After a drizzly start to proceedings — and a tough one, too, with some harshly-marked early tests — the first day’s morning session of dressage at the 2022 FEI World Championships blossomed into a showcase of exceptional young talent peppered with fresh faces and up-and-coming superstars. Chief among their ranks is 25-year-old Yasmin Ingham, who rides as the individual for Great Britain this week. She produced a dazzling test with the eleven-year-old Selle Français gelding Banzai du Loir (Nouma d’Auzay x Gerboise du Cochet, by Livarot), putting a score of 22 on the board that absolutely skyrocketed past the horse’s four- and five-star average of 27.
That 22 isn’t just her best-ever international score, it’s also one of the top five tests ever delivered at a World Championships. It goes into joint fourth in the all-time rankings — equal with a certain Michael Jung and La Biosthetique Sam FBW, who posted the same score in 2010 en route to becoming the World Champions.
“Honestly, it’s the first time we’ve gone in the boards at an event and he’s felt like he’s completely listening and with me, even with the crowds and the cameras and everything atmosphere-wise,” says a delighted Yaz, who pilots the rangy gelding for longtime supporters Sue Davies and Jeanette Chinn. “He didn’t really seem to flinch or bother with it. I’m just so proud of him; he’s really special horse and I still think there’s plenty more in there, which is even more exciting.”
Like many riders, Yaz found that her horse didn’t feel quite as fresh this morning as he has done in previous tests — something that’s no doubt due to the last two days of heat at the Italian venue. But that meant that Yaz was able to take risks in the ring, and her extended canter was a particular highlight of the test, with a clear, bold transition into and out of the movement.
“He maybe felt a little bit tired, so he probably could have been a little bit more sprightly — but I’d rather him do a test like that then have a little break somewhere or something like that. I just couldn’t really fault him today at all,” she says.
Yaz credits her trip to Kentucky CCI5* this spring, where she finished second, and the opportunity to ride through the test in the main arena at Burghley, with helping her and Banzai deliver their best-ever performance today.
“I think we’ve had more experience now in the bigger, atmospheric arenas, for example Kentucky earlier this year. Then we also had Burghley just before we came here, so we’ve been trying different techniques with the warm up and how long we work him in for, and what we do with him in those work-ins — and I think we’ve come to the bottom of that now,” says Yaz, who has worked closely with British team trainer Chris Bartle to help fine-tune the process. Their schooling regime and warm-up today put them right on the money for their test, which was unanimously put into first place by all three judges.
“He’s actually come here really settled, and I think he’s getting more used to travelling and coming to the bigger events now, so it’s becoming a little bit more normal for him. We did half an hour of work at eight o’clock this morning — just sort of long and low, with lots of simple changes and easy things so as not to stress him out, and to keep him quite happy and confident. Then I worked him for half an hour at quarter to ten, and we started to do a couple of changes and some half-passes and things and just make it a bit more difficult to get him ready for this this afternoon. The work in then was just 20 minutes before we we came and did the test. He’s quite a fit and sharp character, usually, so we do have to make sure we give him enough work so that he doesn’t go in there and just go ‘ahh!'”
Yaz, who makes her Senior squad debut this week after winning every national age title in Britain, is living out something of a fairytale this week.
“It’s so special. I mean, I’ve worked towards this since I’ve started riding,” says Yaz. “It’s always something that I’ve wanted to do, and it’s always been one of my goals and to achieve that has just been a dream come true. Obviously, the team behind the scenes is what sort of helped me get there and my owners, Sue Davies and Jeanette Chinn, and my family. All my trainers, the World Class team — there’s just an army that’s behind every rider and they’ve all helped me get here, so it’s a big moment.”
Another rider who’s living out a dream in real time is New Zealand’s Monica Spencer, who held the lead for much of the morning with the full Thoroughbred Artist. Their score of 25.6 was the first of the day to go sub-30, and came after a mammoth journey from the Southern Hemisphere: the CCI4*-L Puhuini winners travelled for over fifty hours from New Zealand to the UK five weeks ago, where they based themselves with teammate Clarke Johnstone.
“They actually announced the team three days before my flight and the horse’s flight left,” she says. “So you kind of plan like you’re going in case you’re going — and then all of a sudden you’re going, and then it’s action!”
The magnitude and complexity of the journey required new mum Monica to leave her husband, Spence, and ten-month-old baby Gus behind, “so I’m a little more emotional than I am normally,” she says.
But what a pay-off. Their test sees them sit second provisionally — and puts team New Zealand in the lead — at this stage in Monica’s debut on a championship team, and her first experience of competing in the Northern Hemisphere. The difference, she says, is huge.
