- Text and Photos © Eurodressage (this article expresses Eurodressage's' eye-witness account and opinion about the competition)
It's been three days since the Kur to Music finals came to a conclusion at the 2023 European Championships in Riesenbeck on Sunday 10 September 2023 and Jessica von Bredow-Werndl renewed her 2021 title of European Champion for another biennial. The fighter for medal glory was an unprecedented tough one with reigning World Champion Charlotte Fry giving it her all on Glamourdale and Charlotte Dujardin proving her exceptional riding skills in piloting her fourth Grand Prix horse to an individual medal in 11 years time !
"One for the History Books"
After the medal ceremony and press conference I drove home to Belgium with my colleague Lily Forado in tow and we kept on discussing the freestyle over and over again. The Dutch equestrian magazine Paardenkrant called this edition of the European Championships "one for the history books" and I reflected back on all the ones I covered since 2004.
The most memorable ones for me were 2009 in Windsor with the rise of Totilas and the freezing cold press centre, the 2015 ones in Aachen where Team Holland beat Germany in the lion's den and then all the drama with Totilas being unfit and Undercover getting eliminated. the 2019 ones in Rotterdam with the thriller team competition (Dujardin got eliminated) and the board that kept changing, as well as Germany being the strongest they ever were (Bella Rose, Showtime, Cosmo, Dalera) and then probably, yes, the 2023 ones in Riesenbeck, although in the end I believe a few years need to pass to see if these Championships stand the test of time and remain memorable ones in the larger scheme of things.
When it comes to organisation, there was little to be faulted. The show jumping crowd in Riesenbeck did a wonderful job pleasing a highly critical dressage audience and their attention for detail was outstanding. The venue itself with its tall oak trees providing shade in boiling hot temperatures is also fantastic. It's different from staging a competition in an athletics or soccer stadium compared to a real equestrian centre. What is usually key to me is bringing nature to the sport. if it's in a stadium, decorate it with oceans of flowers and plants (like in Herning 2022) instead of keeping it bare.
Anyway, let's get back on track.. there is so much to be said about the Kur finale that I just couldn't get this article out any sooner. My head was still spinning with the wonderful performances, the crazy high scores, the lack of care for bridle contact (sure they can write "busy mouth" on the sheets, but if a blue tongue is shown or a red one drops out of the mouth, this should be reflected in the points, which is not truly happening).
As soon as the Freestyle finals started, one immediately felt that the traditionally used range of scores for the technical tests had become relative in the freestyle. Eighteen pairs competed in the Kur, 12 scored over 80%, 3 over 90%. Sure it is a testament to the rising level in the sport, but the points also felt a little ridiculous. Emotional judging took the upper hand over practical judging on that memorable Sunday in Riesenbeck.
Dressage sport is supposed to be as objective as possible, but that objectivity is thrown out of the window as soon as music starts to play and riders perform a floorplan tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of their horses.
By the way, Longines Timing is just dreadful in its scoring services. Four days after the Grand Prix Kur, the detailed scores (individual marks of the judges) are still not made available to the general public, so to find out what the judges truly did with tongues, mistakes, and artistic scores can only guessed. Where's the transparency? As a journalist you need to tap into the deepest depths of your network, the cave within the cave, to find out what really happened on those freestyle score sheets.
This lack is precision in points is what annoys me much as well as the fact that even at the pinnacle of our sport, there are still so many Kurs with elevator music that do not pull the strings of the heart.
Four horses into the programme, the audience was warmed up and started clapping with the final piaffes and passage. The audience wants to hear recognizable music, sing along lyrics so that they can stomp their feet and clap their hands. I remember the days that lyrics were banned from freestyles and Isabell Werth made this fabulous Montserrat Caballé Kur with singing and was told off by the ground jury to change it. Those days are over. Now Werth rides a Bonnie Taylor kur that's full of lyrics, strategically chosen and timed to perfection. Kur composer Michael Erdmann worked his magic once again and music-wise it was the best of day, although Werndl and Fry's came close. Freese also impressed with her Cher music, Nilshagen rides to Adele and Van Baalen had a medley of movie hits.
