Danish team new comer Anne-Mette Strandby Hansen brought it home for an individual gold medal with a brilliant freestyle aboard Rio Olympian Foco Loco W at the 2020 European Under 25 Championships in Pilisjaszfalu, Hungary, on Friday 21 August 2020.
The midway competition week of the three-week marathon, that makes up the 2020 European Youth Championships at Arie Yom Tov's Stable Unikornis north of Budapest, wrapped up today with a master class freestyle finals in which the future senior Grand Prix hope of Europe was to be seen.
Strandby Hansen Brings Brilliance to the Arena
After team silver and an unrewarding fourth place in the Short Grand Prix Prix on the previous days, Danish team rookie Anne-Mette Strandby made the biggest bang in the history of the European Under 25 Championships, established in 2016, by winning the Kur to Music finals with an absolutely brilliant ride that left no room for dispute.
Hansen gave testimony of huge talent and skill in an environment of high pressure. The 25-year old has only once before competed for Denmark on the international scene, as a pony rider on SL Cuba at the 2010 CDI Pompadour, but she never represented her country at a European or continental Championship.
Hansen's show career is limited to national competitions on a string of horses between 2012 and 2018. She did her first Inter II that year and then began working for Helgstrand Dressage. In November 2019 Hansen received the ride on the now 15-year old Belgian warmblood gelding Foco Loco W (by Sierappel x Wendekreis). He was left in Denmark at Helgstrand's sales yard by owner Yvonne Losos de Muniz, who felt she had reached her peak on the horse after she won individual silver with him at the 2014 Central American & Caribbean Games, and had ridden him at her long coveted dream goal, the 2016 Rio Olympics, as well as at the 2018 World Cup Finals in Paris.
Due to Covid-19 Hansen and Foco Loco W only got a little bit of mileage in the show ring at some local shows in Denmark before getting selected by team trainer Nathalie zu Sayn-Wittgenstein on the Danish team for Budapest. After placing 7th in the team test and 4th in the Short Grand Prix, Hansen and Foco Loco W finally did what was expected of them: win! The horse brought the most experience, professional training and a proven show record to Budapest and it was up to his rider to live up to this potential.
Riding to the tunes of "What Are You Waiting For," the pair showed beautiful balance in piaffe and passage, quiet bouncy extended trots, lovely passage and trot half passes in which the half pass to the right was slightly less elastic. The extended walk could have had more overtrack and in the collected walk Hansen kept the horse a bit long in front, but the rider continued her test with the utmost concentration, while stayed calm and collected in the saddle. The two tempi changes were amazing, the double pirouettes were small and the one tempi's were fantastic. The final end passage was superb with the horse moving up in the front and rising in the withers. Foco Loco W truly showed what an amazing horse he is. The only point of critique is that although the contact was quiet and consistent, the noseband looked extremely tight, and the mouth was frozen. Hansen rode the horse with a curb with such long shanks it reminded you of the Big Lick for Tennessee Walking Horses. Still, her hands were overall quiet and the horse seemed to thrive on the electric atmosphere of these kur finals to show off his class.
The Under 25 Kur Finals were judged by Paula Nysten (FIN), Peter Hansaghy (HUN), Henning Lehrmann (GER), Elisabeth Max-Theurer (AUT), and Annette Fransen Iacobaeus (SWE). They rewarded the pair with a 79.025%. Three judges had her first, one second and one third. The individual marks ranged between 77.000% and 80.875%.
“I’m so lucky I got to ride this horse and it’s unbelievable what he did for me - he has a heart of gold," said a thrilled Hansen. "“ only got the floorplan last Monday and I rode it just once at home before coming here, I never competed in a Grand Prix Freestyle before!”
Hansen's freestyle was a glorious moment as the audience clapped and cheered while she rode the final centerline. "He is so well behaved but still has the fire to do his work, and he loves it. When people started whistling at the end (of the test) he just lifted his legs higher and higher! And today it was so warm, over 30 degrees, but he still kept on fighting for me," she said.
Nieuwenhuis Returns to Silver
The 2019 European Under 25 Champion Jeanine Nieuwenhuis competed in her ninth (!!) European Championship in her career. The Dutch rider was first selected on the Dutch team in 2012 and has not missed a single year since then, moving up the levels. Now a professional rider working for horse dealer Tim Coomans, Nieuwenhuis took over the ride on TC Athene from Gerdine Maree and the partnership has gelled.
While most Under 25 riders move into the senior ranks after winning medals at the European Championships, Nieuwenhuis opted to stay in the age division and defend her title in Budapest. While she did get team gold, she was twice pipped and scored two individual silvers this week.
Nieuwenhuis and the 15-year old Dutch warmblood gelding TC Athene (by United x Jazz) is a true powerhouse. The impressive chestnut has so much engagement from behind. He looks like a body builder, strong on the legs and clear as a whistle. Riding a freestyle to Ed Sheeran music, the pair showed very regular passage work, beautiful two tempi changes, an extended walk with good overtrack but a nose tucked in instead of stretching out. Jeanine rode a very high degree of technical difficulty producing super one tempi changes on the centerline, riding them with one hand. Also at the end she let go of the reins for a few seconds in the last passage. One extended canter was a bit too explosive, but the double pirouettes went well. There are two big problem points with this pair: the almost non-existent piaffe (two times executed on the track) and the contact is far from subtle. The contact is strong and hard, the horse gapes with his mouth as it runs into the contact to break free with all of its power. Lightness is not there, but Athene bewitches the judges with his power and strength.
