Thursday at Le Lion: In Which We Discover that Dressage is an Emotional Rollercoaster

 

Whew. What a day, readers: a day in which two ground juries apparently found the lack of a coffee van on site as offensive as the rest of us, and proceeded to enact sweet revenge by serving up blistering scores and crushing (metaphorical) blows like gunfire. It’s been a day of placing bets as to whether you’d even see a score in the 20s; a day of watching the scoreboard between your fingers; a day of groaning and then laughing because honestly, what else can you even do at that point? We’ll say this for them, though — though the two sets of judges doled out some seriously tough marks throughout the day, leaving many horses with their worst-ever international scores, they were at least consistent with it. That’s worth a lot.

But despite an ostensibly tough morning between the boards, any assumptions of Thursday Morning Syndrome would have to be shelved when one of the day’s early combinations took a decisive lead — one that wouldn’t be usurped as the competition unfurled.

Tom McEwen and MHS Brown Jack aren’t just the day one leaders in the Six-Year-Old CCI2*-L, they’re also the only competition to break the sub-30 barrier. Their mark of 26.6 puts them over four penalties ahead of their current closest rivals, Merel Blom and Corminta Vom Gwick, and sets a mighty precedent for tomorrow’s second half of the class.

“He’s been amazing,” says Tom of Fred and Penny Barker’s Irish Sport Horse gelding (by OBOS Quality out of a Cavalier Royale mare). “Obviously he’s quite a big horse, so it’s taken a bit of time, but this year, he’s surpassed himself and become very established for a six-year-old. I’m delighted with him — he came out today and delivered the quality of work he’s been producing at home, and to be able to show that off is very exciting.”

Though today’s 26.6 doesn’t quite rival their two previous international marks — a very consistent 24.2 and 24.8 — it makes MHS Brown Jack one of the only horses across either class to score nearly bang-on his predicted mark. But this consistency hasn’t been about running him as much as possible, Tom tells EN.

“None of mine are overrun — instead, it’s about ensuring the quality of everything he does,” he explains. “You’d never bring a horse here just for the sake of going to Le Lion — they need to be ready for what they’ll face when they get here.”

That means tactical entries, measured schooling, and a healthy dose of keeping it fresh and fun for the horses — though Tom acknowledges that the loss of the main educational factor at Lion, its 35,000-strong crowds, will affect how a run here benefits some of the entrants.

“It’ll be a very different competition this year without the crowds. But some horses will benefit from that — some of them can get in front of that many people and have their brains blown a bit from it. Others won’t get quite the same experience they normally would do — but we’re lucky to be able to be here at all this year.”

Merel Blom and ‘independent woman’ Corminta Vom Gwick. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

In second place on 30.7, Dutch National Champion Merel Blom piloted the Holsteiner mare Corminta Vom Gwick, by Cormint and out of a Contendro mare, to a polished and polite test that belied the fact they’ve not yet notched up a full year in partnership.

“The test was what I expected, though it’s always hard to know what the judges would like to see,” says Merel. “It’s the first time for her in an arena like this, and I think she did a wonderful job.”

Corminta Vom Gwick’s easy temperament has helped Merel make relatively light work of the tricky 2020 season, particularly in light of the fact she only made her competitive debut in November of 2019: “She’s super willing to do everything right. Sometimes she likes to do things her own way — but most of the time, the way she wants to do it is the way I want to do it! She has character, but it’s the right character — she really wants to fight for it and try her best. I think she’s a lovely horse. She surprised me after the lockdown that even with so little experience, she went out and did a good job. With the good ones, it still came easy.”

With their qualification in the bag on their first run post-lockdown, Merel was able to strategically use the rest of the summer and early autumn to prepare the horse for precisely the challenges she’ll face this week.

50% of the top five — which features six combinations, because of a tie for overnight fifth — came forward in the first of this morning’s three sessions. Third place at this early stage is in the clutches of Germany’s Felix Etzel, who at just 27 is very much a part of his home country’s formidable line-up of young guns gaining experience at Nations Cups and in championships such as this. His Promising Pete TSF, a Trakehner gelding by Hirtentanz 2, earned a 30.8 after some quite considerable differentiation between the judges, who had him scattered from 2nd to 8th place in their individual estimations. Still, Felix was delighted with the relatively new ride, who was bought for him nearly a year ago by the DOKR — the German Federation — as a potential team horse for the future.

