Naturally blessed with athleticism and presence, the striking Michellino gelding overcame stage fright with the help of Laura Tomlinson to join the top flight and take his place in British dressage history. Polly Bryan charts his story
When a 19-year-old Laura Bechtolsheimer (now Tomlinson) first sat on an imposing nine-year-old chestnut gelding in Denmark, she instantly knew he was special. What she couldn’t have known, back then, was the impact that Mistral Højris would have, not just on her own career, but on British dressage as a whole.
The sport has seen remarkable transformation over the past 12 years, its British riders rising from middle ranking also-rans to the very best in the world. The great Valegro is widely credited as the catalyst for this success, but in fact it was Laura and Mistral Højris – known as Alf – who played a major part in setting the wheels in motion.
Between 2008 and 2012, Laura and Alf won four championship team medals and five individual medals, their greatest triumph coming at the London Olympics as they helped Britain to a euphoric gold, then went on to claim individual bronze with a scintillating freestyle. But despite Alf’s early promise, there were plenty of moments during the first few years of his and Laura’s partnership when many wondered whether Alf would ever come up with the goods.
“Alf was a real live wire, a bit of a loose cannon,” says Laura, adding that she feels her youth and naivety at the time actually helped her develop a bond with the Michellino gelding.
“I think that had I known more or been a better rider back then it may not have played to his favour. During the first year we had him, my dad [the late Dr Wilfried Bechtolsheimer] received a few calls from people asking why he would buy his daughter such a dangerous horse. It was true that Alf bolted frequently in those days, and once fell over on the drive with me, but he was misunderstood, not malicious.
“The problem was that he lost his head if he got a fright, and then scared himself with his reaction. We got him through that by not trying to stop him when he bolted, so he didn’t get another fright on top of the first one. I’d pat him and just try to slow him down gradually.”
The pair made their senior international debut in 2007, and despite Alf’s difficulties, proved themselves as ones to watch on the grand prix circuit, finishing that year as runners-up behind Anky van Grunsven and Salinero at Olympia.
The following year they were selected alongside Emma Hindle and Jane Gregory for the Beijing Olympics, where the British team finished fifth. However, it was a disappointing individual result for Laura when Alf “had an absolute meltdown” when he saw himself on the giant screen.
But by 2009, Alf’s mishaps had been largely confined to prize-givings as the big gelding gradually learnt to cope with the crowds and noise that were inevitable at big shows, and take confidence from his rider.
A string of impressive results around Europe saw them selected for the European Championships on home soil at Windsor, alongside Carl Hester, Emma Hindle and Maria Eilberg, and it was there that the pair made history. With Alf, 24-year-old Laura, the youngest member of the team, led Britain to silver with the highest mark a British rider had ever achieved in an international grand prix.
A day later they returned to the arena to scoop individual bronze. Suddenly, a British rider was sharing podiums with the likes of Edward Gal and Adelinde Cornelissen, and so a new era of British dressage was born.
“2009 was when Alf went from being the most volatile horse around to one of the most consistent,” remembers Laura. “It was also when we started to break through the barrier to the higher marks, which had taken a long time, and a lot of good rides.
We were considered good ‘for a Brit’, and we had to plug away for a long time to get the really good marks. But all the while Alf was becoming a team ‘banker’, which no one would have thought!”
As the 2010 World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Kentucky approached, the dressage world had succumbed to Totilas fever, as the Dutch stallion continued to dominate. But, with chunky scores now coming thick and fast, Alf and Laura were constantly snapping at the heels of Totilas and Edward Gal.
Three top class tests in Kentucky landed them a trio of silver medals, with their personal best of 82.51% in the grand prix, just 1.5% off Totilas’ score.
“Pivotal to Britain’s result was Laura Bechtolsheimer on her own and her parents’ 15-year-old Michellino gelding Mistral Højris,” wrote Horse & Hound’s then dressage editor Sarah Jenkins. “Riding an expressive yet relaxed test, she delivered a personal best of 82.51% – a test that surpassed expectations and caused euphoria in the British camp. Chef d’equipe Richard Waygood said: ‘We are all hugely proud of Laura making history here’.”
Laura herself recalls: “Kentucky was a really awesome week for us. After our grand prix I was a WEG record holder for a few minutes – and then Totilas went in.
“Alf and I were always number two in the rankings, first behind Totilas, then Valegro, but it was all about the journey with Alf. We got kicked out of so many prize-givings and warm-ups earlier in our career, so being able to take a hand off the reins in a prize-giving was almost as big a moment as winning a medal for me.
