With the Olympics fast approaching, we look back at the dressage horses that changed the history of the sport.
German dressage legend Dr Reiner Klimke had been on the individual dressage podium at Olympic Games twice before 1984, but never on the top step. A horse called Ahlerich would change all that by earning his rider the most sought-after medal in Los Angeles, as well as team gold. They helped Germany win the same accolade four years later in Seoul.
Ahlerich had cost his rider the not insignificant sum of €21,000 at auction in 1975. However, although particularly difficult to train, he returned this investment many times over in terms of the prizes he brought home, including a World Championship gold in 1982.
Jennie Loriston-Clarke’s great stallion claimed Britain’s first medal in pure dressage — at the 1978 Goodwood World Championships. He had been purchased in Holland and proved to be incredibly bright and talented.
Dutch Courage was only six when he competed at his first prix st george contest, seven when he formed part of the British team at the 1977 European Championships and eight when he won World Championship bronze.
He combined competing with covering mares and produced a dynasty of future dressage horses. Had Dutch Courage not suffered a virus in the lead up to the 1984 Olympics, he would have joined Wily Trout on the British team.
“If he had gone, Britain would have won a team medal there,” says Loriston-Clarke, who kept her great horse following retirement until his death in 1991.
Almost three decades before Charlotte Dujardin and Carl Hester put Britain on the map in pure dressage, Christopher Bartle and Wily Trout managed a similar feat when finishing sixth at the Los Angeles Olympics. Their success would not be equalled until Valegro took gold at London 2012.
However, the moments Bartle rode into the atmospheric ring were tense. “It could have gone either way,” he says. “But Wily Trout rose to the occasion and he produced a personal best in that stadium. He did the most perfect one-time changes down the back straight.”
Bartle never found another Wily Trout for pure dressage, but more than a decade later he won Badminton with Word Perfect II.
The first true superstars of modern dressage, Nicole Uphoff and the spooky and sensitive Westphalian Rembrandt were the stuff of dreams, but also, towards the end of their time together, nightmares.
Together they won back-to-back dual Olympic gold medals in Seoul and Barcelona. A year later Rembrandt was kicked during a prize-giving ceremony, but his fractured hock was repaired by surgery and, amazingly, he returned to capture 1994 World Games silver.
Uphoff’s decision to compete at the Atlanta Games as an individual — based on her right as reigning champion — caused consternation in dressage circles, for Rembrandt was 20 and past his best. To add insult to injury, he was held by vets at the trot-up before the individual final and Uphoff withdrew him — a sad end to a glittering career.
Teammates but also rivals, Gigolo could only finish second to Rembrandt at the Barcelona Olympics, but Isabell Werth received compensation four years later by taking the two top prizes in Atlanta, two out of the four Olympic gold medals the Hanoverian gelding would ultimately win.
Indeed, Gigolo went on to become the most successful dressage horse of all time, additionally securing four World Equestrian Games gold medals and eight at European Championships.
Werth once commented that it was his trainability and reliability that were his greatest traits. He died in 2009, nine years after retirement.
When Anky van Grunsven’s bay Oldenburg gelding died aged 30 in 2013 she announced on Twitter: “My heart is broken.”
Bonfire had earned her individual gold at the 1994 World Equestrian Games, as well as gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, along with a clutch of silver medals.
Hot tempered and spooky, as a young horse he didn’t stand out from the crowd, but van Grunsven worked her magic and had him competing at Grand Prix level as a seven-year-old.
Van Grunsven was also lucky enough to ride the great Salinero, but sometimes there is nothing like first love.
Blue Hors Matine
In a world largely dominated by male equines, the grey mare Blue Hors Matine stood out not only because of her gender but for her fluid and emotional performances, not least when she danced her way to individual silver at the 2006 World Equestrian Games under Danish number-one rider Andreas Helgstrand.
Many people believed that the medal should have been gold.
However, in a life beset by injury, she was retired only three years later, and then died tragically in 2010 after breaking her leg in her field.
As the first decade of the new millennium drew to a close, Edward Gal and Totilas sprung to prominence and took dressage to new heights. They set world records and went on to win a clutch of gold medals for Holland for their extraordinarily elegant and powerful performances that caused as much buzz among watching crowds as they did in the media.
The beautiful black stallion, by Gribaldi, famously issed the London Olympics and when sold he failed to gel with new rider, Matthias Rath. He was retired from competition in 2015.
Will there ever be another Valegro? Possibly not, at least not for Charlotte Dujardin. The highly trainable KWPN gelding not only raised the bar for British dressage, but for pure dressage on a global stage, breaking records as he went, for grand prix (87.460%), grand prix special (88.022%) and grand prix freestyle (94.30%).
He was the first horse competing under the Union Flag to claim Olympic gold — team and individual — which he did at Greenwich in front of a London skyline in 2012. This was followed by individual gold at the 2014 World Equestrian Games. Too many superlatives have been written about this horse — to date he simply is the best the sport has ever seen.
Top and bottom images: top, Dujardin and Valegro at the FEI European Jumping, Dressage and Para Dressage Championships in Herning in 2013, by Kit Houghton, courtesy of the FEI; bottom, Dujardin and Valegro at the Reem Acra FEI World Cup™ Dressage Final in Las Vegas in 2015, © Hippo Foto – Dirk Caremans, courtesy of the FEI