“There’s not many people at a lot of our events — we’re kind of in the middle of a farm somewhere,” she laughs. “I mean, we have some great events too. But yeah, it’s pretty cool to be on this kind of stage, for sure.”
It’s been a jolly good morning for the Brits, who have two riders in the top three at the lunch-break — and third, provisionally, is team pathfinder and reigning World Champion Ros Canter. Her mount this week isn’t her 2018 World Championships ride, Allstar B, who was euthanised this summer after an injury at Aachen, but rather, a worthy heir apparent to his throne: the ten-year-old British-bred gelding was second on his five-star debut at Badminton this spring, and has a spate of impressive four-star wins and placings to his name over tough tracks. Though he didn’t quite catch his Badminton score of 26 today, his 26.2 puts him in an enviable position at this early stage of the game.
Like Yaz, Ros was able to bring ‘Walter’ to Burghley to run through the test in the atmospheric main arena, where the practice run also served as an exciting demonstration for spectators after the close of the competition’s dressage phase.
“I’m absolutely delighted with Walter — he’s only a ten-year-old, o coming here is a big occasion for him,” says Ros, who brings Allstar B along for the ride in the form of tail hair bracelets worn by herself and groom Sarah Charnley. “We were lucky enough to practice our tests at Burghley, and every day is still a school day for him, so we’re only just scratching the surface at this level. I truly believe that in the next few years, you’re going to see a bigger and better Walter. I’m just delighted that he went in there and was a complete professional — I don’t think he acts his age.”
Since stepping up to the upper levels, Walter has proven himself a horse who thrives in an atmosphere — and Pratoni is certainly delivering that, even on Thursday morning.
“He’s a very self confident horse,” says Ros with a smile. “He’s very happy in his own skin, and he adores attention. When I was practicing outside, Ian Woodhead, who’s our dressage trainer, said ‘don’t do a halt too close to the crowds, because they’re going to clap’ — but he doesn’t give a monkey’s. He’s in his element when people clap; he thinks it’s all for him.”
Ros opted for a shorter warm-up today, schooling for twenty minutes first thing this morning and then doing a twenty-minute final work-in before her test, which put Walter right in his sweet spot for an excellent test.
“As soon as I went in, I knew he was with me,” she says. “We got the preparation right today, I think. And when he’s like that, he’s very easy, and he has beautiful balance, so I can sit up and he comes back to me, which is what makes him a lovely cross country horse, too.”
The USA sit in bronze medal position after the first rotation of riders, thanks to an excellent test from Will Coleman and Off the Record that joins the top-five all-time dressage tests by a US rider at a World Championship. They sit fourth at the lunch break on their 26.4, which sees them just two-tenths of a penalty behind Ros Canter. It’s also one of 2021 Aachen champion ‘Timmy’s’ best-ever international tests, though Will no doubt hoped to match the 23.9 they delivered in their final run at Great Meadows CCI4*-S. But, he concedes, travelling to an event in Virginia is a very different prospect to travelling to Italy.
“We’ve had a lot of traveling, like a lot of horses, to get here, and I think that’s never easy on them,” he says. “Given everything, I thought my horse tried very hard today and I’m very happy with him. I don’t know if I would describe anything as ‘highlights’, but I thought we squeezed every point out of it we could, which, when he came out this morning, was sort of my mentality. I was like, ‘okay, it may not be our best stuff — but let’s just see if we can ride as clean a test as we can, and leave as few penalties on the table as we can.’ And I think we did that. So in that respect, I’m happy: I don’t know if there are any highlights in it, but it was clean and relatively mistake-free.”
Will once again takes on the pathfinder role for the US, a job he took at the last World Championships in 2018 — and one that comes with its own unique pressures.
“It’s a tough job,” he says. “I’ve been first before, and I’ve been last before in some instances, but I think we all have the same sort of approach that we want to go out and execute and just give our horses the best chance of coming home clear, and with as few time penalties as possible. It’s a really intense track, so my job is to go out there and bring back some good feedback for the other guys, and that’s what we’re going to try to do. He’s not the most blood but he’s a real fighter.”
Sweden’s Niklas Lindbäck rounds out the top five after delivering an excellent test for a score of 29 with his experienced mount Focus Filiocus, who tends to average well into the 30s in this phase. The pair, who finished 35th at Tryon in 2018, come forward as the individual combination for Sweden this week — and already, they’ve exceeded their own expectations.
“Expecting is so hard, but we were hoping for this,” says Niklas. “Dressage isn’t maybe his strong point; he’s normally very stable and settled, but not going for the high marks — but we really tried here and it was actually fantastic. It’s the best feeling he’s ever given me.”