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Be Not Afraid: Jim Wofford

Jim Wofford and Kilkenny on their way to clinching team silver and individual sixth place at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. (Photo copyright Werner Ernst)

An interview with James Cunningham Wofford is not something to be taken lightly. Any attempt at leading the conversation fails miserably, because you are talking with a man with the most exceptional communications skills and extraordinary stories to tell. There’s a sense of riding the tide of equestrian history as the double-Olympian and world-famous American coach recalls sporting highlights, great horses, and magical moments from his stellar career.

But it’s a bit like sitting on a runaway train, and even when you get to the end it feels like you’ve only half-halted. Because you just know that there are many more tales to be told and lots more wisdom to be shared by this raconteur par excellence.

I begin by asking him if he always had Olympic ambitions, and he admits it was “in my cross-hairs from a very early age.” Not surprising really considering his father, Col John W. Wofford, who later became first President of the United States Equestrian Team (USET), competed in Jumping at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (USA) and his older brother, Jeb, helped claim bronze for Team USA in Eventing at the Helsinki (FIN) Games in 1952. Another brother, Warren, went to the top of the sport in both Jumping and Eventing and was reserve for the US Eventing team at the Olympic Games in Stockholm (SWE) in 1956. That’s quite some pedigree just there.

When Jim was growing up, Jeb and his Helsinki team-mates Champ Hough – father of American Jumping star Lauren Hough – and Wally Staley were his childhood heroes. “Then along came Mike Plumb and Michael Page – I looked up to them for years so when I joined them on the US team that was a real thrill!” Jim says.

Did he ever have any doubts about his ability to make it to the top in sport? “I had terrific doubts, and at first I didn’t have a suitable horse. I was riding around on a 15.3hh roan Appaloosa. However, Warren lived in England, and in spring 1967 he went to Ireland looking for horses and saw Kilkenny who was for sale because he’d been to the Olympics, the World Championships, and Badminton and they reckoned he was pretty much done.

Kilkenny

“Warren called my mother and said what a cool schoolmaster the horse would be, so they sent him to me and suddenly I was the hottest kid on the block! We had an unusual partnership; we really shot to the top, from him being thought to be over the hill with all his mileage and me having never been anywhere of any repute – they put us together and it just worked. So we won the National Championships at my first try, and now I’m standing on the podium with Mike Page and Mike Plumb!”

Kilkenny had previously been ridden by Irishman Tommy Brennan who, following a stellar Jumping and Eventing career, became a world-renowned horse agent and cross-country course designer. Did Jim have a preference for what discipline he would compete in with the horse? “I was intrigued by showjumping, but I was a moth to a flame when it came to Eventing!” he says.

Kilkenny had already enjoyed a successful career in both disciplines. “In late summer ’64 he went to Tokyo (Olympic Games where he finished individually 16th in Eventing), in ’65 he went showjumping with Tommy, and in ’66 he was back on the Irish gold medal Eventing team at the World Championships in Burghley,” Jim explains.

I ask him to describe Kilkenny: “He was a 17hh dark bay gelding by Water Serpent with a mealy nose, a tiny star on his forehead, and the look of eagles. When he trotted by you in hand, he had all four feet off the ground!”

He had seen every sort of situation which was handy for me because I’d seen none of them. So I could just drop my hands and tell him to get on with the job which he was happy to do!”

That US National Championships victory was in 1967, and the following year they competed at Badminton (GBR) in preparation for, arguably, the most memorable Eventing Olympic Games of all time in Mexico in 1968.

In the heyday of the “classic format,” the toughness and versatility of horse and rider were fully tested. Dressage was followed by Speed and Endurance day which consisted of two sessions of Roads and Tracks interspersed by a steeplechase phase, and then a vet check before heading out on the cross-country course. The final day’s showjumping decided the result.

Mexico

Talking about selection for Mexico, Jim says, “Plumb and Page would never be left off the team if their horse was sound, and Kevin Freeman was such a marvellous horseman, maybe the best rider of all of us. So there was really one slot left, and fortunately I filled that.” However, the Americans were steeped in good fortune when drawn early to go on Speed and Endurance day, because an afternoon deluge created monstrous conditions that nearly claimed the life of Kilkenny’s former rider.

“I went early and was first out of the box for us. We were on top of the ground so I had the fastest round of the day and I think Michael may have had the second-fastest. When you look back at the scores it’s two different competitions, but it could all have been completed in sunshine!” Jim recalls.

Despite knowing that a monsoon would descend around 13.00 hours as it did every day, the start-time was not adjusted and those that set out later in the competition met with a nightmare. “Once the heavy rain began the volcanic soil became a morass immediately. It was a golf course; there was a shell of grass over this powdery substance that turned to soup under wet conditions and we got the biggest monsoon of the five weeks we were up there!” Jim explains.

Tommy Brennan was only called into action at the last minute with the reserve Irish horse, March Hawk. Second-last to go, he faced inches of water on the steeplechase track where he took a fall on the flat, and by the time he headed out cross-country a stream that had to be crossed several times had become a dangerous flood in full spate. Only the top few inches of Fence 5 were visible and Fence 6 was almost fully submerged. Horse and rider were swept away and disappeared underwater, both in danger of drowning. But somehow, they struggled ashore and continued a little further before March Hawk decided he’d had more than enough.

Great Britain claimed team gold, USA silver, and West Germany bronze. Jim’s compatriot Michael Page (Foster) took individual bronze and Jim and Kilkenny slotted into sixth place.

Punchestown

The World Championship in Punchestown (IRL) two years later was another dramatic affair, but Kilkenny’s class saw Jim take individual bronze this time around.

Once again there was controversy on cross-country day with a big number of fallers late on the track. “The Irish knew they had to lead with their strength and that was the quality of their horses, so they designed a course that was maximum in every aspect – distance, speed, dimension of obstacles, number of obstacles. This was always going to be a big test, and that suited me because I had a horse purpose-built for it!” he points out.

“But no-one knew there was a bogey fence at the 29th. You came through the woods above the old sheep tank and you galloped on a trail and then there was a guard rail and the ground fell away precipitously, and six feet out there was an oxer rail stuffed with gorse. You were supposed to gallop and jump out over the oxer and take a 6ft 6ins drop – it’s what Americans call a ‘gut-check’, a test of courage, scope, and balance. But what the course designer didn’t take into account was a few fences before that there was a double-bank, and it rehearsed the horses to step on the gorse which they did again and again. As they built up the brush every time, they kept stuffing the fence with more green branches so it was even more inviting for the horses to step on it.

“Something like 27 horses got that far and 24 of them fell including Kilkenny, and including Richard Meade (GBR) who got the silver medal. But Mary Gordon-Watson’s (GBR who took individual gold) horse jumped it neat as a pin. Nowadays, if there were two falls like that the jump would be removed from the course and adjustments made in the scores. But in 1968 this was still a sport run by cavalry generals!” Jim says.

Munich

The Olympic Games in Munich in 1972 brought his partnership with this faithful steed to an end. The US side that also included Mike Plumb with Free and Easy, Kevin Freeman riding Good Mixture, and Bruce Davidson with Plain Sailing claimed team silver, but for Jim and Kilkenny it wasn’t their finest hour.

“I rode according to orders instead of the way I should have, and we finished well down the list. But he didn’t get the ride he needed so that’s nothing to say about him. At our silver medal victory bash, I said that Kilkenny would retire now and come home. He was property of my mother, but my brother (Warren) who was a Master of Foxhounds in England was dropping heavy hints about what a wonderful Fieldmaster’s horse he would be, so I had to have a little palace revolution there to make sure he did come home!”

Kilkenny’s cross-country days were still not quite over, however, because he hunted another few seasons with Jim and his wife Gail back in the US, even though he wasn’t the ideal candidate because he was a bit over-keen. “He couldn’t bear to have another horse in front of him, and Gail was too brave with him!” Jim points out.

There was a lean period after Munich. “I was ‘on the bench’ and I knew part of it was because I’d ridden badly in Munich, but also because I didn’t have a horse of Olympic capability,” he says.

