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There was a palpable shift that occurred about a third of the way through cross-country day at the FEI European Championships in Avenches, Switzerland. Whereas competitors walking the course for the final time in the morning sported set jaws and grim, focused expressions as they plotted their routes through the twists and turns, the riders with late times who had ventured out on their bikes to watch particularly tricky questions ridden were sunnier, more relaxed, and even quite chatty — because Mike Etherington-Smith‘s track, which had walked as an incredibly intense championship challenge, was proving far more rideable than expected.
Just ten of our 67 competitors fell by the wayside — and just three actually fell — over the course of today’s competition. Perhaps more surprising is that seven riders managed to beat the 10:07 optimum time, which had looked well nigh impossible to catch when wheeled — but so tightly packed were our competitors after the last two days of dressage, which saw nearly 30 pairs score in the 20s, that even a smidgen of time proved costly. And the problems, when they happened, weren’t inconsequential either, with a number of heavy-hitters running into trouble on Avenches’ cleverly-designed track.
Though the first two competitors on course picked up jumping penalties on their way to completion, it was the third out of the box — Ireland’s Sam Watson — who set a positive tone for the day to come. Though his ten-year-old Ballybolger Talisman is inarguably a serious cross-country talent, he’s also enormously inexperienced, and only made his first-ever trip out of Ireland last week for a run at CHIO Aachen. He was pulled into the Irish Europeans effort at the very last minute, after two selected horses with other riders had to be withdrawn, but nonetheless, riders, support teams, and members of the media alike looked to this round as an early indicator of what to expect, largely due to Sam’s analytical, clever cross-country riding. And what a round they offered up: though they initially finished with 15 penalties for a provisionally knocked flag, that was quickly removed, and they added just 6.8 time penalties to move 21 places up the leaderboard.
After that, blazingly fast rounds came thick and fast: French team trailblazer and 1993 European Champion Jean Lou Bigot recorded the first of the day with Utrillo du Halage, moving him from 26th to 12th on his score of 29.5, swiftly followed by another from British trailblazer Piggy March and her championship debutant Brookfield Inocent, who stepped up from sixth to fourth on 23.3. The next clear inside the time was delivered mere moments later by another Brit — this time, individual Izzy Taylor on her Burnham Market CCI4*-L winner Monkeying Around — and the fourth of the day was put forth by second British team rider Nicola Wilson and JL Dublin, who were third after dressage on their very impressive score of 20.9. When third up Kitty King and Vendredi Biats added just 0.8 time penalties to move up one place to seventh, and second individual Sarah Bullimore did the same with Corouet to hold onto fifth place, it seemed as though nothing could possibly go wrong in the Team GB camp.
But this is real life, and this is horses, and sometimes, a Saturday full of action can take us all by surprise. As the third from last out of the start box, reigning World Champions and British team anchors Ros Canter and Allstar B had everything to play for: not just team gold, though that continued to look almost totally sewn up for the all-female team, but also their chance to fight for the individual title. They’d occupied the silver medal position after dressage, sitting on a tidy 20.6 — just 0.4 behind overnight leaders Ingrid Klimke and SAP Hale Bob OLD. But a very fresh Hale Bob had had a couple of moments on course in which he looked marginally less rideable than usual, and that had cost them: they’d added 1.2 time penalties, which meant that if Ros could get a clear round logged with no more than two extra seconds added, they’d take over the top spot.
It all looked on track to happen, too. Super-experienced ‘Albie’ attacked the course almost in its entirety, and Ros used every ounce of her expertise to pilot the big, rangy horse economically through the courses myriad twists and turns. But then, just a handful of fences from home, disaster struck: as they cantered into fence 28AB, the Fischer Water, Albie simply cantered straight past the triple brush A element, giving him his first international cross-country jumping penalties since Burghley 2016. Ros regrouped and regathered the gelding, navigated through the water complex, and then headed out onto the long loop back to the second part of this final water — and the same thing happened again at the single triple brush heading towards the stables at 29. They would go on to complete, with the security of the British team at the forefront of their minds, but just like that, the dream was over in one of the most dramatic moments we’ve witnessed at a championship.
“I think he probably just got weary, and a bit demoralised by all the twisting and turning, with the size of horse he is,” she says. “This was a twistier track than Strzegom and places like that, and he’s a Badminton and Burghley horse, and I think the knock-on effect meant that his eyes were just running on the floor a bit and not up. He was amazing until then, but he did start to feel weary out of the second water.”
Potentially compounding this, she explains, was the fact that the pair had travelled out to Tokyo as team reserves but hadn’t run, which meant that their usual fitness routine was disrupted.
