Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023

Gal Breaks All Records At European Dressage Championships

And Moorlands Totilas may have even better scores to come for the dominant Dutch team.



And Moorlands Totilas may have even better scores to come for the dominant Dutch team.

No superlatives seem adequate for Moorlands Totilas after an astonishing five days at Windsor Castle, England, for the Alltech FEI European Dressage Championships, Aug. 25-30.

Even absent enthusiasts will long remember what they were doing the night Edward Gal and the 9-year-old stallion broke their own world freestyle record with 90.75 percent. And the supporting acts of Adelinde Cornelissen (Parzival), Anky van Grunsven (Salinero) and Laura Bechtolsheimer (Mistral Hojris) were also sufficiently awesome to leave riders, trainers and judges lost for words.

Stephen Clarke, chairman of the ground jury, summed up: “I have judged a few of these championships, but I’ve never seen this. This is the greatest moment in dressage history. I’ve never seen riders perform at this high level. They have courage to go in, because there must be considerable pressure. Congratulations to them all.”

History was rewritten thus: a record Grand Prix team total and gold for the Netherlands (238.59), record Grand Prix and freestyle scores for Totilas (84.08 and 90.75%) and a record Special for Cornelissen and Parzival (84.04%).

The Dutch won six of the seven medals available (at Europeans, there are medals in Grand Prix Special and freestyle) and became the first country to have a clean sweep in the freestyle (Totilas, Parzival and Salinero, in that order). They could have substituted Imke Schellekens-Bartels’ discard score on Hunter Douglas Sunrise (73.14%) for that of Totilas and still have won team gold by a margin of 6 percent.

Indeed, on merit, Bartels should have contested the freestyle, as she was seventh in both set tests, but she was a victim of the three-riders-per-country rule. This let in Britain’s Emma Hindle, who though seventh at the Olympics, would admit that Lancet’s Grand Prix Special performance was below par.  Gal, 39, is probably still trying to get his head around his achievements, which also included nearly 60 perfect scores of 10 during the two set tests.

After the floodlit final, against a new moon and the magical backdrop of Windsor Castle, “I started to cry,” he revealed. “I don’t even want to think about what more there is to achieve with this horse; he’s only 9. I know he can do even better, and that is really weird. I can’t explain what feeling he gives me. You could only understand if you rode him too, and, of course, we can’t all do that.”

Totilas is by no means foot-perfect—yet. In the Special the judges happily slammed him with 4s when tempi changes were missed, for an abrupt halt and ordinary extended walk. But for now, the horse who is both charmer and conqueror prevails with his earnest determination to match his extravagant front action with maximum activity behind, a ground-devouring canter and unsurpassable precision; he hardly edges from the spot in piaffe and pirouette.

It seems bad luck for former schoolteacher Cornelissen, 29, that Totilas has come along just as she too has a world-beater who, in some ways, has the greater physical presence.

In the Special, van Grunsven had piled on the pressure with a massive 77.91 percent, immediately bettered by Gal on 83.04 percent. Bechstolsheimer followed, riding the test of her life to break the British record with 80.08 percent.

Cornelissen then ensured that Gal’s new status lasted only 10 minutes. Her 12-year-old chestnut achieved the second record of the championships and the gold in emphatic style with 84.04 percent. The old record was held by Germany’s Martin Schaudt and Weltall, with 82.50 percent in 2005 rewarded with a solid bank of 8s and 9s in contrast to the highs and lows given to Gal.

Cornelissen did not realize that her Dutch Warmblood had won. She saw the wrong marks on the board and was congratulating Gal until he was able to butt in and explain her mistake!

Victory may have a sting, though, for Parzival is 50 percent owned by Henk Koers, who originally sent him to Cornelissen to sell, and he is rumored to wish to release his capital on this now valuable commodity. Cornelissen said: “I’m not selling my half. Never.”


Totilas had signaled his superiority at Hickstead (England) the previous month when setting his first world record, but van Grunsven swerved that confrontation, despite its being the final leg of the Exquis World Dressage Masters.

At Windsor she seemed resigned to the end of her long reign as the queen of the freestyle. Salinero was late in the order of go for freestyle so she knew what Gal and Cornelissen had scored.

“I thought, ‘I’ll give it a try as well’,” she said, with a hint of irony. “Bronze was not what I hoped for, but I had seen these two this winter and realized that it was possible they would beat me. I’m happy with Salinero and his performance.”

Interestingly, van Grunsven revived her Espirit Chanson routine, composed when Salinero was 8. It is of lower technical difficulty but delivered with exquisite timing, and Salinero was certainly more relaxed than in the Special.

British Silver

Total Dutch monopoly was denied only by Bechtolsheimer, 25, who with the rest of the Brits was on a mighty roll. The host nation became only the second to beat Germany when taking team silver and for the first time had three riders in the top 10 of the freestyle.

Team debutante Maria Eilberg, 24, on Two Sox and the “veteran” Carl Hester, 42, on Liebling II, laid down solid foundations for British medal claims. The prospect of silver came alive on the second day when Bechtolsheimer delivered a personal best of 76.63 percent. It came down to Hindle to top 71 percent; she managed easily on 72.93.

