British multiple Olympian Carl Hester put Team Great Britain in the lead of the team championship on the first day of competition at the 2023 European Dressage Championships in Riesenbeck on Wednesday 6 September 2023. Delivering a ride that was nothing less than a true masterclass, Hester piloted Fiona Bigwood's Fame to the high score of the day, 78.540%.
With one score counting for the provisional team ranking, even if two riders per team went today, Great Britain is in the lead, followed by Germany and Denmark. These three stand far apart, but Austria, Spain, France, the Netherlands and Belgium are in pursuit, albeit in the distance.
Get Caramelised in Riesenbeck
After a very disappointing, rainy summer in north Europe with plenty of shows getting drenched, the season finale of the Europeans in Riesenbeck is fortunately blessed with a week of total sunshine and 30 ° C temperatures. This balmy weather brings out the big crowds to the picturesque venue, lined with tall oak trees, but those who make the journey better come protected with bottles of sunscreen as one of the bleachers has no cover and you'll literally be a chicken on the grill.
Most horses coped well with the temperature, not showing a lack of energy at the end of their test, even though many sweated profusely. Thirty-two riders went today and overall the riding showed good improvement. The overall picture was mostly friendly, no tugs of war, no old-school squeeze and pull, and even the lower scoring pairs did a decent job. Of course, as always there are a handful of riders, who think they can get away with skipping a few steps on the training scale, but usually the judges saw through that and down-scored it accordingly.....
There still seems to be leeway for the hot shots on fancy horses. There were a few pairs, who clearly oversugared their horse in a failed attempt to cover up contact and bridle issues with excessive amounts of white foam. Even though the use of marshmallow fluff is no longer allowed by the FEI, the diluted version is so in vogue that stewards not even bat an eye to it. With or without sugar, there were a few horse's mouths that were so unpleasant to watch - gaping with each half halt, for six minutes long, yet the rider(s) still got rewarded with seventy percentage scores. The judges really need to have a circle talk and reflect whether this is the type of dressage they want to continue to reward going into the future? If they keep ignoring such poor bridle contact because a horse is a fancy mover with good gaits and lots of expression, they will burn their own social licence to operate on the stake.
The class was judged by an experienced panel of seven, consisting of Kurt Christensen, Ulrike Nivelle, Michael Osinski, Maria Colliander, Isobel Wessels, Raphaël Saleh, Eduard de Wolff van Westerrode, and with a Judging Supervisory Panel overseeing that no blatant judging errors are made. Overall they did their sorting well today, but it was clear that the most famous riders got their halo points and were maybe a bit too generously scored for some work in progress tests they showed.
Nevertheless, the first day at the Europeans was as delicious as a freshly baked creme brulée coming right from under the grill.
Oogway's Wuxi Finger Hold
The man of the moment was Carl Hester, the six-time Olympian who is riding his 22nd European Championships in his career this week. Aboard the 13-year old KWPN gelding Fame (by Bordeaux x Rhodium) he produced such a spectacular ride that put him at the top of the leaderboard.
Hester received the ride on Fame in December 2022 from British Olympian Fiona Bigwood and he competed the horse in three CDI's before coming to Riesenbeck, winning four out of six classes. The bay stallion certainly is not yet as fine-tuned and matured to perfection as one would have like to see, but ridingwise, Hester showed the rest of the field how it's truly done.
They began with a square but stretched halt, showed a good rein back, but overall the horse was tense in trot and quite short in the neck, yet Hester patiently and carefully rode this horse through the programme never losing his cool or resorting to visible aids. He sat quiet and still in the saddle, hands with the thumbs up, lower legs resting against the horse's body. The passage was regular and uphill, but the horse could be stronger behind. The piaffes were correct and lovely. The extended walk was a bit limited in overtrack and the collected walk slow. The tempi changes were straight but in the extended the nose needed to come more out, the pirouettes were well ridden, the last trot extension was hurried, but the final centerline was finger licking good. The real watermelon sugar moment of the test was the line of one tempi changes on which Fame anticipated the first change but Hester gave the most precise, miniscule half-halt that made the horse wait for his cue. It was like Oogway's Wuxi Finger Hold. Goosebumps!
The judges were as thrilled and rewarded the ride with 78.540%; maybe a bit too generous considering the tightness of the neck, the lack of power behind in passage, some tension in trot, and the tiny issues in walk, but there was no doubt about it that this was the test of the day. The judges' individual marks ranged from 76.630% to a whopping 80.978%.
Germany Twice in Top Three
If one were to calculate the provisional team ranking like in the old days with both rides of the day counting, then home country Germany would be in the lead as their two riders of the day placed second and third with strong mid seventy scores.
German evergreen Isabell Werth and Madeleine Winter-Schulze and Victoria Max-Theurer's 13-year old DSP stallion Quantaz (by Quaterback x Hohenstein) landed second place with 77.174%. Werth always rides with the knife between her teeth and knows how to cook her horse "à point" to stick to all the food terminology I seem to be using in this article. Werth rides every movement with such dedication and care, from marker to marker, and continues to convince the judges of her greatness. Quantaz has not been giving her the easiest rides and continues to be fussy in the bridle contact and rather hollow in the back, but they showed very nice trot extensions and half passes. In the passage the hindlegs were too far out, to my taste, and although the piaffes are on the spot and in rhythm, there needs to be with more uphill tendency in front for them to be correct. The walk is a problem: the extended not ground covering enough (6.4), the collected always close to ambling. There were connection issues in the zig zag, the extended canter was ridden with lots of power and expression, the one tempi changes were big but could be more uphill. The pirouettes were small but looked laboured. The final centerline was certainly the highlight of the test with the best engagement and impulsion. The pair received marks between 74.783% and 79.130%.
