It was almost predictable. After a string of excellent results, Luhmühlen CCI*** was less of a success for the leading Finnish eventer Piia Pantsu, 33. Bidding for a fourth victory in this competition, this year she was foiled by health problems.

“It seems that before every championship the horse gets injured or something goes wrong with me,” says Piia, who had a nasty stomach upset the night before the cross-country.

On the Friday, Piia performed a superb dressage test with her 10-year old Swedish Warmblood Ypäjä Karuso (John Splendid XX-Krocket) to take the lead. But that evening she started to feel ill.

But, true sport that she is, Piia still decided to go cross-country the next day, although she admits: “I hardly remember what was going on round the course.”

There was nothing wrong with Ypäjä Karuso, who jumped as well as ever.

“We ran out at fence number eight, so I knew the game was lost,” she says. “I finished the course, but had dropped down to 23rd place.”

On the Monday after Luhmühlen, Piia was back in her yard in southern Sweden, where she has been living for 12 years. Here Piia has a 20-box yard, a large lorry, horsewalker and “the tiniest house in the world” — the first she has ever owned.

She is known as a true “working-class hero”. Her family couldn’t offer her expensive horses or financial support, and she doesn’t have a major sponsor.

“If I want to run my horses at the weekend, I have to earn the money the week before,” she says.

Her lucky break came when she found a trainer, Erja Saartia, who gave her the chance to succeed and has been instrumental in her career.

“The most important thing she taught me was that there is a lot more to this discipline than just Finland. Even if you’re the best in Finland, you ain’t nothing yet,” explains Piia.

After she had studied to be a riding intructor, Piia trained with Jan Jönsson, the Swedish team trainer. It didn’t take long before something other than quality training kept Piia in Sweden — she and Jönsson’s son, Fredrik, became an item.

With the Jönssons’ help, Piia quickly rose to the top of the rankings. Since coming fifth at WEG 1994 with her Polish mare Cyna, she has finished in the top 10 at every championship she has completed.

Her greatest achievement was the bronze medal at WEG 2002. She was also second at Badminton last year, just 0.4pen behind Pippa Funnell.

The only championship that hasn’t been lucky for Piia has been the Olympics — mainly due to horse injuries. But now the cards look better than ever. Barring Luhmühlen, Ypäjä has been invincible this season, including winning Fontainebleau three-star.

“You never know with horses, but I strongly hope that it’s my turn in Athens,” she says.

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  • The profile was first published in Horse & Hound (8 July)

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