The Global Champions Tour – Welcome to the Future

Walking into the Tops International Arena for my first of three days at the Longines Global Champions Tour of Valkenswaard was a feeling I can only liken to that of seeing Aachen for the first time – but better. My good friend from back home, Paige Jardine, had invited me to come and watch her compete in this international show and I was dead excited to see her ride in one of the most famous show jumping competitions on the globe. To top it off, the GCT of Valkenswaard was the grand opening of the brand new, world class Tops International Arena and a huge number of Australian riders were competing. The stage was set for a brilliant weekend of show jumping!

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Soaking up the atmosphere and the Friday morning sunshine from the main stadium

The brand new arena is truly futuristic. The product of many years of planning and an intense year of building, it is the brain child of Jan Tops – the creator of the Global Champions Tour itself and husband of one of Australia’s leading riders, Edwina Tops Alexander. There are two competition arenas: one sand and one grass. Three sand warm up areas (known in Europe as ‘paddocks’) allow competitors to do their flat work undercover before moving into one of the two jumping paddocks (one for each competition arena). The jumping paddocks also feature televisions with live feed from the respective competition arenas so riders warming up can watch their class. Both competition arenas have 360˚ spectator viewing points.  The VIP building has fully windowed sides which form the long side of both arenas and allow special guests to watch all classes from the comfort of their tables. There is a raised boardwalk which ends with the entrance to the VIP building and also acts as a way for spectators to cross the horse walkways without being in the way of riders. From this boardwalk the arenas can be viewed from above which provides an awesome vantage point. To complete the picture, there is an enormous undercover grandstand on both short sides of the grass.

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Some snaps from around the brand-spanking-new grounds

When you’re at a horse show for four days you want to be comfortable, don’t you? Never fear – that’s been taken care of. Free wifi is available around the grounds so you can make those necessary Instagram uploads and take the snapchats of Bertram Allan sitting in front of you (we all know you do it – don’t even try to deny it). Each stable block is fitted with a two-horse wash bay, toilet and shower so there is never a queue and – perhaps the greatest part of all – the toilets are FREE! That’s right folks – no forking out 50c every time you want to use the facilities like every other European show seems to require. A variety of food trucks were brought in for the GCT including home-made ice cream, Thai street food, burgers and gourmet sandwiches. The catch? No cash allowed. To make any food or drink purchases you had to first cash in your money (Euros) for casino-chip-style pieces known as ‘coins.’ Each worth €2.50, these are the only form of currency accepted in the food stands. Whilst at first this seemed to be a hassle it proved a really efficient system as it saved counting money or change and holding up the queues.

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Some of the many luxurious stables

No detail was spared in ensuring the GCT of Valkenswaard was a competitor and spectator friendly event, right down to the staff. It was incredible the number of staff working tirelessly to keep the show running smoothly and maintain the pristine grounds. People picking up manure in all arenas, (what is the word for people who check tickets/tell you where to go?), car park attendants, constant shuttle drivers between the show hotel and the competition grounds and even a street-sweeper style system whereby a machine simultaneously picked up manure and swept in the paved walkways running from the stable area and truck parking down to the competition facilities. As all the ground is paved, everything stayed dry underfoot despite the rain over the weekend. The entire grounds were lit at night, including enormous floodlights on the riding areas, and when it rained the crowds were able to shelter in either the undercover grandstand or even stand inside the merchandise store and watch the competition on the big screen. In a nutshell – if Aachen blew me away, the Tops International Arena knocked me dead. In my travels of Europe so far I have never experienced a more user-friendly venue where every detail had been planned to a tee. Hats off to you Mr. Tops – you have exceeded all expectations and set a new standard of excellence in the professional equine industry.

