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If you were a person partial to making grand statements ahead of a day of dressage, you probably wouldn’t have been putting much on the line by suggesting that Germany’s Ingrid Klimke and SAP Hale Bob OLD, the two-time reigning European Champions, might just go into the lead in today’s second day of dressage in Avenches. And although yesterday’s leaders, Great Britain’s Nicola Wilson and JL Dublin, set a lofty bar for them to clear with their 20.9, they did do just that, nailing an extraordinary 20.2 to the board — but theirs is far from the only incredible feat we witnessed today. Throughout the 33 tests performed, we’ve seen huge personal bests, comebacks galore, and some quite remarkable riding, with plenty of surprises and lots of tears of joy along the way. (The riders’, not ours. Maybe.)
But first, let’s talk about Ingrid. She’s had a pretty tumultuous year, as things go: first, her top-level dressage horse, who was longlisted for Tokyo, was injured, and then Asha P, one of her Tokyo hopefuls for the eventing, was ruled out, too. Not long after, Ingrid herself suffered a laundry list of injuries after a crashing fall from up-and-comer Cascamara, and she’s been sidelined for much of the summer. It hasn’t all been bad, mind you: she was able to support and watch on as her daughter, Greta Busacker, became Young Rider European Champion, which surely must have helped relight her fire as she set her sights on her comeback campaign and, if all goes to plan, a third consecutive win in the Senior European Championships.
And boy oh boy, a 20.2 isn’t too shabby a start, is it? But even though seventeen-year-old ‘Bobby’ is one of the most experienced and accomplished horses in the sport, a foot-perfect test wasn’t guaranteed: the pair had to enter the arena in the wake of a tumult of applause and cheers for Maxime Livio, who had posted a 21.3 just moments before.
“He thought maybe we are on cross-country already,” she laughs, “and so I knew I had to take an extra loop to calm him down [before entering at A]. But the moment I entered the ring, I knew exactly that he knows his job inside out, so I can really enjoy it, and I could ride very precisely from point to point. After so many years now, it’s really a pleasure to ride through a test when you know he’s absolutely focused and with me.”
Their appealing test earned them 9s across the board for harmony — and some much-coveted 10s for their final centre line — and that comes down entirely to their long, fruitful, communicative partnership.
“It’s so much trust,” she says fondly. “I didn’t ride him that long because I know that he knows all the movements, so I thought it’s better to keep him a bit fresh because the ground is so deep — but I didn’t realise he was that fresh!”
Bobby was kept in work throughout Ingrid’s convalescence by her head girl, Carmen Thiemann, who she credits with keeping him feeling at his very best and younger than his years.
“Carmen rode him for ten weeks alone, and she did all the training and kept him healthy and happy,” she says. “I think that while he wasn’t competing that much, he [felt] even younger! She knows him inside and out, and I think that’s why he was so full of himself and happy, because he didn’t have to do so much this year!”
Ingrid was delighted, though, to take back the ride on her top horse, who she campaigned at Arville alongside Equistros Siena Just Do It to get herself back into competitive fitness.
“That was the first show where I felt healthy and strong enough to make it,” she says. “I rode the two horses to make sure I could make it, and week by week, it’s getting better — and as soon as I’m on a horse, I feel nothing. When I was in Arville, I said ‘[riding Bobby] is like coming home.’ We know each other so inside out and when I came out and trotted he was really like, ‘everyone’s looking!’ You can really switch him on and off; as soon as he’s in the barn or grazing, he’s very relaxed and easy, and as soon as you get on, he’s excited. I love it, really.”
It’s an enviable start to the week, and Ingrid remains calm, unfazed, and evidently brimming with joy ahead of the two phases to come — despite the huge pressure of defending her title and the chance to become just the third rider in history to win three consecutive European Championships.
“I know I have a wonderful horse, and I wish to do it for him, but I have to help him and support him to prove that he is the best horse in the world,” she says.
