“I Thought I Wasn’t the Right Rider”: Lara de Liedekerke-Meier Becomes First-Ever Belgian Five-Star Winner in Emotional Luhmühlen Finale

Sometimes, as an eventing journalist, every indicator of form, every number you crunch, every likelihood you put forth crumbles under the impact of a classic fairytale eventing day. It happened a few years ago in Aachen, when Michael Jung and fischerChipmunk FRH held a commanding lead, and I joined Diarm Byrne of EquiRatings on his Eventing Podcast to discuss the seeming inevitability of his win in the next day’s cross-country. There looked, we said, to be no room for any other outcome to the competition; with the buzz of unpredictability removed, we had to find our thrills in other avenues, like, we suggested, the sheer thrill of being able to witness total sporting dominance from one of eventing’s greatest riders of all time, if not the greatest rider of all time.

Then, cross-country happened, and Michi won, but then he didn’t – he was belatedly awarded a flag penalty and toppled down the leaderboard, giving Sandra Auffarth the victory and throwing up a plot-twist storyline that none of us could have anticipated. It was a day I learned how thrilling, how discombobulating, it can be to be totally and utterly wrong.

This morning, as I wrote the final horse inspection report and pointed out that two-phase Luhmühlen CCI5* leader Ros Canter and Izilot DHI had two rails and a second on the clock in hand, I said the following: “it’s hard to imagine, now, a scenario in which the Pau winners don’t win this class. Izilot hasn’t had a rail down in an FEI class since his CCI2*-S debut five years ago.”

But I knew, even as I wrote it, that eventing doesn’t always work that way. If you were to put money on the outcome of today’s competition, you’d have been silly to bet in any other direction than on Ros – though the odds would have been so short that the pay-off would have been pretty minimal. But there’s a reason eventing isn’t a betting man’s game, and there’s a reason we all return to it, hungry for more, even when it’s beaten us down and worn us out and made us doubt the bedrock of our worlds. We return for the magic, and the days when kismet wins out.

That clear round feeling: Lara de Liedekerke-Meier and Hooney d’Arville. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Luhmühlen is renowned for building a big, tough showjumping track that’s the hardest of the five-stars. Today, it absolutely was every inch a top-tier track, and just six of the 31 starters were able to come home clear and inside the time allowed. When Belgium’s Lara de Liedekerke-Meier did so on her homebred five-star debutant, Hooney d’Arville, the cheer from the packed stands was colossal, and Lara’s emotion palpable. Then, she returned to the collecting ring, organised her feelings, celebrated with her horse, and didn’t watch either of the two rounds to come.

But she knew, part way through second-placed Jennifer Kuehnle’s round, that the 22-year-old Irish rider had tipped two poles, which was enough to push her up into second place.

‘Second place – that’s very good,’ she thought to herself, and settled into the comfortable notion no more of climbing – there was no way, after all, that Ros would have two fences down with her excellent jumping horse, who had won Pau last year over an equally tough showjumping track.

And then her husband, Belgian team trainer and former top-level German competitor Kai Steffen Meier, came towards her in the collecting ring.

“He didn’t say anything – he just came to me and he cried. He didn’t say anything!” she laughs. “Then he hugged me – ‘you won,’ he said. I said ‘no, Ros didn’t have two down – her horse is a good jumper.’  ‘No, no you won’, he said – and then all the Belgians arrived and jumped on me.”

Lara de Liedekerke-Meier and Hooney d’Arville. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Lara didn’t believe that it could be true until someone was able to pull up the live leaderboard and show her her name at the top – and the name of her eleven-year-old mare, in whom she’s placed so much hope. Ros Canter and Izilot DHI had indeed had two rails, both very close to the end of the course: the first had fallen at fence 11 of 13, and the second at the first part of the double at 12A. Both could have come down and still secured her the win, but the time on today’s track had proven hard to catch all morning long – and so ultimately, it was 2 time penalties that clinched it, moving Ros and ‘Isaac’ down to a very respectable fourth and opening the door for Lara to take the win by 0.4 penalties. In doing so, she becomes Belgium’s first-ever five-star winner, having climbed from first-phase sixth on a score of 31.6 plus 4 time penalties yesterday – but this week, her expectations had only ever gone as far as hoping to sharpen up her riding and reactions ahead of the Paris Olympics, for which she has an extraordinary five horses qualified.