“He’s a really cool horse for a six-year-old,” says Felix. “He’s already done some nice dressage tests this year and he’s becoming really consistent in this phase. Today he was really easy to ride; it was like riding at home. It’s a long way for a six-year-old [to become a team horse], but I can imagine it: he’s relaxed in every phase and never wastes his energy.”

Austria’s Daniel Dunst and Della Stella SDH overcame a similar sort of widespread discrepancy, with Laure Eslan at E awarding them a 65.45% for 9th place and Sandy Phillips at C settling on a 70.23% and 2nd. Ultimately, they would average out at a respectable 32.2 penalties, giving the Austrian Warmblood mare by Follow Me a competitive early start in the competition.

Fifth place is held jointly overnight by two of the big guns in this class — though both were disappointed to receive marks considerably lower than predicted.

Kitty King and Monbeg Hendricks (GBR). Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Kitty King and Monbeg Hendricks, an Irish Sport Horse by Harlequin du Carel, were first of the two up to bat, and though there were no errors in their test and there was much to like, their marks stayed resolutely and disappointingly in the 6.5–7.5 margin, earning them an eventual 32.4. This is rather a shock score for the gelding, who hasn’t scored out of the 20s in six runs, national and international, in 2020 — but we’ve certainly seen these surprises and disappointments here before.

To watch this phase play out here is always an educational experience, because the winner isn’t always necessarily the most obviously flash dressage specialist. Often after watching for a while, it becomes clear what the judges are looking for: in a six-year-old, it may be a looser, lower, more relaxed outline, which can result in penalisation for the produced and polished youngsters that are often presented here.

Further complicating matters is the dual purposes for which riders tend to bring their young horses to France. Some make the journey to gain essential championship experience, learning to cope with crowds and atmosphere so that they can go boldly forth into their careers as the potential team horses of the future. Many others bring exciting young horses to put them in front of prospective buyers, turning the event into something of a shop window. As the saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat — and so, too, is there a myriad of ways to train a young horse.

Karim Florent Laghouag and Embrun de Reno (FRA). Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Tied with Kitty for fifth is a rider who’s using this competition very much as a route to future team selections. French team stalwart Karim Florent Laghouag is looking firmly ahead to the Paris 2024 Olympics for Embrun de Reno, an impressive-looking Selle Français gelding by Eliott MC, with Jazz lines. But he, too, was disappointed with 32.4.

“He usually does lovely dressage but here he bounced his head a bit too much, and the judges saw it at first as they entered,” says Karim. “It was like they stopped on this little problem and we couldn’t get the usual marks. He’s a fantastic horse in this phase because his father brings dressage breeding while his mother is Anglo-Arab, so he has all the blood and the quality to be a perfect eventing horse.”

But, he acknowledges, like so many of his compatriots Embrun de Reno is a big horse who hasn’t finished growing into himself; this week’s competition, therefore, will be less of a benchmark for him and more of an educational effort, with everything serving as a cog in the machine heading to Paris.

William Nilsson Fryer and Joel (SWE) tackle the stretchy circle. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It’s all too easy in these championship classes to miss out on the top spot by dint of ‘low ebb’ scores that just don’t bring the averages where they need to be to join the fight. But also easily done is the odd mistake that sends a brilliantly trending score plummeting down the rankings. It would be amiss not to mention Sweden’s William Nilsson Fryer and Joel — a Dutch Warmblood gelding by Ampere — who sit 11th overnight on 35.2. Theirs was among the most developed and professional tests of the day, and the eye-catching gelding will be closely watched through the weekend, but although they spent much of their ride trending in the lead or very close to it, the 3, 4, and 5 they earned when Joel overreacted to the reinback aids in the final quarter of the test gave their numbers a real hammering. These young horse championships aren’t the be-all and end-all of a horse’s career, despite their enormous importance, and so it’s crucial to look beyond the numbers on the page when considering which of these horses might be worth your attention. Consider Joel an EN One To Watch.

