Reporter’s Notebook: Much Ado About Aachen

Kim Severson and Cooley Cross Border racing for the finish at Aachen 2018. Photo by Jenni Autry.

CHIO Aachen — it’s one of those shows where you arrive at the venue and feel the energy vibrating beneath your feet. Red-eye flight and distinct lack of sleep be damned — you can’t step through those hallowed gates at Aachen and feel anything less than invigorated.

I have been very lucky to cover the U.S. eventing team on three of the four occasions we have sent a team to this storied venue. Nestled near the juncture where Germany meets the Netherlands and Belgium, Aachen first held a horse show in 1924 and has hosted a show nearly every year since. After hosting the 2006 FEI World Equestrian Games, Aachen continued holding vibrant team competitions annually in eventing, show jumping, dressage, combined driving and vaulting. Known appropriately as the World Equestrian Festival, Aachen attracts more than 350,000 spectators across 10 thrilling days of competition.

Aachen at sunset 🌅 #chioaachen2018 #officeview #summernights

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For pure show jumping and dressage, Aachen is considered the most prestigious horse show in Europe. For eventing, the CICO3* at Aachen is considered to be the closest event to a true championship outside of the Olympics and WEG. Show jumping is held in the colossal Hauptstadion, which seats 40,000 people and is about twice the size of the main stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park. The cross country course ends in the main stadium in front of packed stands and an exuberant crowd.

While technically a CIC3* track, Rüdiger Schwarz’s twisting, technical cross country course would better be described as more of a 7-minute CCI4* championship course. The top teams in the world send their best horses to Aachen for a reason: It takes an extremely strong performance across all three phases to be competitive at this venue.

Case in point: Take a look at the last five winners of the Aachen CICO3*, all German —

2014 – Sandra Auffarth and Opgun Louvo – Reigning World Champions
2015 – Ingrid Klimke and SAP Escada FRH – 2015 Luhmühlen CCI4* winners
2016 – Michael Jung and fischerTakinou – 2015 European Champions
2017 – Ingrid Klimke and SAP Hale Bob OLD – 2017 European Champions
2018 – Julia Krajewski and Chipmunk FRH – Bramham winners on a record CCI3* finishing score of 19.4

Ingrid Klimke and SAP Escada FRH, winners of Aachen 2015. As the venue also hosted the FEI European Championships for show jumping and dressage that year, the first two phases for eventing took place in the Fahrstadion, which typically hosts combined driving at Aachen. Photo by Jenni Autry.

The U.S. so rarely has the opportunity to compete against horses and riders of this caliber, and this year’s Aachen field was no different. In addition to defending winners Ingrid Klimke and SAP Hale Bob OLD, we also saw 2017 Burghley CCI4* winners Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class, 2017 Adelaide CCI4* winners Clarke Johnstone and Balmoral Sensation, 2017 Boekelo CCIO3* winners Tim Price and Cekatinka, reigning Dutch National Champions Tim Lips and Bayro, and 2016 Bramham CCI3* winners Yoshi Oiwa and Calle 44.

While the vast majority of powerhouse eventing nations have sent teams annually to Aachen since the venue first started hosting a CICO3* in 2007, the U.S. did not send a team until 2013. David O’Connor, who coached the U.S. team at the time, corrected this oversight, as he rightly realized Aachen’s value as the closest simulation to a true championship the U.S. can experience apart from the Olympics and WEG.

Tiana Coudray and Ringwood Magister at Aachen 2013. It absolutely poured during cross country day that year — a stark contrast to the hot, arid conditions we saw this year. Photo by Jenni Autry.

The U.S. team’s relationship with Aachen had a rather inauspicious start. The first team sent in 2013 — made up of Tiana Coudray and Ringwood Magister, Clark Montgomery and Universe, Marilyn Little and RF Smoke on the Water, and Will Faudree and Pawlow — was the only team not to complete that year. Tiana and Ringwood Magister finished 10th as the highest placed U.S. pair, with Clark and Universe finishing 35th as the only other pair on the team to complete.

The U.S. did not send a team to Aachen in 2014 due to resources being allocated to WEG that year. Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen competed as individuals but were eliminated on cross country.

The following year in 2015 saw a full U.S. team return to Aachen with a much more positive result. While Colleen Rutledge and Covert Rights were eliminated on cross country, three of the four team members completed. Phillip Dutton and Fernhill Cubalawn led the way for the team in 12th place, with Lauren Kieffer finishing 15th aboard Veronica.

Phillip Dutton and Fernhill Cubalawn at Aachen 2015. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Lynn Symansky and Donner picked up 20 jumping penalties on cross country, but still delivered what proved to be an important counting score for the team. When Britain’s Holly Woodhead and DHI Lupison were ultimately eliminated due to missing a flag, the British team lost their spot on the podium, with the U.S. team boosted up to finish in third place.

In 2016 the U.S. returned with a team hoping to once again top the podium, but things did not go to plan. Hannah Sue Burnett and Harbour Pilot and Phillip Dutton and Indian Mill both delivered clear cross country rounds for the team to finish 11th and 17th, respectively. But Lauren Kieffer and Landmark’s Monte Carlo and Matt Brown and Super Socks BCF both added 20 jumping penalties, which resulted in the team finishing sixth. This is the only year in which all four U.S. team riders completed.

Hannah Sue Burnett and Harbour Pilot at Aachen 2016. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

The U.S. did not send a full team to Aachen last year. Hannah Sue Burnett and RF Demeter represented the U.S. as individuals and delivered the best American result at Aachen to date, finishing in seventh individually. Lauren Kieffer and Veronica also represented the U.S. as individuals but were eliminated on cross country.

