EN’s coverage of the 2021 FEI Longines European Eventing Championships is brought to you in part by Kentucky Performance Products. Click here to learn more about Kentucky Performance Products and its wide array of supplements available for your horse.
Everywhere you turn at a championship, there’s another super story of perseverance and positivity against the odds — and we’ve heard plenty of great ones already. Catch up with some of the riders who came forward for their tests on day one, logging personal bests, big debuts, and positive starts galore.
Championship debutant Jordy Wilken of the Netherlands wasn’t just the first up to bat for his own team — he was also the first rider in the ring today, and acts as everyone’s pathfinder this week. But the pressure doesn’t seem to affect the jovial 27-year-old, who is also a major social media star. Instead, he tells us with a broad grin, he loves it. And that showed: he piloted his longtime partner, the lanky grey Burry Spirit, to a 33.4 — his best-ever CCI4*-L mark that proved that time and patience pays off. They sit 23rd as we go into the second day of dressage.
“I’m really happy — my horse was amazing,” he says. “I had two little mistakes [in the changes], but they were all on me this time. I think it was his best test of this year; it couldn’t be better, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Jordy and Burry have come up through the levels together, jumping clear around a number of tough four-star tracks and making their CCI5* debut this year after becoming Reserve Dutch National Champions in 2019. Though they have an undeniably strong partnership that’s at its best across the country, 15-year-old Burry isn’t a natural dressage horse; he’s big, long, and doesn’t find the work particularly easy. But Jordy has persevered with the aim of producing clean, correct tests and making sure his horse feels great — a long-term goal that paid dividends as Jordy tackles his first-ever Senior championship.
“He was really tense [at Luhmühlen CCI5*, where he scored 40.3], and so we looked at him really good with my vet and made everything better,” he says. “And I’ve been doing dressage with Joyce Heutink and that works really well — it’s a super match. Now he’s less tense in his body, and he’s more relaxed, so I can ride him a little more. I think that’s the big difference. He’s a fighter, so when I go out on cross-country, he always fights as hard as he can for me. And sometimes in dressage, he wants to fight a little too much, too! He’s a little like me — we want to do good and sometimes, that makes us make mistakes. So yeah, I think we found balance there. And it looks like it works!”
It’s been a great start to the week for Jordy and Burry — and for the Dutch team, who sit fifth after the first two rider rotations.
“The thing is, you go out there and do your best,” he muses about his debut. “And of course, there is the team — but you need to do your own test, I think, and I’m quite okay with that. So I can handle the pressure; it’s not a big issue for me.
Ireland’s Sam Watson is a late addition to the team, filling in the considerable gap left by the withdrawals of Steve Smith and Fred Scala a week ago. His ride is Ballybolger Talisman, who left Ireland for the first time just over a week ago to compete at CHIO Aachen, where the pair acted as trailblazers. Now, the ten-year-old Irish Sport Horse is stepping up to the big leagues, making his team debut as pathfinder in what is only his eleventh FEI start. They started their campaign this week with a tidy test for 33.5 and provisional 24th place.
“I’m happy with that now to be honest, because he’s a COVID baby and his first time leaving Ireland was last week,” says Sam. “He was initially the reserve for here, because he’s so young and inexperienced, and so we said Aachen was plan A. I knew, going to Aachen, that there was a spot available to come here, and so I thought, ‘if we keep some petrol in the tank at Aachen and just let him get the experience there, it should bring him along for here.’ And I think it’s worked. He tried last week, and he tried again this week — he’s electric, and he’s so blood, so he so wants to explode but he didn’t. I’m really proud of them when they do that; they kind of hold it together on the big stage. I can’t wait to go cross-country on him, because that’s really his forte.”
Although Talisman isn’t a homebred, he’s adopted the Ballybolger prefix of Sam’s business because he so thoroughly represents the stamp of horse that Sam aims to produce for the upper levels.
“I bought him from Rosemary Ponsonby when he was four, and I said, ‘would you mind if we put the Ballybolger prefix on?’ We have a lot from Rosemary as well, and he’s obviously another Puissance offspring. I’ve had lots of them, so he’s really my cup of tea.”
Sam’s previous Puissance mounts include Horseware Lukeswell, Horseware Bushman, Horseware Ardagh Highlight, and Imperial Sky. If that doesn’t make you prick your ears and tune in for Talisman’s cross-country round on Saturday, we’re not sure what will.
Germany’s Anna Siemer makes her team debut at the European Championships after competing as an individual at the 2019 edition with her blood mare, FRH Butts Avondale. Like Jordy and Sam, she’s in the pathfinder role this week, and she hasn’t stopped pinching herself about it all since she arrived.
“It’s just unbelievable — to be in a team with your superheroes next to you, and they are in the team with you, that’s quite cool!” she says, gesturing towards teammates Ingrid Klimke, Michael Jung, and Andreas Dibowski. “I always think that I am in a team, my horse and I are a small team, a small gang, but to be in the ‘big team’ is very cool. They all watched my dressage!”
