Jessica von Bredow-Werndl and Dalera BB reconfirmed their supremacy in the world of dressage by outclassing the elite and recapturing Grand Prix Special gold at the 2023 European Dressage Championships in Riesenbeck on Friday 8 September 2023. Not World Champions Charlotte Fry and Glamourdale were their toughest challengers, but 2023 World Cup vice champion Nanna Skodborg Merrald and former British Olympic champion Charlotte Dujardin joined her on the podium after a gruelling hot battle.
Into the Frying Pan
The subtropic temperatures above 30 C° and boiling hot sunshine added an extra dimension to the experience of the 2023 Europeans. With not a cloud in sight for the past five days, the soaring temperatures began to take its toll on some horses that made it into the Grand Prix Special, for which the top 30 highest scoring pairs of the Grand Prix qualified.
While the first few days in Riesenbeck were relaxed when it comes to attendance, today the stadium was sold out and the show grounds were buzzing. The covered seating was packed to the brim, the highly expensive VIP tent had the affluent enjoying their champagne and canapés while watching top sport, and the daredevils amongst the crowds took a seat in the uncovered tribune to get grilled alive while watching the world's creme de la creme compete for individual glory.
The class began at 10h30 AM which left plenty of time for spectators, press, and dressage aficionados to arrive at the venue and enjoy coffee and croissants. The show organisation has done a phenomenal job at making a time schedule that was entertaining yet relaxed, with long enough breaks to go to the toilet and have lunch, instead of rushing from one spot to the other. The absence of a European Under 25 Championship programme (in Hagen 2021 both ran on the same week) was a real blessing and put all the attention on the senior riders with no Under 25 being a time consuming after thought.
On Saturday the horses that made it to the Kur to Music finals will get a well earned break as the freestyle will be held on Sunday afternoon. Saturday is filled with the freestyle finale for the Para European Championship as well as a dressage masterclass (with Christoph Hess) and a foal auction in the evening. A good moment for everyone to catch their breath and enjoy the show.
Best Foot Forward
The Grand Prix Special began with the first two blocks of riders before the lunch break and the level of competition gradually picked up speed and quality. After the lunch break it was the battle of the bulge with Europe's greatest putting their best foot forward and truly challenging each other for the first time since the 2022 World Championships in Herning last summer.
The class was judged by Michael Osinski, Maria Colliander, Kurt Christensen, Isobel Wessels, Ulrike Nivelle, Eduard de Wolff van Westerrode, and Raphaël Saleh and they faced a difficult task in doing the sorting. With each block of riders, the level rose and the final block featured Werth, Fry, Von Bredow, Dujardin, Hester, and Merrald right after each other. It was delectable! No less than five of them scored over 80%
The scores soared as much as the temperature this afternoon with name bias definitely playing its part in the sky high scores. The riding was no doubt top notch, but issues and mistakes were clearly less severely down-scored at the end of the day while the lesser gods in the morning were virtually slapped in the face when they made a mistakes. A famous rider who does not halt immobile still gets a 6.5, a poor extended walk with barely any overtrack got 7.1, a mega moving horse whose tongue was showing on the side because of the strong curb contact can still score over 80% if all the rest looks fabulous. Once you landed in the judges' top drawer, only falling off your horse will drop you back down in the basement.
But what a day it was!
Dalera Reconfirms Supremacy
Leading up the Europeans it was truly expected that powerhouse Glamourdale would knock Dalera off her number one spot, but already in the Grand Prix, the Bavarian based Jessica von Bredow-Werndl showed that she has strategically trained and prepared her mare to peak perfection for this show. As fourth last to go, von Bredow and Beatrice Burchler-Keller's 16-year old Trakehner mare Dalera BB (by Easy Game x Handryk) delivered.
Their halt at entry was not immobile, but then they produced a very powerful trot - half pass - passage tour with fluent extensions and great regularity. The extended walk had decent overstep and the rhythm stayed clear. The first piaffe was rhythmical but a little forward, the second was absolutely wonderful, the passage that followed was slightly bent to the right. In the two tempi changes a small bobble appeared in the fact that some changes to the left were shorter behind (5.6). The ones went well. Dalera was breathing and sweating heavily (it was hot !) even though the whole performance looked easy going. The final centerline had amazing rhythm and energy and the piaffe at X earned her 9.9. They wrapped up their ride with a square end halt.
They scored a personal best of 85.593% and ranked first with all seven judges. They scored between 83.830% and 87.340%.
Von Bredow-Werndl reconfirmed her supremacy in the world. After winning the 2023 World Cup Finals in April, she now also reclaimed her European Champion's title of 2021.
