All my life I have heard the hype about Aachen, “the greatest show on earth.” I had never been in person before this month, but I’ve watched hours of Aachen videos streaming live on-line and seen hundreds of photos.
It is not often something lives up to all your expectations, let alone exceeds them, but Aachen did just that. Wizard and I were named to the U.S. team for the Nations' Cup competition at Aachen, which has always been a dream of mine. This was definitely a “bucket list” item for me!
From the second you pull into the city of Aachen, you can feel the presence of the show. Flags for the show are lining every street, and signs point the way to the venue. The whole set-up of the show grounds is incredible. It has an enormous and impressive stadium jumping field, as well as a recently expanded dressage stadium on the other side of the facility. It also boasts a combined driving field and full cross-country course. It is huge and absolutely packed with spectators.
In between all the different arenas are hundreds of high-end vendor booths and food stands, as well as warm-up rings that are sprinkled in the midst of all the commotion. The whole thing has the lively feeling of giant carnival.
I have never seen so many people crowding together to watch a horse show. As I sat in the stands and watched some of the CDI 4* Grand Prix rides the first day, I also realized what an educated and enthusiastic audience these people are. The whole stadium would release a collective groan if a horse stepped short behind in one of its changes, or break out in a frenzy of hushed conversations when the score would pop up for a movement and they didn’t agree with it. They were observant, enthusiastic and loved to cheer for the riders.
Aachen this year was a “who’s who” of the big guns in the dressage world. Nearly every top horse and rider combination was there. Warming up with the likes of Totilas, Valegro, Damon Hill and Bella Rose made me realize exactly what an amazing opportunity it was to compete in such a show.
Our Grand Prix ride went fairly smooth, and we ended up with a 70.3 percent, which qualified us to move on to the Grand Prix Special the next day. The special always has been a great test for Wizard. I think it highlights his explosive power and great ability to collect, with all the extended trot/passage transitions. And he didn’t let me down—he was phenomenal in the special, possibly one of the best tests I’ve had on him. He tried so hard for me, despite the fact that the temperature was a stifling 90 degrees.
We kept our warm up very short, doing most of it in the indoor ring so I could keep him out of the sun. Our score of 72.9 percent meant we qualified in the top 15 to get to move on to ride the freestyle. The freestyle always is my favorite part, and I was so thrilled to be able to have the chance to ride it at Aachen. Wizard came through for me one more time in the heat, and we had a great freestyle. We scored 76.9 percent, tying with fellow American Laura Graves for 10th place. To finish in the top 10, with some of the best in the world, was an amazing experience.
Topping off the week, Aachen holds incredible closing ceremonies in the big jumper stadium field, with a parade of horses and riders from all the nations, complete with driving horses, mounted cavalry and even some mules dressed up in Alpine décor.
Since many riders don’t want to risk their top horses in that scene, you can rent a horse through the show management, which proved to be a rather comical affair. An hour before the parade, horses starting arriving and unloading in the parking lot. Everything from high-strung jumpers to old dressage schoolmasters to fat little ponies came pouring off a series of horse vans. We walked around until we could find someone who kind of spoke English and they pointed us to our “reserved horse.” Then they asked us where our saddles were. Ummm… well, our saddles were already on the trailer back to Belgium with our horses, who had left several hours earlier. After much scrambling they were able to find an old jumping saddle in the back of one of the horse vans, and we were able to scrounge a girth from someone else. So, off I went on my jumper named Luca to prance around the infield and wave the signature Aachen white handkerchief as we paraded around the field and the whole stadium sang “Farewell to the horses of Aachen.” It was very fun way to end a memorable week.