Is this the dressage team flying under the radar on the eve of Paris Olympics?

  • France might just be the dark horse in the countdown to their home Olympics, while all dressage eyes are on Germany, Britain and Denmark. Today (6 September) in the European Dressage Championships grand prix, France posted two 71%-plus scores with a pair of young horses in only their second season of competition.

    Pathfinder Alexandre Ayache’s 11-year-old mare, Jolene, produced a beautifully calm and soft test to cement her place in the French team, while Arnaud Serre’s stallion James Bond De Massa – who has an interesting blend of PRE and Dutch heritage — also impressed at the tender age of nine.

    The French have a habit of flying under the radar in equestrian events and then blooming at just the right moment. While they have won multiple championships medals in jumping and eventing, dressage is their weakest link. Could it all be about to change on the eve of their home Olympics?

    French team selector Jean Morel’s choice of quartet surprised many, with one of the country’s strongest combinations, Corentin Pottier and Gotilas, left out in favour of nurturing fresh equine talent ahead of Paris. But perhaps the controversial decision is already paying off.

    Alexandre describes his mare Jolene as the “horse of everyone’s dreams”.

    “I love this horse – she just wants to do well, to make you feel good and give you pleasure, she’s incredible,” he says. “I bought her two-and-a-half years ago, and she had never done a test. She didn’t even know how to change legs – and now she is at the European Championships.

    “Everyone dreams of having a horse like Jolene. It’s the first time I’ve had a horse of this quality, with this movement and with this temperament. Some people say only one rider can ride a horse, but she is ridden by everyone and anyone. My seven-year-old daughter rides her, she goes on hacks, she does passage, flying changes – she is so kind and sweet and just wants to please. She’d be 50 times more likely to try to make you happy than to say, ‘no, I won’t do that’.

    She’s also “adorable” in her box, loves cuddles both in the stable and in the paddock, where she spends her daytimes. But when it comes to competition, she’s gritty to the core.

    “Her mind is unbelievable – she’d go to war for you; she’s scared of nothing,” he says.

    Pathfinding European Dressage Championships test marred by ‘rider error’

    Alexandre has been competing the mare only for the past two seasons, and says they are “not yet the finished article”.

    “She’s young and has only been doing grand prix for a year. We have to be careful with her because she will always say yes, so we need to make sure we don’t over do it – we need to keep for the long-term. I’m lucky my chef put his faith in me and encouraged me to go abroad even when the mare had barely done any tests, because it helped her progress.”

    As for today’s effort, one small mistake meant they didn’t quite hit their personal best, but Alexandre was ecstatic afterwards.

    “My job as number one rider was to go out and get a solid result for the team,” he says. “I did a calm, quiet, safe test, not so spectacular, and then at the end I tried to go for a bit too much – totally my mistake not the horse’s. But she did almost her best score, even with the fault.”

    The Olympics in Versailles are looming, but Alexandre brushes aside the idea of any additional pressure from performing in front of a home crowd.

    “All championships are important, to see where you are against your rivals, and how your horse is in the atmosphere. I don’t feel any more pressure for Paris. We need to make sure it’s the best riders with the best horses that are selected. And I just have to work hard to make sure I am one of them.”

    Before the European Dressage Championships, and with his choice of a young team of horses bursting with potential, the chef seems to be playing a very shrewd game.

    The second day of the grand prix takes place on Thursday, 7 September.

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