Growing up competing horses in Australia, we are always hearing about the magical world of ‘Europe’ – where it seems grand prix horses grow on trees, prize money falls like rain and every second rider has a gold medal. I think most of us dream of having the opportunity to experience this world for ourselves but very few of us are ever lucky enough to make it a reality. My mother always told me to “create my own luck” and so in March this year I packed up my things, put my horses out in the paddock and got on a plane to Germany. I was working at McLean Reitsport in Germany through to the middle of May when I took a few weeks off to travel. At the beginning of June I moved to Belgium and am now working for and training with renowned Dutch-duo Penny and Johan Rockx at ‘La Fazenda.’
One of the things I was 150% convinced I would get to whilst on my ‘European riding adventure’ (as it has come to be called) was Chio Aachen. This year the show fell in the weeks I had free to explore Europe, so off I went. Everyone has always said that it’s the best show in the world but I had already seen Hagen Horses and Dreams so it would have to be pretty good to impress me THAT much more. Well, I can safely say that even after everything Hagen had to offer, Aachen completely and utterly blew me away. I didn’t want to miss any of the action so I bought tickets to the dressage and the jumping and caught a train down to Aachen on the Friday night so that I would be there first thing when the gates opened at 8am on Saturday. When I walked out of the train station I immediately knew I was in the right place – there were huge bronze horse statues out the front of the station and every bus stop had instructions on how to get to Chio. Luckily the bus stop right out the front of my hotel ran regular busses to the venue so a 7:35am bus saw me waiting at the gates at 7:45. As I waited for the gates to open with the handful of people who came off the same bus as me, I was beginning to doubt if many people would come. The enormous venue looked deserted and I hoped that all this build-up would be worth it. In only ten minutes the line grew from five people to fifty and by 8am there were over 100 excited spectators anxious for their first look at Aachen 2015. In the end, 45,000 people attended Aachen over the three days of competition.
I walked through the gates and headed straight for the show jumping warm up. The classes didn’t start for another hour and the shops were still opening up, so it was the perfect opportunity to have a sneak peak at the competitors before the Preis der Soers – the first competition for the day. Well I nearly had to pick my jaw up off the floor – if I though Hagen was star-studded I had another thing coming! Warming up for a big day of competition was absolute show jumping royalty including Bertram Allen, Daniel Deusser, Marcus Ehning, Rodrigo Pessoa, Kevin Staut, Hans Dieter-Dreher and Lucinda Diniz – just to name a few! The Preis der Soers competition was a single round with placings determined on penalties and time, with no jump off. It was set at 1.50m with €30,000 prize money and a special prize for the best performed German rider in the class, presented by the start and finish line and fence judges. The class was won by Frenchman Patrice Delaveau on the holsteiner stallion ‘Lacrimoso 3 HDC’ and second place and the special prize went to German young rider, 21 year old Laura Klaphake on the eight year old hanoverian ‘Cinsey,’ owned by Paul Schockemöhle.
The second competition for the day was the Sparkassen Youngsters Cup Final for seven and eight year old horses with €10,000 prize money. The first round of this competition was run on the Friday and all horses who finished on Friday were eligible to compete on Saturday. The seven year olds jumped first, competing in reverse order of their points from Friday’s competition, over a 1.40m track. The eight year olds followed, also in reverse placing order, but with the fences raised by 5cm. All horses who jumped clear in the first round then went on to a jump off to determine final placings according to time. Every once in a while a horse catches your eye and captures your heart all at once – Scott Brash’s ride Hello M’Lord did this for me. The beautiful bay gelding jumped with an effortlessness and an ease that I doubt I will ever forget. Brash rode like the ultimate professional he is and it was a performance that really stuck with me and reminded me that it is not only your wins that will be remembered, the combination were placed fourth, but that every time we ride we have the opportunity to create real magic. The class was won by Christian Ahlmann of Germany with a time of 40.23 seconds on the eight year old grey Cassini III stallion ‘Casuality Z’.
