Susanne Hassler’s fourth-placed finish on Royal Prince at the FEI World Young Horse Dressage Championships, Verden, Germany, July 9-11, exceeded her expectations and proved that it’s not just American Grand Prix riders who can hold their own in international competition.
Owned by Hilltop Farm of Colora, Md., the Hanoverian stallion Royal Prince scored an 8.92 in the preliminary class to finish fifth and secure a place in the championship. He then scored an 8.84 to place fourth in the final, the highest placing ever recorded by an American horse-rider combination.
Hassler and Royal Prince first impressed judges when they qualified for Verden, scoring a 9.82–a score never before seen in the United States–at the Memorial Day weekend U.S. Equestrian Federation Eastern Young Horse selection trials.
Hot on their heels as reserve champion was Iron Spring Farm’s Sir Sinclair, ridden by Dorie Addy-Crow. By Lord Sinclair, the Dutch Warmblood stallion also earned the right to represent the United States with his own impressive score of 8.9.
Both stallions were scheduled to leave the United States in plenty of time to recoup from their travels and were due to stay at German trainer Michael Klimke’s barn. But for Hassler, the best-laid plans of mice and men went very awry .
The pair arrived just 10 days before the biggest show experience of their lives. Hassler, the breeding manager for Hilltop Farm, trains with her husband Scott, the training manager for Hilltop Farm. In Germany, she worked with Dr. Ulf M?r and Klimke to prepare for the championships.
Both men regularly visit Hilltop to conduct clinics and have worked with the Hasslers for many years. M?r just beat Hassler at Verden, finishing third on Amidou (8.98), a Holsteiner stallion, and Klimke rode Bugatti Hilltop, another Hilltop stallion who stands in Germany, in the 6-year-old championship, finishing 12th with a 7.72.
FBW French Kiss, a dark-bay Baden-Wurttemberger stallion by Florestan out of a Donnerhall mare, won the 6-year-old championship under Katrin Burger. Florencio, also by Florestan, won the 5-year-old division under the expert guidance of Hans Peter Minderhoud. (Florestan is also the sire of Floriano, Steffen Peters’ Olympic reserve mount.)
“Michael gave both Scott and I a lot of confidence because he told us that there was no need for him to step in and change a lot of things, because the work with the horse was where it belongs. Ulf’s very good at helping you with the strategy of riding the test?of how to highlight the horse’s strengths,” said Susanne.
“For instance, he told me to make appropriate use of the short side of the arena. When you ride the short side, it’s an opportunity for the judges to see the horse properly in a frame; therefore you must prepare to ride the horse very quietly through the short side. It’s not a good time to change your reins or adjust anything else; it’s the time to just show your horse in the most perfect frame you can.
“He also told me to use the centerline as much as possible, as you want to balance a horse and set him up properly for the next test element,” she added. “Basically, you have to remember that this is a 5-year-old test, and you should ride it as that and not ride it like a dressage test.”
Former Olympian Belinda Nairn-Wertman, who trains Sir Sinclair and Addy-Crow in the United States, said that not riding the young horse tests like dressage tests is imperative.
“You ride these tests to show off the quality of the gaits, so you ride very forwardly, with a lot of impulsion,” Nairn-Wertman said. “You’re not riding for collection?you do the test in working gaits. It’s important to help them find a way to be balanced through all the impulsion.”
Susanne said Royal Prince, by Rohdiamant out of a Prince Thatch mare, was a complete professional at the championships, a huge confidence builder for her as this was her first experience at representing the United States internationally.
“I was almost embarrassed not to feel more nervous, but I was truly enjoying myself, and this opportunity was such a special thing in my life. Royal Prince’s confidence gave me confidence, and all the wonderful support from family and friends helped my nerves so much,” she said.
In fact, Susanne seemed to thoroughly relish the eclectic atmosphere at Verden.
“That crowd is just awesome! Having that intense focus is just an incredible feeling. I was the last to go in the finals, and, boy, did I hear the American contingent. There was a huge roar from them, and that really just gave me the last bit of support I needed,” she said.
“When we first rode in for the preliminary test, you have to enter the arena area through a huge archway. As you ride through the arch, all of sudden there’s the ring and all those people sitting there. I could feel him checking it all out as we warmed up around the arena, and all I could do was tell him, ‘It’s OK, we’ll get through this, boy.’ But then we went down the centerline and he was so with me.
Still, Susanne said the experience didn’t increase her confidence for the final test.
“The three riders before me–Hans Peter Minderhoud [from the Netherlands], Jana Freund of Germany, who was second on Lord Loxley, and Holga Finken of Germany [who was fifth] had all been warming up when I was, and they were just flying around,” said Hassler. “I was a bit intimidated and spent my warm-up just getting out of their way. So I was a little more shaky going into the last test, but once again, as soon as Royal Prince hit the centerline, I could feel his composure, and I just relaxed.”
Royal Prince’s performance was a bit of a shock to the German dressage pundits. He was imported from Germany late last fall, and since German breeders don’t often let a standout stallion leave their country, many underestimated his development since being with Hilltop.
According to Susanne, it has all been a matter of Royal Prince prospering under the program that she and Scott have for their young horses, which maximized the Hanoverian stallion’s potential.
