For my first visit to Sweden, I arrived to attend the European Championships in Gothenburg at the end of August. The first thing that stuck me is how absolutely green the area is. The city is situated among fertile farmlands and forests. Even within the city there is a plethora of parks, flowers and trees, which makes for a beautiful natural effect. The city of Gothenburg is big but takes up little space and feels cozy. I rented a city bike to explore and I followed the well-organized biking paths around the whole city, through the various districts and to the harbors, along the canal and back again in no time. Sweden is also green ecologically and has an amazing public-transportation system, recycling, alternative power options and more that make the air feel ultra-fresh and the city one of the cleanest I have ever encountered.
Dressage and jumping—both ticketed events—took place at Ullevi Stadium, a huge soccer stadium. The area was cut in half so the arena was on one side, VIP boxes in the center and the warm-up area in the back half. A short distance from Ullevi is the Heden arena. There, the vendor tents were set up with their pointy white tops gleaming in the unseasonably warm sun. Free events were held there, such as the driving and the Para-Dressage. Locals and visitors alike turned out to enjoy some shopping, watch the events and demonstrations and celebrate horses. There was even a huge food grill set up and a stage with a variety of artists to entertain everyone in the family.
The event took place in the middle of the city, walking distance from some of the major hotels. The Gothia Towers is the biggest hotel in Scandinavia and a landmark looming behind the Ullevi stadium. This is where many of the athletes were housed. Getting a drink there after the event was an event in itself. At the bar, I rubbed shoulders with the teams and felt some of the excitement from the day.
Over the weekend, the endurance phase of the driving was held in the city’s Slottsskogen Park. The event was free. The show had the teams of four horses in-hand leave from Heden Arena and drive along the road through the city to the park where the obstacle course was with crowds of people looking on. The event was expertly curated and popular among locals and travelers alike.
Although there were many great vendors, I was most surprised to see the sponsor tent was a pop-up store for H&M, the Swedish fashion outlet. The company not only had designed a whole line of equestrian-themed clothing, but also outfitted all the volunteers in adorable matching attire. Plus, H&M owns two of the horses on the Swedish jumping team, including the European Championship individual gold medal winner, H&M All In, ridden by Peder Fredricson.
Dressage Team Competition
The team dressage competition began with the Grand Prix test on Tuesday morning. Sixteen teams were represented, and some individual competitors were there as well for a total of 65 rides. Of course, the quality of the riders increased as the show went on, so the first group of riders was the new, not-yet-famous riders. As the day began, not much stood out until Portuguese rider Vasco Mira Godinho on the Lusitano stallion Bariloche. The rider was beautifully harmonious and the horse appeared effortless in much of the work but did have some tension that caused a few mistakes. They set the tone for the team to make its highest finish in Championship history of sixth place.
The early riders on the Danish and German teams also stood out (Agnete Kirk Thinggaard on Jojo AZ and Helen Langehanenberg on Damsey FRH owned by Louise Leatherdale, respectively) for their beautiful, harmonious tests. By the end of the first day, Germany was far ahead with high scores from Langehanenberg and teammate Dorothee Schneider aboard Sammy Davis Jr. I was happy to see Arlando—a horse previously competing for the Dutch team—flourishing for Denmark with rider Anna Zibrandtsen, who looked extremely happy to be there. “It is a super arena, and this horse just goes in and gives everything,” she said after the ride.
On the second day as the top of the class approached, you could see some previously strong teams were weakened this year. Great Britain was missing Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, although it managed a fourth-place team finish with Carl Hester, Spencer Wilton and Emile Faurie. The Netherlands had some of the usual riders, such as Patrick van der Meer, Diederik van Silfhout, Edward Gal and the newer addition Madeleine Witte-Vrees. However, the partnerships with the horses were not the winning combinations from years before. They finished in fifth place. Sweden had really pulled together a strong team for the championships with the riders Rose Mathisen, Tinne Vilhelmson Silfvén, Therese Nilshagen and Patrik Kittel. As the last rider for the team entered, the spirit was high. They won the bronze medal and for the first time in 10 years found themselves on the European Championship podium.
Denmark’s top rider was 25-year-old Cathrine Dufour on Atterupgaards Cassidy. She had a fabulously expressive ride and thrilled the audience with her genuine joy of competing that was clear as we looked on. With 78.300 percent, she led Denmark and her teammates Kirk Thinggaard, Zibrandtsen and Anna Kasprzak to the silver medal.