The Winning Round was next up and this was an opportunity for the horses competing in the Rolex Grand Prix the next day to have a warm up class. With €60,000 prize money this 1.55m competition was very hotly contested. Each rider could start only one horse and in the first round competitors rode in reverse order of the World Rankings as at the start of the event, with those not in the rankings starting first according to a draw. The best ten athletes from the first round qualified for second round, where all scores were reset to 0 penalties and placings were determined according to penalties and time from the second round only. My favourite rounds in this class went to Denis Nielsen, Christian Ahlmann, Ben Maher, Bertram Allen and Daniel Deusser. These were not necessarily the rounds that were clean, or the fastest or with the most spectacular horses; but they all looked effortless. There is something about watching a round which flows in perfect harmony between the horse and rider, like water flowing smoothly down a river, which I find just magical. The class was won by David Will for Germany on the fifteen year old chestnut mare ‘Mic Mac du Tillard’ with zero jumping faults and a jump off time of 45.61 seconds.
By now the huge main stadium which housed the show jumping was packed out and the crowd was 100% behind every rider – feeling their pain when they took a rail and cheering like crazy for every clear round. The last class for the day was the Jump and Drive. A jump and drive consists of a show jumping round and a driven obstacle course. The rider starts first and jumps a course of eight obstacles. After the last fence they dismount, give their horse to a groom, run to the drivers’ waiting area and get on the back of the vehicle. The driver then has to complete a course with ‘marathon-type’ obstacles with the rider joining the team to help balance the vehicle. Ten riders and ten drivers were invited by the organising committee to form teams and compete. Looking at the program earlier that day I had thought that perhaps I would give this class a miss and head home for an early night as it was starting to get quite late, but the stadium was only getting more and more full so I thought I would stay and see what all the fuss was about – WOW OH WOW! Being front row for the Jump and Drive was what I can only describe as a cross between a rock show and a football game. The competition was fierce. The jumping riders were taking tighter and tighter turns and when it came to dismounting they were throwing themselves off the horses at canter and hoping the grooms would catch them. The carriage horses were cantering full speed in front of a roaring crowd, through water and tight turns, and the times were getting lower and lower.
Most of the teams came from one country but where there were carriage teams with no rider composite teams were made. When Bertram Allen and Boyd Exell entered the arena the crowd went WILD! Naturally so, what a dream team! Exell is the world’s leading driver with two WEG gold medals to his name and Allen is in top form at the moment, taking the show jumping world by storm. Together they proved to be unbeatable, posting a time of 142.27 seconds to win the class, nearly six seconds ahead of second place. As the Australian flag was displayed on the big screen and Exell performed his lap of honour I was swelling with pride and cheering like crazy and I understood exactly why everyone loves Aachen. I walked away at the end of that day on a total high and keen as mustard for the next day.
Sunday morning I was back at the stadium bright and early, this time to watch the Deutsche Bank Preis Grand Prix Kur CDI5* (dressage to music). The top fifteen combinations from Saturday’s Grand Prix CDI danced for judges from France, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and England in hope of taking home the €150,000 prize money. Anticipating another huge crowd I got to the stadium bright and early to save a front row seat – I was not missing any of the action! The first horse entered the arena and I was a little girl in a lolly shop – Thomas Wagner’s Abanos x Lord Sinclair Hannoverian gelding ‘Amoricello’ absolutely lit my fire! Representing Germany, they rode to a mash up of Daft Punk’s ‘Around the World’ and U2’s ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’ that had the whole crowd dancing and cheering for more. The horse was perhaps a little green and made a few mistakes that damaged the score, but showed MEGGA talent. Wagner made riding look like art and it was electric to watch. A disappointing score of 74.27 meant they were out of the placings but they were a combination to remember and I will definitely be keeping my eye on them in the future!!