Yesterday’s leaders were nudged further down to bronze medal position ahead of cross-country by teammates Ros Canter and Allstar B, who earned a 20.6 to move into silver. But Ros’s ride on her reigning World Champion was rather the opposite of Ingrid’s: in the heat of the afternoon sun, ‘Albie’ was almost too calm in the collecting ring, and Ros enlisted the help of the British team supporters to loudly cheer as they entered the arena in a bid to perk him up.
“He pricked his ears for about half a second, and then he was like…” she shrugs demonstratively, then smiles and continues. “Honestly, he’s just the most rideable horse I’ve ever had in a dressage test. He doesn’t change, regardless of the atmosphere or anything else, and he just lets me ride for every mark. That’s where his heart shines, and it always has done: time and time again, he does mistake-free tests.”
As anchors for the British team, who lead by nearly five marks over the Germans, there was enormous pressure to perform — particularly as each of their previous teammates had posted sub-25 scores. But the pressure was uniquely intensified by the fact that the fan-favourite horse hasn’t run in a competition of this significance since his WEG win in 2018 — and as the travelling reserve for the Olympic team, his summer was largely spent training and travelling. So although he’s been out and about picking up impressive placings at CCI4*-S competitions, and scored a win in Ballindenisk’s CCI4*-L in 2019, this is the first time he’s really had a chance to get back out in front of his fans as the incumbent World Champion.
“It’s a lot of pressure coming out on him again, but equally, I want to enjoy every moment, because I know I haven’t got many left with him,” says Ros of the 16-year-old Dutch Warmblood, who she owns in conjunction with Caroline Moore. “But he does always make me work for it — I’m sweating more than he is! He quite enjoys the first halt, and I think he’d like to stay there for the rest of the test. But we know each other inside out, and he’s so solid that I know I can go in there and really attack it.”
Sitting less than half a penalty behind Nicola, who holds bronze overnight, is France’s Maxime Livio, who returns to Avenches after winning June’s CCI4*-S with the eleven-year-old Api du Libaire. That’s no small advantage when it comes to tomorrow’s uniquely twisting, challenging course — but first, he needed to put a serious score on the board to put himself in contention against this strong field, which saw 28 riders go sub-30 over the two days of dressage. And he certainly accomplished that: his 21.3 is his best-ever international test across a storied career.
“I just had to do my job with my horse,” he says with a particularly Gallic nonchalance. “We knew since the beginning that his talent in all three phases is really, really nice, and he can try to fight for the best scores and with the best horses in the world.”
Unlike the two super-experienced campaigners ahead of him, Api du Libaire is inexperienced and makes his championship debut this week, in what is just his 19th career FEI start.
“It’s his first Championship, so it’s good to be where we want today, and it’s good to do it for the team, but it is a three-day event,” he says. “He can be here and there at any time, but when he is not with me he’s not spooky, he’s just looking around — like a kid, but not a bad kid, just someone who’s pleased to be here and would like to see everything. So my job is to try to show him a lot; I rode him a lot during the week, not to work but to look. Like, you can look, but when we work, we work. I’m pleased, because he was totally connected to me, and when he’s like this he’s a super student, because he tries all the time to be square in the halt and to walk like I want.”
Maxime has ridden the gelding for just two years, taking over from fellow Frenchman Baptiste Salaun and using the fallow period of the pandemic to build a partnership with the established horse.
“An owner of mine had me buy quite an old horse, to have one more horse for the championships — but it’s quite a big bet when you buy an older horse, because you don’t know how the combination will match. It was quite fast for him in the beginning, because he had done only three-star, and in six months with me he did four-star short, four-star long, and then the next season he won Lignieres [CCI4*-L] — and now he’s at the Europeans!”
“He’s a big attitude in a small package,” laughs British individual Sarah Bullimore of diminutive Corouet, her homebred pocket rocket with whom she sits fifth overnight on a 22.8. He might need stilts if he wants to reach 16hh, but he’s proven time and time again that he can play with the big boys — and live up to the huge expectations set by his dam, Lilly Corinne, who Sarah rode at the 2015 European Championships.
“It’s fabulous to have ridden his mother at my last Europeans and then have him here — it’s really special,” says Sarah, who was slightly disappointed not to have produced a test to match the sub-20 she delivered with this horse at Burgham’s CCI4*-S in July.