The top five at the halfway point of the Six-Year-Old World Championship’s first phase.

Sophie Leube Heads Seven-Year-Old Challenge

Sophie Leube and the impressive Trakehner stallion Sweetwaters Ziethen TSF. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Everyone here is delighted with the new addition of a surface in the main arena — particularly anyone who was here last year, and, we can assume with some confidence, none more so than Germany’s Sophie Leube. Last year, she and the licensed Trakehner stallion Sweetwaters Ziethen TSF, by Abendtanz, dazzled in the first two phases to hold onto second place throughout the competition — but the showjumping finale, held in the worst of the weather and on the worst of the ground, would push them down to eventual fifth after the gutsy stallion found himself slipping dramatically in the poor going and incurring a stop early on.

And so it’s nice to see him back in the main arena here, looking no less confident in himself than he did last year. Nor has Sophie’s confidence in him waned: when asked if she expected to go into the lead here today, her answer was a resounding and joyful “yes.”

“He’s such a performer; he’s calm but he wants to do everything right. He knows what to do in there and he tries so hard,” she enthuses. The pair scored a 27.6 to make them the only combination in the 20s in this class.

It’s hard not to be taken in by Ziethen, who is innately friendly, curious, and obviously intelligent, investigating interviewers’ notebooks and turning politely inquiring eyes on the new friends surrounding him for a chat. Taken, too, were the judges, who offered up rare 8s for his catlike walk work and the deviously tricky walk pirouettes in this three-star test.

“His walk is always really good because he has such a covering stride — but there are some things we can do better, too,” she says, pointing to the walk-canter transition as something she’d like to improve upon. It would certainly appear that they’re on the right track, though — they won their prep run, a CCI3*-S at Langenhagen, as well as CCI2*-S classes at Kronenburg and Westerstede in 2020. In eight internationals, he’s never finished outside of the top ten — so this is among the most formidable horses in the field.

Caroline Powell (NZL) and the spicy Greenacres Special Cavalier. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

New Zealand’s Caroline Powell holds onto second place provisionally with Greenacres Special Cavalier, an Irish Sport Horse mare by Cavalier Royale out of a Touchdown mare. They put a 30.6 on the board, bettering their score here last year by nearly two marks.

“She’s quite a big, long horse and just starting to connect up, but she’s going to have some lovely tests in her in the future,” says Caroline, who bought her as a just-broken four-year-old from breeder Michael Callery — ordinarily a showjumping breeder — in Ireland.

Nailing it on a tough day: Caroline Powell celebrates with Greenacres Special Cavalier. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Since then, she’s proven to be a big personality with equally colossal ability — and that’s given Caroline the breathing room to focus on her education when competitions were off the table this year.

“She’s a bit of a freak, this horse — she doesn’t really need a tonne of competition, so we’ve been able to focus on the training [during the pandemic]. She’s just getting better and better and stronger and stronger, and we’re really using this as a stepping stone for next year.”

Next year, for Caroline, could mean a bigger goal than many of the horses entered here — when I ask if she considers this mare a prospect for the 2024 Paris Games, she smiles and tells me that she could be ready much sooner than that.

“She’s a diva,” she laughs. “It’s in her name — she’s special and she knows it. She’s sassy and opinionated and she makes you work, but she’s lovely and when she goes into the arena she loves to perform. She’s a good mare — when you get a good one, you know, and when you get a bad one, you know too!”

Laura Collett and Moonlight Charmer. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Laura Collett and Irish Sport Horse Moonlight Charmer (by OBOS Quality) sit third overnight on their score of 31.4, a three-star personal best for the horse despite some minor green errors. But Moonlight Charmer, who averaged in the mid-20s at two-star, looks likely to be a new stable star for the British rider with one of the most enviable strings in the sport.

“Parts of it were really nice, and the canter work was lovely,” says Laura, “but he just sort of shut down a bit in the trot. Where it’s a bit more complicated than a two-star test he sort of over-tries a bit and gets his concentrating head on, rather than just going forward. But he’s not been in an arena like that, away from the other horses, so I’m really pleased with him.”