Carawich

All that would change however when he met Carawich. Jim insists he doesn’t believe in anthropomorphism – attributing human traits and emotions to non-humans – but then tells the story of how they first met.

He hadn’t won a competition above Preliminary level since 1972 when, at Badminton in the Spring of 1977, he experienced a moment of connection during the vet-check when a horse stopped and turned to look at him. “The hair stood up on the back of my neck – he picked me out of the crowd and stared at me. His groom tugged on the lead, but he didn’t listen – it took about 30 seconds but it seemed like an hour!” Jim recalls, with excitement still in his voice after all these years.

The horse wasn’t for sale at the time but came on the market a few months later. “He arrived in late December 1977 untried. I took out a loan on my life insurance policy to pay for him and it was the best investment I ever made!” says Jim.

“Carawich suited me as the rider I was after two Olympics and one World Championship. We went to Lexington World Championships (Kentucky, USA) in ’78 where we finished 10th and were on the bronze medal team, and then we were fifth at Badminton the following spring and then second at the alternate Olympics in Fontainebleau (FRA) in 1980. We were second in the Kentucky event that spring and won Kentucky the following year. He was quite some horse too!”

More great horses

An injury sustained at Luhmuehlen (GER) in 1981 put an end to Carawich’s career, but Jim still had more great horses to ride. There was Castlewellan who came his way when British rider Judy Bradwell, in recovery following a nasty accident, asked him if he knew of a suitable new US owner for the horse.

“I said don’t go away, and in about 30 minutes we had a deal! He came over that summer, again untried, and we won a big Intermediate event. Then in Spring ’84 we were well-placed at Kentucky and then we were non-riding reserves at the LA Olympic Games.”

Jim retired after that, but two years later came out of retirement for one more moment of glory. Offered the ride on The Optimist, normally competed by America’s Karen Lende (now O’Connor) who was riding in Australia that year, he jumped at the chance.

“He was a big bull of a horse, Irish-bred, 16.3hh and a bit big-eared and small-eyed, with massive shoulders like a bullock. He’d run away with everyone who got on him, but he had a wonderful attitude going down to jumps,” Jim recalls. It wouldn’t be all plain sailing, but again a moment of connection would turn everything around.

“For about a week or 10 days I thought I’d painted myself in a corner because we were not getting along at all,” he explains. However, he accidentally caught the horse unawares in the stable one day, and The Optimist didn’t have time to put on his normal sullen expression. Instead Jim got a fleeting glimpse of a bright, intelligent, focused horse. “I laughed and shook my finger at him and said, ‘It’s too late; I saw you!’” Jim says. “I suddenly realised he didn’t want to be told what to do; he already knew his job, so the next time I threw my leg over him I did it with that in mind and we got along famously. He won a couple of prep events and then he won Kentucky. And then I quickly retired again!” Jim says.

Talent

When asked to compare the talent of riders from his own era with those of today, he replies, “This stuff about ‘Oh we were better in the good old days’ – don’t you believe it! I lived through the good old days – these people today would beat us like a carpet!” he insists. There have been many changes in the sport, of course. “Riders are in a much more predictable situation these days. When they are pacing distances between cross-country obstacles, you know it’s a different sport.”

And the horses – are there big differences in them too? “In the classic format they had to be brave as a lion because we jumped some formidable stuff. We don’t test now for strength of character in the horse – today it’s a test of technique,” he points out.

For many years now he’s been a dedicated and hugely successful coach, and he enjoys training pupils at all levels. He’s looking forward to getting back to working with his students again very soon and seeing how “profitably” they’ve used this time during the pandemic shutdown. “Will they have improved their horses’ training, or will they have worn them out by endlessly practicing competitive details?” he wonders.

I ask what advice he has for riders concerned about returning to competition in the shadow of the virus still sweeping across the world, and he replies, “Event riders are already bio-mechanically engineered not to be afraid, so don’t be afraid! Know the risks and the safeguards, and go from there.”

Life, he concludes, is like the wording on a famous painting, “The Bullfinch” by English artist Snaffles – “glorious uncertainty” is what awaits us all on the landing side. And, for James Cunningham Wofford, that’s all part of the thrill of the ride.

By Louise Parkes

Media contact:

Shannon Gibbons
Media Relations and Communications Manager
shannon.gibbons@fei.org
+41 78 750 61 46

Health, Horses, and Haircuts: Kevin Babington

Kevin Babington and Carling King competing at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece where they placed joint-fourth individually. (FEI/Dirk Caremans)

Kevin Babington had just had his hair cut when I spoke with him last week, and in these strange times that’s a cause for major celebration. Around the globe people have been prevented from keeping their curls under control due to pandemic lockdowns. But as the US-based Irish Olympian and 2001 European Jumping team gold medallist explained, the situation in Florida (USA) has recently returned to some kind of normality and it’s boom-time for hairdressers – “Mine is booked solid for the next three weeks!” he said with a laugh.

I had called to ask him about the sustainable bedding his company, Babington Mills, has been producing, and was reminded of his passion for animals, farming, and the countryside. Kevin and his wife and family have been dealing with the aftermath of a life-changing fall sustained while competing last summer which has left him wheelchair-bound. But in a conversation just nine months later, you find that the man who hails from County Tipperary has his eyes firmly fixed on the future of his business, his rehab, and his sport.

He tells me the idea of the bedding came across his radar when he found some bagged product in Germany a number of years ago. “I got this urge to bring it to America, so I did a lot of research and bought machinery in Denmark where they produce quite a lot of it,” Kevin explains.

“While I was travelling, I also came across different horse-feeds so I decided to create a version of forage feed myself, using grains from organic farmers. It was a big investment, but it’s a fantastic way to go for horses,” he insists.

Slows down intake

His low-starch, low-sugar forage feed slows down intake and creates a lot more saliva which helps prevent gastric ulcers. “It’s good for the whole digestive tract because the horse takes longer to chew so it’s a buffer for ulcers. With pelleted or sweet feed, they are inclined to gulp it down and you get a splashback effect,” he explains.

When it came to the bedding it took some time to refine his particular version, putting 800lb straw bales through a chopper, then running it through a hammer-mill which opens up the node of the straw and creates the soakage that sets it apart from the rest.

“Conventional straw has little soakage, but at the length we chop it then it’s like mucking out shavings,” Kevin says. “You have to start out with good quality straw with less than 10% moisture content. It’s so absorbent that it works almost like cat litter and it’s easier to find the droppings, you use a fraction of the amount of regular straw on your horse’s bed and we run it through a dust extractor so it’s really good for hypo-allergenic horses. The finished product is very clean,” he adds.

But are horses not inclined to eat their yummy bedding? “For some reason they are less likely to eat it than long straw. When you first put a horse in on it, they might nibble at it but it won’t to do them any harm. The odd horse might eat it, but they are grazing animals and sometimes hay gets mixed up with it, so nibbling all night is really good for them,” he points out.

And bedding has become the biggest part of the Babington Mills business now, expanding into supply for small animals like hamsters, rabbits, and guinea pigs – “We use a smaller chop for them – it’s a bit of a different process and they live very happily on it,” Kevin adds.

No surprise

The fact that Kevin feels good about keeping animals, big and small, happy and comfortable doesn’t come as any surprise. I recall the story his wife, Dianna, told while she was dealing with her own anguish following his accident last August in which she described her husband as “kind, above all things.”

Late one night some years ago they were driving home from their barn in a snowstorm along barely passable back roads when they came across a deer that had been hit by a vehicle and left lying on the road with two broken legs. “Kevin approached her slowly, and put a blanket on her when he gained her trust. We stayed with her so she wouldn’t be hit again, and he talked to her and petted her while we waited for the police to come and humanely put her down.”

That’s just one measure of the man whose personal popularity led to the most phenomenal and emotional response from the equestrian world in the aftermath of his fall.

Anyway, back to business… and the Babington Mills Farm in Hamburg, Pennsylvania. “Deep down in my heart I always wanted to be a farmer!” Kevin admits. “I had this great idea of buying a farm and growing my own hay and doing some wheat each year.

