The Golden Girls: British Powerhouse Women Take Europeans Gold and Entire Individual Podium

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.

The all-female British team — plus individual bronze medallist Sarah Bullimore — embark on their lap of honour after a clean sweep of the medals at the European Championships. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“You know,” muses Hans Meltzer, chef d’equipe of the German eventing squad for the past twenty-one years, “I know why it is that Nicola won. It’s because when Chris Bartle was training the Germans, he was always asking if he could train her as well, and she was always at his place to train.”

Does that mean that the Germans, who have been such a dominant force in our sport for so long, are claiming Great Britain’s Nicola Wilson, the newly-minted European Champion with her ten-year-old Holsteiner, JL Dublin, as an honorary member of their own ranks? Or is it yet another suggestion that the man with the Midas touch, the one pulling all the puppet strings to make this incredible spate of British victories happen, is Chris Bartle, who coached the German squad to their zenith before stepping into his role at the helm of the British squad?

Piggy March and Sarah Bullimore plant one on European Champion — and great pal — Nicola Wilson. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time it’s been suggested that Chris is the ultimate secret weapon a squad can have, and the Brits really are in the middle of an unbelievable show of form: after winning team and individual gold at the World Equestrian Games back in 2018, they took team silver at the 2019 European Championships and then emerged from the pandemic to win team gold at the Olympics — their first since 1972 — as well as individual silver, and then team gold in last week’s CHIO Aachen nations’ cup. This week, at the rescheduled FEI European Eventing Championships in Avenches, Switzerland, they truly hammered the point home, taking not just the team gold, but all three individual podium places.

But remarkable though he is, the credit can’t go to Chris alone. It’s shared, certainly, with British team Performance Manager Dickie Waygood, and dressage trainer Ian Woodhead, certainly, but part of the magic of the British team is that it trusts its riders systems and doesn’t micromanage them. And so the exceptional three-phase effort that led Nicola to a day one dressage lead on a 20.9 with ‘Dubs’, who’s owned by the Lamberts and Deirdre Johnston, a return to the top of the podium after a clear round ten seconds inside the time yesterday, and a foot perfect showjumping round today must go to the rider herself, as well as her support team, led by head girl Ruth Asquith.

Nicola Wilson punches the air after a fault-free showjumping round secures her the title of European Champion. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Together, Nicola and her team have enjoyed a remarkable year with the still relatively inexperienced gelding, who Nicola has produced the grades after finding him as a four-year-old at the Holsteiner sales. Their series of exceptional triumphs began in June, when they took top honours in Bicton’s inaugural CCI4*-L — just his second outing at the level and a competition that caused plenty of problems on cross-country day. After a little holiday, ‘Dubs’ returned to take the win in the CCI4*-S at Hartpury, a stamina test designed to prepare horses for autumn three-days such as Burghley. Shortly thereafter, he was chosen for the British squad for Avenches — and although his form through the season has been superb and he came into this competition as one of the favourites in the field, stalwart squad member Nicola still looked shocked and awed at taking her first European title.

“It’s been a fantastic week for all of the Brits, and to finish on top is a dream come true,” she says with her trademark sunny smile, just moments after the whirlwind of jumping a sterling clear round, adding nothing to her 20.9 dressage, and getting swallowed up by a melee of hugs and tears and raucous joy from the tight-knit British side and her fellow competitors from across the continent.

Dubs was one of just three horses to finish on his dressage score through the week after delivering mature, expressive, and blisteringly competitive performances in all three phases. For Nicola, who has partnered an exceptional line-up of top-level mounts, including the fan favourite Opposition Buzz and her 2017 Europeans bronze medallist Bulana, it’s the culmination of a burgeoning talent that’s been gently nurtured over the past six seasons.

“He’s been so exciting through the years, and for him to come and do his first championship and finish at the top of the podium — I really am just pinching myself! He really is a very, very special horse, and he felt class in all three phases.”