Sometimes music needs to grow on you. Dujardin premiered a kur based on the Pixar animated movie Madagascar, because Imhotep's mane remind her of Alex The Lion, she disclosed. The music was arranged last minute by Tom Hunt and Charlotte rode it for the first time in Riesenbeck in competition. It felt ok, but that's one I need to see if it grows on me or not.
As one of the clear medal favourites, Nanna Skodborg Merrald and Blue Hors Zepter, rode to music I had no clue what it was and felt totally indifferent to, maybe due to my lack of musical knowledge, although I don't consider myself an ignoramus in that department. Only the passage parts made me slap my thigh in rhythm, the rest had me puzzled. How can such a top combination with a major financial backer not have a kur composer who designs something that blows your mind and hits the ball out of the park? If she wants to ride for a medal in Paris, that music has to change, in my humble opinion. Maybe contact Michael Erdmann or Nicole Pendzich, or Cees Slings, (Anky's freestyle designer), or maybe a Joost Peeters) who have proven with their compositions to know how the game is truly played.
To The Beat of the Heart
The class was divided into two blocks to slowly warm-up the audience in the already tropical temperatures that blessed the European Championship show week. The final block of nine really raised the bar with one great test following another, making it the panel of judges with Maria Colliander (FIN), Eduard de Wolff van Westerrode (NED), Raphaël Saleh (FRA), Ulrike Nivelle (GER), Michael Osinski (USA), Kurt Christensen (DEN) and Isobel Wessels (GBR) harder and harder to do the sorting. More and more you felt that they were carried away by the electric atmosphere and top sport, losing track of the technical finesses and seemingly favouring name, reputation, and emotion of the moment.
As fourth last to go, the GP Special gold medal winners Jessica von Bredow-Werndl and Beatrice Burchler-Keller's 16-year old Trakehner mare Dalera BB (by Easy Game x Handryk) had to stay fault-free to create a big enough margin with her ambitious rivals breathing down their neck. The halt at entry was still not 100% immobile but the best of her three tests. The pair danced to their beautiful Edith Piaf freestyle, arranged by Nicole Pendzich. The elegance of the songs fits the bay mare perfectly and while her LaLa Land kur was even more captivating, the Piaf freestyle certainly is cleverly chosen with the Paris Olympics coming up next year. The Padam Padam song for the canter work ("padam" signifies a heart beat) certainly made mine beat faster with all its beauty. The trot extensions were ground covering, the passage work regular and rhythmical, the canter half pass right was delightful and the extended walk well ridden with much overtrack; one can clearly see improvement in this movement. But....and there is a big but this time... in three moments, Dalera pushed her tongue out to the right side, twice in the half pass left as well as in the two-time tempi changes. This seems to have gone totally unnoticed by the panel as it did not reflect in their scores. One piaffe-turn lacked a bit of steam and there was a mistake in the ones. Werndl rode her joker line with one tempi changes correctly, although they were croup high.
The judges rewarded the combination 72 times a 10 and the final score with 92.818%, a personal best score for Werndl, even though to me this was not the best freestyle she has ever ridden. Still it was very, very good. Not only did the Bavarian based ride pick up her second gold individual medal of the week, but she also scooped up an additional 35,000 euro in prize money (after winning 16,000 euro in the Special and 7,500 euro in the Grand Prix).
Five out of seven judges had her first, the two judges at the short side at A, both had her second. Interestingly the technical score for her test ranged from 84.250% (Colliander) to 91.500% (De Wolff). The same massive technical score difference between these two judges was noted also in the other two podium place-getters.
Jessica von Bredow-Werndl is now a back-to-back European Champion (2021, 2023) and will be seeking to renew her title at the Olympics next year. This German combination continues to write history for her country and the sport but will most likely never win the Triple Crown (European, World and Olympic champion) as Werndl chose motherhood over history. She was absent from the 2022 World Championship as she welcomed a second child to her family and the next WEG are in 2026 when Dalera will be 19 years old. Interestingly, von Bredow has not yet broken any world record score despite her impressive list of achievements. In Riesenbeck they showed that they continue to re-write high performance dressage sport with their lightness and harmony.