“I think the horse has developed enormously since he left Germany, which is why maybe some people were surprised at how well he did,” she said. “Ulf knew this horse long before we bought him, and he said his impression was that the horse didn’t used to have the expression that he’s now developed. That sentiment was repeated often over the weekend by other people who had also known the horse,” said Susanne.
The Hasslers don’t have some special magic potion, nor have they developed some miraculous training procedure. Instead they work the horse with all the tenets of classical dressage in mind, said Susanne.
“Royal Prince has really developed to a special level because we’re training him with the future in mind. We’re looking for the opportunity within the horse, not forcing it out of him,” she said. “We’re developing his gaits with an eye toward Grand Prix, not just pumping it out of him for the young horse championships.
“I was both humbled and proud to hear some of the comments people made about Royal Prince and about Scott’s training. One of the judges said to a friend of ours, that ‘the way Royal Prince is being presented and ridden is the way a young horse should be presented and ridden.’ And I think that that judge meant that we don’t exhibit the falsified gaits that have to be squeezed out of young horses that you see so often. We’re training and riding the horse in the classical way.”
Despite the praise that Royal Prince received at Verden, there were still three 5-year-olds the judges thought were better, but Susanne said Royal Prince loses nothing in her eyes for being fourth to Florencio, who won with a 9.8.
“The winner was simply otherworldly. It’s the only way I have of describing him. He had an extraordinary way of moving,” she said with heartfelt admiration.
But an off day shot down any hopes Sir Sinclair had of getting close to a medal. Nairn-Wertman said she arrived the day before the preliminary test, and as soon as she saw the bay stallion in the Verden warm-up arena she knew something wasn’t quite right with him.
“He was absolutely healthy, but he just didn’t look himself. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen this horse have an off day, and it couldn’t have been worse timing,” she said.
Sir Sinclair’s performance was lackluster, and the pair scored a 7.68 to finish 21st, the first time the stallion had ever scored below an 8 in the young horse tests. That score also placed him in the consolation class, not in the final championship class.
Nairn-Wertman said she couldn’t fault the judges. “They scored him appropriately for what they saw. But it was just inexplicable for those of us who knew the horse as to why he went the way he did,” she said ruefully. “I could guess at the reason all day long, but the truth is we just don’t know what happened.”
The top three finishers of the consolation class get the chance to go into the championship class, held the next day, so the Iron Spring Farm team was determined to come back fighting.
And Sir Sinclair gave them everything he had.
“In that class, the horse was back to being brilliant. He was forward, Dorie rode the test accurately, and he was everything we knew him to be. Scott Hassler was standing next to me when Dorie finished the test, and he clapped me on the back and said, ‘Absolutely, she made the finals!’ We were so excited, and then the same three judges who saw him the day before marked him lower [7.32/15th].
“I still don’t understand it at all, but we all know it happens in this sport,” added Nairn-Wertman.
But Nairn-Wertman agreed with Susanne’s assessment that to be beaten by a horse of Florencio’s quality wasn’t the worst thing that could happen.
“Florencio is breathtaking, in a class all his own,” she said. “It’s really a little surreal to look at a 5-year-old who is as heavily muscled and as built up as a horse going Prix St. Georges.”
Delays Fray Championship Nerves
Nothing about Susanne Hassler’s trip to the FEI World Young Horse Dressage Championships was smooth sailing. Hassler’s nerves were a bit frayed when she and Royal Prince finally made it to Verden, Germany, 10 days later than planned.
The first thing to go wrong was that the stallion’s test for equine viral arteritis came back as a “no result,” showing neither a positive nor a negative. So Susanne had the horse tested again.
But they came back a second time with the same result–the day before Royal Prince was scheduled to fly to Germany!
“I freaked out a little. We were on a schedule, I was worried about getting there without enough preparation time,” said Susanne. So she contacted Dr. Peter Timoney of the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Research Institute, an expert in EVA.
He immediately guessed that Royal Prince had been vaccinated with a flu vaccine commonly used in Europe called Duvaxin, which causes unreadable results on the EVA test because of conflicting antibodies in the horse’s system.
Hassler checked Royal Prince’s vaccine record and discovered that the stallion had indeed regularly been vaccinated with Duvaxin. Timoney helped get the stallion’s blood work done as quickly as possible?Royal Prince tested negative for EVA?and Susanne hoped she was on her way.
But then the second flight she booked?having missed the first one due to the blood-work snafu?was cancelled. Now well behind schedule, she frantically spent an entire evening on the phone trying to find a transport company that could take her horse on short notice. She found only one flight with an open spot?the flight that was shipping the U.S. show jumping team to Germany to compete at the Aachen CDIO, also in Germany.
“I needed permission from the team to put my horse on the flight, and I ended up calling Sally Ike [the U.S. Equestrian Federation director of show jumping] very late at night to ask her if we could catch a ride,” said Hassler with a laugh. “She was as nice as she could be and said of course we could go along.
“Then I had to find a shipper who could leave the very next morning at 6:30 to take us to the airport in New York. It was quite harrowing!
“I think that’s why I relaxed at the championships–I’d already used my stress quotient up!” added Hassler with a smile.