Since the FEI’s successful #TwoHearts campaign was launched in the countdown to the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the concept of horse and rider as a single athletic entity has captivated and inspired competitors and fans and, in the discipline of Dressage, that singularity of body and mind is particularly evident.
So there is great anticipation ahead of the first leg of the FEI World Cup™ Dressage Western European League 2016/2017, which gets underway at the Odense Horse Show in Denmark this weekend.
Few have captured the #TwoHearts symbolism as perfectly as the multiple record-breaking partnership of Great Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin and her wonderful gelding Valegro, who have dominated the sport in recent years.
Together, they have demonstrated that freedom of movement, lightness, self-carriage and the most pleasing harmony are all achievable through good training and sympathetic horsemanship, but having raised the bar to a whole new level after securing back-to-back Olympic titles in Rio they will retire at London’s Olympia Horse Show in December.
The question now is who is going to step into those dancing horse shoes, and by the time the FEI World Cup™ Dressage Final takes place in Omaha, Nebraska (USA) next March, we should have some answers.
Odense is an ideal starting point for the Western European League. The city that was birthplace to the much-loved author Hans Christian Andersen is located on Denmark’s second-largest island, Fyn, and is a hugely popular holiday destination with its gently rolling hills, orchards, hedgerows and thatched, half-timbered farmhouses.
Odense Horse Show celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and several Olympic combinations will be setting out to pick up some early qualifying points on the #RidetoOmaha.
Making it real
Spanish sensations Severo Jurado Lopez and Lorenzo, who finished fifth in the fantastic Freestyle Final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and grabbed global headlines thanks to their love of music by Santana and Bon Jovi, will take the crowds by storm in Denmark.
Also in action will be Denmark’s Anna Kasprzak and Donnperignon, winners of their home leg of the FEI World Cup™ Dressage series back in 2013, who topped the Grand Prix at Odense 12 months ago only to be beaten in the Freestyle by The Netherlands’ Edward Gal and Glock’s Voice.
Each leg of the FEI World Cup™ Dressage series sees riders compete in a preliminary Grand Prix before performing a Freestyle to music, and it is this crowd-pleasing competition that decides the qualifying points that lead riders to the Final.
Dutchwoman Anky van Grunsven played a major role in bringing the popularity of Freestyle to where it is today, with her nine FEI World Cup™ Dressage titles over a 13-year period between 1995 and 2008 seeing her become the sport’s first real super-star. The Dutch record in this series is highly impressive, and when Hans Peter Minderhoud steered Glock’s Flirt to victory in Gothenburg (SWE) at the 2016 Final he moved the Dutch tally onto an impressive 13 titles.
There will be nine qualifiers in the Western European League, with Lyon (FRA) taking place less than a week after the opener in Odense, and Stuttgart (GER) playing host in November.
Salzburg (AUT) will stage the next leg in early December and then the Christmas show at Olympia in London (GBR) is bound to be a sell-out because although Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro won’t be competing in the qualifier, Valegro will be honoured in an official retirement ceremony that is likely to be extremely emotional.
The New Year will get underway with the sixth leg in Amsterdam (NED) and then it’s on to Neumunster (GER) and Gothenburg in February before the last qualifying opportunity for the Omaha Final at ’s-Hertogenbosch (NED) in March.
Fashion designer Reem Acra, who has dressed global icons of style for red carpet appearances, awards ceremonies and weddings, remains closely linked with the FEI World Cup™ Dressage series as official partner for the Western European League as well as the Final in Omaha.
Final – open contest
The dancing shoes will be out in force when the series Final kicks off in Omaha, where the best combinations from all four qualifying regions – Western Europe, Central Europe, North America and Asia/Pacific – will compete, and it is likely to be a wide open contest.
Just two Americans have ever claimed the FEI World Cup™ Dressage crown, Debbie McDonald with Brentina in 2003 and Steffen Peters and Ravel in 2009, and this time around the host-nation favourites for a top spot may well be Laura Graves and Verdades. They finished just off the podium in Rio, slotting into fourth spot behind Germany’s Kristina Bröring-Sprehe and Desperados in bronze medal position while fellow-countrywoman Isabel Werth took silver with Weihegold.
Werth of course is quite a phenomenon, one of the most decorated equestrian athletes of all time and a double FEI World Cup™ Dressage champion. It is 24 years since she posted her first victory with Fabienne in Gothenburg in 1992 and since then she has rarely finished outside the top-10. The 2017 Final could be the year for her to make it a hat-trick, but it’s a long road from Odense to Omaha for Europe’s top riders and their dancing horses.
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