“I never thought there would be a chance [of winning],” she admits. “I just knew I had a good horse, and I was in tunnel [vision] – I just wanted to jump the best round I could. I’m quite a slow rider in the jumping, which cost me victory at Boekelo last year,  and it cost me the Seven Year Old  World Championship last year, and so I thought, ‘you know what, it’s going to cost me something again – but let’s try to jump clear.’”

The girl came good: Lara de Liedekerke-Meier celebrates her special homebred Hooney. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

That acceptance allowed her to keep her head on the long pull down to the final fence, which followed along the edge of the arena after the influential double, and invited riders to rush and panic and or pull and miss to the last. But Lara was determined to do none of those things.

“A lot of people did nine [strides] to the last, and my jumping trainer said, ‘it’s definitely eight, so just keep going to the last one,’” she says. “I almost lifted my head to watch the clock [on the screen in front of me] but I didn’t, and then I didn’t care, I’d just jumped clear!”

Then, though, “I looked at the clock, and I was like ‘oh – we’re inside the time!’,” she laughs. “It’s just one of those days. I’m always watching them on social media and I’m never thinking I’m part of them. Maybe I should have a bit more self confidence here and there – but I do think that at some point, if you just keep working and keep believing and having good horses, then one day, it just comes together. Today was my day.”

Working and believing – in her horses, even if she struggles to believe in herself – have been the watchwords for Lara. She’s one of the busiest riders on the European eventing circuit, as evidenced by her abundance of Olympic-qualified horses, and she continually produces horses from the ground up, including those from her small breeding programme at Arville, where she’s based with Kai and their two children. And it’s always been hope, and that dogged belief, that’s pulled her through – even when thing have gotten really, really hard to deal with.

Lara de Liedekerke-Meier and Hooney d’Arville. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

One of the low points that she’s overcome came at this very venue. In 2011, Lara rode Hooney’s mother, the excellent Nooney Blue, at the European Championships here. Nooney Blue was, at that point, her horse of a lifetime: together, they’d come up through the Junior and Young Rider teams, and made their Senior debut at the 2010 World Championships.

But 2011 was to be her last year of competition.

“She broke down  in the European Championship during cross country, and that was the last time I rode her,” says Lara, who has referred to her successes here this week as ‘revenge on the past’. “She needed to go back in the trailer back to the stables. We didn’t know how bad the injury was, and then I just wanted to bring her home and to give her time and then we try to have a foal. At first it didn’t work, and then this one, Hooney, came. My dad will probably have already sent me a message that [this win] is thanks to him, who went to pick up the semen!”

Because Hooney had her mother’s huge shoes to fill, though, Lara found it difficult to remove the weight of expectation from her as she produced her.

“I’ve been really hard on this horse, because I think I was so emotionally involved,” she admits, explaining that she would take it personally if the mare made a mistake – an emotional response and tangible disappointment that then led to Hooney and her rider losing faith in one another.

“I so wanted her to become a good horse, and she has been really tricky. She’d have fences down, or go up in the dressage, or not look at jumps.  She’s proven [what a talent she is] today, but it was hard to believe [for a long time]. I knew that everyone was right, and she was a good horse, but I thought I was maybe just not the right rider, which was hard for me to understand.”

A partnership forged through meeting in the middle: Lara de Liedekerke-Meier and Hooney d’Arville. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The turning point came for the mare when Lara learned to remove the pressure – something that’s only totally fallen into place this season.

“I have four other horses qualified for the Olympics and I thought, ‘you know, she’s not ready to go for the Olympics anyway’, and I just took off the pressure,” she says. With that in mind, she decided to aim for a step up to five-star instead, to further develop her horse and also to give herself a challenge and keep herself on her A-game ahead of Paris.

“I never came here thinking I’m going to be [in the top spot]. I never thought I would even be at the press conference! Last time I did a 5* was in 2017, and it’s a long time — having children and building a business and all that, it took a lot of time,” she says.

Yesterday, she summed up the process of learning to work with the mare perfectly: “I didn’t take her just as one of the horses I had in my yard – it needed to be this horse who needed to step up. So I think maybe [her being tricky], it was more my mistake,” she said after her cross-country round.  “But now I accept that she cannot be under too much pressure. I accept that she’s sometimes a bit spooky. I accept that she jogs in the walk, and I think because she feels I’m not getting upset she tries harder, while before it was just like, she thought, ‘anyway, she’s never happy with me!’ I don’t think I was ever not happy with her, but I think she disappointed me. I was much more emotional about her. The other horses, they’d jog, and I’d say, ‘okay, they jog. I go do the job, I finish, it’s fine’. I’ve got all the time in the world for them, whereas with her it was always  like, ‘why didn’t she do it right?’”