Heartbreaking though Albie’s penalties were, all hope wasn’t lost in the British camp: those earlier fast clears mean that the team remains in gold medal position, while those 1.2 time penalties picked up by Ingrid allowed day one dressage leaders Nicola Wilson and her ten-year-old JL Dublin to regain their place atop the leaderboard, where they sit 0.5 penalties — or one second on tomorrow’s clock — ahead of the German supremo on their two-phase score of 20.9. Prior to her smooth, classy clear inside the time, though, Nicola admits she felt the pressure.
“It walked very difficult and intense all the way to the end of the course, I thought,” she says. “This is JL Dublin’s first championship; I’ve had him since a four-year-old, and we’ve thought an awful lot of him, but until you put that extra pressure of riding for a team on him, you don’t quite know how they’re going to cope with it.”
Despite Nicola’s trepidation about the course — which she says had a lovely flow, despite being fast and furious — her Holsteiner gelding stepped up to the plate as he has done through this extraordinary season, which has seen him win the CCI4*-L at Bicton and the CCI4*-S at Hartpury.
“He was magical,” she beams. “Yesterday I gave him a little jump, and he was calm and cool, and then this morning when I got him out to prepare him for cross-country, the squeals were back. He knew it was his day, and I just thought, ‘good boy, Dublin.'”
Nicola was able to remain up on the clock by finding economical lines, hugging the ropes wherever possible and riding crisp, clear lines to the fences — even with a planned long route between fences 6 and 7, a meaty hedge on a turn to a wide spread fence that could be jumped as a corner, which most of the riders opted to play it safe at.
“I think I walked [the course] five or six times, just to make sure I knew where every single turn was. There was lots of little ups and downs and then fences on a turn, so I had to make sure I knew where to do my little preparation points, where to balance him and where I could really just keep motoring. I couldn’t be prouder of him; he was just super from start to finish and he gave me a fantastic ride. It was just such a buzz, and I’m so relieved it’s behind us now and it’s gone so well!”
Ingrid Klimke‘s quest for her third consecutive European Championships victory, which would make SAP Hale Bob OLD the first horse ever to win three in a row, might have been slightly complicated by her 1.2 time penalties today, but she remained full of praise and admiration for the exceptional seventeen-year-old after her round, which saw the very fit gelding attack the course with grit and gumption — perhaps a fraction too much, sometimes.
“He was very bold and fast, especially in the beginning,” says Ingrid, “and at the seven minute point I was really very good under the time. Then, in the end, I found it quite twisty and turning, and I lost the last few seconds at the end, I think. I wanted to push a bit too much in the second water so he added an extra stride, to tell me ‘no, wait, we can’t go faster than this!’ I just love him, because he’s so clever and so smart, and I really thought I could enjoy it. I didn’t have to sweat or work hard, because he was doing his job as perfect Bobby.”
Ingrid’s finishing time was matched by that of Maxime Livio and his eleven-year-old Selle Français Api du Libaire, who tackled the course with a bit of the ‘allez allez’ typical of French riders and their horses. After a shock fall two-thirds of the way around the course for second team rider Gwendolen Fer and her Pau winner Romantic Love, who sat 14th after dressage on 26.5, a high-octane clear was needed to keep France in the hunt for a medal — and Maxime managed that, contributing to the team’s overnight bronze medal position.
“I’m very happy; he’s not so experienced, and the course is not really the one he’d like because it’s turning a lot,” he says. “But in the first eight minutes he was really with me and trying his best to continue quite fast. In the water when I came back I felt the jumps were not so energetic as in the beginning, so I thought, I have to secure everything a bit from that moment to the end, especially for the team — so it was quite tense for me!”
Maxime was one of the only riders throughout the day to opt for the shorter direct route between fences six and seven, which was considered a particularly risky spot for a runout early on course — but with team and individual medals on the line, and a Gallic proclivity for riding positive distances, it wasn’t hard for the rider to make the bold choice there, particularly as his horse was so attentive from the start.
“He really fought with me, and he was playing my game right until the end,” he says. “From the beginning, with my horse’s big stride, I said to [chef d’equipe Thierry Touzaint] that it was quite clear to me, because for me, forward strides are quite normal. I said to him, if he wanted me to be as close as possible to the time, I have to go straight everywhere. I tried to use what is the natural quality of my horse, and to answer the questions fast enough and smooth enough for him.”
British team pathfinder Piggy March remains on her dressage score of 23.3 and steps up from sixth to fourth overnight after romping home an impressive ten seconds inside the time with championship debutant Brookfield Inocent, despite taking the British tactic of opting for the long route at 6 to 7.
