Laura Bechtolsheimer on Life at the Top
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
For Laura Bechtolsheimer, being at the top of the dressage world “still feels very strange” at the age of 25 when even the most ambitious are typically making the transition from Young Riders to the ranks of elite professionals.
An historic three silver medals on “Alf”–Mistral Hojris–at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky in September was to succeed beyond her dreams, especially in a discipline that until recently was not regarded in her homeland as “real riding,” like show jumping and eventing.
The remarkable accomplishment was no flash in the pan. She led her nation to team silver and snagged an individual bronze at the European Championships in Windsor, England, just a year earlier against mostly the same top horses and riders and, until Kentucky, was arguably the most competitive dressage show ever.
The success of Britain in global dressage has been welcomed by riders and competition organizers as a breath of fresh air in a sport dominated since World War II by Germany with the notable exception of Holland’s nine-time World Cup winner and Olympic and WEG gold medalist, Anky van Grunsven, paving the way for recent Dutch supremacy led by Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas.
Now, the dressage landscape has again altered dramatically with the sale of the superstar stallion Totilas to Germany from the Netherlands, an unforeseen twist of fate like the disqualification of Holland’s Adelinde Cornelissen when Jerich Parzival bit his tongue to draw blood within about a minute of the start of their Grand Prix ride at WEG.
None of that detracts from the success of Laura, though. She was in third place with the 15-year-old Danish gelding Alf in the global rankings before WEG. The pair should move up to No. 2. Only Adelinde and Parzival are ahead of her now that Edward and Totilas are out of the rankings, though it may take a while for the records to be updated.
Laura is bright (she graduated from Bristol University in 2007 after studying politics and philosophy), articulate (she seems naturally media savvy, candid but with an enthusiasm that is captivating and always quick to credit team above her individual accomplishments and is actively involved with a British Internet site, Horse Hero) and completely engaged in her equestrian pursuits.
“I am dedicated and ambitious but I like to keep things in perspective, and although I am very passionate about my horses, I know that there is more to life than competitions and success,” she said. “If you are not happy without success, I don’t think you will be happy with it. Hence, a balance in my life is important to me and I think also plays a part in my success.”
She admits her good fortune to being born into a well-to-do family and a father, Wilfred, who rode on the British dressage team at the European Championships in 1995 and avidly participates in the sport as well as being her coach. Although born in Germany, her family moved to Britain when she was still a tot and she is as British as, well, any other Brit raised and schooled there.
If there’s ever a question, before WEG her greatest moment: “Without a doubt, team silver and individual bronze at the ’09 European Champs’ on home soil, where I also set a new British record!” Home soil being Windsor.
Why dressage in a nation with a rich heritage of horse sports, but little in dressage until recent years? she was asked by dressage-news.com
“When I was younger I was very much a ‘British’ girl and thought dressage was boring, eventing is fun! Now I appreciate all horse sports but I have learned to appreciate dressage the most because it offers a base for anything else in horses. The ability to change a horse’s shape and make it athletic is very interesting to me.
“I am very happy that my interest in dressage is being shared by more and more people in Britain where racing, hunting and jumping fences have always been considered ‘real riding’!”
British dressage seems happy with her choice.
Carl Hester, whose career of world championships since 1990 owes a huge amount to Laura’s father for hiring him to ride his horses and has shared in Laura’s success as a team mate, describes her as a “superstar” whom he’s happy plays the leading role for British dressage.
She was the youngest senior national champion, was on the British team at the 2008 Olympics at age 23, posted the highest score (and a national record) of the British team that made history at Windsor in 2009, the same year became the first British winner of the German Masters at Stuttgart, and collected team and individual silver medals in the Grand Prix Special and the Grand Prix Freestyle at WEG in Kentucky, placing Britain and Laura on Mistral Hojris second only to the Netherlands and the combination of Edward and Totilas.
Like any young girl growing up wanting to be in the stables 24 hours, she dreamed of one day being as successful as her idols.
“But it still feels very strange when you start being successful!!,” she said.
“It is very satisfying to think that all the work has paid off, although even if I hadn’t won any medals, I still love what I do, I get to ride beautiful horses every day!”
While remarks like Carl’s make “me feel very proud” at the same time, a team is a team.
“This year in Kentucky each of my team mates rode a great test and three of us had 70% plus scores. This shows that we are a consistent team, my horse aside that is a great result. Alf is just the icing on the cake and I am very lucky to be the one sat on top of him!”
Success, though, has some times come with a price.
At the 2008 Olympics, nerves, excitement for both horse and rider and a touch of heat stroke for Laura caused her to faint–she later described it as “my world crumbled that night”–but learned to bounce back with the support of her family.
“I need to train my mental strength because each good season leads to more pressure and I want to have my horses in top shape and happy to work.”
That pressure is unlikely to diminish. Since graduating from university, horses have become her life.
“I love riding and training horses but I do enjoy teaching too,” Laura said. “I don’t do that much of it yet but can see myself getting more involved as a teacher in the future.
“I love thinking about the theory behind training horses and finding out what different exercises really mean for the horse anatomically.
“I also love eventing just for fun and have an interest in pretty much any horse sport. I want to be an all round horsewoman, not just a ‘dressage rider’.”
Laura has trained with her father since 2007, but Klaus Balkenhol has been helping since the 2008 Olympics when his contract as coach of the U.S. team was up.
“I work with dad at home and Klaus comes over for two days about once a month and they are both there at my international shows,” she said. “It works great because dad and I do all the basic fitness and suppling work. My dad is awesome at making sure a horse peaks at the right time and is in tip top shape. Klaus is great for pre-competition preparation and putting it all together for the tests. He is also a fresh pair of eyes ready for the show so we are a team really.”
The world ranking and championship accolades for Laura and Mistral have been accumulated with a relatively light competition schedule for both Alf and Andretti H, a 15-year-old Hanoverian gelding. In 2009, for example, she competed each horse at only seven competitions, including the European Championships and close to home at Hickstead.
She hopes to debut Telwell, a 10-year-old Swedish horse, at Grand Prix soon and has other horses six years and younger that she’s excited about.
Laura hopes that Mistral, who looked fitter and more athletic than ever at WEG in Kentucky, will still be going strong in 2011 for the European Championships in Rotterdam and the event that is on everyone’s calendar for 2012, the Olympics in London when he would be 17 years old, not unusual for a top horse maintained well.
“To be honest,” Laura said, “nobody knows but I do my best to keep them supple and motivated and do not compete them that often. I travel abroad to compete maybe once every every six weeks in the championship season and do not worry too much about World Cup, I only put in the odd winter show for routine.
“It is great having two horses because I can rest one but stay in form myself!
“I vary their training at home and rarely practice tests or extensions. Most of my work is basics and I hope this means I have great chances of riding Alf in London 2012!”
Her goals for the next two years?
“To ride some kick-ass tests at the Europeans next year and be even better at the Olympics!”