Lara celebrates with her team, including husband Kai and groom Betti Cardi. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Even once she’d decided to make the entry here – an entry that husband Kai wasn’t initially on board with, as he didn’t want Lara to take unnecessary risks ahead of the Olympics – she had her doubts. Those came not least because of the recent tragic passing of Georgie Campbell, who was honoured this week by purple and white flower decorations around the main arena and who each and every rider had in their minds as they tackled the combined test of balancing competition and fresh, sharp grief.

“It’s been ten years now since Ben Winter died here, and now Georgie,” she says. “I still think the sport is fantastic, and I’m never doubting that I want to do this sport. But for sure, when you see your children while you’re leaving the start box… yesterday, I had a chat with Pietro Roman in the warm-up, and I said to him, ‘why are we doing this?’ But then you go and you just do it, and you have this partnership with your horse and everything that you’ve worked for for so long. And I think, we can have a car accident or something at any time, so we shouldn’t be scared of anything we love. Sometimes accidents do happen, and I try not to think like that, but for sure, when the stress level is high, you have all these misty emotions in your head. You have to make it clear. Yesterday, I jumped fence one with a lot of emotions, fence two with a lot of doubts, and from fence three, everything was clear again in my head.”

Nothing will ever completely heal the wound that’s left in the sport when we lose one of our own; the loss of Georgie, like the loss of Ben ten years ago, will knit over into a hard knot of scar tissue that we will all carry with us. But Lara’s words are a sage reminder of the love, the work, the passion, and the community that will keep us all working on making each day better than the last.

Lara de Liedekerke-Meier and Hooney d’Arville. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“I love it every day I do it. I love being with horses,” she says. That, too, pulled her up from her last low ebb two years ago, which marked the rock bottom before an incredible trajectory that she’s been climbing ever since.

“Two years ago was really hard. Falling at fence one at the World Championships was awful – when you’re on your head on the ground, and your horse is standing there, you’re just like, ‘no, I’ve got to wake up, it can’t be true.’  And then my husband changed job from a rider to the Team Manager for Belgium, and that changed a lot of my [mental] balance, too. I always wanted to please him and never put him in a position that he had to choose me over other people. I’m quite weak at staying strong mentally, and I need, really, to have an organisation and a plan. Now, I’m much stronger because I understand my mindset much easier, but before it was limited. Now I’m trusting the process much more.”

And now, too, we hope that Lara will see in herself what so many around her have seen for so long: a true champion.

Tom McEwen and CHF Cooliser. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Tom McEwen was able to climb up two places to finish second with CHF Cooliser, who finished in the same place at Pau on her five-star debut in 2021. This season marks a long-awaited return to competition for the sparky 14-year-old, who sat out 2023 after finishing eleventh at Burghley the autumn prior.

Her exceptional week as pathfinder for this class began with a 30.8, which was good enough to see her sit fourth after dressage. She held the same placing after yesterday’s cross-country, in which she added 5.2 time penalties while giving the rest of the field to come a confidence-boosting masterclass in how to navigate its twists and turns. Today, she added nothing to her score with an attacking, nippy round that, Tom explains with a laugh, was very much ‘Eliza’s’ way or the highway.

“I’m just delighted with the way that Cooliser went about her job today,” he says. “She’s very game – in the arena I remembered why I couldn’t  go any faster yesterday, because I don’t really have that much control [when I do!]. Even though I’ve barely asked her anything, she seems to want to have an argument and tell me that I’m wrong, so it’s just much easier going her way!”

But Eliza’s feisty red-headedness is what makes her such a gritty, great eventing horse – and Tom, who’s learned when and how to negotiate with her, and when to let her pick her pace and support her through it, is thrilled to have her back in his string of top-level horses.

“I’m delighted with how the whole week has gone with all my horses,” he says, referring to the game efforts of five-star debutant Brookfield Quality, who ran very well but pulled up late on course with a nosebleed, and JL Dublin, who he had in the CCI4*-S vying for Olympic selection.

Yasmin Ingham and Rehy DJ. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Another British rider doing double duty across the classes was Yasmin Ingham, who finished third in the CCI5* for the second year in a row with Rehy DJ and also executed a serious climb up from first-phase 28th place to do so.