“He’s made for tracks like this,” says Piggy, who finished second with the gelding on his five-star debut around another famously twisty course at Pau last year. “To be honest, he’s made for most courses! He’s a very, very good cross-country horse, and my only worry was fence six — but having heard that someone had made the time going the long route, I knew that there wouldn’t be many people sat on as fast a horse as mine is, and I knew that on his day, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to get away with a long route and still do the time. If that fence was number twenty, I wouldn’t even have thought about the option, but he can be spooky at the beginning of courses, and I was just very worried about how that fence was very free, and having that big jump angling the hedge…[if he were to] jinx at the line of trees, it would be a very genuine mistake, but he’s still at that stage. As brilliant as he is, he’s a character, and so the more I walked it, the more I thought that my plan was to go long there.”
Though the gelding looked fit and well over the final fences on course, Piggy explains that the track was mentally and physically tiring for him: “He got tired enough for a horse that’s as much of a cruiser as he is. I felt like I nudged him, but that would be natural for a course where you turn back this much. The moment he got on a straight, he got into a rhythm and you did nothing, but it’s hard with all the twists and turns. It’s a very intense, one-day event course in a three-day event format.”
But, she continues, “”We had a lovely time. It makes it very easy when you’re sat on a horse that’s as wonderful as he is.”
British individual Sarah Bullimore retains her fifth place position after crossing the finish line just two seconds over the optimum time with pocket-sized homebred Corouet, whose dam, Lilly Corinne, was Sarah’s partner for her previous European Championships appearance in 2015.
“He was awesome — he was just amazing,” says a delighted Sarah, who produced one of the smoothest rounds of the day aboard the big-striding 15.2hh gelding. “He made it feel like a Pony Club track; there were all those huge, wide fences, and everyone kept remarking on them while we were walking — and I was like, ‘yes, they’re actually wider than the length of my poor little horse!’ But he flew over them. Most horses cross-country, you hear them tap-tap and slightly feel their way around, but he must have been a foot above everything. He’s just amazing.”
Corouet, who Sarah describes as having something of a Napoleon complex, burst out of the startbox full of attitude, and Sarah’s 0.8 time penalties likely came from some early negotiations: “He was a little bit fresh to set off and a little bit like, ‘get off, get off,’ and I think that’s where my couple of seconds came from, but he was fabulous the whole way around,” she explains.
Like her fellow Brits, she opted for the long route at six and seven, though as an individual competitor, the decision was wholly her own.
“I didn’t like that question so early on — I just didn’t think it was that clear. Knowing him, he’d have been absolutely fine the straight way, but I just knew he would possibly shy and give himself a huge bit of hedge to jump. It’s quite a big drop on it, and I quite like my pony, so I thought I’d let him save some energy and make it a little bit clearer.”
Whatever ground they may have lost there, they made up in spades later on, choosing a sharp inside line to the rolltop at 24 and opting for swift direct routes with a ferocity that belies Sarah’s pre-round feelings about the challenge to come and the opportunity to prove, for the umpteenth time, that she’s one of Britain’s most consistent and competitive riders.
“I have to admit to feeling fairly terrified this morning of going and making a cock-up somewhere. Having spent ten years trying to get here, I didn’t want to spend another ten years just fighting to be a reserve again — I don’t think I could go that long!”
Nine-year-old fischerWild Wave‘s five-star debut at Luhmühlen this year has proven to be a pivotal part of his education under Michael Jung: after three exciting but obviously green phases there, he’s come out on superb form thus far in this, his championship debut, and his clear inside the time sees him in sixth place overnight on 23.9.
“He’s a young horse but an amazing horse, and he has a lot of talent in all three disciplines,” says Michael, who has previously won the European Champion title three times on three different horses, and finds himself less than a rail off the gold medal position going into tomorrow’s competition. “Today in the cross-country he showed how light and easy he’s galloping. He has super endurance, he has lots of scope, and he just needs, for the bigger, tougher courses, a bit more experience. They have to learn to be clever and they have to think, but he’s an amazing horse, and I’m so happy about him.”
Though Michi is hugely experienced and has piloted a plethora of different mounts at the top level, Wild Wave has taken some careful production to ensure that he stays focused, not least because of his impressive size, which could make for a difficult ride if he wasn’t quite so on the ball.
“When you go to the start or you go to the first fence he can look at the fence judges sometimes, or he can drift a bit — and he’s a big horse, not, for example, like Sam or Rocana who are more like ponies. He’s 17hh, I think, but he’s light and he’s not heavy on the jumps; he’s very good,” he says.
