The first time I attended Aachen over 20 years ago, I wondered why after the prize giving for the final class everyone stayed in the stands. It was because the Farewell to Nations at Aachen is an experience not to be missed, whether you are a rider good enough and lucky enough to be there, or a spectator, the experience will give you shivers, and perhaps bring a tear. As Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein President of the FEI stated in her closing speech "Aachen is the heart of the Equestrian World." And she is right. American showjumper Ashlee Bond was the perfect example of how a rider feels the love from the heart of the German crowd.
Riders from each country enter the arena before a packed stadium the size of 3 football fields, and the announcer tells the crowd to wave "bye bye". As a credentialed photographer, no matter how tired I am after 5 days of shooting, standing in the middle of it all is still one of the most exciting things I have ever experienced.
The first person we knew was Florida based Mikala Gundersen, and Horses UnLimited's Stallion Leonberg. Feeling better after being slightly under the weather during the week at Aachen, Mikala brought the stallion into the arena, a test of what may come in the future for the exciting pair now competing for Denmark. “Leo” was expressive and hot, but trusted his rider as they waited for the other countries to line up for the final pass in the ring. Gundersen and Leonberg had a successful show at Rotterdam finishing fifth, and are waiting to find out if they will go to the European Championships.
The crowd roared for their home country Germany, despite the tough week they had missing their leady lady Isabell Werth, and having an off year in their dominance of the sport. The crowd while mostly German greeted all countries with cheers smiles, and waves.
Towards the end the USA entered, with the Dressage Champion of Aachen Steffen Peters on a borrowed horse giving Ravel a break from a long week of work. We were disappointed not to see the other American Dressage rider, Catherine Haddad, who at the last moment was unable to arrange a borrowed horse. The US showjumping riders in their red jackets came in. Veterans to Aachen, McClain Ward, Todd Minikus and Laura Kraut had been there before.
But the US Aachen showjumping star Ashlee Bond took full advantage of her trip into the stadium. Ashlee, who won the coveted Warsteiner Prize at CHIO Aachen, walked along the entire rail on her horse and touched hands with the crowd to the delight and glee of all who got the chance to be up close and personal. It’s often difficult to get the usually low key American jumper riders to show any emotion so it was refreshing and fun to see the top scoring American show jumper at Aachen fully enjoying the moment.
When all of the riders have finished entering the ring, the entire audience lifted a white hanky and to the oompa German music to wave goodbye to their riders. The riders parade around the entire stadium, all with their hankies as well. Watching the sea of white hankies, even if victory there is no bigger smiles on the faces of the riders, who know they are loved and appreciated by the greatest audience an equestrian athlete can experience.
There is nothing like this love of the sport in the world. Farewell to Aachen, the wonderful organization and all our many friends, until next time.