Just two weeks before the European Dressage Championships in Aachen — the last major championship for British contenders before the Olympic Games in Rio next year. How the time has flown by since London 2012!
London marked a major milestone in dressage history when the British team won gold — an extraordinary feat that, just a few years previously, seemed the stuff of dreams. That high was followed by team bronze at the 2013 European Championships in Herning and team silver at the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Caen last year. How things change; within the space of a few years the Brits have become major players on the World dressage stage and now there is a high expectation of the team, although at least the pressure is off as qualification for Rio 2016 was achieved last year.
Only one combination, our ace in the pack Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro — the reigning Olympic, World and European Champions and World record holders — remains the constant throughout the past three successes. And they are the World’s highest scoring combination this year — scoring over 85% in each of their grand prix tests. At Aachen, Dujardin will be joined by three experienced players: Carl Hester, Fiona Bigwood and Michael Eilberg.
British dressage stalwart and team prop Hester, who rode in his first major championship — the very first WEG in Stockholm — 25 years ago, this year rides Nip Tuck, who, despite helping to win team silver last year, is still relatively inexperienced. His scores, however, are improving all the time.
Bigwood, who first rode for the British senior team in 1996, this year rides the mare Atterupguaards Orthilia at her championship debut. She is the least experienced of the horse quartet, with just five international grand prix on her CV, but is an eye-catching mover with a seemingly level head and is more than capable of a good score.
Eilberg, a member of the team for the last two championships, this year rides Marakov. The eldest of the four horses is also a championship debutant, although the pair has five seasons of grand prix experience together and Eilberg is a cool customer.
Germany are the major contenders are far as team gold is concerned, even despite losing the lovely Helen Langehanenberg and the equally lovely stallion Damon Hill, winners of individual silver at WEG.
Kristina Sprehe is their current leader of the pack with the stallion Desperados. The pair, winners of all their international starts this year, also looks to be the biggest threat to Dujardin and Valegro for individual honours.
The former world record holder Totilas, who lost the crown to Valegro, is back with Matthias Rath — their last team appearance was the 2011 European Championships in Rotterdam. The pair scored marginally over 80% in Hagen recently but that is the only show on their card this year.
Isabell Werth, Germany’s skilled team veteran, rides Don Johnson, as her WEG team gold medal mare Bella Rose has not been fit to compete this year, but Don Johnson is more than capable of decent scores.
Meanwhile, Jessica Bredow-Werndl, a former Young Rider European Champion, makes her senior team debut with the stallion Unee BB (like Totilas by Gribaldi) with whom she recently was just a few marks off 80% in the grand prix special in Hagen.
The Dutch have also lost their major player of recent times, Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival, who have been the backbone and high-scorers of the team for the last six years. They do, however, still have Edward Gal, Hans Peter Minderhoud (and the breeding stallion Glocks Johnson) and Diederik van Silfhout (Arlando), who were all members of the team that won World team bronze last year. Gal now rides Glocks Undercover, with whom he won his seventh national championship recently — the pair are likely to be their high scorers. Patrick van de Meer and Uzzo have the fourth place.
Sweden also looks to have a strong team. Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven (Don Aureillo) Patrik Kittel (Deja) and Minne Telde (Santana) are all experienced championship riders who have been putting in good consistent grand prix scores recently and they are joined by team rookie Emilie Nyrerod (Miata) who has impressed this season.
One thing is for certain: it will be a closely contested championship that in all likelihood will be determined by the final riders. Based on grand prix personal best this year, the gold medal will be an extremely close battle between Germany and Britain. On paper, the Brits have it but we will need a high-scoring, team boosting test from Dujardin and Valegro, with good back-up from Hester and Bigwood. No pressure then. A team silver is the alternative but even if not all goes to plan — and with horses, who knows — team bronze is well within reach.
On current form, Dujardin and Valegro should retain their European title. The silver looks set to be won by Sprehe and Desperados and the bronze will be a close tussle between Rath and Totilas and and Undercover, although Hester and Nip Tuck could surprise and give them a run for their money.
Image: Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro by Judy Sharrock on FlickR.