“I was aware that lots of people were crunching the numbers, but knowing what the target figure is can’t make you any better than your best,” she said. “I just tried to keep focused and do what I’ve been doing all season.”

For Hester, silver was particularly sweet. This charismatic rider has been on numerous teams since the 1990 World Equestrian Games but not the two occasions—1993 and 2003—on which Great Britain mounted the podium.

Bechtolsheimer was too shocked to analyze her achievements during the show, but at home in Gloucestershire she was more reflective. She believed that Mistral Hojris has not peaked, though aged 14.

“He used to be a loose cannon; now he is much more reliable,” she said. “He knew he had done well, but it definitely took a lot out of him and he had a very good sleep afterwards. That’s it for the season now. We will prepare for Kentucky [2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games], and in 2012, of course, it is London. He will still only be 17 then, and it is just a short journey down the freeway, after all!”

The absence of Isabell Werth—through  suspension and pregnancy—diluted the German challenge, but they pronounced themselves satisfied with team bronze. Matthias Alexander Rath and Sterntaler-Unicef scored 75.61 percent in the Grand Prix, ahead of two of the Dutch, and 75.45 percent in the Special for sixth place. Monica Theodorescu, their senior member, had two top-10 placings with Whisper. Both were riding for Ann-Kathrin Linsenhoff, Rath’s stepmother.

In the Special, Sterntaler-Unicef was ahead of Salinero’s score by the time the test reached the canter half-passes, but the rider admitted he lost his nerve in the final piaffe and did not ride sufficient steps.

“I could have ridden 78 percent, which is something I’ve never accomplished,” said Rath. “The Grand Prix exceeded all my expectations. I only wanted to just ride at my first European Championships. Next year, at the WEG, I’ll definitely go for it!”


Ironically, German blood played a part in their eclipse by Britain, for Bechstolsheimer and Eilberg are both daughters of German expatriates, Wilfried Bechtolsheimer and popular trainer Ferdi Eilberg, who themselves rode on British championship teams.

There were, of course, many other gifted horses, and 18 scored more than 70 percent in the Grand Prix. Austria’s Victoria Max-Theurer was shocked to finish fifth in all three tests on Augustin OLD, who is 9 and also far from his potential best.

“Reaching the kur finals exceeded my wildest dreams,” she said. “I thank everyone who believed in us and helped me accomplish this.”

The judges seemed least able to agree about Germany’s Susanne Lebek (Potomac), Patrick Kittel (Scandic) of fourth-placed Sweden, and Schellekens-Bartels, with Eric Lette (sitting at C in the Grand Prix) often assessing them 10 or more placings distant from his colleagues, unusual amongst the leading batch.

Superlative Scores

As expected, the freestyle was a spectator sell-out on the Saturday night, though spectators attending a freestyle for the first time in several years remarked how the genre had altered.

Musical choices now fall into two disparate categories. There are those in which a freestyle is created around a medley of recognized pieces and those expensively composed to accompany a pre-determined routine, even if it means an ear-jarring change of key or tempo every eight bars.

Bechtolsheimer and Kyra Kyrklund (Max, 76.45%) observed the former, using melodies by The Shadows (in particular their iconic 1960s guitar solo, “Apache”) and “Cabaret,” respectively.

Cornelissen and Gal fell into the latter category. Thematic references to Wagner’s opera “Parzival” were a clever choice for the silver medalist; Gal uses an abstract arrangement of “Oxygene 13,” “Equinox 4,” “Song From A Secret Garden” and Pirates Of The Caribbean, with a huge bell chime at the point of pirouette and a generally huge wash of sound at variance with the horse’s stride tempo, contrary to FEI requirements. You were reminded of ice dancers Torvill and Dean, who controversially broke the rules with their Bolero routine at the Olympics 25 years ago. And look what they went on to…

Numerous other combinations achieved personal bests during the week. Clarke said: “Believe it or not, we don’t like to give low marks and only do it when we have to. When it’s appropriate we love to give high marks. That’s the excitement of the sport.”

So, did the mesmerizing Totilas sweep up everyone else in the slipstream and over-excite the judges?

Ideal facilities may also have helped to produce the high scores.

Schellekens-Bartels said: “The warm-up arenas are perfect, and the main arena is good. My horse felt happy in the warm-up, which gives you a secure feeling. I felt good because she felt good!”

Comedy moment of the week was the riders’ on-foot lap of honor after the team test. Riding boots are certainly not de-signed for jogging! At previous championships, the Dutch have been unhappy about parading, but this time Bechtol-sheimer had concerns. It was announced that the podium ceremony would proceed without horses for “welfare reasons.”

For subsequent ceremonies, an equine victory lap in walk was the compromise. The sight of van Grunsven and Salinero being led by their groom was an odd advertisement for dressage as the epitome of obedience, though after a week of such glorious entertainment no one would begrudge any rider such a small indulgence.




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