European Championships in Photos & Words

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The British team atop the medals podium at the European Championships. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

The European Championships, continental though they may be, offer amazing performances by most of the best horses and riders in the world. Although other countires, notably the U.S., produce world class combinations as their haul of Olympic and World Equestrian Games medals shows, the gold standard is on display in Rotterdam.

Most years, it is the traditional equestrian powerhouse nation of Germany and more recently, The Netherlands that grab gold and silver.

Until 2011…

Great Britain is a relative newcomer to the heavens of dressage–the Sceptered Isle of William Shakespeare’s King Richard II has never won an Olympic dressage medal of any color, and their silver they won at the Europeans in Windsor two years ago was well deserved but also came at a low point in Germany’s record.

This year was different. Germany acquired the semmingly invincible Totilas from The Netherlands that had ridden the black stallion’s tails to 2009 European Championships gold and huge vein of the precious metal at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.

Plus, Isabell was back (she missed 2009 over a drug suspension).

And The Netherlands’ Adelinde Cornelissen and Jerich Parzival are not the top combination in the world for nothing. While Totilas was ridden by Edward Gal, Adelinde and the 14-year-old KWPN gelding were the only pair to beat the super stallion–twice, in fact; one of those occasions being the Grand Prix Special at the Europeans in 2009.

Now along comes a 44-year-old trainer and rider of remarkable talent, an incredible eye for young horses and perhaps a more remarkable talent of simply being a really nice guy with wonderful wit who seems to want to do the right thing by his country and his team. Why else would you want to do everything you can to help your student ride one of the best horses in the world that you own to compete against you for a place on the British team?

Uthopia, ridden by Carl Hester, showing off the eye-popping trot for a 10. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

This championship marked the end of dominance by one or two combinations–Anky van Grunsven and Isabell Werth with their string of great horses that was an exciting see-saw battle for so many years, then Edward Gal and Totilas.

Now, there are a half dozen combinations that can win on any day.

Matthias Alexander Rath and Totilas, Adelinde Cornelissen and Jerich Parzival, Laura Bechtolsheimer and Mistral Hojris, Carl Hester and Uthopia, Isabell Werth and El Santo NRW and Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro. Throw in Patrik Kittel and HBC Watermill Scandic, Spain’s Juan Mañuel Munoz Diaz and the WEG spectator darling, the high stepping Fuego des Cardenas, or Victoria Max Theurer with some great horses and full of youthful enthusiasm and it is anyone’s guess who will fill the top placings.

Pretty much everyone involved in dressage agrees on one thing–it is great for the sport.

Back to the Europeans, the Grand Prix on Thursday–the second day of the team competition to decide which European nations will be at next year’s Olympics in London–was only the seventh for Uthopia that Carl bought as a two-year-old in Holland that he thought could be a good match for Rowena Luard of Ireland, who had asked Carl to find her a horse.

A prayerful moment: “I thank God every day that she is a good Catholic who likes to have babies. She has three of them now and I hope she wants more.”

Another prayerful moment: “Every now and again in life you have a dream ride,” he said after his 82.568 per cent result that led Britain’s conquest of the Europeans. “I had that dream ride today. I’m very glad it’s come in my life before I retire. I thank God for that.”

Carl Hester and Uthopia. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Adelinde said Parzival did a “great job” and she was “perfectly happy” although “we would have liked to have finished higher” than their third place.

And she did something for the spectators that this correspondent saw no other rider do–instead of leaving the arena by the shortest route by the new VIP grand stand, she took the long way round so she could salute the fans who turned out for the competition. They waited through a 30-minute thunderstorm delay as she was the last of the 64 combinations to compete over two days of the Grand Prix.

Adelinde and Parzival giving general seating spectators a close up. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Adelinde was second highest in individual scores, but knew going in her task of supplanting the German team for silver was a real long shot, but she still finished with 81.155 per cent, more than 10 percentage points higher than her nearest team mate and better than any of the Germans. By the time Adelinde rode, she knew Britain had already clinched gold.

Totilas ended up with 79.453 per cent for third place individually–only the second time he has finished out of the top two spots since beginnng his Grand Prix career two years ago. But the score for the 11-year-old stallion ridden by Matthias Alexander Rath was the highest for the German team.

The view of many trainers and riders was that the horse and rider that have been together only since the beginning of this year, are getting on the same wavelength. The piaffe and passage, according to many knowledgable spectators was equal to that produced in competition by Edward Gal but that Matthias still has to master some of the same issues that Edward encountered–inconsistent tempi changes and other missteps.

Totilas performing passage. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

While several other top riders admitted to sub par performances, Matthias gave perspective to the competition.

“There is always pressure riding Totilas,” he said, “but he always tries his best for me and he tries not to make mistakes. I have a lot of fun with him every day I ride him.”

Totilas in e-e-e-xtended trot. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Laura Bechtolsheimer, although only 26 years old now, has led Britain to unprecedented success with silver at the 2009 Europeans and three silvers–team and two individuals–at the 2010 WEG with Mistral Hojris. The Danish Warmblood gelding is now 16 years old and although this competition was not his best, the pair placed fifth with a not shabby 77.280 per cent.

“I wanted to do a great performance, to show that Alf and I are in good form, but he was tense, the noise and the atmosphere got to him and he was really strong today. He was stronger than he has ever been actually, and at one stage I was just holding on for dear life!” Laura said.

Laura Bechto;sheimer could not get Mistral Hojris to produce the The metronome quality of the piaffe and passage that won the pair three silver medals at the 2010 world championships. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Isabell Werth rode her 10-year-old gelding El Santo NRW to seventh place individually. She is the most decorated competitor at these championships with a slew of Olympic and WEG hardware and a World Cup title. As she does most times, Isabell brought her child to the chamionshps but motherhood has not quenched her competitive spirit.

No excuses. “All of our riders made mistakes today, some unforced errors as they say in tennis, so we have to do better to come closer and be more competitive,” she said.

Isabell Werth and El Santo NRW. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com