Laura Bechtolsheimer Leading British Dresssage to Possible 1st Ever Olympic Medal

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Laursa Bechtolsheimer and Mistral Hojris at Hagen's Horses & Dreams. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Just three years ago, Great Britain’s team and individual riders finished out of the medals at the Beijing Olympics as they had done since dressage first became an Olympic sport in 1912. No World Cup title in the 26 years of the only annual global competition. And until last year, no medal of any color at the World Equestrian Games.

Now, it seems that everyone is talking about the Brits as possible gold medalists at this year’s European Championships that is the team qualifying competition for the 2012 Games in London, though as the host nation Great Britain is automatically qualified, and then to srand atop the podium at the Games themselves.

Amazingly, the leading light of British dressage today is only a  26-year-old, Laura Bechtolsheimer, who finished 25th in the Grand Prix at the 2008 Olympics and 17th in the Grand Prix Special that was not enough to make the Freestyle. That all changed a year later when Laura and her Olympic mount, Mistral Hojris, led her nation to an historic team silver medal at the European Championships on home turf in Windsor. Another year on, and three silver medals–one team, two individual–at WEG in Kentucky.

Laura has both Mistral Hojris, whom she calls “Alf,” and Andretti H, her second string mount, off to her best ever start to the outdoor competition season that will culminate in the Europeans in Rotterdam in August. At the recent Horses & Dreams meets Germany competition in Hagen, Germany, the unofficial kickoff of the summer circuit, Laura and her two horses were first in all four Grand Prix level classes.

Carl Hester, her frequent team mate and a trainer of international riders on both sides of the Atlantic with a discerning eye for talented young horses, showed off the flashy Uthopia, a 10-year-old KWPN stallion, that was second to Mistral Hojris in the Grand Prix Special with a score above 77 per cent. In a handful of competitions on Spain’s Sunshine Tour the past two winters, the combination has not scored below 70 per cent. And Carl’s student, Charlotte Dujardin, 25, with the nine-year-old gelding Valegro has garnered accolades for their performances.

The success of British dressage, Laura said in an interview with dressage-news.com, although it “seems sudden. It’s obviously been a long time coming. It’s been a long development. We’ve just got depth, more combinations able to go out and get really good scores. The more you get people coming out… it’s kick started a whole process. it looks good at the moment.”

And Carl jokingly acknowledges Laura’s importance to British dressage when he told the German media that “Laura is very important to us. We need to keep her alive and doing dressage for a long time.”

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

The same could be said for Carl.

The depth of combinations vying to represent Britain at the London Olympics, Laura said, will “hopefully… make the selectors’ job really hard.”

She describes her Mistral Hojris, Uthopia and Valegro as horses with “a little bit extra on top.”

“I don’t think there’s any country that has more than three or four combinations that can score more than 75 per cent,” she said.

But, “we have to be sure not to get carried away. It is the beginning of the season and we have to make sure they have a good year in preparation but make sure they are fit and well as best we can for next year.”

The Europeans, she said, is “a stepping stone. almost like a test event, part of the preparation for 2012. All eyes are on 2012.”

Perennial powerhouse Germany cedes nothing. They are looking to newly acquired Totilas ridden by the young but seasoned Matthias Alexander Rath, the winningest Olympian, Isabell Werth, and her young but proven El Santo NRW, Annabel Balkenhol and Dablino, veteran Ulla Salzgeber and Herzruf’s Erbe, and several other combinations that reflect the depth of Germany. Holland, even without Totilas, cannot be written off with 2011 World Cup champion Adelinde Cornelissen and Jerich Parzival. Edward Gal and Sisther de Jeu and Hans Peter Minderhoud and Exquis Nadine. And the USA has Steffen Peters and Ravel, Guenter Seidel and the improving U II and the spectacular but unproven at Grand Prix combination of Heather Blitz and Paragon as well as combinations from the 2010 WEG team..

Laura credits the United Kingdom Lottery Fund that channels money to the British Equestrian Federation’s World Class program “that’s definitely giving more riders security and the financial help to do the right thing with their horses and right training for themselves>”

The program, she said, “definitely makes a difference. It’s given them more confidence in the sport, definitely an opportunity to do the right thing for training with their horses.

“The good thing is that these combinations have come through the world class system and we’re reaping the benefits of that.”

For Laura as the star of British dessage, “there’s obviously pressure when you’ve done well to keep up results, its also something to relish as well. when you’re under pressure it means you’ve done well. That’s a good thing not a draining thing.”

As to why her horses are ready for the summer competitions, “we’ve been really careful and strategic with our buildup. We’re not in complete fitness, full work… we’re still getting fitter. We’re in fifth gear not sixth gear.”

Mistral Hojris, she describes as “a reliable dude” who realizes he is “a legend” but not “in an arrogant way. He’s a fantastic charactesr

Laura has a somewhat old fashioned idea about managing her horses, adopted from her parents who would “chuck out the horses” over winter, a schedule that many horse people would ascribe to. However, there is, she said, more pressure to compete year round but “if you want to keep a horse to perform at their best at 16 or 17 years old, you have to give them down time. If you want to keep a horse performing to the maximum  you have to keep them motivated,,, not just keep them fit. They will pay you back for it.”