We can’t be certain, but we’d be willing to be that right now, there’s a representative from the German Equestrian Federation at the embassy, begging the staff there to blacklist Will Coleman from the visa list. After all, it had been going so nicely for the Germans in their showpiece event: Luhmühlen’s CCI4*-S class, which incorporates the German National Championships, was enjoying a leaderboard jam-packed with home nation talent. They’d even managed to push Will’s first ride, 2021 Aachen winner Off The Record, down to the bottom end of the top ten, which isn’t quite the same as getting those stars and stripes off the board, but it’s pretty darn close. And then, when Michael Jung catapulted himself to the top of the leaderboard with Highlighter, it was all starting to feel like a very patriotic day of sport for Germany — until Chin Tonic HS appeared.
At just ten years old, the gelding — who was, at least, bred and sourced in Germany — has been making waves in the US, taking five wins and nine total top tens in his eleven FEI career so far, but this, his first competitive trip abroad since his import as a young horse, was always going to be a major step: would he rise to the challenge and live up to the enormous standards set in continental competition, and maintain that impeccable record of sub-30 scores?
As it turns out, he certainly would — and even those most hardened of European eventing aficionados watched on, a touch misty-eyed in admiration, as Hyperion Stud’s son of Chin Champ danced his way to a 24.6 and the first-phase lead.
“He’s a good boy,” says Will Coleman, presumably moments before getting strong-armed into a deportation van and forcibly removed from the country. “He’s still pretty green, but we’ve brought him on this trip to give him experience in this kind of atmosphere. We think a lot of the horse, but we’ve got to keep developing him and doing our best.”
Their best, as it turns out, was impressive across the board: their marks stayed between 7 and 8.5 throughout the test, with the exception of just one 6.5 from the judge at E for their medium walk. Though this isn’t their best-ever score at four-star — that came at Stable View this spring, where they posted a 22.4 — it showed enormous improvement even from their last test, which earned them a 28.9 in the comparable atmosphere at Kentucky’s CCI4*-S.
“You can still feel at times that he’s sort of holding his breath just a little, and is maybe a little tentative, but he gives you a really honest feeling when you’re riding him and he always tries to do the right thing,” says Will. “That’s the sign of a good horse.”
Although Will knew his horse could put in an excellent performance, he focused his attentions today not on trying to usurp the leaders, but instead on trying to make each movement as fluid and correct as possible: “I know that he’s capable of it, but I really try not to think too hard about expectations,” he says. “I think sometimes that gets me into trouble a little bit, because I end up trying too hard to meet them. With him, he’s such a classy horse that to a degree you come out on the day and take what you’ve got, and usually it’s still pretty good. So I honestly didn’t think about where I wanted to be after the dressage — I just want to try and ride well for three days, and wherever that puts us is fine.”
That characteristic pragmatism is present as he looks ahead to the weekend’s competition, which will see the pair tackle a tough cross-country track tomorrow before showjumping on Sunday.
“He’s got tonnes of quality, and this is just one step in the journey — but it’s a great event, and we’re excited,” says Will. “We’ve still got two more days to tackle, and tomorrow will be a good test for him. There’s lots of combinations so I think, especially if you’re going to try to go a bit quick, you have to be mindful of the stride that you’re on. The first water is a little tricky; mine’s a bit spooky early on in a course, so I’m a bit worried about turning in front of the Longines sign, and whether or not he’s going to actually see what we’re going to jump! I think early on in the course, that water rides tough, and it rode tough last year as well, so we’ll see. That’s why we came: to sort of see how he measures up to these kinds of things. We’ll just come out and find out.”
Michael Jung sits second overnight, and top of the German national championship leaderboard, though he’s not on last year’s victor, fischerChipmunk — this time, he pilots the slightly under-the-radar Highlighter. At just eleven years old, Highlighter has already been around the block a fair bit: this will be his 32nd FEI start, and in his career, which has been split fairly equally between Michi and former stable jockey Pietro Grandis, he’s had a number of exciting results, including a recent hot streak that’s seen him finish first or second in his last five internationals. His 25.6 today comes as the latest in a good run of mid-20s scores, an enormous improvement upon the low-30s marks we saw the gelding deliver through the 2021 season.
“That was not our best dressage, but I am still very happy,” says Michi. :My horse is getting better and better overall, so I am still pleased with our test. I set myself a target of 25 points and we just about managed that.”
