Switzerland’s Steve Guerdat has ridden many great horses during his sparkling career, but after winning individual gold at the FEI Jumping European Championship 2023 in Milan (ITA), he said his mare, Dynamix de Belheme, is simply the best.
With a flawless run over four days of tough competition, as Italian course designer Uliano Vezzani tested Europe’s best riders as only he can, the 41-year-old rider and his 10-year-old mare were the only combination to finish the week without fault from the field of 85, who started out in the quest for European glory last Wednesday.
Germany’s Philipp Weishaupt claimed silver with the exciting nine-year-old Zineday, while Julien Epaillard and the 10-year-old Dubai du Cedre finished in bronze medal spot for France.
“I’ve been very, very lucky, even blessed, since the beginning of my career. I’m for sure no better rider that this guy that sits beside me (Weishaupt), but he didn’t always have the same luck with his horses at a championship as I had. So for me to say that this is the best horse I’ve ever had – it takes a lot!” Guerdat said.
In the balance
The final day more than lived up to expectations, with the result hanging in the balance until the very last fence was jumped.
One pole down from Guerdat in the second round and Weishaupt would have overtaken the 2012 Olympic champion for the coveted title. But once the Swiss star overtook team gold medallists Jens Fredricson and Markan Cosmopolit for the lead, when the Swedish pair faulted in the first of the two rounds to drop to fifth in the final analysis, Guerdat had the look of a man who wasn’t going to let anything get in his way.
As he rode into the ring, last to go in the second and last round, he was holding the lead, but with Weishaupt snapping at his heels and Epaillard just a whisper further behind, so he needed to muster all the experience he has gathered down the years. With the horse of his dreams under him, he calmly brought home the gold that has only been held in Swiss hands twice before, by Willi Melliger partnering Quinta in Gijon (ESP) in 1993 and by Martin Fuchs and Clooney in Rotterdam (NED) in 2019.
He’s now making no secret of the fact that his next big target with his mare is the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
When asked how he managed to keep so cool under pressure, he said he just tried to make that final round like any other.
“I didn’t do anything different because it’s my job to go clear every week, every Sunday, every championship, every day this week. My mare was in great form, so I just try to keep her fresh, because it’s her first championship and she was a little bit tired today after the first round, so I tried to save the jumps, just do five or six jumps before the last round and try to stay focused on what I have to do and I knew she wouldn’t let me down.
“She’s a very, very special horse, so I just try to focus on my job so she can express herself at her best, and that’s what she did and I’m delighted with her and the result!” he said.
It is clear he has thought the world of Dynamix for a very long time. “I have had so many special horses throughout my career, but I didn’t want to put pressure on her by telling everybody I have a new superstar, but we knew it, or we hoped for it. And we were just trying to let her develop the way she had to develop.
“Basically, she has all the qualities that all my superstars have had, and she has it all in the one horse, and that’s why she’s very, very special!
“I don’t want to rush things. I just listen to her and what she wants to do. She only did her first 5-Star a year ago,” he pointed out.
When Dynamix gets home to Switzerland, she’ll get a nice surprise. “Up to today, she still wasn’t allowed to have her own big picture in my indoor; there are a lot of very special horses in there. We have a lot of amazing pictures of Dynamix, and I’ve had a bit of a fight with my wife because she thinks she should already be up there. But today she did something great, so her picture will be up there tomorrow!” he said.
Weishaupt said he has also been careful not to pressurise his young horse either. “It wasn’t in my plan at the beginning of the year to come here, because Zineday is only nine years old, a year younger than Steve’s horse – quality-wise not far away, these two horses – but I need to listen to him to know how he is and go step-by-step, show-by-show. I also tried to keep him a bit in the background and make sure not too many people ask me how good he is.
“But after Aachen (where the pair finished third in the Grand Prix) there was no more chance to hide it – even blind ones could see how good he is by then! He did it so easy in Aachen, so I took him to a show in Riesenbeck and he came back very strong. So I thought OK, he’s only nine but he’s ready for the championship and he will learn and get experience during those five days. I went day-by-day this week; I didn’t have any expectation. I know the horse is super, but I need to ride well and keep him calm,” he explained.
It worked out really nicely. “The first day Speed class, he did a very good round. The first round of the Nations Cup was really good; unfortunately, I made a stupid mistake on the team final day. Then I go for the final – he was super-fresh yesterday, which was a bit surprising.
“And today I did two rounds and he jumped fantastic, and I’m more than delighted with the result. At the end Steve was the only one jumping all days clear, and I wasn’t!”
Epaillard said he had a fantastic week with Dubai du Cedre. He also jumped double-clear to move up from overnight fourth into that bronze medal position. It was Great Britain’s Ben Maher who finished just off the podium in fourth place with Faltic HB at the end of the day.
“My mare is only 10 years old, and it was my first championship with her, and she doesn’t have that much experience. She had two down during the week, both my fault because I don’t know her well enough,” Epaillard explained. He has been riding her since last November.
“The course designer created a fantastic show this week,” he continued. “I think Uliano did a very nice job. Every day there were very technical rounds; today, the final was perfect, I think. The first round very strong and difficult, the second a little bit easier, but with the pressure, everyone, including the horses, were a little bit tired.”
There was no sign of tiredness when the medallists rode their victory lap to bring a truly thrilling week of sport to a close, with Guerdat adding individual gold to the European team gold medals he won in 2009 and 2021.
“I have the horse that everyone is looking for,” he said, “so we do our best for her and bring her in the best of form for Paris! This has been a great week!”
by Louise Parkes