Fanny Verliefden of Belgium on her own Lord Loxley daughter ‘Annarico’ was next. The horse showed a softness and lightness which was absolutely standout, but sadly struggled with the changes and made too many costly mistakes to be competitive. Next to ride into the packed-out stadium was the young German girl, Jessica Von Bredow-Werndl on the Son de Niro x Jazz mare ‘Zaire 14’. This combination showed perhaps some of my favourite choreography in the competition and their music had textbook light and shade to match. Sadly though, the horse was too tense and looked too strong and tight to be competitive. Jeroen Devroe of Belgium on Daniel Lousberg’s ‘Eres DL’ were next and also out of the placings on 71.60. Terhi Stegars of Finland followed on her and Tanja Kayser’s little black stallion ‘Axis TSF.’ This super sweet horse did a nice test, the highlight of which was a canter pirouette coming straight from walk. This looked very special and I made a mental note to remember that if I am ever lucky enough to compete at such a high level! They finished on a score of 73.55. Our first five horses were over and it was time for a short break. As the athletes were competing in reverse placing order, I couldn’t see what the next set of tests had to offer!
First up for section two was Michael Eilberg for Great Britain aboard the big bay Rufs x Mitjulands gelding ‘Marakov.’ Whilst this music wasn’t so much to my taste, the transitions between the light and shade and also between paces were standout! The textbook effortlessness that melts from one part of the test to another and leaves you surprised when you realise you have gone from trot to walk and on to canter without even noticing. The picture was seamless and harmonious, however a little spoiled by an unsustained halt to finish and a tough score of 74.77. Following this big bay was a super spunky little chestnut gelding by Quattro B, ‘Qui Vincit Dynamis’ ridden by Fabienne Lütkemeier for Germany. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of this combination was total WOW factor changes. They were such a highlight and paired with lovely music this test showed some super moments. Unfortunately these were spoiled by tightness in the mouth and this also spoiled the score, bringing it down to a 74.53.
Shelly Francis on Patricia Stempel’s Diamond Hit x Renoir gelding ‘Doktor’ was up next for America. With some lovely uphill work, good music and an entertaining performance they scored 75.35 to be in the lead so far. Diederik Van Silfhout of Holland rode a super test on the Royal Dutch Warmblood Hors la Loi son ‘Vorst D.’ This little chestnut was one of my favourites of the day. He showed a lightness in front and on his feet, matched with a quickness behind, that was very sporty and gave an impression of effortlessness. The piaffe was very good and a highlight for me, creating a test to remember. The score of 75.45 put them into the lead but was a little disappointing for such good work. The last combination of this second section were from the Ukraine – Inna Logutenkova on the Don Cardinale stallion ‘Don Gregorius.’ This horse was very nice with a good engine and an obvious work ethic. Unfortunately the combination were just too green for the competition and looked a little flustered, scoring only 72.07.
After another short break the tension in the stadium was rising and there was so much suspense in the air you could have cut it with a knife as the obvious crowd favourite, Isabell Werth, rode in and the fans jumped to their feet and roared with excitement and adoration. To see this many people so excited about an equestrienne gave me goose bumps – I have only ever seen this kind of outpour for singers, actors or AFL players and to be surrounded by thousands of people uncontrollably excited to see a dressage rider was a feeling I can’t quite find the right words for. That is a moment I will never forget! Werth rode Madeleine Winter-Schulze’s Don Frederico x Warkant gelding ‘Don Johnson FRH’ for Germany. A confident canter entry and a perfect square halt – she was off to a cracking start. I have to admit I liked the music in this test more than the actual work shown. There were perfectly timed, subtle changes in the music to mark the features of the test (piaffe, passage and extended trot and canter) and the modern twist on classical matched the big horse to a tee. Unfortunately ‘Don Johnson FRH’ was often downhill, and unsteady and tense in the contact at times and this, paired with some uneven steps behind in the piaffe and passage, and being a bit too slow off the ground, spoilt this test for me. Nonetheless, Werth rode very professionally and played to the gelding’s strengths in front of the home crowd with an impressive half-pass ‘zig zag’ in passage to finish for an extravagant score of 81.20 putting them way out in front. Werth has won the Grand Prix at Aachen ten times and at this late stage in the competition it looked like she might take home the title once more.