“We bought the farm just after the big crash in 2008 when we didn’t know what direction the horse world was going. It’s in a very remote, rural area and I’d love to be up there now; I enjoy it very much,” Kevin says. It was close to the family home at the time and he was very involved in the running of it in the early stages, but then the horse business got busy again, so he got “a bit side-tracked”. The management of Babington Mills is now in the very capable hands of his sister-in-law Dawn Imperatore.

One of the aspects of the bedding production that pleases Kevin most is the fact that it is compostable. “We are surrounded by mushroom farmers and they are delighted to use it, and you can also spread it directly onto fields because it breaks down quicker than conventional straw.” It sounds like a perfect example of circular bioeconomy, using renewable natural resources in a way that pleases the environment.

New Jersey

Early last year the family moved to a beautiful new facility in New Jersey which is closer for many of Kevin’s pupils and clients, and they now share their time between there and their Florida base.

Kevin loves teaching and is still doing it from his wheelchair wearing a headset and accompanied by his “bodyguards,” the family’s three Australian shepherds Dylan, Millie, and his closest friend, three-year-old Delilah. But he misses riding, and that leads him to talk about his recovery programme.

“I’m working hard on my rehab and now have a good bit of movement in my right arm, almost to the point where I can manage the wheelchair with my hand, and I have twinges in my legs which the doctors call a good spasm. The C3 and C4 vertebrae affect your diaphragm, and I was on a ventilator for quite some time at the beginning, I’m off that for months now so my voice and my lungs are getting stronger.

“But it’s slow. I still have to deal with a fair amount of pain in the form of spasms, and unfortunately the physio practice I go to has been closed because of the virus, but it opens back up on 1 June and I’m really looking forward to getting back into that. I ride a stand-bike every day to keep my muscle tone up and do lots of exercises working on my strength,” says Kevin, who has also been using a hyperbaric oxygen chamber as part of his latest treatment.

Carling King

We move on to talk about the great horse that put him on the international stage, the Irish-bred chestnut Carling King who he describes as a real character, very strong, but definitely the horse of a lifetime. “We travelled the world together and my first Championship was in Arnhem (NED, where Ireland won European team gold in 2001), and my very first Nations Cup in Europe was Aachen (GER) so I was thrown right in at the deep end!

“It went from there: we were part of the winning team in Hickstead in 2000. I got to jump Spruce Meadows (CAN) a bunch of times, to the World Championships in Jerez (ESP in 2002), to the European Championships in Donaueschingen (GER in 2003), and Athens (GRE in 2004) for the Olympics. It was an amazing five or six-year run we had together,” he recalls, without actually reminding me that they finished eighth individually at the FEI World Equestrian Games in 2002, tenth individually at the Europeans in 2003, and joint-fourth individually at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. They were an extraordinary partnership.

In recent years he remained prominent on the US circuit, and in early March this year he was appointed as one of three advisors to the Horse Sport Ireland High Performance Committee along with Taylor Vard and Cameron Hanley. With competition grinding to halt just a few weeks later he didn’t get the chance to share his expertise and wisdom, but when action resumes Kevin will undoubtedly make a great contribution to the Irish Jumping team in future years.

So how does he think equestrian sport will move on in the wake of the current pandemic? “Unfortunately, a lot of shows were already just about managing to survive and some of those may not make it through this. It will be hard, and some of the vendors and smaller sponsors will be struggling. Once things start to reopen – as long as we don’t have a second wave of the virus – the sport should bounce back, although there’ll be changes for sure.

“But we’ll get through this; it’s a bump in the road but our sport was generally in a healthy place before this happened, and it will turn the corner. Everyone wants it to….”

By Louise Parkes

Media contact:

Shannon Gibbons
Media Relations and Communications Manager
shannon.gibbons@fei.org
+41 78 750 61 46

FEI Publishes Return to Play Policy as Equestrian Adapts to “New Normal”

The FEI has published its Policy for Enhanced Competition Safety during the Covid-19 pandemic, aimed at assisting Organisers and National Federations with the safe resumption of international equestrian events in line with national and local restrictions.

The Policy will apply to all FEI Events held as of 1 July 2020 and has been put in place to limit the risk of transmission and further spread of Covid-19 until an effective treatment and/or vaccine as determined by the World Health Organization (WHO) are available.

Developed by FEI Medical Committee Chair Dr Mark Hart together with FEI Headquarters, the Policy requires National Federations and Organisers to carry out a Risk Assessment to evaluate whether it is safe to hold their Events. The Policy includes general best practice recommendations for Organisers and is to be implemented in conjunction with any requirements imposed by the domestic authorities. In addition, discipline-specific guidance will be issued shortly by the FEI.

It is mandatory for FEI Event Organisers to conduct the risk assessment together with their National Federation and domestic government and public health authorities. Events for which the FEI has not received the completed risk assessment and mitigation measures plan will be removed from the FEI Calendar.

“Covid-19 has caused massive disruption to the FEI Calendar and to national events, with a huge impact on all the various participants of equestrian sports,” Dr Mark Hart said. “We are all in this together and this pandemic will be with us for at least 12-24 months. We need to adapt to a ‘new normal’ as we move forward.

“The FEI is committed to assisting National Federations and FEI Event Organisers by providing resources to effectively assess the risks potentially posed by Events from the planning phase and mitigate such risks through relevant measures.

“As we anticipate the gradual return of competitions, we must do everything we can to mitigate the risk of transmission and further spread of Covid-19. This is a matter of public health, and it’s also how a sport can demonstrate to public authorities that it is ready to resume activity.”

Media contacts:

Grania Willis
Director, Communications
grania.willis@fei.org
+41 78 750 61 42

Vanessa Martin Randin
Senior Manager, Media Relations & Communications
vanessa.randin@fei.org
+41 78 750 61 73

Kaley Cuoco Makes a Big Bang to Connect the Equestrian Community

American actress and avid equestrian Kaley Cuoco is the voice of the FEI’s latest digital campaign, sharing her enthusiasm, passion, and love for the sport that has been at the core of the Olympic Movement for over a century.

#ForTheLoveOfEquestrian has launched with an exclusive heart-warming video narrated by the actress, who has been riding since she was a teenager.

“Why do we do it? Because it’s the greatest feeling in the world. Because it’s a partnership like no other. We do it for the love. The love of this life. #ForTheLoveOfEquestrian”

The campaign, scheduled to run over the summer, features incredible stories of passion, commitment, and pride from elite athletes and their teams, to everyday riders, embracing the dedication and courage that underpins equestrian sport and its surrounding lifestyle.

“We made it our priority to engage with our community and have created a new digital campaign to celebrate all the positives that make our sport unique,” FEI Commercial Director Ralph Straus said.

“We are a global sport, but we are also a way of life. Equestrian events not only provide thrilling action for fans and spectators around the world, but equestrian sport is all about the connection and, whether we can be together or not, we wanted to make sure that with the launch of this campaign, we are helping to fill the void created by the lack of live sport during this difficult time.”

To learn more about #ForTheLoveOfEquestrian, join the community conversation, view and share inspiring stories on the FEI YouTube channel, and engage with the FEI on Facebook and Instagram.

With no live action currently being broadcast, the FEI is putting the sport back centre stage with an all-new, six-part series, Icons. Delving into the archives to relive some of the most exciting and heart-stopping moments from FEI Championships and Series of days gone by, Icons looks back at the careers of some of the most successful and influential equestrian athletes of recent times.

Each 26-minute episode focuses on a specific athlete, including household names such as three-time FEI Dressage World Cup™ winner and six-time Olympic gold medalist Germany’s Isabell Werth and compatriot and five-time Olympian and reigning European Eventing champion Ingrid Klimke.

Also featuring are Charlotte Dujardin CBE, the most successful British Dressage athlete in the history of the sport with Olympic, FEI World Cup™, World, and European Championships titles to her name, Swiss Olympian and current European Jumping champion Martin Fuchs, two-time Olympic silver medalist and twice Sweden’s Sports Personality of the Year Peder Fredricson, and Australian Driving legend Boyd Exell, five-time world champion and with five FEI World Cup™ Final wins to his credit.

