Aachen is always a crucial event in the global calendar for a few reasons: first of all, that it’s an invitational, and nations must first be given the go-ahead by the competition to enter teams, based on strict performance guidelines, and then each nation is in charge of selecting its own team – and so the field of entries, horses and riders alike, tends to be the very best of the best. Secondly, it’s blessed with an extraordinary atmosphere that comes hand in hand with its multidisciplinary model – as the self-styled ‘World Equestrian Festival’, it features the biggest and most prestigious classes across jumping, dressage, combined driving, and vaulting, too, alongside the eventing – and urban location. Its main stadium, which is so often packed to the brim with spectators, seats 40,000; its cross-country day yields upwards of 30,000 scattered around the tight track; at any given point, the cheers from across the venue are deafening.
Both of those primary factors work together to create a pressure-cooker of an atmosphere and, as a result, the best simulation for a major championship that any team could possibly hope for – and the results of an Aachen showdown are telling ahead of a ‘real’ team competition, even though it’s run as a CCIO4*-S, rather than the long format favoured at championships. Teams that go well here can be safely considered on-form ahead of, say, next month’s European Championships; teams that mar their copybooks with avoidable blunders, conversely, leave with a blueprint of what they need to work on in the month or year to come.
For the casual spectator, it’s always great fun to see the battle at the top – one that, this time, saw home nation and inarguable powerhouse Germany take the spoils, followed by the USA, who continue on their spectacular upward trajectory, and the Brits, the most formidable team in the world at the moment, in a surprising third. For the true eventing nerd, there’s more to uncover beyond the podium – especially if spotting nations and horses on the rise takes your fancy.
There’s plenty that could be written about, say, Switzerland – the swiftest-rising nation of this Olympic cycle – who fielded a team for the first time at Aachen this month, logging an educational, rather than competitive, week. Or we could talk about Sweden, who sent just one individual in Frida Andersen and Box Leo, and still managed to nab a top ten finish on the leaderboard, proving that when the going gets tough, the Swedes more than capable of overcoming their current national tendency towards middling dressage marks. But the real story, if you ask me, is that of the Belgians.
Like Sweden, Belgium didn’t qualify to send a team to Aachen this year. What they did do, though, is earn themselves a couple of individual spots, which they used wisely: one went to 22-year-old Jarno Verwimp and his eleven-year-old World Championships partner Mahalia, and the other, to Belgian powerhouse Lara de Liedekerke-Meier, riding the excellent thirteen-year-old Hanoverian Ducati d’Arville.
Perhaps you skim-read past those names when the Aachen line-up was first revealed. That’s fair enough; without a team, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, to be overshadowed by the likes of Will Coleman and Tom McEwen and not one, but two Prices. But in the end? They beat them all. Jarno finished fourteenth, adding just 9.2 time penalties across the country to his first-phase score of 34.4, while Lara and Ducati finished tenth, securing their spot at the business end of the leaderboard after delivering one of the fastest rounds of the day in the influential cross-country finale.
Though many of Lara’s horses with the ‘d’Arville’ suffix, a nod to her home base, Arville Castle in Belgium, are homebreds, Ducati isn’t – and his entry into her string ticks all the boxes of a classic horse girl shopping spree.
“I found him at an auction when I was pregnant, so I couldn’t ride him, and my husband, Kai [Steffen Meier], tried him for me instead,” she remembers. “He was called Ducati just like my previous horse, who I’d ridden at Badminton, and just like that Ducati, he couldn’t make the flying changes! So it was a bit that he reminded me of him and I wanted another similar to him, but also that I loved his Diarado breeding, so I bought him.”
While Kai offered to produce and compete the horse at the beginning of his career, Lara was so excited about her new prospect that she used him as motivation to get straight back in the saddle after giving birth – and before long, they’d logged the results required for him to make his Six-Year-Old World Championships debut at Le Lion d’Angers. He finished sixth – his first FEI top ten. That’s been followed by placings at every level through CCI4*-L and, in 2021, a senior championship debut at the European Championships, where he performed competitively in the first two phases but sadly had to be withdrawn at the final horse inspection.
“I thought from the beginning he would be a good horse, but he’s not just the easiest to manage health-wise,” says Lara. But with her team at home at Arville, she says, “we’ve found the tricks to managing him – and now he’s so consistent. I think he’s now a much stronger horse thanks to my team at home, and the vet who really tries to understand him and is dealing with him really well.”
Though Lara was disappointed to tip two rails in the showjumping phase at Aachen, which is set in that busy, bustling main arena, she was the first rider of the day in the final phase to really give the optimum time – which no one would catch – a proper run for its money. She and Ducati executed a classy clear, adding just 2.8 time penalties, which helped them close the book on a weekend that had seen them go from first-phase 11th all the way down to 28th, and then back up to tenth.
“He was clear here last year so it was a disappointment to have two rails. He felt really stressed against the bridle, which is a shame, but if I had to sign again for the top ten at the beginning of the week, I think I would! So yes, it’s just really special,” says Lara with a smile. “He’s a fantastic horse — he’s really looking for the flags and he really makes my life easy. Unfortunately, I lost a shoe at fence three, and then later on after the two skinnies I lost another on the line and I thought okay, now the two corners without shoes in front is going to be tricky! I had to have an extra pull here and there to really ensure that he would stay in between the flag and not have a slip. So maybe it’s saved me a place in the top ten, but I do have a little frustration, because I could have kicked here and there maybe a bit more! But on the other hand, he was just so focused and tried so hard for me, and I think Aachen is one of those tracks where you have to be 100% concentrated from start to finish, and he gave me just the best feeling.”
