The history of the FEI European Eventing Championships  

10 Sep 2007

The European Eventing Championships were born in 1953 when the FEI asked Badminton (GBR) to be host. Six nations (Britain, France, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland) sent teams, but the April date was deemed to be too early for continental teams to get horses fit, and only the British and Swiss completed.

The first individual European Champion was Major Laurence Rook (GBR) – the sport of eventing was still closely allied to the military in those days. Women were not allowed to ride on Olympic teams until 1964, but in 1957 Sheila Willcox riding High and Mighty became the first female European Champion.

Since then, the ratio of winners has been fractionally in favour of women, with 14 female European Champions and 13 male.

Ten teams contested Harewood (GBR) in 1959, including three from behind the Iron Curtain, Russia, Bulgaria and Poland. Capt Hans Schwarzenbach, whose granddaughter Michelle now competes, became the first Continental European rider to win the title, riding Burn Trout, a horse bought from the 1955 Champion, Colonel Frank Weldon (GBR). In 1962 Burghley (GBR) hosted the first of its six European Championships. The Russian horses arrived stiff-legged after travelling by lorry from Moscow, but they made a remarkable recovery to beat the Irish by a comfortable margin.

Reverse order show jumping was tried for the first time at at Punchestown (IRE) in 1967, where Major Eddy Boylan, later a four-star judge, riding Durlas Eile became Ireland’s first European Champion. The second was Lucy Thompson, on Welton Romance, 28 years later at Pratoni del Vivaro (ITA) in 1995.
In 1969 Mary Gordon Watson (GBR) won the European title at Haras du Pin (FRA) on Cornishman V, who was one of the greatest event horses of all time. He won two Olympic gold medals and was the first horse (before Priceless and Toytown) to hold both the European and World titles simultaneously.
In 1971 at Burghley (GBR), Princess Anne (GBR) on Doublet became the first member of the British Royal Family to win a European title, a feat repeated by her daughter Zara Phillips (GBR) 35 years later at Blemheim (GBR) in 2005 on Toytown.

In 1973 in Kiev (USSR), Princess Anne fell dramatically, as did several others, at the notorious second fence. This was a massive spread over a ditch approached on a downhill stride. Janet Hodgson (GBR) was given a bravery award by the Russians for continuing despite her facial injuries.
This was the last senior European Championships in Eastern Europe. The winner, Alexander Evdokimov, riding Jeger, remains the only Russian to win, and the last from Eastern Europe. (Poland’s Marian Babirecki riding Volt won the 1965 Moscow Europeans). Kiev was the last time the Germans won European team gold; amazingly, it also remains the one team title to elude France. The German team that year comprised such great riders as Horst Karsten, the individual bronze medallist, who competed in a remarkable nine European Championships, and Herbert Blocker (silver), eight.

In 1975 Lucinda Prior-Palmer (GBR) (later Mrs Green), who is now Britain’s chairman of selectors, became established as one of the world’s greatest riders. She was also the first – of only three, with Ginny Elliot (GBR) and Pippa Funnell (GBR) – to successfully defend her title, winning again in 1977. Lucinda rode in seven European Championships and won 10 medals.

In 1979 Luhmuhlen (GER) staged the first of its three European Championships, at which Ireland scored their only team gold. That team comprised such legends as the late David Foster, John Watson, the 1978 World silver medallist on Cambridge Blue, Alan Lillingston and Helen Cantillon, later became the Irish team manager. Also at Luhmuhlen, Nils Haagenson (DEN), who was still representing Denmark 21 years later, became the first only Dane to win the title. This earned Denmark the right to stage the Championships, at Horsens in 1981, where a second Swiss rider took the title, Hansueli Schmutz on Oran.

Thus the Championships moved to Switzerland, Frauenfeld, in 1983. Here, Yogi Breisner, now Great Britain’s team manager, was a member of the winning Swedish team on his famous horse Ultimus.

In 1985 at Burghley (GBR), the British team, and Ginny Holgate (now Elliot) (GBR), began their reign. Britain has only been beaten once since and Ginny is still the only rider to have won three consecutive titles, in 1985 on Priceless, in 1987 at Luhmuhlen (GER) on Night Cap ll, and in 1989 at Burghley (GBR) on Master Craftsman. Ian Stark (GBR), Ginny’s great rival then, broke her reign when he won at Punchestown in 1991 on the hard-pulling grey ex-racehorse Glenburnie. Ian is now a British selector and course-designer who retired from competing this year.

