FEI 5* dressage judge Anne Gribbons was a member of the ground jury booed after the final results of the Grand Prix Freestyle were tallied at the 2015 FEI European Championships in Aachen, Germany. A veteran of many shows, Gribbons said the competition featured more drama than she had ever witnessed in one dressage competition.
“It was like a thriller,” she said. “Not necessarily all good, since the body count was considerable. I think we lost, one way or another, about seven good horses.”
Gribbons thinks the European Championships is probably the most difficult show in the world to judge, not only because the top horses are there, but because there are very few so-so horses and a lot of very good ones.
Add into that the intensity and energy the 65,000 well-educated dressage spectators brought to the four-day show. These are no newbies. They know piaffe from passage and one-tempis from the twos. Tough crowd.
Gribbons said the championships were a fantastic production run by Frank Kemperman, From the show’s clockwork precision and meticulous organization to the opening ceremonies in which 68 stallions from different national studs throughout Europe perfectly performed a precise quadrille, it was beautifully run.
The drama began during the jog in which one of the celebrities of dressage, Totilas, a 15-year-old KWPN stallion (Gribaldi x Lominka, Glendale), was rumored to be a little off behind. It appeared that Totilas, along with several other horses, was questionable, but if the judges had not passed them it would have taken a big chunk out of the competitor roster. All horses moved onto the Grand Prix, to be held over the next two days.
“When Totilas performed his test, the judge at ‘C’ [Eduard De Wolff Van Westerrode from the Netherlands] didn’t object to the movements in which Totilas was not totally regular behind,” Gribbons said. “So, the horse stayed in the ring. There were basically three movements that were compromised in the trot work−two extensions and one half-pass. His first change in the one tempis was slightly late behind. However, I have to say that the rest of the test, all of the canter work and the piaffe/passage, were vintage Totilas work and quite beautiful.
“There were definitely a few hiccups and, because of this, the judges disagreed on the score,” she continued. “In the end, because we are seven judges and because the system always works (however much everybody complains about it), it all came out right because Totilas ended up with a decent score, but certainly five to seven percentage points less than the Germans had hoped.”
Gribbons thinks it ended well because the beloved superstar horse that left an indelible mark in the world of dressage exited the arena with a respectable sixth place finish and a 75.971 percent. Totilas was on the list to return to the Grand Prix Special, but he was scratched, which Gribbons thinks was the correct decision.
“We were all relieved to have him finish in a dignified way and now he’s retired, so it’s a moot point really,” she said.
Two other horses she really liked in the Grand Prix were Don Luis, a 10-year-old Hanoverian gelding (Dimaggio x Rubinstrahler T, Rubinstein I) with Karen Tebar of France, and Blind Date 25, a 13-year-old Hanoverian mare (Breitling W x Donnice, Donnerhall) ridden by Victoria Max-Theurer of Austria. She particularly enjoyed the French horse’s connection and demeanor. She also liked Blind Date, saying although the test was not perfectly executed, the horse, a leggy and elegant chestnut mare, is a good match for Max-Theurer, who is always at the top of her game.
Next, was the Grand Prix Special and 30 horses were set to go down centerline. Patrik Kittel and Deja, an 11-year-old Swedish Warmblood mare (Silvano x Donellie, Don Schufro), Sweden’s great hope for the future, entered. The mare Gribbons called lovely and very talented put her tongue between the bit and began twisting her neck and became agitated. Kittel wisely chose to retire Deja and another star was gone.
“In addition, the lovely black stallion, we all enjoyed watching at the World Cup in Las Vegas, Mister X [an 11-year-old Trakehner gelding (Egeus – Derbi]), decided to display some unnecessary personality in the Grand Prix Special.
He literally grabbed the bit out of the rider’s hands and took off in the canter work. The rider, Inessa Merkulova of Russia, decided to retire.”
Gribbons said although Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, a 13-year-old KWPN gelding (Negro x Maifleur, Gerschwin), was the hands-down winner in the Special, Desperados FRH, a 14-year-old Hanoverian stallion (De Niro x Wie Musik, Wolenstein II) ridden by Kristina Bröring-Sprehe of Germany, looked steadier and more secure than in the Grand Prix when he was a little “on his toes.”
“Another horse that began to move up in the rankings was the lovely horse that Beatriz Ferrer-Salat of Spain rides, Delgado [a 14-year-old Westphalian gelding (De Niro x Wildrose)],” Gribbons said. “She had been waiting for two years for that horse to become sound and it was wonderful to see her do as well as she did. Eventually, of course, she got a Bronze [medal] in the freestyle [with an 82.714 percent].”
