H&H's dressage editor Alice Collins is attending Aachen CHIO for the first time and has fallen head-over-heels in love with this special show
There’s a sharp intake of breath and a thrusting wave of dissatisfaction sweeps round the arena. It’s the sort of reaction British dressage crowds reserve for the naughtiest Spanish Riding School of Vienna moves mid-test at the nationals. At Aachen, it denotes a single late-behind flying change.
The magnitude of knowledge here is Mach-10 compared with the UK. Watching each test is like attending the politest of fireworks parties with all the oohing and ahhing.
You’ll have heard it said before, but I’m at pains to say it again: Aachen’s special. It’s Mecca for horse lovers.
The main arena is absolutely massive, making Hickstead — probably my favourite British show — more akin to the miniature jumping courses of my childhood back garden.
Walking down the wide, bouncy rubber-bricked boulevards of the show ground, you’re surrounded by the great and the good of the dressage world (and probably jumping and eventing too, but my identification of them is still a work in progress — I did take a big step forward on this front today by walking the cross-country course with Yogi Breisner and some of our event riders).
What’s apparent is the domination of this show over the town. It’s easy to imagine living in Coventry and not knowing the annual BD national championships are happening round the corner. Here, the CHIO (chee-yo) is a destination in itself — say the word and any bus driver knows where to take you.
Magically though, the Mercedes-sponsored shuttle service means you don’t often have to see a bus. The car I travelled in had, just hours earlier, transported Roger Moore. My new claim to fame is that the front seat of that particular S-class has massaged both he and I. This show is very Hollywood.
Less Hollywood was the moment I sent a whole tray of tiny delicacies flying. Technically it wasn’t my fault; one of the gazillion polite, subservient, efficient people working at the CHIO moved hastily out of my way. Stepping aside, he activated the automatic door, which bashed him on the elbow, sending the silver tray of mini mille feuille and midget macaroons skittering all over the floor. Smote by German efficiency, the poor chap.
Despite a severe lack of sleep, the faux wakefulness proffered by Champagne kept me at the show until late on Thursday night to watch the showjumping Nations Cup. For late June it’s damn freezing in Aachen and I sat, teeth-a-chattering, in the stands. The buzzy atmosphere reminded me of the London Olympics — 45,000 people crammed in to watch, and all with opinions on the action.
To the untrained showjumping eye, this looked a seriously meaty test and it took prisoners all round. It was exciting that it came down to a final fence decider (The Netherlands won), but I felt physically sick on behalf of Belgium’s Ludo Phillipaerts, whose final fence blunder cost him €30,000.
Incidentally, such is the gulf between our Olympic disciplines that the British team won €3,000 more for coming second-to-last in the Nations Cup here than our dressage riders did for winning in Rotterdam last week. It’s depressing for a dressage lover that our sport continues to fail to attract big money sponsorship.
In the jumping here, the Brits were sorely disappointed to finish so low down the order. There were various rumblings of discontent about the course’s severity, but surely the time to bring these up is before jumping it and not afterwards?
On a more positive note, it’s great to see so much support here for our team GB riders. We’re really only outnumbered by the Americans, who are embroidered to the hilt.
Gareth Hughes is juggling nationalities; when the sun shines, out comes the Aussie baseball cap (he was born there and coaches their eventing team for dressage) then when the rain comes down he dons his Team GBR raincoat. Pretty apt for the typical weathers of his two nations.
Aside from watching the dressage, the next best spectator sport is watching connections’ reactions as their riders showjump. My favorite is a Saudi groom who works almost as hard as his horses over each fence, contorting himself into fantastical shapes in an effort to encourage his charges ever higher.
So, if I didn’t make it absolutely clear: Aachen is wonderful. Everyone should come here at least once. It’s as if the best yard, the most laid-back Mediterranean club, your favourite restaurant, people who love horses, an awesome equine Arndale centre and a master of topiary all made a lovechild and called it Chio.