By Victoria Hamilton
Wow! It is hard to believe it was 20 years ago I competed in the FEI World Dressage Challenge Final in Hagen, Germany.
I can still remember the day I received the letter of invitation to compete from our EA. I was living in Victoria at the time and had competed with Asaachen in the Australian final at Werribee. That was third final I had attended and placed in as in 1998 I won with Ardtio in Queensland, in 1999 I came third with Asaachen in Sydney and then in 2000 he won the event when it was held in Victoria.
I was so naïve back then and had no idea that there even was a world final for the WDC, so receiving the letter was incredibly amazing and something I will never forget. To earn the right to represent your Nation internationally is something we all dream of.
Back then the WDC was run slightly differently to now. There used to be 5 qualifiers held in each State of Australia as well as a State final, all held at at Prix St George. In order to be eligible for your State final you had to compete in a minimum of 3 qualifiers. The winner of each State final was invited to compete at the Australian Final which was held in a different state each year, with the remainder of the final field made up from the combinations with the next best percentages regardless of State.
The FEI divided the world into particular Zones and then nominated two judges to travel together to judge all the finals in a particular zone. One of the best things about the WDC was that the day after the Australian Final we always watched the tests with the visiting judges and had the opportunity to train with them. I learnt so much from these sessions as well as often being invited to train overseas. I am forever indebted to these wonderful people who have helped me so much in my riding career and I endeavour to continue to do the same for others. The sharing of knowledge is so important and this WDC program, initiated by the FEI, helped not only riders to improve but also the judges in each State who co-judged with the international judges. Think 20 years ago – it was not as easy as now with the internet and YouTube to watch and learn from, and we did not have the number of opportunities that are now available to ride and train in front of international people.
The FEI WDC Final event was held over a week at the amazing PSI grounds. There were qualification tests run during the week with the scores from these being added up to work out the top three riders who then rode in a derby style event on the last day. As if riding a new horse in an international competition at FEI level wasn’t challenging enough, the derby required the top three riders to swap horses, completing three tests on three different mounts. After a 1stand a 3rd in the qualification tests I earnt my place in the derby!
As with all international FEI events the EFA (now EA) organised a chef d’equipe and Caroline Coleby was just fantastic! Her knowledge, enthusiasm and professionalism was brilliant and we worked well together and had a super time.
Everyone helped me so much! It truly was a team effort! My lifelong dressage mentor, Olympian and international Dressage judge and coach, Mrs Domini Morgan from England had organised for me to train with George and Inge Theodorescu (current German team coach Monica Theodorescu’s parents) in the lead up to the final. They all knew so much about riding in derby’s having competed in the prestigious Hamburg derby on many occasions with Geoge winning it in 1982, Inge in 1969, 1970 and 1971, and Monica in 1981, 1985, 1993 and 1997! At the actual competition, Inge Theodorescu helped me in the warm up, along with my Dad and Caroline (although Caroline also tried to watch how the horses went for the other riders).
The final day was both exhilarating and suspenseful, as we prepared to ride the first test on our original horses. To make matters even more thrilling, I was drawn to ride first in the first round and last in the final round of the competition, meaning I had to both set the standard and then fight to keep it.
Unfortunately, round one was a bit challenging for my horse, who was unsettled due the crowds and massive atmosphere at the event. He did improve as the day went on, which was of no benefit to me, but of significant benefit to my competitors who rode him in subsequent rounds! So, in spite of our best efforts, we were in third place after the first round.
The next two rounds were really intense as we swapped horses and were only given a mere 15 minutes to warm them up for the test. Getting to know a horse within 15 minutes, and vice versa, is a huge feat in any circumstances, let alone when riding an FEI test. Every time I swapped horses, I had to take my stirrups with me , as I was so much shorter than the other finalists! We had to have multiple twists in the leathers! Word of warning for any other short riders doing this style of events – take your own leathers or a leather punch!!!
I took the information Caroline provided about the next horse, and had an amazing second ride, which pushed me into second place. The scores were so incredibly close, making the final round all the more exciting.
As I was going in for my last ride, Uwe Spenlen came racing over to tell me my final horse kicked out badly to the spur on the right with one of the other riders. Uwe told me he was very proud of us, having followed my journey from the final in Australia where he had been one of the judges. Even though he wasn’t Australian, he cheered us on all the way through.
Dr Victoria Hamilton is an icon in the Australian Equestrian Community, with a wealth of experience as a veterinarian, coach, breeder and international dressage competitor. As one of Australia’s top dressage riders, her love of horses is contagious and apparent in everything she does.