Since the FEI’s successful #TwoHearts campaign was launched in the countdown to Rio 2016, 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 under way at 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 demonstrated that freedom of movement, lightness, self-carriage and the most pleasing harmony are achievable through good training and sympathetic horsemanship, but having raised the bar to a whole new level, 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 World Cup Final takes place in Omaha (USA) next March, we should have some answers.
The starting point of the series, Odense Horse Show, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and several Olympic dressage combinations will be competing with the hope of picking up early qualifying points on the #RidetoOmaha.
Spanish sensations Severo Jurado Lopez and Lorenzo, who finished fifth in the Freestyle final at Rio and grabbed global headlines thanks to their love of music by Santana and Bon Jovi, will no doubt take the crowds by storm in Denmark.
Also in action will be Denmark’s own Anna Kasprzak and the gorgeous liver chestnut, Donnperignon, who won their home leg back in 2013 and topped the Grand Prix at Odense last year, only to be beaten in the Freestyle by Edward Gal (NED) and Glock’s Voice.
Dutchwoman Anky van Grunsven made a major contribution to the popularity of Freestyle, with her nine FEI World Cup Dressage titles over a 13-year period (1995-2008) and became 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 at the Final in Gothenburg last year, he upped the tally to 13.
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, Valegro will be honoured in an official retirement ceremony that is sure to be emotional.
The New Year will get under way with the sixth leg in Amsterdam 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.
Beirut-born fashion designer Reem Acra, who has dressed global icons of style for red carpet appearances, awards ceremonies and weddings, remains closely linked with the series as official partner for the Western European League as well as the Final in Omaha.
Final – open contest
When the Final kicks off in Omaha next year, 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 crown (Debbie McDonald with Brentina in 2003 and Steffen Peters and Ravel in 2009) and this time 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 (bronze) while fellow-countrywoman Isabell Werth took silver with Weihegold.
Isabell, of course, is one of the most decorated riders of all time and a double FEI World Cup 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…