That brings us to the 2018 running of Aachen. A particularly grueling year saw a 27% clear show jumping rate and a 68% clear cross country rate with a slew of surprising problems for key contenders. Ingrid Klimke and SAP Hale Bob OLD picked up 20 jumping penalties, and Julia Krajewski and Samourai du Thot were eliminated on refusals. Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class parted ways at the first water complex, and Tim Lips and Bayro retired at the first combination on course.

Kim Severson and Cooley Cross Border. Photo by Jenni Autry.

As for our U.S. team, Kim Severson and Cooley Cross Border and Buck Davidson and Carlevo jumped clear cross country rounds, albeit with double-digit time penalties, to finish 21st and 23rd, respectively. Lauren Kieffer and Landmark’s Monte Carlo were close to their minute markers when they picked up 20 jumping penalties at the second water complex. Will Coleman and OBOS O’Reilly were eliminated on refusals.

The U.S. has now sent teams to Aachen on four different occasions. Three of those four teams completed and delivered a third-place podium finish in 2015, sixth-place finish in 2016 and fourth-place finish in 2018. A U.S. team has yet to deliver three counting scores without cross country jumping penalties at Aachen.

The entire U.S. team, including Chef d’Equipe Erik Duvander, sat down with me at Aachen after cross country to discuss their takeaways from the weekend. While Erik officially took up the role as U.S. High Performance Director for Eventing in October 2017, Aachen was only the second time he has coached the U.S. thus far in a team environment — the first being the FEI Nations Cup leg at Great Meadow earlier this month.

Julia Krajewski and Chipmunk FRH, winners of Aachen 2018. Photo by Jenni Autry.

“Aachen is important to me because it’s the only time you can practice a real team championship feeling. It’s quite unique,” Erik said. “If we want to be competitive, we need to have our team well planned ahead, and we need to target certain combinations for the right reasons.”

Erik said he thinks team combinations and reserves for Aachen should be notified as soon as possible after their spring CCI in order to allow adequate time to prepare for the caliber of competition we see at Aachen — though he stressed that isn’t the only piece to the puzzle.

“We also need to have more self belief so that our riders ride forward distances on the cross country and don’t play it a little bit too safe by adding a stride. It is a trick to get around this course if you want to win, which I also think is very possible for us, but you have to really understand what you are dealing with,” Erik said.

“The cross country is very specific here. It rides faster than anywhere else. It’s turning and very technical at a four-star level — not size-wise, but when you put speed on it, even the best riders make mistakes. Our riders need to understand how to prepare for a course like this.”

Lauren Kieffer and Landmark’s Monte Carlo. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Will Coleman and Buck Davidson had never been to Aachen before. Kim Severson competed Winsome Adante on the U.S. team at the 2006 WEG but hadn’t been back since. Lauren Kieffer has competed at Aachen for the past four consecutive years, which gives her more experience at the venue than any other American rider.

“The only way you can keep getting better is to keep coming over here and keep taking a crack at it,” Lauren said. “A lot of experienced horses and riders have problems here every year. We’re going to make mistakes, too, but everyone would rather make a mistake going for the win than make a mistake playing it too safe.”

Kim said the experience was a “big learning curve” for the entire team and especially for her with Cooley Cross Border. “This is a very different cross country course. It was serious in a lot of ways — not that it was gargantuan big, but every question was a real question. There weren’t any places where you could scrape by.”

Will Coleman and OBOS O’Reilly. Photo by Jenni Autry.

The U.S. team for Aachen was announced one month prior to the competition starting. When you factor in the week of travel time to fly the horses overseas, the team was on a tight timeline to be adequately prepared, which Will Coleman said caught up to him with OBOS O’Reilly.

“This is the type of event you want to plan for from the beginning of the year,” Will said. “The hard thing in the States at this particular time is the top horses are letting down, because our calendar just doesn’t have major events at this time of year. That’s something we’re going to have to get creative about going forward, but it starts with preparing very specifically for this event. It’s not a particularly hard trip on the horses, but you get here and everything happens really, really fast. There is very little time to settle them in. You have to come in guns hot and ready to go.”

Buck Davidson and Carlevo. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Buck added: “We have to make sure the horses are ready both physically and mentally for a competition like this. I have been to a lot of shows all over the world, but I’ve never seen anything like Aachen. I know for me I will be better for having come here.”

Given the American team’s mixed bag of results at Aachen over the years, should the U.S. continue investing in sending teams overseas to this event? And if we do continue sending teams, can the U.S. be more strategic in how we select and ultimately prepare those teams for an event like Aachen? For me, the answer to both questions is yes.

As Erik so aptly put it: “We could have played it safe and decided we were going to go for four clear rounds. That would have put us probably in third place. But there is no learning in that. Every time we come to Aachen I want to see our team fighting for the first prize because that is where the real learning is. ‘How does my horse function at speed under pressure, and how do I function at speed under pressure?’ That’s what we learned this weekend.

“If our goals are to win this competition, then there is a higher risk involved. That’s when mistakes are made. If we are beating our riders up for making mistakes when they are trying to win, then they are not going to want to stick their neck out again. To win this competition, you need to stick your neck out. You have to fight for it. We are going to keep fighting for it.”

Click here to read all of EN’s coverage from Aachen. Thank you for following along with EN at the greatest horse show in the world. Go Eventing.