"There were expectations before Aachen and the World Cup Final, so I’ve been working with these expectations for quite a few months now. Finally I was just happy to meet them," Jessica told the FEI's press officer Louise Parkes. "What I did was not to think about it. The only thing I can influence is Dalera and me. So that’s how we handled it and how we will handle it in the future. Because if there’s no Glamourdale there’s always somebody coming. And it’s good for the sport and good for the competition and if there was nobody I couldn’t improve so it’s good to be pushed and to continue improving ourselves. And we have improved, we’ve improved our walk, the passage, the piaffe, the canter, the changes, so many things. And the art is to have everything together on point but also to have a happy athlete who wants to present herself because she has enough strength. And it’s only possible if you train smart, and not hard, at home”, she said.
Jessica added that Dalera is pretty good at taking care of herself and partitioning her energy.
“She is the best at resting, she can switch on and off immediately, she goes to the stable and she turns right off! She lies down in the stable every night, she is the best traveller and she knows how to save her own energy," said the rider.
A Dream Come True for Merrald
As last rider to go in the class, Danish Nanna Skodborg Merrald and her 2023 World Cup second place-getter, Blue Hors Zepter (by Zack x Wolkentanz II), knew what monumental task lay ahead of her. A score in the eighties was essential to be a medal contender, a mark they had only achieved once before in the Special in Aachen (80.340%) two months ago.
In Riesenbeck a small communication error in the pirouettes on the centerline made them drop to fourth place with 78.556%. Today Merrald made sure that the pieces of the puzzle came together. Her 15-year old Oldenburg gelding is a powerhouse horse, who went from being a Blue Hors discard (the owner tried to sell this horse through several horse dealers but it never happened) to being the star of the barn, who finally brought Blue hors its second individual medal since the legendary Blue Hors Matine scored bronze at the 2006 World Equestrian Games.
Merrald and Zepter produced incredibly solid work: well ridden trot extensions and powerful passage work. The extended walk had good overtrack and relaxation. The piaffes were well executed, the second maybe a bit wide in front, but the transitions were fluent. The canter half passes were a highlight, just like the left pirouette. The two tempi changes were strong, the ones could have covered more ground. The extended canter was thoughtfully ridden. Zepter was so incredibly obedient and working for his rider, even though at times he dropped a bit in the poll due to the strong curb contact. They finished with a rhythmical pi-pa final centerline.
While walking out of the arena, the score of 82.796% flashed on the board and silver was theirs. The individual marks went from 80.532% to 85.745%. She placed between second and fourth with the seven judges.
“It was a dream come true today!”, Skodborg Merrald said at the press conference. "I knew it was possible for me to fight for the medals this year but I also knew that I was up against three amazing, strong women who could do the same (von Bredow-Werndl, Dujardin and Fry). I had so much focus on doing my test today as well as possible and see how the result is - it was actually super close, so it’s all the small details that matter. During the test I was just focusing, but coming to the end I thought I had done everything I could and I really love that feeling, and when I heard the scores it was unbelievable. The feeling I had yesterday in the Grand Prix was a lot of fire and a little too much tension. Today was more relaxed but then I was in doubt if he was too relaxed during the test!”
The difference with Dalera was still three percent. I need to reflect on this one if that big gap is justified.
Dujardin Back to Bronze
Since her gold medal streak on Valegro, the 38-year old British Olympian Charlotte Dujardin has piloted no less than 3 other horses to individual medals in the last 12 years; a brilliant feat only done by the true heroes in our sport. While the ambition for new gold is certainly there, Dujardin seems to be locked on bronze. She had bronze on Mount St. John Freestyle at the 2018 WEG and bronze on Gio at the 2021 Olympics and 2021 European Championships. Now with Imhotep it was back to bronze. Just 0.213 separated silver and bronze though.
Charlotte and Carl Hester and Coral Ingham's 10-year old KWPN gelding Imhotep (by Everdale x Vivaldi) began their Special test with an extended trot in which he hurried but achieved good overtrack. The half pass left had very good cadence and the passage was properly collected. The extended walk was a bit underwhelming with minimal overtrack and not enough swing/marching over the back. In the first piaffe he got very narrow at the base, the second piaffe had a far superior rhythm but also here the balance was not ideal. In the second part of the passage after the second piaffe Imhotep pulled the hocks high instead of reaching under. Dujardin rode the canter half passes in a very collected way, the two tempi changes were truly lovely and the ones were clean. The extended canter was well ridden. The final piaffe at X was too swaying and wide in front to be considered correct, but Dujardin controlled the rhythm on that final line very well.
They posted 82.583% for a third place finish. The low mark was 80.319%, the high mark 83.936%.