“He was fabulous — he went in and got a little bit tight and excited, but he actually kept it all together,” she says. “I’m just a little bit frustrated because there were still bits that can be so much better; both changes are normally his highlight and they weren’t quite right.”
That those ‘not quite right’ changes still scored 7.5s and 8s is a testament to how exceptional Corouet’s work is: Sarah can even ride two-tempis on him in training, such is his balance and collection.
“Even when [the changes] are bad, they’re good with him — I’m lucky with that, because he’s so fabulous. We didn’t quite get them right today, so I’m slightly berating myself, but you know, he’s still a work in progress and there’s so much more to come from him.”
That ‘more to come’ includes the next two days of competition — and Mike Etherington-Smith’s go-kart style track, with its myriad twists and turns, should well suit the compact, adjustable little gelding.
“Hopefully it won’t feel quite so twisty for me — just like a few little curves,” she laughs. “It should feel easier for him than some of these bigger guys, but he does have a huge stride, so there’s that. But he’s so well-balanced, so hopefully he’ll cope with it really well.”
Though we’ve all come to expect hugely competitive performances from three-time European Champion, Olympic gold medallist and former World Champion Michael Jung, it’s fair to say that we rather underestimated nine-year-old fischerWild Wave, whose previous four-star scores have trended much higher in the 20s and even into the 30s. But something special has clicked for the gelding since we saw him post a 30.1 in his CCI5* debut at Luhmühlen in June, and today he added a bit of sparkle to his very correct, polished test to put a 23.9 on the board and move into seventh place, less than a penalty behind sixth-placed Piggy March and Brookfield Inocent, who did their test yesterday.
“He’s an amazing horse, and a young horse, but it’s very nice when you feel he’s getting better and better and better in the last competitions and last weeks,” says Michael, who made waves — forgive us — on the horse’s FEI debut back in 2018 when they scored a 17.3 in a CCI2*-S at Pratoni in Italy. Since then, Michael — and on several occasions, Italy’s Pietro Grandis, who rides for him — has delivered some exciting results, including a 22.7 at CCI3*, but has never dipped below 27 at four-star before today. For Michael, these are all building blocks along the way to building the Holsteiner into his next champion.
“He’s a very smart horse. He has a lot of power, and you don’t expect that when you see him, but he has a lot of Thoroughbred, a lot of power, a lot of temperament inside. He’s a big galloping horse, with a lot of energy and endurance, and a lot of scope for the jumping. I think he’s a really top horse for the five-star classes,” he says — and with an eleventh place finish at the level under his belt already, it’s easy to see why he might be a bit excited. But riding a young up-and-comer at a championship is a different story to piloting some of his previous mounts, such as the inimitable Sam, who had such a wealth of experience. But regardless of which horse he finds himself sitting on, Michael’s end goal always remains the same: to do the very best he can and ensure every piece of the puzzle falls into place for his horses in the face of enormous expectations.
“For sure, the pressure is always there,” he says. “I don’t have the pressure from the loudspeaker — I have the pressure from myself, and from my team, because everybody is working hard for our success every day. I really love what I do, but it’s not just that we do it for fun. So we want to win, we want to be good, we want to make everything 100% perfect for our horses, with super management in the stable — it’s not just the riding. For sure, when we sit on the horses, we want to do our best, but that’s not always working.”
Olympic non-travelling reserves Kitty King and her Selle Français Vendredi Biats were best-placed of the Brits when they competed as individuals at the 2019 European Championships, finishing seventh, and they start their weekend here just one step below that in overnight eighth on a 24.1 — and such is the strength of the British team here this year that at this stage, that’s actually their drop score. But that certainly doesn’t mean that their test disappointed in any way: a 24.1 is a 24.1, after all, and ‘Froggy’ looked mature and rideable, with none of the cheekiness that he’s occasionally exhibited between the boards in prior seasons. In fact, Kitty tells us, he was perhaps too laid back today.