The panel loved it and rewarded the duo with 78.450%. One judge had them first on 79.750%, the others stayed between 77 and 78%.
"I think we produced a fantastic freestyle and I'm super happy with it," said Nieuwenhuis. "At this moment this was the maximum of what we can bring right now. I saw the Danish ride after me and she was so incredibly good. Of course I had hoped for gold, but it wasn't bad to lose from her. I'm super happy with the silver medal."
In her last year as an Under 25 rider, Nieuwenhuis will now have to look at the senior Grand Prix division. "I'll practice very hard to join the big boys. I already competed at Grand Prix level a few times and it went really well. Since then I think we took another step forward. That is in the future. Now I get to explore Budapest with my family and boyfriend and we'll celebrate together."
Lindner Lands Bronze
Ann-Kathrin Lindner, Germany's gold medal winner of the Short Grand Prix test, could not repeat her amazing feat of Wednesday and landed a bronze medal in the freestyle finals.
Lindner and her 11-year old Baden Wurttemberger bred Sunfire (by San Amour x Freudenfeuer) are a very interesting pair to watch. The silhouette of the horse is gorgeous in the passage work, with an engaged hind leg. The contact with the bridle and soft, kind and light, which stands in bleak contrast to the contact that Athene displays. However today there were a few issues in their kur and it was a bit of a surprise that they still ended on the podium. The halt at entry was not immobile, there was a total loss of steam in the first piaffe, but then he executed it well on second attempt. Riding to current day pop songs, Lindner's music was young and fresh and not so much the ever-repeated instrumental tunes that were the modus operandi for freestyle composing in the early 2000s and now sound mega outdated. The canter half passes were a bit straight legged but the pirouettes were nice, the tempi changes uphill and ground covering (but not always as straight). He dropped out of the canter in the difficult movement from two to one tempi changes. They finished their test with a lovely end piaffe-passage.
Lindner and Sunfire are definitely a pair to watch for the future, but today they finished on 77.61% in the freestyle, placing between 2nd and 5th place with marks going from 75.875 to 78.675%.
"I can't describe what this week has meant for me," said the modest Lindner. " What Fritz (Sunfire) and I achieved, is such a big gift."
The Danish team went from team silver to bronze in the Intermediaire II test after one huge scoring difference between judges affected the final team ranking on Tuesday.
While there was much complaint going round in Budapest post-factum, the Danish dames regrouped and focused themselves on the rest of the competition with the help of team trainer Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, team captain Mette Müller and even youth team trainer Dennis Fisker rooting at the sideline. In the freestyle their push for power made an impact. Hansen won gold, Josefine Hoffmann finished fourth and Victoria Vallentin fifth.
Hoffmann and the Kasprzak family's 16-year old Danish warmblood gelding Honnerups Driver (by Romanov x Don Schufro) have been a solid partnership for several years now but it was mainly the rider who seemed to have made the most amazing progress. Never before did Hoffmann ride her horse with such beautiful contact. The gigantic driver with his massive movements was up in the frame, poll the highest point most of the time and Josefine kept such a lovely, steady, elastic contact. There were a few issues in the test. Driver has unlimited scope in his forehand and shoulder and the extended trots look immense, but the swing in the back could be better. Riding to "Clubbed to Death" from The Matrix, Hoffmann showed lovely trot half passes, tempi changes and uphill extended canters. The hindlegs of the horse are a bit pre-destined Romanov and should moved more under the body. In the left canter half pass there was a loss of rhythm, one right double pirouette was big and in passage the horse pushes the hindlegs out instead of under. Also in the last extended trot he got a bit over-exuberant and lost the rhythm.
Hoffmann's beautiful riding was rewarded with 76.245%. She placed from fourth to eighth place with marks going from 74 to 77 %.
The judges were quite divided over the the freestyle of Victoria Vallentin on the 12-year old Westfalian gelding Brooklyn (by Hogwart (by Holland x Pit I) out of a Baldini II dam), owned by Russian Alexander Lebedev. The pair showed incredibly maturity and partnership and did not have this "Under 25 look" at all. Instead they looked like seasoned senior Grand Prix competitors.
Riding to Adele music, Vallentin and Brooklyn showed impressive passage half passes and a piaffe pirouette that was very lightfooted. The passage was very spectacular and the transitions to and from piaffe were very smooth. The piaffe itself is not always as consistent and the bright bay gelding sometimes leaned on the forehand and came behind the vertical. Overall the horse moved with much bounce and airtime. The extended walk had two hooves overstep but there should have been more V-moment in the rhythm. The collected walk was clear. The two tempi changes were straight but in the ones the changes to the left were consistently shorter behind. Also in the extended trot, the horse gets uneven behind with the left hindleg less engaged. The horse is still quite nervous in the contact, even though Vallentin keeps her hands quiet. In the extended canter he made an unscripted flying change and the transition down was very difficult. Despite this big booboo, Vallentin rode a super test, and they could easily have been on the podium.
The panel rewarded Vallentin a 76.105% score, but her individual marks went from 74.00 (9th) to 79.500 (2nd).
Text and Photos © Astrid Appels - No Reproduction Allowed
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Scores: 2020 European Young Riders & Under 25 Championships
Eurodressage Coverage of the 2020 European Youth Championships