Carl Hester and Fame. (FEI/Leanjo de Koster)
Great Britain took the early lead in the team standings on the opening day of the FEI Dressage European Championship 2023 in Riesenbeck, Germany.
A breathtaking Grand Prix performance from 56-year-old veteran Carl Hester with his relatively new ride, the 13-year-old gelding Fame, earned 78.540 for the biggest score of the day, giving his country a narrow advantage over Germany in second place, while Denmark slotted into third.
Austria and Spain, both fighting for one of the three team spots on offer for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, are in overnight fourth and fifth places. France and The Netherlands share that fifth place with the Spanish after all three sides finished on exactly the same scoreline.
The team medals are decided over two days, so another 33 horse-and-rider combinations will compete in the Grand Prix tomorrow before the podium places are confirmed.
Mathias Alexander Rath set the first strong target when putting 74.845 on the board with the stallion Thiago GS. “He felt really fresh yesterday at the vet-check; you could see he had a lot of energy and a lot of power. Today I was super-happy how he behaved in the arena; you have to remember that he’s just ten years old and still developing and still at the beginning of his career,” the German team pathfinder pointed out.
Daniel Bachmann Andersen and the 12-year-old stallion Vayron then put Denmark on the map when slotting in behind the German pair on a score of 74.146, despite losing a shoe in the corner of the arena at the end of the final extended trot.
“Going down the centreline he was fine, but then I went outside and I felt he wasn’t lame, but he felt different. The shoe came clear off and the hoof is perfect, so we just have to get it back on!” he said afterwards.
He described Vayron as “a very green horse; he’s in his very first Grand Prix season – I think this was his eighth Grand Prix in his life.” He said he’s been riding the horse for just over a year, “and we’ve grown together; we had to find each other. He was educated by a top rider (Germany’s Helen Langehanenberg), but with a complete other length of body and body strength, so I had to get to know him and we had to do some things differently. And I had to give him some show experience, as he hasn’t been going to many shows,” the tall Dane explained.
Then Gareth Hughes got even closer to Rath’s score with a lovely performance from the mare Classic Briolinca. After putting 74.565 on the board, the British rider said, “I’m over the moon with her. I thought it was one of the best tests she’s done! Very clean, no real mistakes; I was slightly disappointed with the mark but so happy with the mare.” The horse has been a much-loved member of the Hughes family since she was three years of age.
“She’s 17 now and has done several championships and she’s been amazing for me and amazing for the team,” he added.
As the first day was drawing to a close, the legend that is Isabell Werth produced a new leading score of 77.174 from DSP Qantaz. “I think it was his best competition this year! He was more relaxed and not fighting; it was easy-going, so that was really nice to feel.”
The 13-year-old gelding competed in the FEI Dressage World Cup™ series over the winter months to give him more experience, “and I think that was quite helpful. And then we had a little break… and the next was Aachen,” she explained.
She is really enjoying the facilities at Riesenbeck. “The venue is very super; it’s so professional in the infrastructure, so great, especially now in this temperature and with this weather. When the horses are in the stables, it is cool and the air is fresh, so the conditions are perfect.” It has been extremely hot all week, with temperatures reaching over 30 degrees C.
Werth was followed into the ring by Andreas Helgstrand and the extravagant young stallion Jovian who slotted into fifth behind Hughes and pushed Bachmann Andersen down to sixth when posting 74.410.
The Danish pair was late into the warm-up arena because Jovian lost a shoe, but neither horse nor rider lost their cool.
“He’s a horse you need a big driving licence for!” Helgstrand said. Jovian was very full of himself this morning, so he took him for a walk.
“My strategy was to get him to calm down so I could show that walk (in the test) and the walk was there. I couldn’t make it as good as I wanted in piaffe and passage, but at the end of the day I’m happy. He’s a dream horse, and in one more year he will be very, very nice!” he added.
Third-last to go, Carl Hester then put Great Britain out in front with a master-class in the art of horsemanship. “If I never did another test again, it would be a lovely one to finish on!” said the six-time Olympian, after putting 78.540 on the board with Fame for the biggest score of the opening day, and with a test that had the crowd roaring in appreciation as the pair moved into their final halt.
“I absolutely love this horse. I worship riding him. I look forward to riding him every day!” he said of the 13-year-old gelding that was formerly competed by team-mate Fiona Bigwood, but who was offered to Hester at the end of last year due to her busy life full of family commitments. “She always said this one’s for you when she was riding him, and she was right; it was love at first ride!” Hester said.
He described Fame as “very spicy and hot” and “a full-time job. It’s not just a case of get on him. He’s in the field all day, he’s a stallion, he goes out all day in his paddock, and you have to manage him so he relaxes.
“He’s the kind of horse I love, a bit quirky and hot but wonderful and kind. You need someone who has time to ride a horse like that… he wants to go, but he’s the kindest person in the stable and with children and other horses… there’s not been a morning since January when I haven’t thought I can’t wait to get on him!” he said.
Meanwhile, in the race for Olympic qualification, it is Team Austria that stands tallest, their top score of 71.724 from Florian Bacher and Fidertraum OLD giving them the edge over the Spanish who also posted two 70 percent scores, the best of which came from Alejandro Sánchez del Barco with the charming PRE stallion Quincallo de Indalo, who earned a mark of 71.584.
It will be quite something if Austria can succeed in taking one of the Olympic slots in Dressage this week, just days after their Jumping team earned their ticket to Paris next year against all the odds at the FEI Jumping European Championship 2023 in Milan (ITA).
Florian Bacher believes they can do it. “It’s looking quite good!” he said after his impressive ride with the 14-year-old Fidertraum, who is competing in his fifth championship.
by Louise Parkes