“When Alf did a really fantastic performance it meant so much because I knew how hard he found it. He always loved being the star at home and he enjoyed his work, but he would have happily done it without the crowds and the noise it brought. Competing was something he was always doing for me; the work and the athleticism came naturally to him, but he had to learn to be a showman.”
What Alf may have lacked in bravery, he more than made up for in ability, and willingness. He had no real technical weaknesses, and his ability to sit and execute breathtaking piaffe, passage and pirouettes was widely admired. The fact that he is large and striking, only added to his spectacle.
“He has freakishly good athleticism and was a real powerhouse,” agrees Laura. “He always wanted to work; my dad used to say that if he was a dog he would always be wagging his tail with enthusiasm. Even at the London Olympics in 2012, aged 17, he was full of energy, shaking his head and wanting to get
on with it.”
London 2012, Alf’s final championship, certainly had a fairytale air about it – and the images of Laura punching the air as the tears rolled down her face at the end of their bronze-medal winning freestyle became iconic. Alf and Laura had produced slightly below-par grand prix and special performances – they still finished seventh and fifth respectively, but with scores below their plus-80% best – and Laura had lost hope of a podium spot in the freestyle, which was not typically Alf’s forte in the days before noise-reducing ear bonnets.
“I said to my dad on the last day in London that although I was of course very happy to have won the team gold, I was a little disappointed from a personal point of view that we hadn’t done our best tests – they were not our tidiest and Alf had got a little distracted. I thought that there was no chance we could get up into the top three in the freestyle. But Dad told me that there was still all to play for, that we had nothing to lose.
“And Alf went into that arena, took a deep breath, and gave me the ride of his career. I was very emotional at the final halt, because he had let me in and nailed what he could do, and that was what mattered the most to me.”
It’s never easy making the decision to retire a top horse, especially one on such form at the age of 18 as Alf was in 2013 – sweeping the board at Hagen CDI4* with double victory.
But after a slight injury forced Laura to pull out of the European Championships in Denmark, the decision was made to let him bow out at the top, with an emotional retirement ceremony at Olympia that year.
“I was a bit worried about retiring him,” admits Laura. “He was never going to be a schoolmaster and I was the only one who would hack him, and I was pregnant by then. But actually, being fully retired meant he really did switch off, and he took to going out really well.
“He’s still out in the field with Andretti [Laura’s other former international ride], and they have a happy, grumpy relationship. He’s still the same wonderful character.”
“I feel as though he trained me”
“There was something so special about Alf, whom I nicknamed Squidge,” says Tracy Cox, Mistral Højris’s groom from 2010 to 2013. “I feel as though he trained me – he made me a better groom. It took me a little while to get to know him and for him to trust me, but he is a horse you would go the extra mile for; I always did and I loved doing it.
“He had a huge personality, but was a little scaredy-cat too, and was known for his fear of prize-givings. He was a fabulous horse to travel with, but sometimes he wouldn’t eat at shows – he tended to internalise his fear, and we had to become chefs to work out what he might like to eat. But he started to come out of himself more after the 2010 WEG and that was wonderful.
“I’ve never seen a horse who loved his people so much. He never used to stand with his head over the stable door, but preferred to stay back – he liked his quiet time. But whenever Dr B or Laura came onto the yard you’d see his nose just creep over the door, and that was so telling. I’ve never forgotten that.
“To watch his progress in the sport was just amazing, and I still cry whenever I hear his Lion King freestyle music. What he did for British dressage was very special.”
Carl Hester on Mistral Højris
“Mistral Højris did for British dressage what Valegro then came on the scene and continued to do. He and Laura got to the stage where, as their team-mate, you could rely on them bringing in a big score. To achieve a team medal you have to have three great horses, and Alf, Uthopia and Valegro were three of the very best horses in the world – how lucky we were to have them all on a team at the same time. Each brought something unique and brilliant to the team.
“Alf was such an exciting horse to watch – he had size, power, presence and the ability to make the most difficult movements in dressage look easy. His piaffe and passage in particular had the wow factor.
“His era was a very exciting time.”
2009 European Championships, Windsor – team silver, individual bronze
2010 World Equestrian Games, Kentucky – team silver, double individual silver
2011 European Championships, Rotterdam – team gold, individual bronze
2012 Olympic Games, London – team gold, individual bronze
Ref: Horse & Hound; 24 December 2020
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