Icons, which launches Friday 29 May, puts the spotlight on those career-defining moments that make these athletes such superheroes! Watch live and free every week on FEI.TV.

Media contact:

Shannon Gibbons
Media Relations and Communications Manager
shannon.gibbons@fei.org
+41 78 750 61 46

War Horses, Cavalrymen, and the FEI Jumping Nations Cup

Capt Xavier Bizard from the French Cavalry School at Saumur with Honduras after winning the King George V Gold Cup in 1937.

Riders and sports fans all around the globe are pining for the cut-and-thrust of FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ this year. Since it was first staged back in 1909, war is the only thing that has ever stopped this great annual tournament in its tracks, and it is another kind of war that is getting in the way of the 2020 Longines sponsored series as the world currently grapples with the Coronavirus pandemic.

Only two of the 11 qualifying events were completed this season, in Wellington (USA) where the hosts wrestled victory from Great Britain in a thrilling jump-off, and in Abu Dhabi (UAE), also in February, where New Zealand posted an historic back-to-back double.

However, the resilience of this particular branch of equestrian sport, so often described as the “jewel in the crown of the FEI,” is second to none. It emerged from epic sporting battles between military men, and it still stirs the blood in spectators today as they roar on their own national teams, which now of course also include female athletes, at many of the most prestigious horse shows around the globe.

It’s the unique sense of national pride that gives it the edge, with riders often talking about how their horses are “fighting” for them as they tackle the tough courses set by world-class designers. A steed with great courage was what was needed by cavalrymen of old. And in the story of two war horses from very different periods of military history, there’s a reminder of the fighting spirit that continues to set the best apart from the rest to this day.

Vonolel

In the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, Dublin (IRL), built in the 1680s for retired soldiers but now home to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, there is a gravestone that marks the final resting place of Vonolel, a brave and special horse.

He was the charger of the decorated Anglo-Irish Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, a Victorian era general who became one of the most successful British military commanders of his time. Lord Roberts, aka “Bobs”, was only 160cm tall so was a perfect match for the beautifully-bred Arab horse who stood at just 148cm.

Named after a great Lushai chief, the little grey was bought in Bombay (now Mumbai, IND) as a five-year-old and served Roberts for the next 23 years. Vonolel played a pivotal role in the relief of the Siege of Kandahar (AFG), and also saw action in India, Burma, and South Africa. The horse was a legend in his day and was repeatedly decorated by Queen Victoria, receiving amongst others the Kabul medal and the Kandahar Star for bravery in battle, both of which he wore around his neck on ceremonial occasions.

He travelled about 50,000 miles during his career without ever taking a lame step, and when he passed away at the Royal Hospital in June 1899, Roberts was said to be heartbroken. Vonolel was buried in the rose gardens of the Royal Hospital with full military honours, and there is a painting of him, with “Bobs” on board, in London’s Tate Gallery.

It’s that tradition of horses and riders battling as part of a team on behalf of their country, albeit in peace time and in a spirit of healthy competition rather than antagonism, that underpins the FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ series to this day.

Honduras and Nipper

Vonolel’s glorious send-off was in stark contrast to that of a black 160cm gelding of unknown breeding who is no less deserving of an honorable mention in dispatches. His name was Honduras when he clinched the coveted King George V Gold Cup for Capt Xavier Bizard in London in 1937. The rider from the French Cavalry School at Saumur was a showjumping star of the 1920s and 30s with a formidable record of success on Nations Cup teams riding a variety of horses.

Bizard was on the winning French sides at Nice (FRA) in 1924, New York (USA) in 1925, and Lucerne (SUI) and Rome (ITA) in 1927. He was back in Rome in 1928 for another victory and the following year helped post two more Nations Cup top spots in Naples (ITA) and Dublin (IRL). In the 1930s he was on three winning teams in London as well as in Nice, Lucerne, Vienna (AUT), Rome, and Riga (LAT). It was partnering Apollan that he won the Nations Cup in the Latvian capital in 1937, and that same year he scooped the King George V title in London with Honduras.

It seems that the ride on Honduras was then handed over to Amador des Busnel who won the Grand Prix with him in Brussels (BEL) in 1939, before the onset of World War ll brought everything to a shuddering halt.

What is intriguing about this horse is not his success-rate, but the fact that he was captured during the German occupation of France, and then re-appeared after the war on the US Army showjumping teams that won the Nations Cups in both London and Dublin in 1948, now competing under the name “Nipper” and ridden by Lt Col Charles (Chuck) Symroski.

He was well-travelled at this stage of his life because, after being captured along with the rest of the German team horses near the town of Bayreuth in Bavaria (GER) in 1945, he was shipped to the United States in August of 1946. He competed across America and Canada that year, and again in 1947 before returning to Europe in the spring of 1948 to compete at a number of shows in the lead-up to the London Olympic Games for which he was selected as the reserve horse.

The Nations Cup win in Dublin in 1948 was historic, as it was the first time for a US side to lift the Aga Khan Cup, the first time for non-Europeans to take the title, and the last time an official US army team would line out at the Royal Dublin Society showgrounds. Nipper and Lt Col Symroski were joined by Capt JW Russell riding Airmail, Col JF Wing with Democrat, and Lt Col CH Anderson with Riem when New York-born Eamon De Valera, then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and later President of Ireland, presented the coveted Aga Khan trophy.

One more time

And Honduras/Nipper would get to meet his old friend, Capt Bizard, one more time. Their encounter took place in London, but whether it was following their Nations Cup win or during the Olympic Games in the English capital that summer is unclear, as it has been separately reported at both venues. Wherever it happened it was an emotional reunion when the Frenchman accidentally came across his former mount who he had thought was long dead.

The story goes that when Capt Bizard told the Americans how old the horse was they were really surprised. However, the 19-year-old gelding wasn’t called into action for the one-round Olympic contest which proved to be a marathon, defeating all but three of the 14 participating teams. Mexico, Spain, and Great Britain clinched gold, silver, and bronze while the USA was amongst the 11 countries eliminated.

Following the Games, the US army team was disbanded and replaced by a civilian side. Although unconfirmed, it is believed that Honduras/Nipper returned to America to live out his days on the family farm of three-time Olympian Jimmy Wofford near Fort Riley in Kansas (USA) whose parents accepted all the remaining remounts for retirement following the mechanisation of the cavalry.

This horse’s life wasn’t celebrated with the pomp and ceremony that marked the passing of Vonolel a half-century earlier, but his story lives on as another symbol of survival in the face of destructive world conflict. And the FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ is also a survivor, just waiting in the wings for a return to centre stage as soon as the current pandemic crisis is sufficiently resolved.

Hopes are still high that a revised version of the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ Final will take place in October this year, but one way or another nothing will stand in the way of a renewal of the series that has been engaging and delighting spectators for well over a century and which remains the best-loved brand ambassador for equestrian sport.

And as for the once much-loved Vonolel and Honduras aka Nipper, they will not be forgotten. We’ll leave them with the words carved into that gravestone in Dublin, which reads:

“There are men both good and wise
Who hold that in a future state
Dumb creatures we have cherished here below
Shall give us joyous greeting when
We pass the golden gate
Is it folly that I hope it may be so?”

With special thanks to:
Olympian and coach Jimmy Wofford
Jane Garland, artist

By Louise Parkes

Media contact:

Shannon Gibbons
Media Relations and Communications Manager
shannon.gibbons@fei.org
+41 78 750 61 46

Let’s Stay Optimistic and Be Thankful for What We Have: Ingrid Klimke

Ingrid Klimke (GER) and SAP Hale Bob OLD claimed individual bronze at the FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2018 in Tryon (USA). (FEI/Christophe Taniere)

Ingrid Klimke was cooking dinner while we chatted. No surprises there – the German star is a born multi-tasker, so juggling an interview and an evening meal is a breeze for this lady.

In the sport of Eventing she has five Olympic Games, four FEI World Equestrian Games™ (WEG), and 10 FEI European Championships under her belt. Her medal collection includes two Olympic team golds and one team silver, two WEG team golds and an individual bronze, and last summer’s double-gold in Luhmuehlen (GER) brought her European Championships tally to six golds along with a silver and a bronze.