Following a performance like that is a tough gig to say the least but when Patrick Van Der Meer and ‘Uzzo’ entered the arena it was clear he was more than up to the job. The Royal Dutch Warmblood gelding by Lancet out of an Indoctro mare was spectacular. I was mesmerised by how beautiful and soft the whole thing was. The horse was light, straight and super correct. This combination showed, in my opinion, the best pirouettes of the class and very good changes. The music melted from one phase of the test to the next and Van Der Meer matched it extremely well. Perhaps the gelding became a little too light in the contact at times, costing them a few marks, finishing with a score of 77.05.
The sight of Steffen Peters and the imposing Laomedon x Florestan gelding ‘Legolas 92’ entering the arena gave me butterflies. The American combination is one of my favourite on the international circuit and it was a dream come true to watch them in real life. With 14 other combinations entering the stadium in a fancy passage or extended trot, it was refreshing to see them enter in a small, unassuming rising trot. Peters halted his horse, raised his hand for the music to start and magic happened. If I know one thing it is that Peters’ timing is an art. Every movement was perfectly in time with the music and he timed every aid and transition to keep his horse focused, calm and on-the-job. Some of the transitions in and out of piaffe and passage showed moments of weakness which was costly for their score, but the whole crowd was rocking along to Peters’ remix of ‘Ice Ice Baby’ which had been altered to include references to dressage and the final score of 75.00 was disappointing. Next in was the German Young Rider Sönke Rothenberger with the Fidermark x Worldchamp gelding ‘Favourit.’ This horse just oozed talent and was one of the best behind – it was easy to see why he had placed second in the Grand Prix CDI! The music was a good twist on modern and Rothenberger made it look so easy I just wanted to get on and ride myself. Perhaps a little too slow in the piaffe, but overall a super performance for a score of 77.37.
With only one rider left to go, Werth was still well out in front and I was beginning to seriously doubt whether anybody could touch her. Little did I know, Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfvén was about to bring her A-game. Riding the Don Davidoff son ‘Don Auriello’ for Sweden, Vilhelmson-Silfvén produced a very confident test which showed an ease and mastery of all the grand prix movements which was a cut above the rest of the competition. There was a harmony, flow and ease which can only come from a true confidence with the work which really stood out. The gelding was truly MEGGA in front and this, paired with good music, had the crowd cheering for a clear standout winner. The score of 82.48 was well earned and as she took her lap of honour I knew I had seen a display of some truly awesome dressage.
With a grin so wide my jaw ached and an unmistakable skip in my step, I left the stadium to see what else my second day at Aachen had to offer. You can imagine my delight to find that not only was the Rolex Grand Prix about to start, but I was able to find a place right up against the edge of the arena under the big screen so that for every fence on the other side of the arena I could look up and watch the big screen for a perfect view. To qualify for the Grand Prix, riders had to have completed the initial round of at least one CSI5* competition so far at Aachen. There were two rounds and a jump off, with a maximum of eighteen competitors returning for the second round based on penalties and time in the first. All combinations with zero penalties were able to return for the second round. Combinations still without penalties after two rounds went into the jump off to determine final placings. With €1,000,000 up for grabs and the special Challenge Trophy of the City of Aachen to be presented to the winning rider, this 1.60m class was the highlight of the show jumping program.