Glamourdale Bites the Dust, Sort Of
They wanted it so badly, that European Champion's title as well as pipping Werndl from that number one spot, mile ambitious, goal seeking sport athletes do. It was clear from Fry's face that showed disappointment in the Grand Prix Special (off the podium and fourth), but this young, happy-go-lucky athlete might be petite but is certainly mighty in the saddle of her big, black stallion.
On Sunday Fry and Gert-Jan van Olst's 12-year old KWPN bred Glamourdale (by Lord Leatherdale x Negro) entered the arena with a vengeance and the stallion was finally on point at the Championships. Their Joost Peeters' designed freestyle to Queen music suits the horse perfectly and gets the crowd clapping and cheering. They piaffed and passaged to "Another One Bites the Dust" with the first piaffe being some of the best ones they have showed that week and the passage showing more collection than just a slowed down, lofty trot. The trot half passes were sweeping, the collected walk was very clear in the rhythm, the extended walk had two hooves overtrack but could reach more from the shoulder. Then a mistake happened: the canter strike-off from walk went via trot and was laboured. The chanter half passes and pirouettes were lovely, the combination of two tempi changes into ones were really.. Only in the final piaffe-passage movements Glamourdale lost a some impulsion and spring, getting wide in front in the piaffe.
The score that flashed on the board, 92.379% was only a fraction less than Werndl, and landed them the silver medal. Booing came from the stands as many in the audience felt that they should have won the class. For me it felt like a coin toss.. In the end Dalera made a bigger mistake than Glamourdale, but her piaffe-passage work is better than the stallion's.. The tongue came out with Dalera, Glamourdale has a bit of a frozen/tense mouth.. Who is best? Grace or Power? I find it hard to decide, too, and prefer to sit on the fence with this one.
Back to Bronze
British Charlotte Dujardin renewed her bronze medal subscription on Sunday aboard Carl Hester and Coral Ingham's 10-year old KWPN gelding Imhotep (by Everdale x Vivaldi). With Valegro it was all gold, with her three other championship horses, it's been bronze non-stop (Mount St. John Freestyle, Gio and now Imhotep).
The sound of her Madagascar freestyle was very similar to her How to Train a Dragon freestyle so it felt familiar in one's ears. The liver chestnut is a very sympathetic looking horse but his body needs a fair bit of management from his very experienced rider. Dujardin keeps him very closed and locked between her legs and hands and literally rides each step with such precision and direction. The horse has an impeccable rhythm in piaffe but is not balanced, nor carrying himself. One could easily be fooled that it's a very good piaffe, but it's still very much work-in-progress. She rode her piaffe turns deliberately on the track to get support from the fence. The half passes were beautiful, the extended walk had two hooves overstep and showed nice marching of the horse. The double pirouettes right showed the proper bending, even though he does not lift that much in the forehand, the canter zig zag was nice, the two tempi changes smooth and the ones straight. It was impressive to see how much Imhotep was listening to his rider, face focused, one ear turned to her. The final piaffe fan before the end halt had a superb rhythm but was wide in front.
They finished third with 91,396%. The judge at C (Nivelle) had her second, five judges third and one fourth.
Off the Podium
Nanna Skodborg Merrald and the 15-year old Oldenburg bred Blue Hors Zepter (by Zack x Wolkentanz II) got a well earned silver in the Grand Prix Special but landed off the podium on Sunday in fourth place.
The pair rode to non-descript music (I think something 1990s which I should recognize as those were my teenage years) and lost many valuable artistic points on that front. They began with mega passage work (the best of all horses at the show) and their piaffe was probably also the most classically correct, although the massive chestnut gelding does not have that same tip-toe lightness mare Dalera has). The bridle contact is also strong on the curb and often his tongue shows when he opens his mouth briefly.... if only they would let go of that curb rein a little bit, the entire picture would change for the better I believe... The extended walk needed more overtrack. The half passes were balanced and the piaffe turns were with a metronome rhythm. The very anti-climactic music left the audience in doubt when she was going to finish even though Merrald rode a piaffe-pirouette on the centerline. There was so much more in the tank, but it was a fourth place that day.
They have homework to do if they want to get a medal in Paris! I'm sure they are up for the challenge as Zepter was probably one of the most correct moving horses on the show.