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A few more happy snaps…

Not only does Jan Tops have an inspired vision for the future of our sporting venues, he is also creating a completely new type of riding competition – the Global Champions League. His vision for the future of the Global Champions Tour is that teams will be created to compete for owners, such as is seen in the professional sporting leagues of football, basketball and soccer. These owners can then co-ordinate their riders for training and competition in the hope of winning the teams ‘league’ competition. We had a sneak-preview of this style of competition on the Friday night of the GCT. Fifteen teams of two riders were invited to compete, with a team named after each city to host a leg of the 2015 Global Champions Tour. The course was set at 1.55/1.60m and consisted of two rounds. All riders jumped in the first round, and their combined penalties and time determined the top eight teams to go through to the second round. In 2016, fifteen teams will compete in such a class on the Friday night of every GCT. It is expected that this evolution of show jumping into a league will create fascinating new rivalries and nail-biting, spectator-friendly competition.

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Edwina Tops-Alexander jumping in the Friday night teams competition

In this premier of league-style show jumping, teams were competing for €200,000 prize money and competition was fierce. The world’s top names including Edwina Tops-Alexander, Ludger Beerbaum, Luciana Diniz, Lauren Hough and Henk van de Pol were lining up for a great night of jumping. In the end it was a nail-biting finish between Team Chantilly (Edwina Tops-Alexander and Henk van de Pol) and Team Madrid (Harrie Smolders and Rolf-Göran Bengtsson). Both riders from Team Madrid jumped clear in the second round, but Smolders picked up one time penalty to add to their 0.0 score from round one. As the only team so far with no jumping penalties they were in the lead but could not yet be confident of a win. Edwina Tops-Alexander jumped clear in the second round and team Chantilly had no penalties from round one, meaning that when van de Pol jumped as the last rider to go team Chantilly would take first place if he posted a clear round. If he had one time fault they would be equal with Team Madrid, but if he knocked one rail they would slide into second place.

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Edwina Tops-Alexander on her way to a clear round to put team Chantilly into a strong position at the end of round one

All eyes were on van de Pol as he entered the flood-light grass stadium aboard “Spartacus TN.” You could feel the tension in the air and the crowd behind me was muttering “COME ON” as he seemed to be travelling very slowly and one time fault would be one too many. Clear over the first three fences – the big screen keeps cutting to close ups of Edwina Tops-Alexander watching her team-mate decide her fate. Clear to fence seven but the dark brown stallion isn’t in any hurry. As they canter down to the last two fences all eyes are darting between the clock and the horse. Will he make it in time? Can he finish what Tops-Alexander started? The track finishes with a square oxer on a direct related line to a vertical and “Spartacus TN” takes the back rail down over the oxer. The whole crowd cries out in angst and the big screen reveals Tops-Alexander throwing her arms down in disappointment. So close but yet so far – first place for Team Madrid and Team Chantilly finish second. This new style of competition created a tense, exhilarating final and encouraged a new level of teamwork and sportsmanship, with riders walking the course with their teammates and standing ringside to support them. I thoroughly enjoyed this premier event and look forward to seeing where the Global Champions League will take our sport in next year’s season and into the future.

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The Tops International Arena lit up like the MCG after the night-time competition

So I’m sure you’re wondering how someone working in a dressage stable found themselves at the Global Champions Tour in the first place? Well, let me introduce to you my good friend Paige Jardine. I was lucky enough to meet Paige a number of years ago at the training weekend for what was then known as the Young Ambassador of the Year Award (now Young Rider of the Year), which she won for show jumping. Originally from Mildura in Victoria, Paige has come a long long way from the young girl I met down at Werribee Park and have since attended show jumping squad and competitions in Victoria and South Australia with. In January she packed her bags and headed over to France to base herself with a fellow Australian who needs no introduction: Amy Graham at Haras du Ry. In her eight months in Europe she competed at twenty shows with two different horses, including two stages of the GCT. Naturally, when Paige invited me to come to Valkenswaard with her for what would be her last show before she went back to Australia I leapt at the opportunity.