“He slightly dried up behind my leg,” she explains. “He did a really nice first centre line and halt, and then around the top corner he just went a bit behind me, which then was slightly the theme for the whole test. I was thinking, ‘come on, keep taking me forward!’ But he tried really hard, and it was pretty mistake free — and he got his changes, which can be a bit spicy at times, because he can be a bit cold-backed in them. I could’ve squeezed a few more marks out of him but overall, I’m chuffed that he went in and didn’t make any mistakes, and we didn’t let the team down.”
Froggy’s day was certainly one of two halves: though he was slightly behind the leg in his test, he began his day with a rodeo impression on the lunge that filled Kitty with trepidation for what was to come in the ring.
“He was broncing and rearing — I only wanted to give him five minutes, but he ended up doing about twenty-five, because he was just cantering around and around and wouldn’t settle,” she says. “So he was quite full of it this morning, and he’s come out much better — which was a bit of a relief! I was watching him on the lunge thinking, ‘this is not the time to have a cold-backed day!’ But he was much better when I got on the second time — thank god!”
As the third rider in the British team rotation, Kitty went into the ring knowing that both Nicola and Piggy had already laid down super scores, securing a significant lead that she needed to bolster.
“You want to do as good a job as them and not let anyone down — you don’t want to be the one being dragged along and being held with your head above the water by your teammates,” she says with a laugh. “You want to be there for them and get as good a score as you can — so I’m really chuffed, and it’s great to be part of such a great band of girls. A bit of girl power!”
The story of the day — besides the leads held by Ingrid individually and the Brits on the team leaderboard — has to be that of the Austrians, who sit fourth in the team standings after a series of truly exceptional tests. Dr. Harald Ambros and Lexikon 2 moved into equal eighth place on 24.1 at the end of the day, adding their super score to those of Robert Mandl (13th on 26.3 after his test with Sacré-Coeur yesterday) and Lea Seigl (24th on 28.7 today with Van Helsing), plus the current drop score of 35.6 by Katrin Khoddam-Hazrati and the inexperienced Oklahoma 2 to move their country within touching distance of the podium. For this ‘developing’ eventing nation, it’s an extraordinary performance so far — and for three-time Olympian Harald, whose horse has only ever gone sub-30 once at four-star, it’s been a long time coming,
“He was working really good in dressage, but you don’t always come out with 100% of the horse’s ability,” he says. “Especially in a stadium like this — the applause before, the speaker, everything can make them a little more nervous, but not today. He was really, really cool and 100% with me and so we could make the whole test like I wanted to have it.”
Harald has had the twelve-year-old German Sport Horse since he was a three-year-old — and although he’s broken in a lot of young horses in his time, he says that Lexikon was by far the most complicated. Even now, he tells us, he’s not a straightforward ride.
“He’s very focused on me, and if another person is sitting on him, he gets really nervous and always wants to go forward after that — and that can make a difficult way,” he says. “I’ve never broken in a horse for so long before — it took half a year. First it was possible to go to the right, then you’d go to the left and he’d canter away like a mustang, against the wall and everything, because it was the other side. So he needed a lot of time in the small classes. If you have a sensitive horse like this, he knows everything I do — but he makes everything I do great tomorrow, hopefully, too.”
The top ten is rounded out by Dutch National Champion Merel Blom and her Tokyo mount The Quizmaster, who reroutes after a frustrating elimination for missing a fence at the Games but, as Merel sagely points out, has no idea that he had anything other than a great round. They head into cross-country on a 24.4 — just ten seconds off the lead.
If that sounds like quite a lot, think again. We’ll be bringing you a closer look at the cross-country challenge to come, beginning at 11.00 a.m. local time/10.00 a.m. BST/5.00 a.m. Eastern, but for now, let us say this: Mike Etherington-Smith has built what riders are roundly calling a ‘true championship track’, with tough twists and turns, direct routes that wouldn’t look out of place on a five-star track, and above all, plenty of places to lose valuable time on the clock. Expect plenty to change, and some surprise heroes to appear — and tune into EN for all the updates you could possibly want throughout the day!
Until next time: Go Eventing!