To make it even more exciting, this was the second leg of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping. Initiated in 2013, the Grand Slam creates a series of the Chio Aachen World Equestrian Festival, the Spruce Meadows “Masters” and the CHI Geneva whereby the rider who manages to win all three consecutively will be awarded a one million euro bonus on top of the regular prize-money. For two wins in a row, a bonus of five hundred thousand euros is awarded; and for two out of three wins (not consecutively) there are still two hundred and fifty thousand euros for the taking. Basically – a huge amount of money which attracts the top show jumpers in the world! Having won at the CHI Geneva, Scott Brash and ‘Hello Sanctos’ were under a lot of pressure to not only perform but to win the Rolex Grand Prix at Aachen. Brash is quoted as saying, “it will be very difficult…we are all athletes – we need goals. The Rolex Grand Slam gives us a goal and we will do everything in our power to claim the bonus.” Other international superstars with their eye on a slice of the Rolex Grand Slam prize pool included 2014 Aachen winner, Christian Ahlmann; number two in the world ranking list, Daniel Deusser; and Olympic gold medallist, Steve Guerdat, who won at Geneva in 2013 and had his sights set on winning the remaining two rounds of the Grand Slam: “I will do everything possible to reach this goal.”
Once again the crowd was alive and it felt like I was riding with every rider as they soared over the big, square oxers and raced around the tight turns. My favourite line to watch was the open water and then five strides straight down to a steep, airy oxer. This was a test of how well the horses responded to the riders’ aids to shorten and lengthen their strides as they had to lengthen down to the water and then shorten and sit up to make the oxer. Here is where we saw the greener horses struggle – whilst five strides is a ‘long time’ (as I can hear my jumping couch explaining in my head), quite a number fell victim to either getting too close and having to chip in a stride, taking the front rail; or cutting out a stride and being too far away, coming down on the back rail. The riders that stood out were those who looked like they did nothing – they never pumped their upper body or took a dramatic pull with their hands but, as if by magic, the horse came effortlessly back underneath them and made the related line seem like child’s-play. Some riders who ticked this box included Ben Maher, Daniel Deusser and Lucinda Diniz. In a nail-biting finish, Brash was able to make it two starts for two wins and so take home the bonus for winning two Grand Slam titles in a row and put himself and ‘Hello Sanctos’ one step closer to taking home the ultimate one million euro prize. The crowd went wild for the lap of honour and the beautiful big bay horse cantered around the arena like he knew that he was making history – it was electric to be part of that crowd!
In what I was now coming to realise is ‘true Aachen style,’ nothing was short of spectacular and the Farewell of Nations which served as a sort of closing ceremony was to be no different. A parade of ponies were ridden around the main stadium, each one carrying a flag for the countries represented at the competition. Behind the ponies came the competitors, grouped according to their country. As each country was called out a greeting in their native tongue was announced and a piece of music representative of their nation was played as they waved to the tens of thousands of cheering fans. After each country had been called out and the last ‘thank-you’ had been delivered, all the riders rode one final lap of honour around the enormous stadium. The catch? Every rider pulled a white handkerchief out of their pocket and waved it in time with the music and the crowd followed. Almost immediately everyone was on their feet waving their white handkerchief, singing and cheering until the last horse had ridden out of the arena. Words can’t do justice to the power of this simple action to unite so many people and how moved I was to have been a part of it.
I stood on the edge of the stadium as tens of thousands of people put away their handkerchiefs, picked up their numerous shopping bags and started to walk towards the exit with a feeling I can only describe as pure elation. I was high on the adrenaline, the joy and the celebration of incredible horses and top-class sport I had just shared with so many other people just like me from all over the world. Chio Aachen – you, quite simply, blew my mind. I can’t pin-point whether it was the energy of the crowd, the quality of the competition, the atmosphere, the venue, the horses…I’m not sure what it was that made this show such a surreal, awe-inspiring experience. Something about the magic created by that show reminded me what it was like to be a little girl who fell in love with a pony and never looked back. Until next time, thank you Aachen for the memories and hats off to the organising committee for creating an experience like none-other on Earth.
Until next time,