The German dressage rider of the moment chats to Polly Bryan about her Olympic aims, going vegan and why she nearly quit the sport
THE cancellation of the second consecutive World Cup Final was galling for many people, but perhaps none more so than Jessica von Bredow-Werndl. For two years running, the German rider has topped the rankings for the highly competitive Western European League, and each year the final has been called off, first succumbing to coronavirus and then the outbreak of equine herpes virus.
On the day we speak, Jessica should have been doing her grand prix at the final in Gothenburg, riding her 2019 European individual bronze medallist TSF Dalera BB in an attempt to deny her compatriot Isabell Werth yet another World Cup title. Instead, she is having an office day, a novelty borne from the past year of lockdowns.
“My main office is on a horse, but even when I gave my horses a day off, I wasn’t taking a day off myself. So during ‘corona’, I rethought my schedule and now I have one office day a week, and one day completely off. It’s working perfectly, but everyone assumes I’ve had so much spare time with competitions cancelled.”
Actually, Jessica has been busier than many during the first part of 2021. Having kicked off the year by winning the World Cup qualifier in Salzburg, she then travelled to Doha for the CHI5* and won everything there as well.
“As soon as the shows started again, I just drove,” she says.
Now, all her focus has been redirected towards competing at the Tokyo Olympics.
“I am optimistic the Games will take place. I am putting everything into getting there; there is no plan B for me,” says Jessica, 35.
If selected, this will be her first Olympics. And she is even hungrier for it after collecting team golds at the 2018 World Equestrian Games and 2019 European Championships. Of course, riding for Germany at any dressage championship comes with a dose of pressure.
“The gold is so expected of us now,” she says. “But pressure is all about how you handle it. I have learnt how to handle my nerves at competitions, although definitely when I wake up in the morning at a big team competition, my heartbeat is very high! But I have had many good rides where I have had these nerves beforehand, so I always think back to those.”
One of those times was at the 2019 Europeans, the scene of Jessica’s first-ever individual medal, where she and Dalera left the Rotterdam crowds entranced by their elegant and emotive La La Land freestyle routine that scored 89.1% – only 1.8% off gold.
“The week started off badly in Rotterdam – I had a disappointing ride in the grand prix and in the special I was so desperate to show everyone what we could do that I made big mistakes. I nearly didn’t make it to the freestyle,” she recalls. “But once in there, my thoughts left and I rode my heart out. It was very special, and once you’ve achieved an individual medal, you’re left wanting more.”
CAMPAIGNING for a place on the national dressage team in Germany is like nowhere else – with German combinations currently occupying 70% of the top 10 on the world rankings (Jessica sits third and 10th with Dalera and Zaire-E respectively). And among Jessica’s rivals to make the Olympic shortlist is none other than her big brother, Benjamin Werndl, currently ranked 12th in the world with Daily Mirror 9.
The pair work alongside one another at their base in Aubenhausen, southern Germany, where they moved with their then non-horsey parents when Jessica was seven.
“My mum used to be a pro skier and my dad was a sailor,” reveals Jessica. “We didn’t grow up with horses, but after we moved here we got infected by the horse bug – my brother and my mum as well. My dad tried but soon realised riding wasn’t for him – he is incredibly supportive though. Yesterday we had the German national coach here, Monica Theodorescu, and my dad spent all morning in the arena watching us train.”
Jessica quickly found success as a junior and young rider, winning six gold medals between 2002 and 2005, but progressing into senior ranks proved challenging.
“The horses we had back then were not good enough to get to top grand prix, and there were no European under-25s to aim for then,” she explains. “We decided to sell our horses – it was a hard decision but it was the beginning of our independence. Benjamin and I started to run our own business, training young horses to grand prix and selling them. It meant we could build the amazing stables we have now and finance our sport ourselves.
“But it was also very tough, especially when you’re not successful in sport as we weren’t for a long time. There was a five-year period when I had no self-confidence and I thought about quitting the professional side of the sport – it was a very hard time.”
It was this chunk of her life that inspired Jessica to write a book during lockdown in 2020 – a reflection on her life and career so far.
“I hope it helps people know where I was 10 years ago, and maybe helps other young people not to give up on their dreams,” she says.
IT was in 2012 that a Gribaldi stallion entered Jessica’s life, helping turn her career around. This was Unee BB, owned by Beatrice Bürchler-Keller, and together he and Jessica reached four World Cup Finals, finishing third in three of them, and won team bronze at the 2015 European Championships.
During this time, Jessica was also quietly working with two talented mares who would become Unee BB’s main successors – TSF Dalera BB, the exceptionally elegant Trakehner mare also owned by Beatrice, and Zaire-E.
“Dalera is so sweet and gentle, but in the arena she is a rock star. She loves performing,” says Jessica. “Zaire is more sensitive and was difficult to develop into the grand prix horse she is now. When she was younger, she was very afraid, but now she is so confident and enjoys being the centre of attention. It’s so cool to see the horses develop their personalities, and to convince them to love the sport by giving them your full attention, and by making competitions a beautiful experience for them. Zaire is the perfect example that horses can learn to love it.”
Jessica also explains that her partnership with her brother works so well because they share these same fundamental values when it comes to educating their horses, although they each bring different qualities to the table.
“I ride more with heart and feel – I am very feeling-orientated – whereas Benjamin is more of a thinker,” she says. “The combination is good though – I help him listen to the feeling and he helps me rethink things.”
I ask how competitive the two of them get, frequently coming up against one another on the world stage. Jessica laughs.
“We support each other like no one else,” she says. “There is nothing better than having a training partner who’s at the same level as you. Look at Charlotte Dujardin and Carl Hester.
“Benjamin and I have always been honest with each other, too. Even as young riders we were competitors, but we preferred having the other one in front of us than anyone else.”
JESSICA is passionate about sharing her journey with others. As if running a business, writing a book, being mother to four-year-old son Moritz, and nine high-scoring international wins isn’t enough to have achieved over the past 12 months, she and Benjamin run the Aubenhausen Academy.
One of their projects during the pandemic was the development of a dressage training programme split into modules to give riders insight into their own training processes, with many detailed videos and exercises. This is in addition to DressurFit, a 12-week remote training programme for riders, which they have developed with a sport scientist.
Her own fitness has always been high on Jessica’s agenda – though she admits she has ups and downs when it comes to motivation. As well as dedicated training, she attributes her fitness to her vegan diet, something her brother has also adopted.
“I have been vegetarian since I was four, because I loved animals and hated eating them. Nowadays, I am 100% vegan at home and 99% in general,” she says, telling me that while husband Max is “basically vegan” too, she is letting son Moritz make up his own mind. “It was a process, not a sudden change, but there is so much plant-based food available now that it wasn’t too hard.
“I feel so many benefits from it – I haven’t been ill and I feel so much fitter.”
While Jessica’s list of sporting and business successes runs long, I find her incredibly down-to-earth, laughing frequently and striking an endearing balance between modesty and pride in her accomplishments. She is as high an achiever as they come, but it’s clear her bumpy road into professional dressage and previous confidence issues have helped keep her grounded, even as she has emerged into the loftiest echelons of the sport. And with Tokyo on the horizon, 2021 could well bring her greatest achievement yet.
● Das Glück der Erde, by Jessica von Bredow-Werndl, is out in German, with an English translation expected later this year.
This report is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (22 April, 2021)
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