The 22-year-old German rider Sönke Rothenberger made his first appearance of the week with Cosmo, and they were fantastic with a score of 78.343 percent. Before the last ride from Germany, the team had already clinched the gold medal by a large margin. But that didn’t mean that Isabell Werth and Weihegold OLD put in less than a full effort. The crowd was oohing and ahhing as the pair made their way through an incredible test for 83.743 percent.
As I look back on the class, I see that my expectations for the competition were high. Maybe too high. The part I love so much about dressage is the beauty of the partnership between horse and rider and the joy that they share. I love it when the rider’s aids are invisible because the horse is so through that the two beings appear to be of one mind. Of course, to win at the level of the European Championships, you also need a horse with great gaits and no mistakes in the test. However, I was disappointed to see a huge percentage of riders competing with little beauty, joy or throughness, and mostly a huge effort, not always successful, to avoid the mistakes in the tests. There was a large group of riders with horses behind the vertical and therefore no connection from the back of the horse to the front. When the horse was out of balance like this, he was much harder to guide through the test, and you could see the frustration of the riders through their obvious aids. I was disappointed because I felt like the actual essence of dressage had been lost. I hope the trend of behind-the-vertical ends and the reaching style of Dujardin and Valegro becomes more popular. I believe that would make the competing horses look and feel happier and more free, which could help dressage become more popular and dispel the myths of it being boring or restrictive to the horse.
Grand Prix Special
The top 30 riders appeared in the Grand Prix Special. As is often the case, many combinations seemed more relaxed for their second day in the arena. Swedish rider Mathisen on Zuidenwind 1187 stood out early on as an elegant combination although the pair didn’t make it into the freestyle. “It felt nice going into the ring after getting the medal with the team yesterday,” said Mathisen. “You feel more secure when there has been some success already. Having these championships at home is nice … but we are all more nervous than normal because we are all trying extra hard not to let all the Swedish people down.”
The top Swedish rider was Nilshagen on Dante Weltino and her score of 78.585 percent reflected her fabulous test and earned a fourth-place finish. Carl Hester and Nip Tuck lead the way for Great Britain. In my opinion, the horse is much steadier than in previous years, but as lovely as the canter work was, the trot was lackluster and nearly uneven in the extensions. He achieved 76.722 percent, which left him in fifth place.
The top three riders from the Grand Prix dominated again in the Special. Dufour rode a smooth and rhythmic ride for a hushed crowd with her 79.761 percent securing the bronze medal. Rothenberger aced the test with some huge scores in the canter work that left the audience gasping at the score board. He achieved 82.478 percent to clinch the silver. The gold medal went to the queen of dressage herself, Werth. I had never seen such a beautifully ridden Special. On the otherwise cloudy day, the sun came out for this ride and the crowd could see the magic of dressage unfolding before our eyes. She received a well-deserved 83.613 percent.
Fifteen of Europe’s top riders made their way into the stadium on Saturday afternoon for the freestyle. The weekend crowd was mightier than the previous day’s audience. Denmark’s Zibrandtsen and Arlando had a fun ride with some pop music that got the audience buzzing. Sweden’s Nilshagen and Dante Weltino OLD had the home crowd’s emotions running high as she rode to a dramatic remix of the Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams.” “The crowd is amazing and they give us such good energy,” she said after the ride.
The spectators were showing their enthusiasm by clapping together during the last centerline of the tests that they liked. That is why as Rothenberger’s test concluded, I knew it was not just me who felt something special. The test was flawless with quiet and dramatic piano music, and as we watched, every step fell perfectly into place. We were in a trance-like state as the freestyle concluded, not only without the rhythmic clapping but quiet enough to hear the local birds for a moment after the final salute. Only then was the spell broken and we erupted into enthusiastic applause. He received 90.613 percent.
The final rider was Werth. She cast a new spell and her freestyle left me with glistening eyes. It was a reminder of why we love the sport, how glorious the partnership between horse and rider can be and how the perfect combination of horse, rider and music can make you feel. The moment was truly special and rewarded with 90.982 percent and the European Championship gold medal.
After all her wins, Werth still admitted to feeling emotional. She said she enjoys this level of performance, “where no little mistake is allowed. It’s exciting!” Rothenberger was a bit cheeky after the ride because of his tiny margin behind Werth. Looking at his medal, he said, “It’s silver with a gold edge.” Denmark’s Dufour shared the podium with the bronze medal and 84.561 percent. “I didn’t expect to be here,” she said. Modestly, she added, “I am super proud of Cassidy.”