Gribbons said another rider that was exciting to watch in the Special was Germany’s Isabell Werth and Don Johnson FRH, a 14-year-old Hanoverian gelding (Don Fredrico x Werona, Warkant). “The horse can be strange in the way he moves in front in the piaffe and he’s not always in good self-carriage and he’s not a very charming horse. But Isabell can ride anything and make it work. Her Grand Prix test was not brilliant but then she came back like only Isabell can and looked better in the Special.
“But, suddenly Isabell went off course, which is unthinkable,” she said. “It happened so fast and she was back on track so quickly that we never even had time to ring a bell and we wondered if that really happened. But, of course, it did and she paid in the scores. Later on, she came into the restaurant at the hotel where we were staying. She was laughing, sat down at the table where we were and said, ‘I never thought I was that blonde!’”
The final drama in the Special was the ride of The Netherland’s Edward Gal and Glock’s Undercover N.O.P., a 14-year-old KWPN stallion (Ferro x Mimosavrouwe, Donnerhall). They were ranked second after the Grand Prix, which Gribbons said was a nice, steady and, for that horse, reasonably relaxed test, but coming into the Special, Undercover was extremely tense.
“I was down at ‘F,’ so I was at the entrance and I could see Edward sitting very carefully, as if the horse was ready to explode underneath him,” she said. “Once in the ring, Undercover piaffed through the halt and was very tense. They continued for a couple of movements and then those of us at the bottom of the ring could see that he started to bleed from the mouth. We were trying to signal to the judge at ‘C’, but we couldn’t communicate from our boxes. Then the audience started to hiss because they saw blood coming from the horse’s mouth on the big monitor. Blood any place on the horse is cause for immediate elimination according to the rules for the welfare of the horse. We lost one other horse earlier in the Grand Prix who came from the Ukraine, for the same reason.”
With an already diminished roster, the judges learned after the Special that Anna Kasprzak from Denmark pulled out of the competition because her horse, Donnperignon, a 16-year-old French Warmblood gelding (Donnerhall x Montserrat, Mozart 1179), had kicked her in the chest just after the horse inspection and, although Kasprzak was tough enough to grit her teeth and ride in both the Grand Prix and the Special, the pain of a cracked rib was just too intense.
And the lovely mare, Atterupgaards Orthilia, a 10-year-old Oldenberg (Cribaldi x Donnerschlag) ridden by Fiona Bigwood from the U.K., was withdrawn because the mare had a “slight skin reaction causing sensitivity.” They were ranked eighth after the Grand Prix and ninth after the Special.
“It was a roller coaster ride, I’ll tell you,” Gribbons said. “Everyone who had a really good horse was under a spell or something. It was bizarre. So some of our top contenders, little by little, just dropped out. It was a very strange feeling. The media loved it. They had plenty to talk about and guess about but for the judging, it was pretty awful to see all those lovely horses disappearing.”
Saturday, the last day, was the Grand Prix Freestyle. Gribbons said that to her, it looked like Valegro had lost some of his brilliance and his get-up-and-go in the Freestyle. She said he made repeated mistakes in the ones and lost engagement and enthusiasm in the piaffe.
“Honestly, he looked like he was bored and had enough,” she said. “We had two days of very, very hot weather. We almost melted on the second day of the Grand Prix. The glass judges boxes we were in were perfectly German engineered, but when the sun came down on them, they became like an oven. I think the extreme heat from the first two days made Valegro just a little bit off his game. He looked a little flat and he was not the horse I saw at Olympia in December, that’s for sure.”
By then, however, Desperados had improved and he was less tense and definitely on his game. Gribbons thought Bröring-Sprehe did a wonderful job riding him; he was beautifully connected and the test was clean.
“I thought he looked the best in the whole show,” Gribbons said. “We had a very, very close finish in the scores but Valegro ended up on top. The very knowledgeable audience in Aachen went ballistic.
“They made it very clear they thought it should be different. And that was not nationalistic. I will tell you this: That audience, when I was the coach for the U.S. Team, and Steffen Peters was in the Freestyle and Totilas, who was then a German horse, won it, they were equally vocal about Steffen. They know what they want and they know what they looked at.”
After the dust settled, Gribbons admitted she’s not the sure the crowd was wrong.
“The jury works as a team,” she said, “and the truth is that even though there are always disagreements on certain horses in a huge show, the final result is the correct one. This time, the horses were so close in the Freestyle that it was almost a photo finish!”