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Paige with groom Fabio outside her stable

“Albert S” would be Paige’s mount for the GCT of Valkenswaard and they started in three 1.35m classes. Albert is an eleven year old Holsteiner gelding by “Almani” who Paige leased throughout her trip. Day one and she was up in the first class which meant a 9am course walk. I walked behind Amy and Paige, listening to them discussing how the track would ride for this particular horse and trying to learn as much as I could – set him up out of the corner and be careful not to go too wide; sit and get the horse back and waiting early so you can push him up to the oxer not hold him into it; the ground is good – it should ride well. As I stood in the middle of that enormous grass arena and looked at the pristine grass surface, the brightly painted fences and the brand-new grandstand I was spellbound. To ride in front of an international crowd, not to mention live television cameras, in a venue like this would be a dream come true for so many and here was my gorgeous friend out here walking the walk and making her dream a reality. You’re not in Mildura anymore Paige!

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Paige and Amy talking last minute strategies as she walks to the stadium

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Photo by Sportfot

Albert warmed up well and I was more than impressed with how Paige is riding. She and Amy make a great time – so professional, cool and confident. An absolute pleasure to watch. The whole operation runs like a well-oiled machine. Fabio, Amy’s groom, presents the horses fit for the show ring. Paige has come on tenfold as a rider and absolutely holds her own in this highest level of competition. Amy is a supportive, insightful and positive trainer. She explained to me the system she uses for measuring her distances and how she goes about setting each horse up in the warm up to maximise performance in the ring. For day one it was a super round but sadly one unlucky rail. Unfortunately Paige and Albert had four faults again on days two and three, but in a true testament to the positive professional rider she has become, at the end of each round it was all about identifying what worked, what didn’t and what needs to be improved. Where to from here? Paige is now home in Australia with her eyes firmly set on returning to Europe to continue her hard work and with the skill set and introduction to the European Show Jumping world that Amy has given her, there is no doubt in my mind Paige will one day wear the Australian flag.

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Kisses for a very sleepy Albert after a job well done

Valkenswaard proved to be full of Australians – so much so that we wondered if there were any of you left at home?! Edwina Tops-Alexander had a super weekend; highlights including a win in the CSI5* 1.55m Grand Prix and second place in the Friday night’s Global Champions League team competition. Julia Hargreaves posted an impressive sixth place on a relatively new ride, “Blinky Bill 6”, in the CSI2* 1.45m class. In the same class, Jamie Kermond and “Yandoo Oaks Constellation” were seventh and Scott Keach and “Fedor” were third. Amy Graham and her very new mount “Carmen DC” also competed in this class, with one rail in the first round. This combination is certainly one to watch, making easy work of some tricky lines after only ten weeks together. Shall we call that pure girl power?! Eliana Dery, another young Australian based with Amy Graham, competed the UBER cute mare “Symphonie D’Utah” for two clear rounds and seventh place in the CSI1* 1.20m class. Suzannah Willis placed tenth in the same class on “Anssioso Z” and went on to claim sixth place in the CSI1* 1.25m class the next day. Georgie Harvey, who is based with Julia Hargreaves, had a number of horses at Valkenswaard including “Campino 344” who placed twelfth in the CSI1* 1.35m class. There were plenty of Australians in the crowd to cheer on our riders, including the familiar faces of Sam Williams and Dave Lever.

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Hanging out with one of my heroes Amy Graham in the warm up

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Amy and super mare “Carmen DC”

Walking away from Valkenswaard on Sunday afternoon I would have to say that no, I was not impressed. I was not inspired, excited or amazed by the future of show jumping which is being established today. No, I was completely and utterly, 200% blown away. Astounded. Spellbound. I thought I had seen what made Europe special. I thought I understood why so many of our top riders leave home soil to base themselves over here. But the truth is I had only just scratched the surface. It’s not only the prize money, the fancy horses or the flashing cameras. It’s not blue ribbons and Gucci bonnets that get our best riders out of bed in the morning (though I’m sure they help…). But it goes much deeper than that. It’s a vision. A dream. A belief that we can make tomorrow better by the foundations we lay today. A future for our sport which is global, spectator-friendly, cutting edge and professional.