Nicola Wilson and JL Dublin keep their eyes on the prize. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Nicola went into the ring without a rail in hand, even after reigning champions Ingrid Klimke and SAP Hale Bob OLD, jumping just before them in silver medal position, knocked one, ending their chance of a three-peat and pushing them down into fifth place. When Nicola entered the ring, it was to play as much a mental game as a physical one: though the first session of showjumping for the lower half of the leaderboard proved that the course was very jumpable — and perhaps verging on too straightforward — by the latter stages of the final session, it began to wreak havoc as the pressure built. But Nicola came through the gate already attacking, and both horse and rider hunted down their strides positively and aggressively. It paid off, and as they galloped across the finish line to a deafening roar of approval from the packed stands, they secured the gold — and ensured that the individual podium was to be a fully British affair.

“I knew he could jump well, but with the pressure and the nerves, you just don’t know what’s going to happen, like a silly mistake or I let him down — but he was just phenomenal in there. He went in as cool as a cucumber, and very confident and focused, and off we went. It was a pleasure to ride him in all three phases.”

Nicola and teammate Kitty King celebrate in the heady moments after Nicola’s winning round. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The British team almost always feels uniquely like a family, even when it descends upon a non-team event: at foreign five-stars, such as Pau, you can always reliably find every British rider, and most of their grooms and owners, gathered around the arena to watch their compatriots ride their tests, and Avenches saw that dynamic taken to a whole new level. The all-female squad of four team riders and two individuals aren’t just a collective of like-minded, powerhouse women of a similar age — they’re also all genuinely great friends, and so are the people they have around them. Every day, more and more Union Jacks mysteriously appeared around the main arena as the swelling collective of Team GB owners and connections formed a jolly army of sorts, each supporting every rider as though they were their own — and likewise, every horse was immediately tended to not just by his own groom, but by the whole line-up of grooms, each supporting one another seamlessly as it all played out.

Perhaps that’s where some of the British team fairy dust is coming from: rather than forcing the World Class programme riders to change what they do and subscribe to a rigid ‘team way’ of doing things, it allows for individualised systems, and then offers unerring support to ensure those systems can run smoothly. Along the way, the set-up also encourages camaraderie and togetherness, with special care taken to ensure owners aren’t just invited along for the ride but are shown a seriously good time along the way, forming lasting friendships and solidifying their connection with the sport they love and help to fund. The whole squad, and all its interconnected parts, laugh together, cry together — and win together. Right now, it’s a squad full of people who, by and large, play very well with others, and as a result, the level of positivity and confidence in the team camp is unbeatable. And that confidence — plus the strength in depth of the top level of British riders — doesn’t look set to fizzle out anytime soon.

Piggy March and Brookfield Inocent take the European individual silver medal, adding to their team gold and ending their season on a high. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“Just at the minute, we’re a strong nation, and it just goes like that in waves,” says Nicola’s teammate Piggy March, who won the individual silver medal on Brookfield Inocent after finishing on her dressage score of 23.3 and climbing from initial sixth place to her final place on the podium. It was all part of a plan that payed dividends: Piggy and the talented twelve-year-old gelding, a runner-up in his five-star debut at Pau last year, were originally selected to go to Tokyo as travelling reserves for the Olympic team, but Brookfield Inocent’s owners John and Chloe Perry and Alison Swinburne opted to pull him out of the team, preferring not to subject their horse to the stress of long-distance travel without any chance of a run. By withdrawing — painful though the decision must have been for all involved — they could focus their sights wholly and entirely on Avenches, without risking the kind of disruption to the gelding’s fitness plan, which was the downfall of World Champion Ros Canter and Allstar B, who’d had to carve their summer training regime out around the trip to Japan.

“There was lots of us fighting for Tokyo this year, and so it’s great that we’ve come out here and performed so well with the pressure as well,” she says. “But on a personal note, it’s fabulous to have so many amazing teammates that are also on fantastic horses for the future — but they’re also my friends as well, and that just makes it a really special week.”

Just as special is the trajectory — and career to come — of her newly-minted team mount, who has stepped up to fill the colossal hole left by the loss of her previous team mount, Jayne McGivern’s excellent Quarrycrest Echo.

“[Brookfield Inocent] is a fabulous horse, definitely one of the best I’ve ever ridden and one that I’m very lucky to have,” says Piggy of the former Kevin McNab ride, who finished ten seconds inside the time around yesterday’s cross-country and never looked like touching a fence today. “Throughout the week, in all three phases, he couldn’t have actually done any more — he’s been near-on perfection. I’m so proud of him, and just delighted for his owners. They’ve owned event horses for many years, and this is their first time on a championship team, so it’s been a massive excitement for them.”

