While it seemed early spring had arrived in Belgium with three weeks of non-stop sunshine, balmy 16° C temperatures, and not a drop of rain in the month of March, the stage appeared set for a glorious CDI Opglabbeek to open the European outdoor show season. The weather gods, however, decided otherwise and were cruel as they unleashed a sting of winter on Western Europe.
Cruel Weather Gods
While Wednesday 30 March was still sunny and pleasant for the first training on the show grounds and the horse inspection, on Thursday 31 March it all changed with a biting cold that had set in, a piercing northeastern wind, and a drizzle that one didn't feel at the beginning but lasted so long that one got soaked and cold to the bone.
The main arena lay open to the elements but the Prix St Georges and first group of 4* Grand Prix riders on Thursday could consider themselves lucky. Friday April 1 was no April Fools' day. The temperatures dropped to freezing point overnight and some parts of Belgium were covered in a carpet of snow. Sentower park equestrian centre was spared from this carpet, but the show organizers had pre-emptively moved the morning youth classes to the indoor arena and postponed part 2 of the 4* Grand Prix to the afternoon.
The footing stayed perfect in all outdoor arenas, but it was cold, so cold ! Never before have I been to a horse show where the wind cut into your skin like a knife. The CDI Joosland used to have a sea breeze shaking things up, but today in Opglabbeek it was brutally cold and tiny drops of snow slush came down the entire afternoon.
The Big Freeze
While riders had to deal with suddenly extremely frisky and spooky horses as the wind rattled everything around the arena that wasn't tightened fast, on-lookers froze into ice pillars watching the action in the Grand Prix arena. Most spectators fled indoors or into the nice, warm, comfortable bistro bar in between ring 1 and 2, looking at the rides from quite far away. Grooms bundled up in their horse's blankets and trainers looked like eskimo's with their down coats and (faux) fur trims. Cheeks and noses were red, fingers blue, and everybody complained. It was an unusual sight for a spring dressage show and definitely not an event for the faint-hearted.
The hero of the day was certainly the gatekeeper: a young girl who sat on a chair wrapped in blankets to stay warm. She did not get distracted from her job and punctually opened and closed the gate for all Grand Prix riders, big names and rising stars, as she chilled to the bone. As a photographer 23 years on the job, I can tell you my fingers and toes were frozen while my heart tried to stay as enthusiastic and focused as possible with so many interesting combinations entering the arena. Even the judges, who warmed up their hands on paper cups of coffee, said during the break that the wind was so strong it blew into their judges' huts. I consoled myself with the thought that it can still be worse: I remember the pouring rain at the 2011 European Junior/Young Riders Championships in Broholm and to this date it is still my worst (weather) show experience ever! I had a mental breakdown on the final day after no longer being able to dry my clothes and slipping and falling in the mud, cutting my elbow (still have a scar as proof). Anyway....
Not for the Faint Hearted
It must be commended that none of the riders in Opglabbeek pulled out of the class despite unwelcome weather conditions. However on Friday they faced a challenge.
Hubertus Schmidt's recently gelded Denoix (by Destano x Pik Noir) got quite distracted and jumped around, which rattled his rider who then went off course twice, which results in elimination. Laura Tomlinson's Fallatijn (by Vivaldi x Cabachon) was also on edge and ended up throwing the tongue over the bit. Charlotte Defalque and Botticelli (by Vivaldi x Koss), who is known for his redhead behaviour but who showed maturity at the CDI Doha last month, was back to being a rascal and jumped around. Laurence Roos' Fil Rouge (by Stedinger x Argentinus) spooked tremendously from a ghost photographer who made a sudden appearance inside the arena perimeter with a raincover flapping in the wind.
The experienced panel of judges for the 4* Grand Prix class consisted of Jacques Van Daele (4*), Eduard De Wolff Van Westerrode (5*), Lars Andersson (5*), Peter Holler (5*), and Maarten Van Der Heijden (4*) seemed as off-key as the weather. Big name riders took advantage of their reputation and got a lot of points for some imperfect tests, whereas some of the lesser gods saw point differences up to 9% in their individual marks!