Her prowess as a Dressage rider has been key to many of these successes, and just to prove the point she finished seventh in the FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final in ’s-Hertogenbosch (NED) in 2002. It’s a staggering record but far from complete. As we begin our chat, she reminds me that she was selected for the German A squads in both Eventing and Dressage for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, “with three horses in the two disciplines, so already a dream has come true! Now I’m very much hoping that they all stay healthy for next year!” she says.

One of my dreams

So what prompted you to try to qualify in two Olympic disciplines this time around?

“I watched Mark Todd (New Zealand superstar) compete in Jumping and Eventing in Barcelona, so it was one of my dreams to do the same someday! My father (the late, great German horseman Reiner Klimke) competed at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome in Eventing and later changed to become a Dressage rider.”

Apart from your father who were your heroes when you were growing up?

“I really admired Lucinda Green and I read all her wonderful books. She was World and European Champion when she won here at Luhmuehlen (team gold for Great Britain at the World Championships in 1992) – I ran around the course after her that day! She was so brave and horses did everything for her. I really liked the way she talked about her horses and the kindness of her – she was fun and open-hearted and had a lovely personality.

“And Mark Todd has always been a legend – when I was at my first Olympics in Sydney neither I nor my horse (Sleep Late) had ever done a 4-Star. When I saw the cross-country, I thought ‘Oh my God!’ and I followed behind Mark when he was walking the course hoping to learn something from him!”

Has it been a pressure for you being Reiner Klimke’s daughter?

“When I was young people would say when I did well, ‘Oh for a Klimke that’s a typical result,’ and when I made a mistake they would say, ‘A Klimke should be doing better than that.’ So I tell my girls (her two daughters Greta and Philippa), don’t worry, you can’t make everything right for other people, but you don’t do it for them you do it for yourself because you love the sport and you love the horse.”

Ambitious

Are your daughters ambitious?

“The oldest, Greta, is now 18 and will be in Young Riders next year and she’s very ambitious and very determined. The young one is almost 10 and she likes to play with the horses, to ride bareback. She comes into the arena and goes, ‘OK, I’ve done one round of dressage so now Bye Bye Mam!’ She’s having a lot of fun and she has a lovely pony but I’m not sure what she will do with herself!”

I realise Miss Philippa has inherited some of her mother’s characteristics when I ask my next question.

What do you like best about being around horses?

“I’m starting a four-year-old again and a friend said to me, ‘Why are you starting a four-year-old? Let the girls do it!’ But this is what gives me such fun, to see how they discover the world, how they trust you, connect with you. And the other part I enjoy is the horsemanship, going bareback, riding with a neck-rein (see what I mean?). I feel like I’m playing with my ponies again!”

Is there anything you don’t like about being around horses?

“No, although my father didn’t want me to become a professional rider when I was young. He thought it would change my attitude to the horses because I’d have to sell them. He wanted horses to be my hobby and it took me a while to persuade him that I could find another way, but I did and I love it.”

Ingrid created her own business model. “We don’t sell horses but keep them and compete them, and I’m really happy to have very good sponsors and try to take good care of them. Asha (her now nine-year-old star Eventing mare) could have been sold for so much money but her owner said we don’t sell family members!”

Pinot

The horse you liked most?

“Pinot, my first horse, a little Trakehner stallion. I did my first Dressage, my first Jumping, and my first Eventing with him. I had no idea what I was doing, and on my first cross-country round I was looking around and thinking how wonderful it was, so I was nearly two minutes too slow!

“He was small with so much heart and not much scope, but he was a great schoolmaster and because of him I decided I wanted to do all three disciplines.”

The horse you liked least?

Ingrid hesitates here; she doesn’t really want to be critical of any horse and doesn’t name him, but… ”There was one horse that wasn’t my favourite but I knew there was something in him that he wasn’t showing me. I said to myself, ‘Ingrid you are a Reitmeister (Riding Master) and you’ve got to be able to ride every horse so look for other ways with him!’ We got there in the end and he taught me a lot about having to be patient, and later he won my heart – but it certainly wasn’t love at first sight!”

The best horse you’ve ever ridden?

“The mare Escada, She was in the winning team in the WEG at Caen (in 2014) and she had all the qualities you can imagine. She was a unique jumper, careful, powerful, so much scope with lovely gaits, and she could go forever cross-country. Unfortunately, because she was always giving too much, we couldn’t keep her sound. She and Hale Bob grew up together and Bobby was always No 2 when she was at her most brilliant.”

How did you learn to master three tough disciplines? 

“Because of the chances my parents gave me, to feel different dressage horses and schoolmasters, and when I was with (Canadian Jumping legend) Ian Millar, I had the chance to see the Canadian way of showjumping. And Fritz Ligges (German gold medallist, Munich Olympic Games 1972) was also competing in Eventing and Jumping and was a close friend of my father, so when I was growing up I went on holidays and did a lot of jumping there, so I think from youth on I had a good chance to feel wonderful horses in the three disciplines.”

Your favourite discipline and why?

“Eventing cross-country – I’m really competitive when I’m out there. The buzz going into the start-box is what I love the most!

“And in top Dressage when you ride the Freestyle to Music. My father always said try to have invisible aids so the spectators can’t see what you do and the horse seems to be doing it on its own… when you have that, and it’s not too often but when you have it, then I also really like dressage a lot!

“It depends on the horse too. In my next life I would maybe like to become a Jumping star!”

Memorable moments

Memorable Cross-Country Moments? 

“At Sydney (2000 Olympic Games) the cross-country was so long – 13 minutes and five seconds – with steeplechase and roads and tracks, and it was so hot. I really wasn’t sure I was ready for it. I went at the very end, and so many people before me had falls and it didn’t go well for the German team either. When I came in the 10-minute box I heard someone say, ‘I don’t think Ingrid will make it.’

“I said to Blue (Sleep Late) we have to do something we’ve never done before and that we’ll never forget; you have to show you are a thoroughbred and run forever! The second water was jumping onto a bank and into a deep drop followed by a brush fence and I was leaning too far forward at the drop. But he just jumped everything totally straight without any attention to me trying to hang on. He galloped the last minute uphill and kept this incredible rhythm and I was in time and I couldn’t believe it!

“And then there was my last ride with Braxxi (Butts Abraxxas, two-time Olympic team gold medallist) when he was 16. It was at Burghley (2013) and I couldn’t believe how huge the fences were! He gave me his everything – twice on that cross-country round I wondered if I should stop, but when we finished it was so emotional. I said to Braxxi this is our last competition together; you can’t give me any more! He showed more ability than he had, more scope than he had. I hadn’t planned it, but I retired him then.”

Where did he retire to?

“Greta was 11 at the time and he was a great schoolmaster for her. He’s now 23 and still in my barn. I did send him to a retirement home with other horses, but he decided he didn’t want to stay there and kept jumping out. He wanted to be with us, so I took him back and I love it every day when I see him out with the ponies. He’s still in Stable No. 1 which he deserves!”

Philosophy

What’s your philosophy when things go wrong?

“Get back on your feet and look for the positive things even though sometimes you don’t see them right away. A good example was me and Braxxi: he was not a good showjumper and all his life I tried everything with him, but finally I had to accept that there are some things you cannot change. When I did that then I could appreciate our wonderful dressage and cross-country rounds even though I knew I was never going to win an individual medal because he would never jump clear. But I was always a good team member.”

Was European double-gold in Luhmuehlen last summer particularly special for you?

“Yes, I was so thrilled for Bobby (Hale Bob) because in Strzegom (POL in 2017) it was a close battle between Michael Jung (German team-mate and multiple champion) and me, and it was very close this time again. Bobby did such a wonderful cross-country round. It felt so easy; I looked at my watch and we were so much ahead of time we could canter home! He did a brilliant showjumping round. In Tryon (WEG 2018) we had the last (showjumping) fence down and lost the medal, but this time we showed we really could do it when the pressure was on.