“It’s been quite stressful in the build-up, because we were reserves for Tokyo, and you panic that you’re never going to quite make it here, and then you panic that you’re going to mess up for the team,” says an emotional Kitty King after her round with Vendredi Biats, which saw them add 0.8 time penalties to move into seventh — the same placing they finished on at the 2019 Europeans, where they rode as individuals and were the highest-placed British combination. Today, they looked even more polished than they had in that impressive performance, despite a near miss at the Flowerbox arrowheads at 10AB, where they got in too deep to the first element and then had to add a stride to the second — a manoeuvre that, once upon a time, might have tempted the spicy French gelding to nip out to the side.
“He was absolutely fabulous and spot-on everywhere, and he got me out of trouble when I made a mistake at the double of arrowheads — he was superb,” she says. “I think after such a long gallop, he just got a little bit further out from me and a little strung out, and I could have done with doing something a bit earlier. But that’s cross-country, and it’s never perfect the whole way around. We have to help each other out, and he definitely did there.”
After waiting for their moment for so long, Kitty is, more than anything, just delighted to be back on the main stage with the gelding.
“It’s just a relief to have gotten to a championship with him after building up for so long. The last time I did a three-day with him was at Luhmühlen in the Europeans in 2019, so it’s been a long time coming, and I’m just so chuffed with how he went.”
German individual Christoph Wahler and his Luhmühlen runner-up Carjatan S made it clear from the moment they left the start box that they were there to take educated risks and make their move up the leaderboard, and they did just that: they were the first of the day — and among the only ones — to take the tricky direct route from six to seven, which they did with a style and panache that continued throughout their round. Ultimately, they’d add 0.8 time to their dressage score of 26, moving them from twelfth to ninth place as we head into the finale phase — and after they delivered the classiest showjumping round of the day at Luhmühlen back in June, their competitors will be feeling the pressure from this hugely exciting pair.
Their round today is even more impressive after Christoph’s observation after his dressage test that the course wasn’t well-suited to his gelding.
“It was absolutely incredible the way my horse did it today, because this course doesn’t suit him perfectly,” he says. “He’s a big, rangy horse with a long stride, and for him it was hard work getting all the turns and the combinations and stuff, but he was so honest and always kept his jump. He was always looking for the next jump and I tried to support him as much as I could, because if I didn’t do a mistake then he for sure wouldn’t do one.”
The host nation finds itself in a competitive fourth place overnight after excellent rounds by Robin Godel and Grandeur de Lully CH (now 12th after adding 1.2 time penalties) and Patrick Rüegg and Fifty Fifty, who jumped a sensible clear trailblazing round for 14 time penalties and 36th place. But the start of the Swiss effort was ninth-placed Felix Vogg, son of Avenches organiser Danielle, who delivered one of the seven clears inside the time with his impressive mare Cartania, to the vocal delight of the enthusiastic audience.
“There’s no other word than amazing — for the horse and the crowd,” he says. “We had a good start, and the whole route, you could feel that she’s inexperienced but she wanted to do her job. I think these days, you need horses like this, and she just pulled from the first fence to the last fence in the same way, and you cannot describe the feeling of how the crowd was. It’s just special, and a lot of people from our home show came to build, and a lot of people who ride with me are helping here, so it’s a family competition.”
“I’m delighted and relieved with him,” says Izzy Taylor of her ten-year-old Hanoverian Monkeying Around, who jumped yet another clear inside the time to round out the top ten. He’s undeniably one of the sport’s great young talents — a point he proved when winning the Six Year Old World Championship at Le Lion d’Angers in 2017 — but although he’s picked up some seriously impressive recent results, including a win in Burnham Market’s CCI4*-L last autumn, he’s also got a history of being a bit complicated and, well, rather a monkey. But you’d never have known that by watching today as he navigated the track gamely, asking his rider for extra help when he needed it but never for a moment looking as though he wanted to seek an easier way out.
“He’s still green, and like all these younger horses, the last eighteen months have been a little bit nonexistent for him,” she says. “They definitely haven’t seen people, and I think to start with, he wanted to have a look at all the people — but he was fantastic, and really genuine, and he tried his little heart out all the way around. Yes, he was green, but he was a good boy.”
Our remaining 57 horses and riders will head into showjumping from 11.00 a.m. local time/10.00 a.m. BST/5.00 a.m. Eastern time — but first, they need to contend with the final horse inspection, which takes place at 9.00 a.m. local time. After a week of blazing sunshine, tomorrow’s set to be stormy, and this evening has already been punctuated by dramatic lightning, which could add an extra challenge to the final phase. With just one rail separating the top seven, it’s going to a perfect storm no matter what the sky does — so stick around for the full story from the action-packed finale of the 2021 FEI European Championships. Go Eventing!