Dutch Lucie Louws received scores ranging fro 64.674% to 70.435%, Larissa Pauluis' Valentin got between 64.130 and 69.674%, Kirsten Teeuwen has some deciphering to do when she looks on score sheets with a 61.848% and 67.174%. The icing on the failed judging cake was Warwick McLean's ride on Hendrix which got him a 63.587% and 72.065%!
More work needs to be done to harmonize the judges' corps!
Glamourdale on Top
British Olympian Charlotte Fry and her incredibly talented Glamourdale (by Lord Leatherdale x Negro) produced a personal best score for the victory in the two-day class. The powerful black stallion with his amazing canter posted 77.696%. He has strong, springy passage work, but did not achieve enough overtrack in the first two trot extensions. He impressed with the half passes, extended canter, and tempi changes. The left canter pirouette had a bobble, the last trot extension was the best one.
Lottie's second horse, the inexperienced 9-year old Inclusive (by Everdale x Uptown) was overwhelmed in the job. He was steaming through the test, brimming with energy as if he could easily do a marathon, and probably showed the best piaffe of all of Lottie's horses, but Fry had to pull all her skills out of the bag to keep the lid on that cooker. The judges were all over with their scores: 66.957 to 72.174%. The pair was 16th.
Patrik Kittel made his debut on Anna Kasprzak's 13-year old Fuhur (by Furstenreich x Nagnat) after less than a month together. Kittel is still getting to know the buttons on the bay, who was produced to Grand Prix level by Elena Sidneva and then sold to Kasprzak, who did not find a connection with the horse and sent it to Kittel (to be sold?!). Patrik rode the horse very meticulously and brought out the gelding's super piaffe and passage, but overall the horse is not the biggest, most elastic mover, and the changes were crooked, both in the two tempi line and zig zag. The judges rewarded this debut ride with a big 74.717% (scores from 71.087% to 76.413%).
Dutch Marieke van der Putten finally seems to have found her match in a new Grand Prix horse, one that is not boiling over (Zingaro Apple, Her Majesty). The 10-year old Torveslettens Titanium (by Totilas x Stedinger) suits her very well and the pair showed great promise for the future. The black gelding is very solid in the canter work and has a nice piaffe-passage although the hindlegs could carry a bit more and come under the body. They were third with 73.087%.
German based Australian Lyndal Oatley has a very attractive ride in her 13-year old KWPN mare Elvive (by Tuschinski x Don Schufro). The gorgeous bay mare has top potential in the piaffe-passage, but can get a little bit mechanic in those movements. The trot half passes were wonderful. Unfortunately in these weather conditions, the mare did not show an extended walk at all (5.5 - 7) and Oatley did her best to ride a calm, collected walk, but it was short and slow (6 - 6.5). The pirouettes were super expressive but unfortunately Elvive lost the rhythm in the last extended trot. The score stayed at 72.087% for fourth place.
Belgium's Larissa Pauluis had one of her best rides on the 12-year old KWPN gelding Flambeau (by Ampere x Zeoliet). The bay is easily distracted by his surroundings and doesn't always stay through at the poll, but Pauluis had a more quiet contact with steady hands and she piloted the gelding expertly through the movements without her losing her cool. They posted 70.782%, but it could easily have been more. Four judges had her above 70 (high score 72.826%), one was on 66.848%
Belgian Tokyo delegates Alexa Fairchild and Domien Michiels both had two consistent rounds, which earned them 70% scores and a 7th and 8th place.
New Zealand's Melissa Galloway rode her second CDI since arriving in Europe to work as an assistant rider at Gert-Jan van Olst's stallion station. Aboard the Kiwi bred Windermere J'Obei W (by Johnson x Pompeii Court xx) she blended in perfectly with the euro crowd and produced a respectable test that earned her 69.956% and a 9th place.
Fabienne Lutkemeier's 11-year old Valesco (by Vitalis x Douceur) was a bit tense and entered the ring, grinding his teeth, but Fabienne showed off plenty of the quality her horse has, but there were a couple of mistakes that reduced the score to 69.848%.