“And it’s always more special when the horse is getting older. Now he is 16 and these are our last years together, so I treasure it even more.”

Three mothers

The important people in your life?

“My family of course, and I have three mothers – (two along with her mother Ruth). There is also Faith Berghuis (Canadian patron of equestrian sport) who supported me with great advice and gave me the chance to work with Ian Millar, and Aunt. She’s not my real aunt but she owns a little farm behind my parents’ house and I spent a lot of my childhood there learning about animals and farming and nature.

“After my father died (aged 63 in 1999), his advisor, friend, and teacher when he was young, the old cavalryman Paul Stecken, became my mentor and just four years ago he passed away aged 100. He was a lovely man.

“And my friends, some who have nothing to do with horses who were in my school here in Münster (GER) and we have many things in common. And then there are my ‘culture’ friends who take me out to cultural events, so my life is not all about horses!”

What makes you laugh?

“Kids, and young horses… the way they see the world can be really funny!”

What makes you cry?

“Seeing the refugees sitting in those camps in Greece and nobody willing to take them. When people are poor and born into hopeless situations, that makes me very sad. I’m a member of PLAN International, an organisation that works to improve children’s rights and equality for girls who live in poverty. We have to help as much as we can.

“And also the animals: when you see the rhinos and other beautiful animals being slaughtered by poachers it makes me so angry – that really makes me cry.”

Finally, how are you coping with life during this pandemic?

“If you listen to the news it’s very easy to lose your positive attitude, because there is so much uncertainty. But I tell myself I’m privileged, I’m healthy, and so is my family, so we must stay patient. We don’t know when the vaccination will come, but until then we must stay optimistic and be thankful for what we have.”

By Louise Parkes

Media contact:

Shannon Gibbons
Media Relations and Communications Manager
shannon.gibbons@fei.org
+41 78 750 61 46

Bringing Brocks Back Home to the Fields of Dreams

The Irish Sport Horse Paulank Brockagh ridden by Sam Griffiths, pictured in Eventing at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games where they finished fourth individually and helped secure team bronze for Australia. (Photo: Libby Law)

Last Tuesday night, just as the light was fading, a lorry pulled into a stable-yard in Ireland’s County Wicklow, and when the ramp was lowered a lovely bay mare stepped back in time. It was 10 years since Paulank Brockagh, better known as Brocks, was packed into a trailer by her breeder Paula Cullen for a trip to Australian rider Sam Griffiths’ base in Dorset (GBR) from where a glorious story would begin to unfold.

Brocks “the banker,” as Sam describes her, would become the rock on which the Australian Eventing team could rely over the following decade. Her pathfinding performances at both the FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2014 in Caen (FRA) where the team finished fourth, and at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games where she helped clinch team bronze and finished fourth individually, are the stuff of legend.

She conquered Badminton (GBR) in 2014 thanks to an epic cross-country run, and had a total of 35 international outings, 12 at 5-Star level, and top-ten finishes at Badminton, Burghley (GBR), Pau (FRA), and Luhmühlen (GER). But just a few short weeks ago her owner, Dinah Posford, and Sam decided it was time for the mare to retire and that she should return to live out her days in Ireland.

So last Tuesday night, after giving her a few minutes to relax and graze following her trip across the Irish Sea, Paula walked Paulank Brockagh back to the stable where she was born 17 years ago. It was an emotional reunion, bringing back a lot of memories, and Paula made that walk with pride.

First refusal

“When we sold her in 2010, I said to Dinah that if she ever bred from her, I’d love to have first refusal on the foal. So when I got the call to ask if I’d like to retire her here, I couldn’t hold back the tears!” Paula says.

It was particularly poignant because Brocks’ dam, Calendar Girl, only passed away three months ago at the age of 29. But Brocks will be surrounded by many of her siblings now that she’s home in the Wicklow hills.

Paula has bred all kinds of champions in her day. Initially known as a top producer of Welsh ponies, she enjoyed plenty of big moments at shows in the hallowed Royal Dublin Society arena but now finds herself at the venue more frequently to see her rugby-star son, Leo who had 32 caps for Ireland, in action as Head Coach for Leinster.

When she established Paulank (her own name combined with that of her husband, Frank) Sport Horses, then Brocks really put her on the map. The Irish Sport Horse mare got a great grounding with Joseph Murphy and Daryll Walker before finishing third in the CIC1* at Ballinacoola in Ireland in 2009 with Heidi Hamilton on board. The following spring Paula delivered her to Sam who steered her into eighth place in the 7-Year-Old category at the prestigious FEI World Breeding Federation Young Horse Championships at Le Lion d’Angers (FRA) in October, by which time she was in new ownership.

Dinah Posford had been on the lookout for a horse to share with her daughter Jules and husband Steve when she heard about Brocks from her friend Juliet Donald, with whom she already co-owned another of Sam’s top rides, Happy Times.

“Happy was full steam ahead at the time, but when Juliet told me about Brocks I went to see her and thought there was something about her and that it would be lovely to have a mare, so we bought her.” It turned out to be an excellent decision. “The fun we’ve had with her and the joy she has brought us – you couldn’t make it up!” says Dinah.

And the day she cherishes most from Brocks’ career? “When she won at Badminton, it was such an exceptional year. only 32 completed out of 78 starters; she was lying 25th after Dressage but went right up to fifth after cross-country and when she won, I was in a daze! It was just wonderful!”

Incredible cross-country

Sam says what made Brocks so special to ride is that she always gave her all. “I’ve never ridden a horse that would try so hard; she was a naturally good jumper, needed some training on the flat, but an incredible cross-country horse.

“I really felt that I could point her at a house, and she’d try to jump it!

“She would give you so much confidence; she wasn’t the quickest but where she came to the fore was at 5-Star level; she had such endurance; she could just keep going and keep trying, especially on the last day she’d still give it everything she had.

“In Rio (2016 Olympic Games) the cross-country was really tough and when I was the first to go for the team and so many of the other team’s first riders were struggling, I was filled with trepidation. So to get such a brilliant ride and then to do two showjumping clears, that was a real thrill. In Rio, the proper jumpers really came to the fore,” Sam says.

They missed individual bronze by less than two penalty points, pinning Australian compatriot Chris Burton into fifth by just 0.5. Earlier in Brocks’ career, Chris, who is a world-class trainer as well as an athlete and a great friend of Sam’s, was unimpressed by her. “When he visited one time, I told him you have to sit on this mare – I think she might be my next Badminton horse – but he didn’t think too much of her that day. He fell in love with her a few years later though!” Sam recalls with a giggle.

Much as she is adored, however, Brocks can be a bit of a madam, especially with people on the ground. “She’s quite opinionated and when she doesn’t want to go somewhere, she just bolts off in the walk. She used to make me laugh – you’d take her somewhere like Badminton where the horses are allowed to graze on the front lawn and she’d set her eye on where she wanted to go and just storm off, the groom would be water-skiing at the end of the lead-rope and Brocks wouldn’t give a damn!

“A 20-stone man wouldn’t stop her when she wants to go somewhere, and the better she got, the more of a diva she became!” Dinah agrees. “Yes, she’s her own person alright,” says Paula. “I took her once to Boswell (Equestrian Centre in Wicklow) and she sent me flying while I was trying to hold her. She was always a bit impetuous, and I don’t think that’s changed!”

Decision to retire

The decision to retire her wasn’t easily taken. Her last big outing was at Luhmühlen last summer and she was being targeted at Badminton again this year. “It would have been her seventh time there, and it would have been great to produce another good result and then retire her on the last day,” Sam says, but it wasn’t to be. With the pandemic bringing everything to a shuddering halt, even another run at Burghley was out of the question, so Sam and Dinah talked it through and decided enough was enough.

“Dinah’s had horses with me for 20 years now and she’s a proper owner. She does everything for the love of the horses and never wants to push them. The most important thing for her is that they come home safe. Brocks was starting to feel her age; she had a lot of miles on the clock and she didn’t owe anyone anything. She still looks a treat, so although I was upset to see her leaving, I’m really pleased that a horse of her calibre finishes her career happy and sound,” says Sam.