Plus, muses Piggy, “I think we all think if we’re ahead of Ingrid and Michi Jung, that’s a medal in and of itself!”

Sarah Bullimore and Corouet take bronze while competing as individuals for Great Britain. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

One of the great successes of the week was that of British individual competitor Sarah Bullimore, who has been an extraordinarily consistent and competitive campaigner over the last number of years, despite her eclectic collection of quirky horses. Her homebred, Corouet, is no different: at barely 15.2hh, he’s dwarfed by most of the fences he tackles, and his sire — the showjumping stallion Balou du Rouet — means he has an active, overly clever, occasionally argumentative brain that requires tact and a sense of humour to manage. But Sarah has proven time and time again that she has tact in spades, piloting the undeniably odd but hugely talented Reve du Rouet to a number of top-five five-star placings and quietly doing exceptional things, such as delivering a sub-20 dressage mark aboard her Europeans partner in the British Open Championship CCI4*-S at Burgham this summer. That she’s so often been stuck in the reserve spot for the British team, and so seldom selected outright, has long seemed an almost criminal oversight, and although she wasn’t part of the team itself this week, it’s been brilliant — and not at all unexpected — to watch her deliver three eye-wateringly good phases and show the British powers that be exactly what they’ve been missing out on.

Sarah’s week began with an 22.8 dressage, putting her into fifth place at the end of the first phase with the gelding. They delivered a very good cross-country performance, adding just 0.8 time penalties after blazing their way around the track, and today, the ten-year-old looked as fresh as if he was at a one-day, tossing his head joyously and pinging his way into orbit over every fence to record a clear round without a single tense moment.

“He’s just a freak of nature,” she says of her ‘mighty midget’ with a fond smile. “He’s phenomenal in all three phases — he could do pure dressage or pure showjumping; he’s totally unique. He makes it very easy to go out there and do the job.”

Pats for Corouet after a gravity-defying clear round. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Sarah’s podium finish is made even more special because Corouet’s dam, Lilly Corinne, was her ride in her previous European Championships appearance at Blair Castle in 2015, and since that occasion, she’s been firmly on the hunt for another selection.

“For the last ten years, other than that, I’ve been a reserve, and so it’s taken me an awful long time to get here,” she says. “I was quite nervous yesterday morning, because I just thought, ‘don’t go and make a stupid mistake, because then it’ll take another ten years, and I don’t think I’ve got that long!’ So I was chuffed to bits with him; I couldn’t be more proud.”

Michael Jung and fischerWild Wave finish just off the podium after adding nothing to their first-phase score. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Just off the podium in fourth place is Germany’s Michael Jung, already a three-time European Champion on three different horses — and this year’s mount, the nine-year-old fischerWild Wave, is quickly developing into a very exciting star for the future. He made his five-star debut at Luhmühlen back in June, finishing eleventh but looking considerably greener while doing so than he did this week. Now, the 17hh gelding is stronger both mentally and physically, and that showed in his performances: a four-star personal best of 23.9, the fastest clear of the day across the country, and a faultless showjumping round put him just three-tenths of a penalty off the podium and give Michi the Maestro another top-level horse to focus his ongoing campaign for world domination around.

“He’s an amazing horse, and I’m very happy about him,” says Michi. “He did three wonderful phases, and I think it was a great week.”

Ingrid Klimke and SAP Hale Bob OLD record a very respectable fifth-place finish on their hunt for a third consecutive victory. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though Ingrid Klimke and her exceptional seventeen-year-old SAP Hale Bob OLD didn’t succeed in their quest for a third Europeans victory in a row, they certainly gave the job a jolly good go. They led the first phase on a 20.2, though they slipped back into second place on cross-country after adding 1.2 time penalties. Had they jumped clear today, they still wouldn’t have been able to claim gold, but they lost their grip on silver, too, when they tipped the third-to-last fence, pushing them down into fifth position in the final rankings. But Ingrid, who has had a tumultuous year with both horse injuries and her own serious injuries sidelining her, was pragmatic about the result and rejoiced in being back aboard her top horse.