“I think this is the story of eventing – it’s why it’s a three phase competition,” she says. “It’s never over until we finish on the final day, and you just need to believe; you must never give up.  I believe that I’m sat on a brilliant jumping horse — his best phases are the cross country and the showjumping, so I was very much looking forward to Saturday and Sunday this weekend.”

It was “a little bit disappointing”, she says, to begin her week on an uncharacteristic 36.9, but, she says sagely, “he just wasn’t quite on side with me as much as he can be, so we’ll go away and work a little bit harder with that and try and come out next time and be a little bit more competitive with the dressage. But my goodness, he is just the most incredible jumping horse, and he gives me the most amazing feeling in the showjumping. He’s careful and fast and an absolute pleasure to ride, so I feel very lucky to be the one piloting him.”

Yasmin Ingham and Rehy DJ. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Yas and ‘Piglet’s’ clear inside the time today boosted them a further three places from the 22 they climbed yesterday when adding just 2 time penalties to their first-phase score.

“He was very, very on it the whole way around,” she says of their cross-country round. “He never looks like he’s going that fast, but he’s very easy in that I don’t really have to set him up for the fences. He’s quite adjustable, so I can just ride in a rhythm the whole way around the course. He makes it easy for me to not be fighting – we just stay in the same cruising rhythm.”

“He was looking for the flags the whole way around and he was very brave and confident everywhere. I think it’s safe to say he likes Luhmühlen; he was third here last year as well, so I’m very proud of him to have another 5* podium.”

Their partnership has been forged from the earliest stages of Yas’s professional career.

“I’ve had him since a very, very young horse, and we’ve gone up the levels together. We were at the Young Rider Europeans in 2018 and he was fourth – he nearly won the Bronze medal. So to have come up from literally Novice together, it’s just a dream. I’m very proud of him for our journey together, and I’m excited to see that maybe we can climb even further up a 5*  leaderboard in the future.”

Ros Canter and Izilot DHI. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though Ros’s drop to fourth will be a surprise and a disappointment, the week has also been an incredible showcase of the quirky, talented young horse’s ability and mental maturity. He’s historically struggled with spooky demons, but this week, he danced his way to the first-phase lead on a score of 24.9 without batting an eyelid at all the decorations and atmosphere of the main arena, and then looked exceptional and totally focused across the country en route to adding just 2 time penalties and holding that lead overnight. Today, he jumped exceptionally, and while it wasn’t their day, Ros will no doubt leave the event emboldened by how well Isaac’s continuing development is going. And there will, make no doubt about it, be another major win on the horizon for them.

Alice Casburn and Topspin. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

22-year-old Alice Casburn was no doubt disappointed to begin her week with a dressage score of 38 – several points higher than expected –  with her homebred Topspin, but that disappointment will be far behind her.

Now, the pair can boast their third five-star top-ten finish, adding fifth place behind Ros and Izilot DHI in the final standings here to their Burghley seventh and fifth places, picked up in 2023 and 2022, respectively.

No one who has followed the pair for the past few seasons will be much surprised, though: they’ve now tackled seven five-stars, jumped clear around five of them, and squeezed in an individual bronze medal at the Young Rider Europeans in between them in 2022, too. Though Topspin, who still lives in the stable he was born in, and whose dam and granddam were competed by Alice’s mother, Caroline, isn’t a 20s scorer on the flat, he’s a canny, capable, confident cross-country horse and an excellent showjumper, as is his petite, gutsy rider. Together, the pair have tackled puissance courses, have showjumped plenty, have stepped up to the highest ranks of eventing, and have forged a partnership that looks like a pony novel writ large.

And, of course, today they jumped a quick clear round to add no penalties and become one of just two pairs to finish on their dressage score this week. It’s classic eventing at its best, and a testament, too, to Luhmühlen’s well-earned status as a five-star competition, even if it’s occasionally underestimated by those who’ve not yet been to it.

Kirsty Chabert and Opposition Heraldik Girl. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It would have been easy – and, perhaps, lazy – to have written off Kirsty Chabert’s teeny-weeny Opposition Heraldik Girl (yet another homebred!) coming into this event. It was to be her third-ever attempt at five-star; on her debut, which came at Pau last year, she was eliminated for a horse fall on cross-country, and at Badminton this year, she was withdrawn before cross-country.

But actually, though she be but little, she is fierce, and all that – something that could just as easily be said about Kirsty, who has produced the mare through her career. They’d had plenty of good, quite quick, decisive cross-country runs previously, and, most notably, a lot of very, very tidy showjumping rounds.