“At the end of day, she’s retiring fit and healthy, and she deserves it. I think it would have been tempting fate to do any more – I couldn’t bear the thought of something happening to her,” Dinah points out. “She’s 100 percent sound and there’s not a blemish on her; that’s wonderful to see,” agrees Paula, who is planning to get Brocks settled before turning her out for a summer of complete freedom so that she switches off from competition mode.

Because as one chapter of her life comes to an end, another may be about to begin. It won’t be anytime soon, but it’s just possible another star could be born in the stable where Brocks was foaled.

They are only talking about it in whispers now, but for Dinah and Paula in particular, that would be the stuff of dreams.

By Louise Parkes

Media contact:

Shannon Gibbons
Media Relations and Communications Manager
shannon.gibbons@fei.org
+41 78 750 61 46

FEI European Championships in Olympic & Paralympic Disciplines Cancelled for 2021

The FEI European Championships in the Olympic and Paralympic disciplines of Jumping, Eventing, Dressage, and Para Dressage will not be held in 2021 due to the revised dates for the Tokyo Games next year. European Championships in the non-Olympic disciplines will still be organised in 2021.

The Hungarian capital of Budapest had been due to play host to five disciplines next summer – Jumping, Dressage, Para Dressage, Driving, and Vaulting – from 23 August to 5 September. However, the proximity of the Championships to the rescheduled Olympic and Paralympic Games has meant that it is no longer feasible to run Jumping, Dressage, and Para Dressage. As part of its 50th anniversary celebrations of the first FEI European Driving Championships in Budapest back in 1971, the Organisers will maintain both Driving and Vaulting next year.

The FEI European Eventing Championships 2021 were scheduled to take place from 11-15 August at Haras du Pin (FRA), venue for the Eventing test of the FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2014, but the decision has been made to cancel the Championships following the postponement of Tokyo 2020.

The new dates for the Tokyo Olympic Games are 23 July to 8 August 2021 and the Paralympic Games will run from 24 August through to 5 September 2021.

The FEI Board has agreed that the bid process for the European Championships 2021 in these four disciplines will not be reopened, as all organisers would face the same challenges of trying to host major Championships so close to the Tokyo Games.

“Together with the Organising Committees of both Budapest and Haras du Pin, as well as the Hungarian and French National Federations, we have examined every possible option to try and save the Championships in 2021,” FEI Secretary General Sabrina Ibáñez said, “but we have reached the regrettable decision that it simply is not possible to have these important events so close to the Olympic and Paralympic Games next year.

“While there are some nations that have enough horsepower to send strong teams to the Olympic and Paralympic Games and also to the European Championships across the four disciplines, we have to offer a level playing field to all eligible countries and we simply cannot do that in this case, so we have agreed that the focus should be on Tokyo next year.

“Of course, it is desperately disappointing to lose these Championships from the 2021 Calendar, but we will continue to support Budapest with their double Europeans for Driving and Vaulting.”

The FEI Secretary General has overall responsibility for the FEI Calendar and is currently chairing the eight discipline-specific Task Forces that have been set up to seek ways of mitigating the effect of the current Covid-19 pandemic on the FEI Calendar, including the knock-on effects into 2021.

“It was the very first time that a Central European country had won the opportunity to organise the prestigious FEI multidiscipline European Championships, Dorottya Stróbl, Member of the Managing Board of the Budapest Organising Committee and Secretary General of the Hungarian National Federation, said. “We strongly believed that the event would serve as a high motivation for the owners and sponsors in Hungary and in the neighbouring countries and promote the sport towards the elite level, but we understand that the significant challenges of holding major FEI Championships in the Olympic and Paralympic disciplines in the year of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, has meant that unfortunately cancellation was inevitable. However, we will continue to work to ensure the very highest level of FEI Driving and Vaulting European sport in Budapest next year.”

Valérie Moulin, President of the Ustica Organising Committee at Haras du Pin, also expressed her disappointment: “We are very disappointed that the rescheduling of Tokyo 2020 has led to the cancellation of the Championships in Haras du Pin, but unfortunately we were unable to find alternative dates outside August 2021. We had gathered a lot of local partners and we were financially invested. All riders counted on this date; nevertheless, we understand that the situation has changed over the last months with the postponement of the Olympic Games. We have made a proposal to the FEI about potentially hosting the Championships in 2023 and we look forward to hearing about that.”

Discussions around other FEI Championships, including the Europeans in 2023, will be held during next month’s FEI Board videoconference meeting, which is set for 23-25 June.

Media contacts:

Grania Willis
Director Communications
grania.willis@fei.org
+41 78 750 61 42

Shannon Gibbons
Media Relations and Communications Manager
shannon.gibbons@fei.org
+41 78 750 61 4

FEI Board Approves Resolutions Based on Calendar Task Forces Proposals

The FEI Board held an extraordinary meeting 27 April 2020 to review proposals from six of the discipline-specific Calendar Task Forces. Discussions at the meeting, which was held via videoconference, were on Jumping, Dressage, Eventing, Driving, Vaulting, and Reining.

During the meeting, the FEI Board agreed that discussions and decisions on FEI Championships for all age categories and disciplines, and potential initiatives to help Organisers, will be deferred to its June meeting.

National Federations and Organisers whose Calendar date applications/modifications have been approved by the FEI during the Covid-19 period have been informed that no guarantee of exclusivity will be provided to them for the new Calendar dates and that equal consideration of all future Calendar date applications/modifications will be given by the relevant Calendar Task Force and by the FEI Board.

Other key takeaways from the meeting are:

Jumping: Due to the uncertainty about the organisation of Competitions worldwide during July and August 2020, the Board has approved all Calendar date applications/modifications for Jumping Events that take place up to and including 30 August 2020. No date clash rules will apply for this period.

Dressage: date applications and/or modifications for high level events (CDI5*/CDI4*/CDI3* and CDI-W) must reach the FEI eight weeks prior to the event. Date clash rules will not apply to CDI3*.

Eventing: date applications and/or modifications for CCI5* & CCI4* Long Format must reach the FEI six weeks prior to the event; date applications and/or modifications for CCI4* Short Format and all other Events must reach the FEI four weeks prior to the Event.

Driving: date applications and/or modifications must reach the FEI four weeks prior to the Event.

Vaulting: date applications and/or modifications must reach the FEI four weeks prior to the Event.

Reining: date applications and/or modifications must reach the FEI four weeks prior to the Event.

Detailed information on resolutions for each discipline are available here.

The Dressage Calendar Task Force held its second meeting 28 April to review applications received for higher-level events. The Jumping Calendar Task Force will hold its third meeting on 4 May 2020, followed by Eventing’s second meeting on 14 May when its Task Force will review applications for higher-level event date changes.

Media contacts:

Grania Willis
Director Communications
grania.willis@fei.org
+41 78 750 61 42

Shannon Gibbons
Media Relations and Communications Manager
shannon.gibbons@fei.org
+41 78 750 61 4

Nothing Is Worth More Than Our Health: Isabell Werth

Isabell Werth and Satchmo. (FEI/Kit Houghton)

She’s fun, focused, fabulous, and sometimes a little formidable. The most medalled athlete in the history of equestrian sport, Germany’s Isabell Werth looked set to add yet another title to her very long list at the FEI Dressage World Cup™ 2020 Final in Las Vegas, USA before that was cancelled due to the pandemic.

“I try to take the good things out of all this,” Isabell said when we spoke recently (Saturday 18 April). “I have more time to concentrate on my young horses, more time for the family, for all the horses, for the whole stables, especially now that spring is here and there is so much to do.”

Like everyone else she’s had to adapt in order to keep everyone safe at home. “We have three generations living here on our farm (near Dusseldorf), and my parents are still really well and I hope we can keep the virus away. We try to go on like normal but keep a distance. At the beginning it was quite hard for my son (10-year-old Frederik) not to visit my parents, but now he’s a bit more used to it and so it’s fine.”