“I was proud of my Bobby, because he did a very nice showjumping round,” she says. “Okay, there was this one rail down, but sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not. I’m very happy and pleased to be here — but I want to say one thing to the Brits. They stole our trainer [Chris Bartle!] We’ve tried to give Chris our flag, or maybe another red jacket, but it’s not allowed!”

Maxime Livio finishes sixth with Api du Libaire. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

France’s Maxime Livio was frustrated to take out the middle element of the treble with his impressive eleven-year-old Api du Libaire, which dropped them down from bronze medal position to eventual sixth — but as he looks ahead to the Paris Olympics in three years’ time, which will be particularly important as they’re on home turf, there’s a lot to be excited about.

“My first reaction, of course, is to be disappointed, because my horse was jumping really, really good,” he says. “He was so careful, and normally in a combination he’s always going a little bit too much. This time, because he was so, so careful and focused on his job, he slowed himself a bit more than what I expected, and finally I lost five centimetres in the middle of the combination. But he really surprised me today, because normally I have to slow him in the combination. I should have been more with him and helped him to be more forward today.”

An unlucky day at the office saw the French team slip from bronze position to fifth place after none of its three remaining riders jumped a clear round.

“For sure, I’m disappointed for the team,” says Maxime, who began his week in fourth place on a 21.3. “I’ve lost two medals on a little mistake, but I’m very happy because it’s the first championship for the horse, and he’s very green at that level. So hopefully after two or three next season we’ll be a little bit more together and won’t make any mistakes.”

Christoph Wahler and Carjatan S prove their class yet again. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Germany’s brightest up-and-coming talent Christoph Wahler finished seventh with Carjatan S after a repeat of the classy clear round that secured them second place at Luhmühlen CCI5* back in June, and a cross-country round full of all the right kind of calculated risks and direct approaches that added just 0.8 time penalties to their first-phase score of 26.

Felix Vogg interacts with a hugely enthusiastic home crowd after his stunning clear with Cartania. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Just below them, Felix Vogg and Cartania produced a similarly stylish clear to take eighth place and best of the host nation team, which finished fourth overall after climbing from an initial ninth place through the weekend under the tutelage of Andrew Nicholson. It was a particularly special round for Felix, whose mother, Danielle Vogg, is the organiser of Avenches and has been crucial to ensuring that a European Championships could even take place this year after the initial cancellation of the competition and its eventual relocation to Switzerland after a successful bid.

Kitty King and Vendredi Biats record their second consecutive top-ten finish at a European Championships. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Rounding out the top ten is Kitty King in ninth aboard Vendredi Biats, who dropped two placings after hitting the second fence, and Izzy Taylor in tenth with the much-matured Monkeying Around, who was yet another horse to take the middle part of the treble combination.

Izzy Taylor’s 2017 Six-Year-Old World Champion competes for Britain once again. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

A bit of luck and some solid performances today, with just one rail down across the team, allowed Sweden to step up from sixth place to bronze medal position behind gold medallists Great Britain and silver medallists Germany. Austria, who have been so impressive through the week, finished sixth below France, while the historic first-ever Czech team rounded out the top ten of the team rankings, giving them a solid foothold to build from and proving that they have some serious talent in their ranks.

German team jumping trainer Marcus Döhring congratulates Chris Bartle — his former colleague and now ‘rival’ — for an incredible week. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

But at the end of the day, as much as this is a European Championship and, as such, a battle to put one’s flag on the pole and hear the national anthem played, every competitor is a friend — and while this week’s British team might be an exemplar of the power of friendship, that camaraderie and community could be seen and felt every day, in every way for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic. And so we sign off — for now — from the 2021 FEI European Eventing Championships, where hugging was back in fashion and a heaping helping of communal spirit, whether between riders or among the organising committee who managed to create a wonderful week on such short notice, made the whole world go ’round. Until next time, folks, Go Eventing.

Ingrid Klimke embraces newly-minted bronze medallist Sarah Bullimore, even after a knocked rail precluded her own chances of a podium finish. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The British-dominated individual top ten in the 2021 FEI European Eventing Championships.

The final team standings after four action-packed days of competition at the European Championships.

The 2021 FEI Longines European Championships: [Website] [Schedule and Scoring] [Entries] [Live Stream] [EN’s Coverage]