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Paige helping Eliana Dery and “Symphinie D’Utah” get ready for their class

Thank you to Amy and Paige for inviting me into your team for the weekend and taking the time to ensure I understood the who, what, when, where, how and why of all the goings-on. I was so proud to see a friend from back home in the middle of that stadium, all eyes on her. I once heard it said that it takes a town to raise a child and a whole country to get one rider to the Olympics. But I think it’s more than that. I think it takes a global community to continually better our sport, raise the bar and challenge our riders to create athletes for the Olympic podium. Amongst this world of ever-higher standards and cutting-edge technology, I am proud to say that I belong to that open-armed, smiling-faced group of Australians you can always find laughing, learning and lending each other a hand. I think the stage is set for Australia to really come into its own as a competitive show jumping nation. Our expat community over here grows constantly and feels like a home away from home which will push our top riders to new heights and bring along the others with it. Now that we have qualified for Rio, let’s utilise this atmosphere to knuckle-down and put our best hoof forward in 2016.

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Julia Hargreaves and “Vedor,” who were also part of the team to qualify Australia for Rio last week

Until next time,

Happy riding!

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The Aussie Girls Making Magic in Europe

As I sit down to write this I am watching the beautiful city of Munster disappear out of the train window as my visit to Grand Prix rider Briana Burgess ends and I head back to Dusseldorf.  In the last two months I have visited two of the biggest horse shows in the world – Hagen Horses and Dreams and Chio Aachen. I have also had the chance to interview Lyndal Oatley and to visit Briana Burgess – two of our Australian riders who are competing at this highest level of international competition. Having seen these shows and spoken to these riders I wanted to write about what life is like for the Australian riders over here following their dreams and competing in the best shows the world has to offer.

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One of Briana’s gorgeous team members – “Klaus”

When I arrive at Briana’s picturesque stable in Munster I am greeted by happy, friendly faces all-round. The sweetest dog gallops out to greet me and when I find the entrance to the stables Briana smiles from ear to ear as she welcomes me in for a tour. She introduces me to her team of horses – with everything from four year olds to grand prix competition horses – and we walk around the work areas, as well as the huge paddocks out the back. This property is a competitive rider’s dream: just minutes from the vibrant city of Munster but so peaceful you feel like you’re in your own little wonderland, and conveniently located in one of Germany’s most horsey areas. The stable is set up to house jumping and dressage horses with an indoor arena and two outdoors: the larger with a full set of show jumps and the second left bare. To top it off there is a track running around the paddocks which can be used to break up the arena work and keep the horses fit. Talk about the perfect set up?!

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The terrifying ‘guard dog.’ Beware – you may be licked to death!

Briana’s groom Abbey comes down into the stable and it’s like being in a home away from home – a bubbly, friendly-faced Australian who is proud to walk me through the well-managed stable. Abbey has come over to work for Briana for a year and her jobs include attending to the daily needs of the horses, grooming at competitions and riding some of the young horses. Abbey is hard working, positive and clearly enthusiastic about her work. When I watch her ride I am impressed – she and Briana make a great team. Tomorrow Briana is heading off to Compiègne in France to compete and so she is busy with last minute preparations. The portable tack box is packed, she and La Scala have a last training session with Patrik Kittel and she is making sure the travel plan is organised.

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The outdoor arena and some of the horses enjoying the afternoon sun.

Like any stable, there is never a dull moment and throughout the day there are a number of visitors including the farrier and students. Briana switches from her native tongue to fluent German and back again – a woman of many talents! She is always busy with horses to ride, lessons to give, preparations to make, people to meet and not a moment to spare and yet she is so generous and warm towards me and all her clients, like she has all the time in the world. From her relaxed, friendly manner through to the perfectly polished row of bridles, it’s clear every effort is made to create the best work environment possible and not a single corner has been cut. Briana’s stable is a haven for training equine athletes who clearly love their work and thrive in her training.

