Our columnist has enjoyed a busy summer spent evaluating the world’s best dressage horses and riders.
There’s no horse show in the world like the Aachen CHIO in Germany. I’ve been there as a competitor, as a spectator and this year as a judge, and each time I’m equally awed by the whole affair.
To begin with, the venue, which is close to the old charming city of Aachen, is embedded in lush fields and trees. The main stadium is enormous, and the smaller one, which was the home for dressage, would still put anything we have available to shame.
Both stadiums were packed for every one of the main classes, and three of the dressage events were completely sold out. More than 25,000 people watched dressage at Aachen over the weekend.
German efficiency was in full force, and every detail was attended to. Even the weather was brought into submission, displaying generous sunshine, although they overdid the temperature just a tad. The trade fair on the grounds was endless in its horsey stuff and “bling” at staggering prices, which in no way hindered the commerce from flourishing.
What can be better for a judge than to be able to place your own country’s representative first at Aachen and have the rest of the jury agree? A dream scenario, especially when our rider is a class act such as Steffen Peters, who, from warm-up to post-ride speech, conducted himself like a champion should.
When they asked him after his ride to make a statement to the adoring audience, he thanked them in perfect German for being so welcoming and nice to the “foreign” rider. I bet they were kicking themselves at the thought of having given that citizen up!
A Knife Between Her Teeth
Looking back at the competition, the Grand Prix for the team competition had a rocky beginning with three-quarters of the class failing to put their best foot forward. Just as we thought we had a good run going, the horse would make some silly mistake or start resisting the rider’s aids and the scores suddenly descended.
One of the casualties was Anky van Grunsven, who had an uninspired ride. Salinero was tense and tight in the topline and thinking backwards, Anky looked distressed, and there were no halts in evidence. Having judged her in good form only 10 days earlier in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, it was a surprise to see her standing fifth at the end of the day.
In typical Anky style, she returned in the Special with “a knife between her teeth” as she expressed it in the press conference, but she missed beating Steffen by a fraction of a point.
I love her comebacks, especially in the freestyles where she’s deadly, since nobody interprets music like Anky. Again, she was right on Steffen’s tail in the freestyle, and I believe it was Salinero’s refusal to settle in the halts that tipped the scale toward Ravel who stands like a statue after a work well done!
There was a huge empty space left by the absence of Isabell Werth.
The news of her suspension was a shock to our systems and a blow to the sport. The German federation is an even tougher task master than the Fédération Equestre Internationale, making noises about wanting to shut her out of competition for a very long time.
Knowing Isabell and listening to her explanation, I believe that she might have gotten caught in a net intended for other purposes. It would be surprising if Isabell isn’t feeling bitter about having her own federation, the same institution that has hailed her as their hero for many years, turn on her without mercy. Apparently, there’s something on the way to dampen the blow and cheer her up: A baby, some time in the fall.
With the Alltech FEI European Dressage Championships just concluded, I see we have some exciting horses to watch out for in the future: Lancet, ridden by Emma Hindle for Great Britain, has a fabulous trot tour. His canter is not quite up to the same standard, but he’s nicely partnered with his rider. The horse is 16 years old, but he looks like he still has room to get to the top of his game.
Digby, the dark bay Danish horse ridden by Natalie Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, is attractive, on the job and ridden with royal flair, which at Aachen made them look like they will be the anchor of the Danish team.
Another interesting horse representing Denmark is Tannenhof’s Carabas, the stallion ridden by Andreas Helgstrand, who is lovely but has some connection and submission issues to resolve.
Sterntaler-Unicef, piloted by the upcoming star of Germany, Matthias Alexander Rath, is a horse with an impressive amount of mobility and activity in the legs and joints, but to me he appeared to be lacking some throughness and elasticity in the topline. Nevertheless, his flashy style gathers points and draws your eyes to the combination.
A horse from Austria to focus on is Augustin, a homebred ridden by Victoria Max-Theurer, who is in her early 20s. The bay stallion is loose and supple with lots of charm and presence, and born in 2000, he still has a lot of time to reach his potential. This is the kind of combination that’s truly a promise for the future and a bonus for any country that has aspirations to create successful teams that can last for more than a season.
A horse that always knocks at the front door is the fiery chestnut mare Exquis Nadine, an extravagant mover guided by Dutch rider Hans Peter Minderhoud. She gives the impression of being on the brink of exploding but never goes over the top. She consistently finished second or third at Rotterdam and Aachen and is the picture of total commitment to the job at hand, as if she understands the game and wants to win.
Totally Awesome Totilas
And then, at Rotterdam and the European Championships, there was Moorlands Totilas, the name on everybody’s lips, who has now shattered two world records. All I can say is that I’m glad I lived to experience this horse.
I saw him last fall at Flyinge in Sweden, where he competed at Prix St. Georges. He was impressive then, but he’s completely fascinating at Grand Prix.
He’s a Granat in presence but light-footed and positive. He’s a Matine in flexibility but relaxed and happy. He elevates like a feather, compresses like a spring and bounces like a ball. He goes from total energy to complete relaxation, walking as if he’s out for a Sunday stroll in the woods between his displays of sparkle and strength.
The frequent choice between 9s and 10s made judging Totilas at Rotterdam a thrill we are rarely offered, and the judges were all a little dazed when his rides were over.
Dutchman Edward Gal, whom we well remember from his rides at the Rolex FEI World Cup Final in Las Vegas, Nev., is the perfect partner for Totilas. This exceptional combination may well be the first one to consistently score in the 90 percentage range.
And I’m not referring only to the freestyle.
Totilas didn’t show in Aachen, and neither did Sunrise and Imke Schellekens-Bartels, who had a fabulous show at Rotterdam and actually nosed out Anky in the freestyle.
The Dutch are so strong that they can send different horses to separate top-class competitions and end up in the winner’s circle with any of them. Knowing what the Netherlands has to offer, looking ahead to a year from now to the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, it will be an event to remember! Don’t forget to get your tickets!
Anne Gribbons moved to the United States from Sweden in 1972 and has trained more than a dozen horses to Grand Prix. She rode on the 1986 World Championships dressage team and earned a team silver medal at the 1995 Pan American Games. An O-rated dressage judge based in Chuluota, Fla., Gribbons serves as a longstanding member of the USEF High Performance Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.