Blair Castle (GBR) in Scotland will host the 32nd FEI European Eventing Championships since the classification started 62 years ago in 1953. Here, we look back at the riders, horses and venues that have shaped a remarkable sporting history.
Eventing had been part of the Olympic movement for 40 years when it was decided to hold a regional – European – championship. Great Britain was asked to host it, at Badminton, and six nations (Britain, France, Holland, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland) contested it. The April date was deemed too early for snow-bound continental European nations to prepare, and thereafter it was held in the autumn. This was to be the start of some of the greatest competitions and displays of horsemanship in the history of Eventing.
The sport was originally designed for the schooling of chargers and cavalry officers dominated the sport then. Major Laurence Rook (GBR) took the first individual honours, and the winning British team included Colonel Frank Weldon, later director of Badminton, and Bertie Hill riding The Queen’s horse, Countryman – these two riders were to take the next two individual titles, at Basle (SUI) in 1954 and Windsor (GBR) in 1955.
Women were not allowed to ride at the Olympics then, but in 1957 in Copenhagen (DEN), the outstandingly professional Sheila Willcox (GBR) struck a blow for her sex and became the first female to win individual gold.
Then the balance of equestrian power shifted east; the Russians began to dominate and, in 1962, undaunted by an epic journey across Europe in trailers, their horses made a remarkable recovery to win the team title at Burghley (GBR) by a convincing margin.
Russia was invited to stage the 1965 Europeans in Moscow – thereafter, the championships were run biennially and often in the home country of the previous champion. The Russians won another team gold and a Polish rider, Marian Babirecki, took individual honours.
Reverse order show jumping was tried for the first time in 1967, at Punchestown (IRL), where it was an individual win for the home side, by Eddy Boylan (IRL) and the huge Durlas Eile.
In 1969 at Haras du Pin (FRA), the teenage Mary Gordon Watson (now Low) became the youngest European champion, aged 19, riding Cornishman V.
In 1971, Princess Anne (GBR) raised the sport’s profile when winning the individual title at Burghley on Doublet, but two years later in Kiev (RUS) she and several other riders found themselves quickly on the floor, at the notorious second fence. This obstacle comprised a vast oxer over a yawning ditch, with very little space in front to get a run at it.
Germany and the USSR’s Alexander Evdokimov emerged the team winners of a tough competition. Riders were allowed to continue after a fall and Britain’s Janet Hodgson, who hit the ground twice, completed the course for her team, despite suffering facial injuries, and was given a bravery award by the Russians.
Two years later, in 1975, at Luhmühlen, the Russians won team gold and an individual bronze for Pietr Gornuschico, and the individual title went to a 21-year-old Lucinda Prior-Palmer (GBR) (later Green) on her pony club horse, Be Fair.
At Burghley (GBR) in 1977, Prior-Palmer was suffering from flu and depression, following the death of her father, but a spectator on the cross-country who shouted: “Come on England! Come on George [her horse]!” made her lift her game. She became the first rider to win back-to-back titles.
In 1979, Danish rider Nils Hagenson had the greatest moment of his long career, winning the title on Monaco. The bronze medallist was Rudiger Schwarz (GER), who designed the 2013 cross-country course at Malmö (SWE).
The year of 1981 marked the late Richard Meade’s last appearance at a European Championships when he was part of the gold medal team in Horsens (DEN).
In 1983, Sweden won team gold at Frauenfeld (SUI), the squad including one Lars Goran Breisner; better known as Yogi, he is now Britain’s highly successful national coach for Eventing.
In 1985, Britain began a run of four consecutive double golds, but it all went dramatically wrong in 1993 at a rain-soaked Achselschwang (GER). To gasps of amazement, Ginny Leng (later Elliot, GBR) saw her bid for a record fourth individual title evaporate when her horse, Welton Houdini, stopped abruptly in front of a steeplechase fence.
Such was Leng’s domination in the dressage that she still finished seventh individually, but the British team failed to complete – the first time in the history of the championships they have gone home without a team medal.
Instead, victory went to Sweden, with Jean-Lou Bigot (FRA) becoming the first French rider to win the individual title. Kristina Gifford (now Cook) began her senior career with an individual silver medal and Eddy Stibbe (HOL), one of the sport’s longest-standing riders, won his only individual medal, bronze, on Bahlua.
Ginny Elliot retired from competing a year after the Achselschwang debacle, so it must have been with mixed emotions that she saw one of her former rides, Welton Romance, win the 1995 title at Pratoni del Vivaro (ITA) under a brilliant ride from Lucy Thompson (IRL).
That year, the Europeans were declared open to the world for the first time, but confusion was avoided when actual Europeans collected the individual medals and Britain took team gold. However, the New Zealanders, who had only brought young horses for “practice”, still finished second.
Two years later, at Burghley (GBR), their double Olympic champion Mark Todd (NZL) topped the leaderboard to add the Open European title to his medal collection, aboard Broadcast News. Bettina Overesch (GER, later Hoy), who finished second, was declared European champion on Watermill Stream.
Pippa Funnell (GBR) had waited 10 years to get onto a senior team, and she made her debut in some style. She won back to back double golds in 1999 and 2001 on the same horse, Supreme Rock, which is a record.
Nicolas Touzaint (FRA) has also won two titles on the same horse, the magnificent grey Galan de Sauvagere, in 2003 and 2007.
The rider who interrupted Touzaint’s winning run was Zara Phillips (GBR), who in 2005 memorably thrilled the home crowd at Blenheim (GBR), 34 years after her mother’s triumph at Burghley. This was the first European Championship to be run with no roads and tracks or steeplechase, but her victory was hard won – she produced a dashing display of cross-country riding on Toytown in that very British of weather, pouring rain.
In 2009 at Fontainebleau (FRA), Kristina Cook (GBR), competing at her seventh European Championships, became the first mother to win the individual title – she has two young children – riding Miners Frolic. It was also a remarkable eighth consecutive team gold medal for Britain, and the start of an extraordinarily successful period for Michael Jung (GER), who won his first senior medal, individual bronze.
Two years later, the German squad proved invincible on home ground at Luhmühlen. Jung and La Biosthetique Sam began their amazing winning run, taking individual gold and spearheading the team gold. German riders Sandra Auffarth (Opgun Louvo) and Frank Ostholt (Little Paint) took individual silver and bronze medals.
Unsurprisingly, Germany started favourites in the seaside venue of Malmö (SWE) in 2013, despite a squad of predominantly young horses, and easily won team gold. Michael Jung rode into the record books with a fourth consecutive Eventing title, this time on the nine-year-old Halunke. Ingrid Klimke won the individual silver, also on a new, young ride, Escada JS.
The Swedes thrilled their home crowd by taking team silver and France won bronze. Britain finished out of the medals, after a catalogue of misfortune, but the ever-reliable William Fox-Pitt salvaged British pride by winning his ninth European medal, an individual bronze on the stallion Chilli Morning.
In 1991, Ian Stark (GBR) led Britain to a clean sweep of the medals, taking the individual title on Glenburnie. Now, it all comes full circle as he is cross-country course-designer at Blair Castle. This new venue, set in the beautiful Scottish Highlands, will be new territory for many riders, so a thrilling and fascinating competition is assured.