Fellow German team stalwart Dirk Schrade holds third going into cross-country with Casino 80, who joined his string partway through the pandemic after being produced to four-star by German team coach — and top-level competitor in his own right — Peter Thompsen. Their 26.4 wasn’t wholly unexpected: the twelve-year-old Holsteiner has produced similarly-marked tests at the level at venues including Marbach and Arville, but his previous exposure to a significant atmosphere, which came at the European Championships at Avenches last year, saw him bubble over in the ring. Today, though, he looked considerably more secure in his work, which allowed Dirk to use the buzz of the main arena to create expression rather than tension.
“I got him in a Covid year where there were no spectators, and [in that situation], he’s absolutely calm — but in Avenches, with a little bit of spectators and clapping, he first of all showed that he’s more sensitive than I expected,” says Dirk. “In here, it was like that also when they clapped — he gets a bit excited, but I could use it to my advantage this time. Normally, he’s really a little bit lazy — he has the movement, but he doesn’t put so much into the daily work. You wouldn’t say he’s a hot, nervous horse, so it was good to be able to use it to create more expression. In a normal one-day event I could do a test on him after five minutes of warm-up and he would never jog in the walk or anything — so it’s strange, but it’s good to know.”
Dirk’s appearance on the CCI4*-S entry list comes after a last-minute change of plans: he’d originally entered the gelding for the CCI5* class here, but opted to swap after a freak fall in the water in a CCI3*-S class at Baborowko a couple of weeks ago.
“We had a super start to the season with a first and a second [at three-star], and a fourth in Marbach’s CCI4*-S,” he explains. “Then, I wanted to do a nice run in Baborowko three-star because he’s very careful cross-country and overjumps the brushes, so we wanted to make it easy — but then we fell in the water at fence seven. No one knows how, and we were both totally in the water — so we just walked him for ten days afterwards and started again. I thought, that’s not ideal to do a first five-star with him after such a run!”
Yesterday was the domain of the German young guns, and they were certainly well-represented today, too, with a super test from 21-year-old Alina Dibowski and Barbados 26. Their 26.8 was enough to see them take the lead for part of the morning, and they’ll head into tomorrow’s cross-country in provisional fourth place.
“Coming up the last centreline I was just smiling — my horse was so, so good, and I had a great feeling,” she says. “I wasn’t ever thinking about taking the lead, but I was thinking about my own personal high score and personal goals; he did everything right, and so we had a nice test.”
Though they didn’t quite hit their personal best at the level, which was a 25.2 at Strzegom in April, they found themselves in much tougher company today — an extraordinary accomplishment considering that they began their partnership eight years ago, when Alina was just thirteen and the expressive gelding was five.
“We started at the lowest level together, and my father was riding him at the same time, one level up from me,” she says. Through the years, they’ve tackled all the youth classes, including two Junior and two Young Rider European Championships, before stepping up to the big leagues — and along the way, they’ve worked closely with Alina’s father, four-time Olympian Andreas Dibowski, to cement their education.
“We see each other all the time, all day in the stable, and I work on the cross-country especially with him — but I also need to think about keeping it separated in my head all the time, because otherwise training gets mixed up with family business,” laughs Alina, who balances riding full-time with studying International Management — a course she’s undertaking in its entirety as online distance-learning. “I do everything online at home, so I can have the time for competing my big horse at big events and have time for younger horses as well, but in the winter there’s more studying on the plan!”
Spending so much time working with the horses at home is paying dividends — particularly with Barbados, who thrives on one-on-one attention.
“He’s sometimes a little bit moody, so I need to catch him on the right foot — but he’s also very personal. Me, my mum, and my dad are his people, and when you’re around him 24/7, he really wants to be with you all the time and cuddling,” she says with a smile.
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Yesterday’s leader, Hanna Knüppel, sits equal fifth overnight and is joined on a score of 27 by Jérôme Robiné, a 24-year-old student of the German Federation’s Warendorf training centre, and Black Ice, who he took the ride on at the start of the pandemic.
“His owner came to me and said, ‘do you want the ride on a horse?’ And I said, ‘I mean, yeah, as long as it’s not a donkey,'” he laughs. “But in my first ride, I was pretty amazed by him — he felt like my horses in the Juniors and Young Riders; just really bold. But there was a long way to go in the beginning — and now it’s getting good. And actually, it’s pretty cool [to be near the top] here, because when you start out in this sport you look up to these events and these riders, and you think, ‘oh, I’ll never be there; they’re so much better than me!’ And that’s what’s actually pretty cool — to step up the leaderboard and be with guys like Dirk Schrade, especially because me and Alina and Hanna are all the young riders. We’re the babies, and we have a long way to go, but it’s pretty cool that we’ve nearly made it!”
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