Holding His Hand
In his young career, Imhotep has competed in sixteen international Grand Prix classes so far of which six were Grand Prix Special tests. At the 2022 World Championships the pair won team silver and were 6th (Special) and 10th (Kur) individually. Dujardin still feels "Pete" is very inexperienced at the level and at the press conference stated that he relies on her experience and asks her "to hold his hand" in the test.
“Their horses are 15 and 16 (Zepter and Dalera) and they’ve been doing it a lot longer than Pete," Charlotte pointed out. "He’s done that test no more than six times. To be sat here with a medal around my neck with a horse that is so inexperienced - yesterday there wasn’t much atmosphere in the arena but today it was full of people and you could really feel the vibe. It takes a lot for a horse to go in that environment and go down that centreline and halt and then do a perfect test. For a horse that doesn’t have experience and who has been thrown in the deep end like he has, I am so proud of him. He has a heart of gold and just wants to work with me all the time."
Dujardin continued, "Pete can get a bit insecure, you can hear it in the sneezing, and I pat him and tell him you are doing really well," she stated. "I have to hold his hand a little bit but each horse I’ve had has been different. With Valegro I pressed for 10 and he was off for 10, whereas Pete, he’s an amazing horse, phenomenal to ride but I can’t press for 10 now. But next year I can go for 10!”, she said, throwing down the gauntlet to the other two medallists at the post-competition press conference.
Charlotte Fry and Gert-jan van Olst's 12-year old KWPN stallion Glamourdale (by Lord Leatherdale x Negro) were the sensation of the 2022 World Championships in Herning, where they won double individual gold. This year they deliberately avoided a duel with Dalera at the World Cup Finals in Omaha and CDIO Aachen, also because the black has a very busy time on the breeding roster.
In Riesenbeck many expected Glamourdale to dethrone Dalera, but it didn't happen. Today Fry rode the big stallion with more much sense of speed at the start of the test, especially in the first trot extension, but then picked up the tempo gradually. The half passes were huge and regular. The extended walk had two hooves overstep, but there was not the biggest marching through the body. Today's stumble point were the piaffes. Glamourdale stayed small and did not want to engage the hindlegs under the body. The two tempi changes were massive, but there was a bobble in the ones with the left changes being shorter behind. The extended canter earned her a 9.7. There was good sit in the pirouettes. The piaffe at X had a better rhythm but the stallion got wide in front. After her salute, Fry knew that today she would fall short of golden glory, but at the end of the day her massive 81.763% did not suffice for a podium place. She was fourth.
"He felt really good in there today, much better than yesterday, more concentrated," said Fry after her test. "We had one tiny blip in the one-tempi changes behind, but apart from that I couldn’t fault him. The test overall was much better than yesterday, he was much more with me. The pirouettes were a real highlight today, and the trot-work. And his walk has improved so much as well."
Carl Hester's Grand Prix test on the opening day of competition was the talk of the town. In the Special the six-time Olympian and British team stalwart landed fifth place with 80.106 %. Aboard Fiona Bigwood's 13-year old KWPN stallion Fame (by Bordeaux x Rhodium) he produced a very solid round, but in my opinion it did not have the magic we saw Wednesday. The bay stallion performed two stretched (but square) halts, and hurried in most of the trot extensions. One wished to have seen more spring off the ground and swing in the back. The extended walk did not achieve sufficient overstep and the start of the first piaffe was hesitant. The second was much better, but then Fame struggled in the transition out. The highlights in the test were to me the very straight one tempi changes and the lovely pirouettes and one tempis on the centerline. Hester rode the horse with much precision and finesse, but Fame appeared more tense and tight to my eyes. Maybe I didn't see it clearly and suffered from heat stroke? The judges saw it differently and found him better today as the score was higher. Interesting to note, the last time Carl Hester scored in the 80s in a technical test (Grand Prix or Special, NOT freestyle) was at the 2012 London Olympics where he earned 80.571% on Uthopia in the Special.
German Isabell Werth and the 13-year old Brandenburger stallion Quantaz (by Quaterback x Hohenstein) finished sixth. The horse was overall better in the connection today compared to the Grand Prix and Werth had him a bit sharper on the aids and more precise in the test, even though there still were some clear issues, like the poor rhythm in the extended walk, a tense collected walk, and to one tempi changes that are big but not straight enough. The second piaffe was better than the first one and the trot extensions were ground covering. They scored 78.252%.
Eighteen riders move on to the freestyle final on Sunday. Only three per nation can go through, which means that Helgstrand, Hughes and Rath will not make it to the Kur, and a spot opened up for Larissa Pauluis and Joao Moreira.
- Text and Photos © Eurodressage (this article expresses Eurodressage's' eye-witness account and opinion about the competition)
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Eurodressage Coverage of the 2023 European Dressage Championships