. The gelding, who has never picked up a cross-country penalty in 19 international starts, certainly looked like he could be a championship horse of the future with his sparkling clear inside the time, which he added to his 27.4 dressage and 2.4 cross-country time penalties.
Someone needed to come in and split up all these German superstars, and the Italian duo of Marco Cappai and his 2021 Europeans mount Uter were certainly up to the task. The blood-type Italian Sport Horse delivered one of three clears inside the time yesterday, but looked as fresh as a daisy today, giving everything plenty of air but ultimately ticking a second over the time allowed as a result. Still, their careful, classy round was enough to earn them fourth place — a far cry from the 23rd place they started in after dressage.
Though tipping the penultimate rail was no doubt heartbreaking for Jérôme Robiné, the 24-year-old, who trains at the German Federation’s military-based Warendorf production system, did get some enormous consolation: while he missed out on the German national champion title, he did win the under-25 national title aboard the impressive Black Ice, who he began riding at the beginning of the pandemic. Mark our words: we’ll see these guys making a big bid for senior accolades in the next few years.
Will Coleman had led the dressage here after an extraordinary test with ten-year-old Chin Tonic HS, but opted to prioritise the talented gelding’s education over yesterday’s track, adding 11.6 time penalties in the process. While Will admits that the competitive side of him finds it a bitter pill to swallow, the rational, reasonable side knows that it’s a fair trade off to build up the extravagant horse’s confidence now, in exchange for some serious gumption down the line on an even bigger day. Their time penalties pushed them down to eleventh overnight, and a green rail at the first part of the treble meant they ultimately ended up in twelfth (though forever first in our hearts after that test, frankly).
That’s all from us — for now! — from Luhmühlen, but be sure to keep it locked onto EN, as we bring you bonus content and deeper dives into the Luhmühlen experience over the next few days. Until next time: Go Eventing!
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