Britain enjoyed a clean sweep of the individual medals, including a silver for Richard Walker (GBR), making a comeback after a 20-year absence from the team, but such was the influence of the fantastic cross-country designed by Tommy Brennan (IRE) that Karen Dixon (GBR) was able to win bronze despite a run-out on Get Smart. This was an unusual result for modern day eventing. That year Spain won its only European Championship team medal, bronze, and the team included one of the most successful Spaniards, Santi de la Rocha, a pilot.

A rainsoaked Achselschwang (GER) in 1993 was the first time a British team failed to complete. There was also a shock when Ginny Elliot, who was bidding for her record fourth title and had a clear dressage lead on Welton Houdini, ran out on the steeplechase. Jean-Lou Bigot (FRA), who works as a gardener in Saumur, on the great French team horse Twist La Beige became his country’s first Champion – Nicolas Touzaint (FRA) was the second in 1993; Sweden won their second team gold and Eddy Stibbe (AHO), who holds the record for 12 European Championship appearances, won individual bronze on Bahlua for the Netherlands.

In 1995 the Championships at Pratoni del Vivaro (ITA) went “Open” to the rest of the world, and were downgraded from four to three-star level. Confusion was avoided when the gold medals were won outright by Europeans, but the New Zealanders finished second, as they did two years later at Burghley (GBR) in 1997. This time the double Olympic gold medallist Mark Todd (NZL) won overall on Broadcast News, the nearest he got to a World title, the one accolade to elude him, and Bettina Overesch (now Hoy, GER) became European Champion on Watermill Stream.

Pippa Funnell (GBR) won the European Young Riders in 1987 but had to wait 12 years before finally making it on to a senior team. Her debut was a triumph, when she won double gold at Luhmuhlen in 1999. Ian Stark (GBR) made his sixth and final European Championship appearance and the Belgiums won their first Championship medal, team bronze, while two Swedes, Linda Algotsson riding Stand By Me and Paula Tornquist (Monaghan), a pilot who only learned to ride as an adult, took individual silver and bronze.

Pippa Funnell (GBR) repeated her feat at Pau (FRA) in 2001. She is therefore the only rider to have won the title back-to-back on the same horse, Supreme Rock. The medals at Pau were well spread, with Enrique Sarasola (ESP) becoming the first Spaniard to win an individual European medal, bronze, and Italy winning their first European medal, team bronze.

Punchestown in 2003 was the last championship event to use the long format, with roads and tracks and steeplechase, but it featured another exciting cross-country course produced by Tommy Brennan. Britain just beat France, but Nicolas Touzaint (FRA) ended Pippa Funnell’s reign. However, she still took individual bronze, on Walk On Star, and collected her sixth European medal. Linda Algotsson (SWE) won another individual silver, again on the home-bred Stand By Me.

Despite the terrible weather on cross-country day, Zara Phillips (GBR) helped put the sport of eventing firmly on the world stage when she won at Blenheim (GBR) in 2005, where “short format” was used, and led Great Britain to a sixth consecutive team gold. William Fox-Pitt (GBR), making his sixth European Championship appearance, won individual silver on Tamarillo and Ingrid Klimke (GER), daughter of Dr Reiner Klimke, Germany’s most successful dressage rider, won bronze on Sleep Late.

France won team silver, the defending champion Nicolas Touzaint having fallen in the water from Hildago d’Ile, and there was shock when team bronze medallist Bettina Hoy (GER), who led the dressage, had a cross-country stop on Ringwood Cockatoo. Blenheim also featured the last championship appearance of Over To You, then a 17-year-old horse ridden by Jeanette Brakewell (GBR). It was his fourth consecutive European Championships and his record eighth consecutive championship, in which he has won eight medals, which is also a record.

This 54-year history of the European Championships provides a fascinating insight into how various nations and riders have dominated the sport in different eras, and how the sport continues to produce brilliant competitions and worthy champions. The 2007 European Eventing Championships at the historic site of Pratoni del Vivaro promises an equally fascinating contest.

X