Panem at Circenses
And then there was Isabell Werth, probably the best freestyle rider in the world. In Anky van Grunsven she met her equal back in the noughts and while Van Grunsven hung up her boots a decade ago, Werth continued to write history and make magic for the sport.
Her Bonnie Tyler freestyle brought the most ambience and goosebumps to Riesenbeck in Sunday's finale and had the crowds exploding. Her piaffe-pirouette into canter pirouette to the lyrics "Turn Around" are legendary and the execution of the second one (from canter to piaffe) was MEGA; one of the best seconds of the show (alongside Carl Hester's half halt in the Grand Prix for the ones, and a corner he rode in the freestyle before the final trot extension.. shivers down my spine!).
And Werth knows how to entertain. Aboard Victoria Max-Theurer and Madeleine Winter-Schulze's 13-year old Brandenburger bred Quantaz (by Quaterback x Hohenstein) she rode with the knife between her teeth and her often fidgety horse with her. The piaffes at the start were on the spot but not truly sitting, the extended trots were good, The extended walk was uneven in the frontleg articulation. The degree of difficulty was so high and Werth rode no big mistakes, even though at times it looked a bit "cowboyesque" with her swinging in the saddle in the two-tempi changes.. but the crowd ate out of her hand and like a real Rafael Soto she had a big smile on her face and looked into the audience for recognition and appreciation. It was bread and games at its best! What a freestyle, even though on a technical level it did not have the required polish. They scored 88.407% to complete the top five at the 2023 European Dressage Championships.
Some Quick Words
Swedish Therese Nilshagen has become the Swedish team number one rider and scorer aboard the 16-year old Oldenburg stallion Dante Weltino (by Danone x Welt Hit II). She got first nominated on the team in 2016 for the Rio Olympics but withdrew due to an injury. Since then they been representing Sweden non stop at 8 (inter) continental championships and 4 European Championships. Like red wine, they are only getting better with age and the pair is finally scratching at the door of the top five. With their Adele inspired freestyle they showed lovely light bridle contact, superb pirouettes, tempi changes and canter extensions. The piaffe lacked some spring. They posted 86.132% for a 6th place.
Carl Hester and Fiona Bigwood's 13-year old KWPN gelding Fame (by Bordeaux x Rhodium) danced to funky disco music. The bay gelding is not as strong and carrying behind yet, and ridden in quite a tight frame for control. Carl often gave the horse the rein to move the nose out and stretch the frame. The walk was problematic though with barely instep in the extension and tension in the collected, but they produced lovely, straight one tempi changes on the centerline and the final piaffe-passage was really nice. With 85.461% they finished sevenths.
A peculiar moment happened in Frederic Wandres' brand new freestyle on the Hof Kasselmann (ahum Russian) owned 13-year old Bluetooth OLD (by Bordeaux x Riccione). Nicole Pendzich composed a kur based on Jackson Five's "Can You Feel It" and on music by Earth, Wind and Fire. The music went down very easily and brought funk to the arena. At the end of the test Wandres suddenly rode a piaffe pirouette and then a very weird trot half pass left. After his ride he explained that he had ridden two right half passes and none to the left. In order to not loose too many points, he searched for a moment in the floorplan to squeeze that in. It looked weird, but the final score of 84.568% (9th) did not represent that missed movement. A look on the score sheets show the judges still gave him an 8 for that movement. Like I said the freestyle is emotional judging..
The 2023 European Championships was the competitive highlight of the year and soon the World Cup winter show circuit will commence. From a journalistic perspective, I expect a few more exciting sales transactions to happen before 1 January 2024 as the nationality of the Olympic horses needs to be finalised before that date.. Which means that a lot of riders are still shopping for Olympic hopefuls.
Next year there will be two major events to look forward to, the 2024 World Cup Finals to be held in Riyadh (KSA) and of course the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. The top riders are all focusing on Paris and Werndl already announced she will not be defending her World Cup title in Riyadh. That event will most likely give room to a lot of up-and-comers to grab their moment in the spotlight while the others focus all their energy and strength on qualifying and presenting fit horses at the peak of the capabilities in Paris.
Let's meet again soon!
- 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