My Q&A plan goes a bit astray from the outset. I’m taken aback when I find out that the great Isabell Werth, known in the sport as “The Queen,” is just like so many of the rest of us – girls in particular – who are so passionate about horses and horse sport.

She too was a pony-mad kid, and in a way she’s still just living that dream….

Heroes

When I ask “Who were your childhood heroes?” she tells me, “Well, it all started with the Bille and Zuttel books about a little girl and her pony. I loved to read, and Bille was my first hero and I wanted to be like her! Today my son (10-year-old Frederik) is playing with an iPhone and an iPad, but when I was his age, I was reading those books,” she explains. “It’s a different world now,” I comment, and Isabell replies, “Yes – although for sure it’s not better!

She continues: ”When I got more serious about my riding I looked up to all the big names like Reiner Klimke and Margot Otto-Crepin (sadly, 1989 FEI Dressage World Cup™ winner Margit passed away on Sunday 19 April), and when I started with Dr Schulten-Baumer then Nicole (Olympic gold medallist Nicole Uphoff) was in the stable. It was the time of Christine Stuckelberger and Anne-Grethe Jensen – so many great riders,” she says.

So how does it feel to be the hero for others now? “To be honest I don’t think about it. It’s lovely when kids come up and ask me questions – I’m really touched by that, but I don’t think about why they are doing it!”

Influences

The person who influenced you most? “During my career for sure it was Dr Schulten-Baumer (world-famous dressage trainer and coach, nicknamed Der Doktor). He taught me how to build up a horse and about management. He was always thinking about the future and how to deal with unexpected things, so I was quite well-prepared for what happened later in my career. When I eventually had my own stable all this gave me a strong basis.

“And then of course the second person is Madeleine Winter-Schulze (a great patron of German equestrian athletes including Isabell). These two people were, and are, the most important during my riding career next to my parents, my partner (Wolfgang Urban), and my family.”

Who is in your back-up crew? “My family, my life-partner, and my parents always have my back. I can discuss everything with them in and around the sport, and even though he’s not experienced with horses, Wolfgang has management experience because of his business and profession so he has helped me a lot. When we come to the daily work in the stables first of all it’s Steffi (Steffi Weigard), my groom – she’s really close to me when it comes to what happens with our show horses; she has a very good eye and feeling. The stable staff, my riders, and then Mary (her right-hand woman) of course. I’ve been working with most of these people for more than 10 years and it’s a close partnership,” Isabell explains.

Horses

What do you like best about being around horses? “Being in the middle of them, working with them, just sitting on them and being in my own world. I love it!”

Anything you don’t like about being around horses? “No, only in the horse business sometimes it’s difficult to deal with the people! You have to learn not to say everything you want to say, to know when it’s better to keep your mouth shut! Sometimes that’s hard for me and sometimes I can’t do it, but I have learned to be better at it!” she says with a laugh.

The horse you liked the most? “Gigolo, Satchmo, and now Bella Rose have been the most important horses in my life. At the moment I have Weihegold, and of course I love her and we’ve had great success together, but it is something different with Satchmo for instance.” There is real emotion in her voice now.

“Today he was in the field when I was riding back from the racetrack with Weihegold. I was talking to her about the fact that we should actually be in Las Vegas doing our Freestyle today when Satchmo walked up to remind me that he was there with me 11 years ago (finishing second in the 2009 FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final).

“To see him grazing with the little pony Kelly, coming over for a chat and then going down to eat more grass without a care in the world, and to feel Weihe passaging under me because she was so awake and so keen, that’s something special for me personally. She is still enjoying the sport; he is so happy in his retirement, and nobody else sees that moment but it makes me feel so good!”

Have you retired many of your top horses at your farm? “Yes, all of them! Satchmo is the oldest now; he is close to 26; he will have his birthday in May so we will celebrate – maybe have a Corona-party for him! First Class is still here, and Fabienne and Anthony and Gigolo were with us for such a long time, until they were 25, 26, 29 years old and it was really great to have them. Also, to keep them until the day they died, that was, and is, for me also important – they were much more than just successful Grand Prix horses.

“Most of them had about 10 years in the field after 10 years of top sport. Also Whisper – everyone knew him as my ‘doping horse’ (Isabell was suspended in 2009 when Whisper tested positive for a prohibited substance) – but nobody asked later if he’s still alive, and he is still alive (now aged 21) and he is also with my retired horses in the field and we take great care of him in the same way as all the rest. And that’s also something that’s in my heart but nobody sees it!” she says.

Outstanding

Are there some other top horses you would have liked to ride? “Margit Otto-Crepin’s Corlandus. He was such an outstanding horse, and Totilas – it would have been great to feel how he was to ride – and of course Valegro and Mistral Hojris too. They were all fantastic!”

The best horse you have ever ridden? This answer comes as no surprise…. “Bella Rose! She’s the best I’ve ever had, the one able to do everything, and you can feel always there is something more possible – that makes her so outstanding!”

When you are competing you have a gift for working up a crowd – do you think you could have been an actress in another life? “Not really! To be an actress you must be flexible so you can jump into different kinds of roles. But my role is simple: it’s riding dressage, it’s horses, and I love what I do!”

How do you like working with the media? “You learn to have confidence in answering questions, sometimes with more humour; it depends a bit on the emotion at the time. But (and I think I know what’s coming here), when you are asked for the 120,000th time when are you going to stop riding because now you are 50… and you know they are still writing about 10 other riders who are 60 and older but they never ask them when they are going to stop….”

A bit of a joker

If Johnny (Don Johnson), Emilio, Weihe, and Bella were talking about you in the stables, what would they say? “Johnny is a bit like my son; he would say let her tell me what to do but I’ll still do what I want! But when it comes down to it, we are a team. He’s a bit of a joker, but in the end we really love each other!

“Emilio would always be a bit more like a little boy: a little less confident but trying to give his best. Weihe – she would always be saying, ‘Okat, just tell me what I should do and I’ll do it!’ No horse is like her; she can be so quiet, but she can switch from being a nice little mare to a serious competition horse in an instant.

“Bella is proud; she’s a real lady. She knows how good she is and how much I love her. The only thing is that she always wants to do more. She might say, ‘Why won’t she let me run like I want to run, because I could go so much faster!’ You take her out for a hack and go for a little canter but it’s never enough; after a few metres she wants to gallop!”

How do you handle your emotions under pressure? “It’s a question of discipline in the moment, and I had a really good teacher in Dr Schulten-Baumer. You’ll find a lot of photos of me crying in successful moments, but I’m sure you won’t find any of me crying from disappointment. When I’m really disappointed, I work it out on my own. And it’s not because I’m older now. I’ve been like this since I was 20.”

A hard time

What do you say to people when they tell you how worried they are about the pandemic and the effect it’s having on us all? “I think it’s a hard time but I’m sure we will get through it and it won’t be as much of a disaster as some people think right now. But for sure it seems to open the gap more, even in our little horse world, between the rich and the people who are not so wealthy. I think everyone is going to lose in some way, and this puts more responsibility on those in the driving seat.

“Maybe we will go back to some kind of competition life in September or October, but that will depend on how quickly a vaccination can be found. This is a very infective virus and it’s making everyone very scared. I’m hoping that by the end of year we will see light at end of tunnel.

“For the first time in 30 years the Himalayas are visible from a long way. It seems the earth is taking a bit back from us; nature is telling us something important. So for now we have to calm down and know that life is possible without planes, without cars, without a lot of business. Life will go on – with the virus, without the virus – it’s just a question of how we get through it.”

Tokyo

How do you feel about the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games? “For a lot of athletes who wanted to end their career in 2020, it’s huge. In my personal case I say it’s bad luck; maybe the horses were in top shape this year but OK now we have to adjust and prepare for 2021. All three of mine are young and fit enough to go next year, but I’m long enough in sport to know anything can happen between now and then.

“In the end I hold onto my dream of going with Bella to the Olympics, but we have all learned something very important over the last few months. We can have our hopes and dreams… but nothing is worth more than our health.”

By Louise Parkes

Media contact:

Shannon Gibbons
Media Relations and Communications Manager
shannon.gibbons@fei.org
+41 78 750 61 46