It was the latter that clinched an exceptional finish for the pair today over Luhmühlen’s notoriously big, tough, technical showjumping track. They’d been out in the boondocks after dressage, sitting 26th on a score of 36.7, but yesterday’s cross-country round, in which they added just 4.8 time penalties, saw them boosted to eighth place. Today, they delivered one of just six clears inside the tight time to step up another two places to a final sixth.

Jennifer Kuehnle and Polly Blue Eyes. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It’s been an extraordinary five-star debut for 22-year-old Irish rider Jennifer Kuehnle, who delivered the first clear round inside the time on yesterday’s cross-country with Polly Blue Eyes and then jumped a classy clear just after the major storm to add 14 time faults with second ride Sammy Davis Junior.

That was enough to put her in second with the first horse and twelfth with the second going into today’s showjumping finale – and when she came into the ring early in the order with Sammy Davis Junior, she showed exactly why, as a teenager, she enjoyed such success on showjumping teams. They delivered a capable clear just one second over the time allowed, which boosted them up to an eventual eighth.

The podium finish wasn’t to be with Polly Blue Eyes, but her two rails, which came at fence 8 and fence 12A, the first part of the double, only dropped her a handful of places, and she comes away from her first crack at this level in seventh with her German-bred mare. It’s an extraordinary testament to the rising talent in the Irish ranks – and the self-belief that Ireland’s recent successes, starting with Austin O’Connor’s victory at Maryland last year, are engendering among them.

David Doel and Galileo Nieuwmoed. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Great Britain’s David Doel and his Burghley runner-up Galileo Nieuwmoed added another five-star to their top-ten tally – they’ve previously placed at Burghley, Badminton, Pau, and Kentucky – and added their ninth consecutive international placing to their record when taking ninth place today. Though they might not have done so in the way they’d have like to, tipping fences 8 and 10 and adding 2 time penalties, they still roundly impressed this weekend: theirs was the fastest round of the day yesterday, some seventeen seconds inside the time, and it’s getting harder and harder to imagine that they’ll be kept out of the top spot at this level for long.

Pietro Sandei and Rubis de Prere. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Italy’s Pietro Sandei and his stalwart partner, the nineteen-year-old Rubis de Prere, put a tricky morning behind them – they were held for the second time this week at this morning’s final horse inspection – to deliver the goods in the ring. They left every jump in its cup and added a relatively scant 1.2 time penalties to put a cap on their weeklong climb from nineteenth and finish tenth – their best-ever finish at the level.

Emily Hamel and Corvett. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Emily Hamel and Corvett jumped a characteristic ebullient round that unfortunately tipped one rail – the first part of the double at 12A – and saw them add 2.8 time penalties, but that didn’t stop many of the riders gathered around the ringside from digging their start lists out of their pockets to check out the breeding of big-jumping ‘Barry’ and marvel at the pair’s style. It also wasn’t a mistake that cost them any placings from last night’s finish; in fact, they were able to climb one spot to finish fifteenth, completing a very respectable rise from first-phase 35th.

Katherine Coleman and Monbeg Senna had two late-course rails down at fences 10 and 11, and they, too added time, putting an additional 3.6 time penalties on their score card to take 30th place. Their weekend, which saw them battle some of the worst of the weather on the cross-country course yesterday, will have given the talented gelding a wealth of valuable experience as Katherine looks ahead to, hopefully, an autumn start at Boekelo’s Nations Cup finale and then a trip to Kentucky next spring, all being well.

And so, for now, we come to the end of the CCI5* at Luhmühlen – but that’s not all from us. Keep it locked on EN for a full report from today’s CCI4*-S showjumping finale, which also hosted the German National Championships and acts as a crucial final selection trial for the Paris Olympics, and stand by, too, for plenty more from Germany over the next few days, including an exclusive interview with Lara de Liedekerke-Meier and husband Kai on balancing team and marital duties, the uptick of Belgium, and much, much more.

Until then: Go Eventing!

The top ten after an emotional whirlwind of a morning at the Luhmühlen CCI5*.

EN’s coverage of the Longines Luhmühlen Horse Trials is brought to you by Kentucky Performance Products, your go-to source for science-backed nutritional support across all types of horses, disciplines, and needs. Click here to learn more about what KPP can do for your horse — thank you for supporting our wonderful sponsors!

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