Not only does Anna get to enjoy her well-deserved place alongside three legends of the sport, she also gets the unique honour of being on the last championship team helmed by chef d’equipe Hans Meltzer, who will step down at the end of this season. For Anna, it’s rather like coming full circle.
“Hans retires this year, and — I have to think about how old I am now — for more than twenty years, I was already in a team with him. He was our pony [squad] trainer, so this is really cool. We went to Hartpury in England [in 1997 for the Pony Europeans] and I was an individual, and then the next year I was in the team. I couldn’t have imagined, twenty years later — still together with the same husband, and still together with the same trainer!”
Anna and Avondale began their week with a 31.5, putting them in overnight 17th place after a late second change — annoyingly, ordinarily their better of the two.
“Dressage is to qualify for cross-country,” Anna shrugs with a smile. “In the end, this is not her test — the other test is more technical and you can show more. But anyway — we’re qualified, and I’m in the team, you know!”
British-based Swede Sofia has had a bit of a jetsetting year — though totally unintentionally. She travelled from her base at the yard of dressage superstar Laura Tomlinson to Portugal’s Barroca d’Alva at the beginning of the year with Ireland’s Cathal Daniels, but as they made their way south, they were met with news of the event’s cancellation. At that point, the European EHV crisis was at its peak, and Laura’s yard went into lockdown to protect her horses — and so Sofia temporarily relocated to Ireland, basing herself at Cathal’s yard until it was safe to move back to England. The weeks turned into months, but now, she’s safely ensconced back at her base, and making the best possible use of the different training perspectives she’s had through the year. That resulted in a solid test for a personal best of 30.3, enough to put her and Bryjamolga van het Marienshof Z into twelfth place at the end of the first day of dressage in Sofia’s first Senior Championship.
“She was the best she’s ever felt,” she says. “It’s been about getting her relaxed enough in a test to really listen, and she felt like she went in and tried really hard.”
The trot work in the first third of the test saw the pair trend in the mid-20s, though they added some penalties in the canter work later on.
“I’m really kicking myself — I just got her into the white boards a bit as we went into the canter, but I couldn’t have asked for more from her,” she says. The ten-year-old mare’s breeding — she’s a Zangersheide by Bamako de Muse Z and out of a Lord Z mare — might make her more obviously suited for showjumping on paper, but Sofia has worked hard to make this phase easier for her. In her quest for dressage success, she’s sought help from eventing power couple Tim and Jonelle Price.
“She finds the dressage quite difficult, but it’s just been about getting her to go in and put herself together for a short period of time and know it’s not going to be too long,” she explains. “Tim’s really helped me, and in the last two or three weeks, something’s really clicked on the flat. He got me to shorten my reins, and he’s helped me to not be afraid to ask more of her. Before, I’d be like, ‘oh, but she finds it so difficult,’ and he’s like, ‘stop babying her — come on!'”
The proof is in the pudding, and the mare looked on the ball throughout the fiddly test: “after the first halt, when I started into the shoulder-in, normally she’ll run off with me after we’ve come off the centreline. So I sat up and waited for her to go, but I didn’t feel it — so that was great, and then I was so focused on doing our thing.”
The last time we saw Ireland’s Cathal Daniels at a Europeans, he took home the individual bronze with his tiny chestnut mare Rioghan Rua. That was at Luhmühlen in 2019, and this time around, he’s giving Red the week off and focusing his attention on another feisty mare — this time, the eleven-year-old LEB Lias Jewel, who finished ninth in her five-star debut at Luhmühlen earlier this year. This week, she looks even stronger physically, and produced a 31.1 test to sit sixteenth at the end of the day.
“I think she did a very good job,” he says. “The mare herself is very inexperienced; she’s got very nice form, but away from home she’s only done Blenheim CCI4*-L [in 2019] and Luhmühlen. So it’s all quite new, for sure, and I think there’s five or six more marks that can be shaved off in the future. She’s an incredible jumper and a cross-country machine, and very fast — so to get a nice score in this is good. Of course I’d have liked a better score, but there’s still a lot to do this weekend.”
The mare was on track to produce a personal best sub-30 mark, but some tension crept into the walk and she tossed her head and jogged for a step or two in response to the flies. But, says Cathal, she used to be a dramatic head shaker, so this is an enormous improvement on her earlier work in the school. Now, Cathal considers her his next generation team superstar.
“A championship like this suits her a lot more — she comes here and works here for a week, and then goes in and is more settled. She’s a little bit hot and stressed, and very fiery, which suits her on Saturday. I seem to be attracted [to the feisty ones] — they seem to come my way!”
When the mare, who’s owned by her breeder Jo Breheny, joined Cathal’s string, she wasn’t a particularly brave cross-country horse — but the trick to helping her embrace the job has been finding her strengths and letting them take centre stage.
“Each time we moved her up, I was a bit cautious — but we’ve never looked back. She’s small and she’s careful, and speed is her best friend, so she’s learned from early on that every time we go out — whether it’s a one-day or a three-day or a small show or whatever, we always go fast, just to keep the revs up and keep the momentum. Some horses can jump around cross-country for a nice hack, and others will find that very difficult, so I think for her, speed is her friend.”