Ducati, who’ll be aimed for an end-of-season run at Boekelo to help qualify him for Paris, is just one part of a string of horses that’s looking particularly strong for the rider: there’s Formidable 62, an “incredible little horse” who overcame a cancer of the eye to win her first CCI3*-L at Kronenburg this year; homebred Hooney d’Arville, a daughter of Lara’s Young Riders-to-World Championships mount Nooney Blue, who finished tenth in Luhmühlen’s tough CCI4*-S last month; and Hermione d’Arville, who went to last year’s World Championships as just a nine-year-old and was seventh in Luhmühlen’s CCI4*-S. Both Hooney and Hermione are just ten year olds this year; Formidable, for her part, is only nine, as is the impressive Origi, who was ninth in the Seven-Year-Old World Championship in 2021 and has now returned after a year out. Not only does Lara look set to have horses in droves for Paris, but for Los Angeles, too, all being well.
But this year’s successes aren’t just an exciting boon for Belgium in their own right – they’re also a long-awaited uptick of fortunes after a 2022 that Lara would love to leave well behind her. Though there were some great results, with placings at numerous internationals, there were also colossal disappointments – none worse than the World Championships at Pratoni, where Lara suffered a shock fall at the first fence on the cross-country course. That blow came just one year after she made her Olympic debut at Tokyo — a long-awaited one, after having missed out on previous call-ups due to pregnancy — but had to make the correct, but heartbreaking, decision to withdraw before cross-country as her horse wasn’t quite right.
“I think I have to put what happened in the past behind me,” she says sagely. “Falling at fence one at Pratoni was quite something. When I felt my head on the ground, I was like, ‘no way, I’ve got to wake up, there’s no way – it’s a nightmare’. But no, I never woke up. It was reality. I mean, everything happens for a reason — you don’t always know why, but I’m confident it will come along, and considering that the horses I have are good, I just need to keep producing them the right way.”
Part of Lara’s rebuilding process was in finding herself as a rider again – a process that had been complicated by the fact that her husband and confidante, German eventer Kai Steffen Meier, has stepped into the chef d’equipe role for the Belgian team, changing a dynamic that has so long functioned as the two of them working together. To help her regain her mojo, and to give the rest of her teammates, and her husband, the chance to work on solidifying as a unit, she opted to step back and sit out two of the early-season Nations Cup competitions.
“I have to say I put myself a bit behind the team, because I needed to find myself as a rider again — because it was difficult to share my husband as the team manager and everything,” she explains. “So I let them go to Chatsworth and Millstreet, while I focused on the horses and getting the ten-year-olds to Luhmühlen.”
That plan paid off with that double of top-ten finishes – and great results for the Belgian team, too. Bolstered by their win at the first Nations Cup of the season at Montelibretti, where Lara finished fourth individually with Ducati, the team logged podium finishes at both Chatsworth and Millstreet, cementing the feeling that everything was beginning to go in the right direction for the Belgian efforts.
“Luhmühlen was really something for me – being that close to the top three, and at Aachen, as well, to be top ten… I’m feeling like I’m getting back in shape,” says Lara. “It takes a village – the trainers, but also my grooms. I’m so thankful to to have all these people who kept believing in me despite what happened last year, which was not really helpful.”
So what does this mean for Belgium, who are one of several teams fighting tooth and nail for their first Olympic team qualification since London 2012? It’s a heartening step in the right direction, certainly, for a team that — like its lynchpin rider — is on the up and up in 2023. While gaining that team ticket is hot on their minds – as the eighth-placed team out of sixteen at Pratoni, they missed gaining qualification there by one frustrating place – they’re in a strong position at the midpoint of the season, and results like these will only bolster their resolve. Right now, they have two remaining opportunities to gain qualification: the first could come at next month’s European Championships, at which there’ll be two team tickets up for grabs for the highest-placed as-yet-unqualified nations, while the second – and, actually, the very last ticket of them all – would be the team qualification awarded to the highest-placed unqualified nation in the overall season standings of the 2023 FEI Nations Cup series, which Belgium leads after four legs by 65 points.
And right now, while we’re one day into leg five at Jardy? They sit third with just Lara left to deliver her test with Hermione d’Arville – and the best of those unqualified nations. The job is far from done; the Dutch, Italian, and Spanish teams certainly won’t be letting those team spots go without a fight over the next few months, but something is shifting in the Belgian eventing stratosphere, and there’s a quiet confidence beginning to crystallise around each of the riders within its orbit, from Lara, who hopes to have four or five horses qualified for Paris, to Jarno, who has put himself on the global map while still barely out of Young Riders, to national champion Tine Magnus, who has a horse I’ll put forward now as one of the most exciting in the world in Dia Van Het Lichterveld Z, to longtime leading rider Karin Donckers, who continues to throw down top ten placings on the world stage – and beyond, too, to up-and-comers such as Sanne Vervaecke, Wouter de Cleene, and more beyond. Belgium has always been a particularly competent equestrian nation: after all, a third of the horses who took part in the Tokyo Olympics across the disciplines were bred in the country, and it has long been one of the great exporters of top-class sport prospects. Now, if they can retain some of that horsepower, they’re starting to get on the right track to make best use of it.
For those of us who backed the Swiss team and reaped the rewards (mostly in bragging rights and great vibes) when they stepped up to the plate on the world stage over the last few years, the Belgians look a particularly sweet prospect. Ignore them at your peril.
EN’s Coverage of CHIO Aachen is brought to you with support from Kentucky Performance Products and Ocala Horse Properties.