There’s a lot to think about for these inexperienced horses here: there are flags flapping, stands relatively full of people despite the closed-door policy this year, a technical enough test and, as Laura points out, the first experience these horses will ever have had of doing a test without the security blanket of other horses working in parallel arenas. But Moonlight Charmer’s brain has helped him overcome the varying challenges.

“He’s been pretty straightforward,” she says. “Obviously with the year we’ve had it’s been quite difficult to just get qualified for here; he didn’t do a CCI2*-L last year so it’s felt like we’ve always been chasing a qualification. But because he’s got such a good brain he’s just taken everything in his stride. He’s got the brain to come here and it doesn’t bother him that he’s been rushed — it’s just been one of those years!”

Tom Carlile and Darmagnac de Beliard. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

France’s Tom Carlile, who was based here at Le Lion until recently, is something of a maestro when it comes to this event, with almost innumerable FOD finishes for his young horses over the years. And so, despite the consistency of the low marking, it must have been a bit of a disappointment to receive a 32.9 with Selle Français gelding Darmagnac de Beliard (by Canturo Bois Margot), who’s never scored above the 20s before in an international. But in today’s judging climate this was still a score not to be sniffed at, and the rangy bay will be followed up by stablemate Spring Thyme de la Rose tomorrow as Tom makes yet another bid for the Le Lion crown. With three top five finished from three international runs, Darmagnac will certainly make an exciting claim.

Gireg le Coz and Drakkar Littoral. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Rounding out the top five is France’s Gireg le Coz, who burst into the international consciousness in 2019 with Event Rider Masters successes with the stunning Aisprit de la Loge. Today, he rode Drakkar Littoral — a Selle Français gelding by Qlassic Bois Margot, and definitive proof that Gireg has a ‘type — to a 33.5 in a test that had several bystanders eyeballing their bank accounts. But Gireg, who took the ride on at the beginning of this year and made the horse’s international debut in just July, has no plans to let go of the gelding.

“He’s a horse I’d like to keep for the Olympics in Paris,” he tells EN. “He’s a very nice horse; he moves well and he was very calm — sometimes he can be a bit hot, so I’m happy with him today. The judges aren’t giving very good marks today, but that’s okay — I’m happy with the horse and sure that he can do better.”

Gireg’s enthusiasm when talking about the horse is infectious — and only rivalled by the horse’s own enthusiasm for the sport.

“He’s a very good horse in all three tests. He loves cross-country — a bit too much! — but he’s a very nice horse and loves what he does,” he says with a broad smile.

The top five at the halfway point of the seven-year-old CCI3*-L.

The World Breeding Championships is as much a fight for individual glory as it is a quest for studbook superiority. At this early stage of the competition, the Irish Sport Horse studbook is in an enviable position: not only can they claim the leader of one of the classes in Tom McEwen’s MHS Brown Jack, they’ve also got another in the top five in the six-year-olds (Kitty King’s Monbeg Hendricks) and two in the seven-year-old top ten (Laura Collett’s Moonlight Charmer and Caroline Powell’s Greenacres Special Cavalier).  The Selle Français studbook — last year’s overall winner — features three times across the two top fives (Drakkar Littoral, Darmagnac de Beliard, and Embrun de Reno), while the Trakehner features twice (Sweetwaters Ziethen TSF and Promising Pete TSF).

Tomorrow we’ll dive straight into the second halves of both classes, with some strong contenders coming forward in each. In the six-year-old class (starting at 9.30 local time/8.30 BST/3.30 a.m. Eastern) we’ll be keeping an eye on Cathal Daniels‘ LEB Empress, Ingrid Klimke‘s Cascamara, Oliver Townend‘s Cooley Rosalent, and Sophie Leube‘s Isselhook’s First Sight TSF, while our tips for the seven-year-old class, starting at 14.00 local/13.00 BST/8.00 a.m. Eastern, are Ros Canter‘s Izilot DHI, Nicolas Touzaint‘s Diabolo Menthe, Kai Steffen Meier‘s Charming Chiaco, Tom Carlile‘s Spring Thyme de la Rose and, of course, last year’s six-year-old runners-up, Yasmin Olsson Sanderson and Inchello DHI.

We’ll be back with the full debrief tomorrow. Until then: Go Eventing!

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