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Briana and La Scala at the Fritzens CDI in 2014 – photo by Lyndal Oatley

That night I had a blast exploring Munster with Abbey and her aunt Robyne who was training with Briana. It was great to share stories and laughs from our respective European riding adventures over beautiful food at what is quickly becoming one of my favourite restaurants – Vapiano. As I went back to my hotel that night and prepared to head back to Dusseldorf in the morning, I was filled with a warm feeling I can only liken to a sense of being ‘home.’ It’s a long and sometimes lonely journey to travel to the other side of the world in pursuit of your dreams and this is something I think bonds all Aussies over here closer together. Briana has created a dressage safe-haven and  has opened it to other Australians – inviting Abbey to come and experience Europe and training riders who travel over and stay with her for boot-camp. She has earned her own place on the international podium and is paving the way for other Australians to join her journey and make their dreams a reality too.  Our future as a competitive nation in this Euro-centric sport is looking bright with trailblazers like Briana.

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Briana and La Scala at Compiègne 2015, the show they left for the day after my visit

The Oatley name has been synonymous with top quality Australian dressage for a number of years and Lyndal Oatley is one of the best performed Australian dressage riders on the international stage. I had the opportunity to interview her and find out a little more about what it’s like to be in Europe following your dream. I asked Lyndal when she knew that this was what she wanted to do. “The Sydney Olympics was when I knew I wanted to focus on dressage. I sat there and wanted to ride against those people in the arena and really put everything into reaching that goal” and so she has – moving to Europe and establishing herself as a formidable international competitor. Lyndal has now competed in two World Equestrian Games and one Olympics on horses Sandro Boy 9 and Potifar. Lyndal notes that she was scared because she wanted to achieve her goals through her own “hard work and…merits – and it was daunting as [her] cousin Kristy is one of the most successful dressage riders ever so [she] did not want to ride her tail coat.” She wanted to achieve her dream because she had earned every percent she received, through putting in the hard yards herself. Looking back on where she has come since those Sydney Olympics, there can be no doubt that Lyndal has put in the time and hard work to achieve some incredible results and hold her own as one of our best ever performed riders.

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Lyndal making magic in the dressage arena

It seems I was not the only Aussie spellbound by Aachen – Lyndal said she loves “the atmosphere and excitement of Aachen – there is no other show in the world” quite like it, plus the “competition is always on the edge!” Making it one of her favourite destinations on the competition calendar. Her other favourite is “Falsterbo as it is the show that feels closest to a show at home – relaxed, the sun is out, it’s by the ocean and the swedes are great fun and make a really fun crowd to ride in front of!” But is it really the same as being back home in Australia? “I miss everything about home…I miss my family, and not being able to drop by for Sundays or spontaneous dinners. I miss the culture, my friends, my animals and of course the food.” She promises she still calls Australia home – “I am Australian! It’s who I am and I never want that to change, no matter where I am based” and we’re proud to call her one of us. Since speaking with Lyndal she competed at Copiègne in France with impressive results in the Grand Prix on Sandro Boy and also on her up and coming superstar mare Diva in the CDI2* Prix St. Georges. At Falsterbo she won the seven year old championship with Diva and came fourth in the Chio, scoring over 75% and setting a new record with the highest ever score for an Australian rider in a Chio. I know everyone back home and around the world will be keeping an eye on Lyndal in the race to Rio and I wish her all the best.

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With this quality of work – its no surprise Lyndal is paving her path to Rio!

Speaking to these athletes at the top of their game with an Olympic Games firmly in their sights has given me more insight and perspective on what it takes to be at the top. What ignites the desire to make dreams a reality and the day to day actions that keep them making new personal bests and re-defining their limits. Both of these inspiring ladies have shown me that if you really give it your all and reach for the stars you might just catch one.  It’s safe to say that another very big box on my bucket list has been ticked off. The opportunity to go ‘behind the scenes’ with two leading Australian athletes who are kicking goals and putting Australia on the international dressage map was the chance of a lifetime. Keep flying our flag on the way to Rio ladies – come on Aussie come on!

Until next time,
Happy riding!