Matthias Rath and his 10-year old home bred Thiago GS (by Totilas x Warkant) were worthy substitutes for Sönke Rothenberger and Fendi who dropped out of the team a few weeks ago. The black stallion is quite a handful and his testosterone is often out of control, but today was a good day and Rath had the stallion on his side. Although the horse was unsteady in the poll, bopping the head at times, and not entirely closed and quiet in the mouth, he showed trot extensions with plenty of overtrack and ground covering half passes. All piaffes were on the spot and in rhythm, but at times he leant a bit on the hindquarters. The passage was not always even and with hindlegs stepping sufficiently under. The strongest parts in the test were in canter with a nice extension, a very solid zig zag and clean one tempi changes. The final centerline was really strongly ridden until after the piaffe at X and then the horse lost the collection and carriage. Rath was thrilled with his test and got 74.845% for it. His scores ranged from 73.913% and 76.413%.
Denmark's two male riders on the team, Andreas Helgstrand and Daniel Bachmann Andersen, rode on day one, while its two ladies (Carina Cassoe Kruth and Nanna Skodborg Merrald) will go tomorrow. With a fifth and sixth place in the provisional ranking, Denmark stands in bronze medal position.
After ten years of not being selected on the team, Andreas Helgstrand returned with his heart horse, the 9-year old KWPN stallion Jovian (by Apache x Tango). He had hoped to make it with Jovian to the World Championships in Herning last year, but the 8-year old was simply not ready despite being pushed to Grand Prix at top speed. This gigantic dark bay stallion showed great progress this year, but at age 9 is still a "baby" at Grand Prix. The powerhouse horse easily makes spectators swoon with the massive ground cover in his extended trot and canter, and also the extended walk was decent today. Each trot diagonal was pedal to the metal. The passage has so much airtime and spring, but does not yet show proper self carriage. In the zig zag, however, the horse showed improved balance. The two major weaknesses at this point are the piaffes and the pirouettes. In piaffe the horse leans on the shoulders and crosses behind, while in the pirouettes he lost the bend and collection (in the right one). Helgstrand was more than pleased with the 74.410% on the leaderboard.
Daniel Bachmann Andersen presented Rudolf Spiekermann's 12-year old Westfalian Vayron (by Vitalis x Gloster). Another mammoth horse presented by Danes and although Vayron is three years Jovian's senior, they both are very green at Grand Prix. Daniel rode him with the nose tucked behind the vertical and started out the ride with some tension, but the horse gradually settled in. Also this bay gelding crosses behind in the piaffe and could not show the proper self-carriage yet, but Vayron shone in the big canter extension and two tempi changes. Despite his size, he's a very soft footed horse, but needs more time in the oven.
Ones to Watch
Although the European Championships are on German turf, Great Britain is the favourite for team gold. Britain's second ride of the day came from Gareth Hughes on the 17-year old KWPN mare Classic Briolinca (by Trento B x Royal Dance). The bright bay mare had a career highlight moment at the 2019 European Championships in Rotterdam and then disappeared from the scene between 2020 and 2022 due to an injury. She returned on the team for the 2022 World Championships in Herning, where she ended up excelling in the freestyle and placing fifth. Today, she looked a bit more fragile as if walking on eggshells, even though Hughes rode her very beautifully and quietly. The trot extensions were not crisp clear in the rhythm, nor was the half pass right which also lacked elasticity. The left one was better. The passage, however, was so soft-footed and elegant, but the walk was very limited in overtrack (6.5) and the collected short (6.9). Briolinca gained very good points for the straight tempi changes. The final halt was not polished as the rider already greeted before the mare stood still, she was not immobile. They scored 74.565% for a provisional fourth place. The judges were clearly divided with 71.848% as low score and 77.391% as high score.
Some of the best piaffe work of the day came from Austrian Florian Bacher on the 14-year old Oldenburg Fidertraum (by Fidertanz x Rubinstein). The horse truly performed a classical piaffe: sitting behind, hindlegs under the body and showing clear uphill tendency or at least intention and lift in front. Strangely the bay geldings passage has the hindlegs trailing out from under the body. They scored 71.724% for a provisional seventh place.
France's Alexandre Ayache was the French high scorer of the day aboard Karim Barake's 11-year old Danish mare Holmvangs Jolene (by Johnson x Continue). The mare is very willing and produced lovely pirouettes. In the passage she is still quiet uncoordinated and there was a mistake in the ones. They got 71.584%
Spain's leading man of the day was Alejandro Sanchez del Barco on the 12-year old PRE stallion Quincallo de Indalo (by Esbelto VII x Bandolero LXII). The grey stallion is probably the cutest PRE ever selected on the Spanish team with a face sweet as candy. They showed nice half passes and pirouettes, but hurried in the trot extensions, even though the horse achieves very good overtrack. The tempi changes were straight and well ridden. They got 71.584%
Belgium's Charlotte Defalque rode a personal best score of 71.072% on the 17-year old KWPN gelding Botticelli (by Vivaldi x Koss). The temperamental chestnut kept his cool today and really stood out with his straight tempi changes and rhythmical piaffes on the spot.
Also Dutch team substitute Devenda Dijkstra delivered on the 11-year old KWPN gelding Hero (by Johnson x OO-Seven) by riding a personal best score of 71.211%. The gelding appeared a bit grumpy and at times on the forehand, but for a Dutch team debut they did the job.
Tomorrow the Grand Prix and Team Championship competition comes to a conclusion with the second group of riders. It's going to be the big bang with the long anticipated duel between Dalera and Glamourdale.
- Text and Photos © Eurodressage (this article expresses Eurodressage's' eye-witness account and opinion about the competition)
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Eurodressage Coverage of the 2023 European Dressage Championships