Defending champions, Germany’s Jessica von Bredow-Werndl and the 16-year-old mare TSF Dalera BB, made it two-in-a-row when coming out on top in the Grand Prix Special at the FEI Dressage European Championship 2023 in Riesenbeck (GER).
The pair scored 84.271 to take the title two years ago in Hagen (GER), but here they raised their game even higher when posting a personal-best 85.593 for the win. In a championship filled with a combination of well-established partnerships, along with many only setting out on their journeys at this level of the sport, the silver medal went to Denmark’s Nanna Skodborg-Merrald and the 15-year-old gelding Blue Hors Zepter, while Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin steered 10-year-old newcomer Imhotep into bronze.
It was von Bredow-Werndl’s compatriot Isabell Werth who set the early target score at 78.252 with DSP Qantaz. “He was fantastic; he is really in a great shape!” she said. “The fine tuning is perfect, he trusts me, the confidence is really there, and he was so supple,” said the legendary lady who finished in silver medal spot in the Special in 2021.
But then Britain’s Lottie Fry changed the whole shape of the competition when putting 81.763 on the board with the stallion Glamourdale. “He felt really good in there today, much better than yesterday, more concentrated; we had one tiny blip in the one-tempi changes behind, but apart from that, I couldn’t fault him.
“The test overall was much better than yesterday; he was much more with me. The pirouettes were a real highlight today, and the trot-work. And his walk has improved so much as well,” she explained. Piaffe also picked up marks of 9 and 10 throughout the test.
With the bar now set really high, von Bredow-Werndl and the mare with which she won all gold at the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and again just a few weeks later at the European championship in Hagen in 2021 were next into the ring. And they certainly didn’t disappoint. Despite fiddling in the first halt, they stepped it out in style for the remainder of the test and went way into the lead with that score of 85.593.
She knew she’d thrown it down to the remaining three.
“She (Dalera) was on fire and listening, and now it’s so easy for her. Now she’s got the strength. Of course, she was sweating, but when we came out, her breathing was normal after one minute. This is how you can see how fit she is,” von Bredow-Werndl said.
She wasn’t really threatened by the final three despite some more spectacular performances, Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin and Imhotep overtaking team-mate Fry when putting 82.583 on the board, and Carl Hester posting 80.106 with the 13-year-old Fame. “I’ve never had him so relaxed; it was like he grew up at this show, accepted all my aids really nicely and I just had a really lovely ride!” Hester said.
In the build-up to the championship, all the conversation has been about the clash of giants – the first-time face-off between von Bredow-Werndl’s mare, who has been unbeatable for a long time now, and Fry’s stallion, who won the individual title at last summer’s World championship, along with the rising stars ridden by Dujardin and Hester.
A little more quietly under the spotlight was the relatively new Danish partnership of Nanna Skodborg Merrald and Blue Hors Zepter. Anyone who has followed their progress since coming together at the beginning of the year knew they could not be discounted this week, and so it turned out. Showing all of their class, they gave the leaderboard a shake-up when slotting into silver medal spot with a super score of 82.796 to demote Dujardin to bronze and push Hester off the medal podium into fourth place.
“It was a dream come true today!” Skodborg Merrald said. “I knew it was possible for me to fight for the medals this year, but I also knew that I was up against three amazing, strong women who could do the same (von Bredow-Werndl, Dujardin, and Fry). I had so much focus on doing my test today as good as possible and see how the result is – it was actually super close, so it’s all the small details that matter.” Just 0.213 separated silver and bronze.
“During the test I was just focusing, but coming to the end, I thought I had done everything I could and I really love that feeling, and when I heard the scores it was unbelievable. The feeling I had yesterday in the Grand Prix was a lot of fire and a little too much tension. Today was more relaxed, but then I was in doubt if he was too relaxed during the test!” she added.
Bronze medal spot
Dujardin was more than happy to slot into bronze medal spot. “I love having young horses and training them through up to Grand Prix. The partnership I have with my horses means everything to me. Pete can get a bit insecure; you can hear it in the sneezing, and I pat him and tell him, ‘you are doing really well.’ I have to hold his hand a little bit, but each horse I’ve had has been different. With Valegro, I pressed for 10 and he was off for 10, whereas Pete – he’s an amazing horse, phenomenal to ride, but I can’t press for 10 now. But next year I can go for 10!” she said, throwing down the gauntlet to the other two medallists at the post-competition press conference.
“Their horses are 15 and 16 and they’ve been doing it a lot longer than Pete. He’s done that test no more than six times. To be sat here with a medal around my neck with a horse that is so inexperienced – yesterday there wasn’t much atmosphere in the arena, but today it was full of people and you could really feel the vibe. It takes a lot for a horse to go in that environment and go down that centreline and halt and then do a perfect test. For a horse that doesn’t have experience and who has been thrown in the deep end like he has, I am so proud of him. He has a heart of gold and just wants to work with me all the time,” she pointed out.
For von Bredow-Werndl, this week has been as much about managing expectations as it is about winning medals. Could she and Dalera keep Fry and Glamourdale at bay, or would some of the other British contenders overtake them all? As it happens, it is Skodborg Merrald and Zepter who are presenting the biggest threat ahead of Sunday’s Freestyle finale.
The new champion talked about the lead-in to the championship and the expectations ahead of the clash between her mare and her many challengers. “There were expectations before Aachen and the World Cup Final, so I’ve been working with these expectations for quite a few months now. Finally I was just happy to meet them.
“What I did was not to think about it. The only thing I can influence is Dalera and me. So that’s how we handled it and how we will handle it in the future. Because if there’s no Glamourdale, there’s always somebody coming. And it’s good for the sport and good for the competition, and if there was nobody, I couldn’t improve, so it’s good to be pushed and to continue improving ourselves. And we have improved, we’ve improved our walk, the passage, the piaffe, the canter, the changes – so many things. And the art is to have everything together on point, but also to have a happy athlete who wants to present herself because she has enough strength.
“And it’s only possible if you train smart, and not hard, at home,” she said.
She enjoys every moment of her time with Dalera, who is pretty good at taking care of herself.
“She is the best at resting; she can switch on and off immediately; she goes to the stable and she turns right off! She lies down in the stable every night; she is the best traveller and she knows how to save her own energy!”
by Louise Parkes