Laura Collett and Hester. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Is this a touch of deja-vu we’re feeling here? Last year, we saw Laura Collett take the first-phase lead with London 52 in Luhmühlen’s five-star, and then hold it all the way through to take the win. Today, she’s right back where she likes to hang out: on top of the leaderboard, this time with the much less experienced Hester.

Okay, okay, we won’t get ahead of ourselves here. Hester is, of course, in a much different stage of her career, and with different goals and intentions this week than her stablemate, who returns to the event, too, to tackle the CCI4*-S and, hopefully, secure his spot on the British team for the Olympics.

For Hester, this is a reroute from Badminton, and a chance to learn from that experience, which saw her retired on course after going green after the Lake. And for Laura, it’s an opportunity to really get to know her and see what she’s made of in the third year of their partnership.

What a jolly start, though, isn’t it? This afternoon’s CCI5* dressage felt like a bit of an uphill battle at times, because there wasn’t an ounce of leeway in the marking – and at the end of the session, none of the 21 horses and riders we saw in the ring today managed to go sub-30. And so a 30.6, which is what Laura and the thirteen-year-old British-bred Hanoverian mare scored, probably felt a bit like a 25 on any other day, even with a couple of changes that were, perhaps, slightly interpretive rather than textbook.

“I’m absolutely delighted with her,” says Laura, who scored a 34.1 with the mare at Badminton. “She’s just getting better and better, and starting to trust me and realise it’s not going to be the end of the world when she goes into a dressage arena. So each time she goes in and doesn’t lose her mind, it’s a step in the right direction, to be honest. Her trot work is stunning. She really feels secure in that now, and the next step is to try and get the canter just as secure. But to be honest for her, to get any flying changes is a massive highlight, so I’m absolutely over the moon with her.

Laura Collett and Hester. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The journey to getting to really know Hester, who was previously piloted by Tim and Jonelle Price and then Alex Bragg, has been a winding one, Laura explains.

“I’ve had her nearly three years, but I’ve never had a full run through [a season] with her,” she says. “She’s always had a little niggle here or there and had to have time off. So since Blenheim through to here has been the first time we’ve got any sort of consistent work into her.”

That consistent work had one simple goal: “It’s been figuring her brain out and to be honest, just getting her to take a deep breath. She can do all the moves, apart from the changes, as long as she’s relaxed, so I only get on her ten minutes before, now. She lunges, just to switch her off, and we’ve found that process really, really helps and really works. She only makes mistakes from wanting to do it right and not actually waiting to be told what to do.”

One of the ways that Laura helps to take the pressure of Hester is by riding sans spurs.

Now, she’s looking ahead to Saturday, which remains something of a question mark – but Laura’s feeling confident that Hester is ready to step up to the plate after her early finish at Badminton.

“She started really well and felt great, and then I think, the amphitheatre of the Lake… she just didn’t know what was going on or what to look at or anything, and I think it was all just [a bit much],” she says. “Badminton is just a different level. There’s nowhere to put the wheels back on when they slightly fall off, and they very much fell off at the Lake. I then jumped a few more, and she just didn’t feel like her at all. She was very cautious and every time I said go, she was backing off, so I thought,  ‘you know what, we’ll go home and put the wheels back on.’”

A few weeks later, she took her to run at Bicton’s CCI4*-S.

“Coming here was very much dependent on how she felt at Bicton,” she continues. “She came out of the start box at Bicton like the normal Hester – absolutely grabbing the bridle, ears pricked, and awesome. So I thought, while she’s fit and well, just because we’ve had to miss so much with her, I thought, ‘what else? We’ll bring her here.’ I think the track should suit her, but it’s a 5* and she’s  not a proven 5* horse yet – but hopefully after this we can say that she is.”

Tom McEwen and CHF Cooliser. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Class pathfinder Tom McEwen held the lead for a fair stint with his former Pau runner-up CHF Cooliser on a score of 30.8, but will no doubt be happy enough to settle for provisional second overnight.

“I’m delighted with the whole test,” he says. “I thought her trot work was really nice; she actually showed some of her medium, and her lateral work was really nice and soft, and the walk was great.”

The one expensive mistake came in the reinback, which saw ‘Eliza’ earn a 4, a 4.5, and a 5.5 after heading off in the wrong direction.

“Her halt and rein back is always her nemesis, so if we can usually get it over and done with as quick as possible it goes better — but I thought the halt was so good I would wait a second, and so we went forward instead of backwards,” laughs Tom. “But she was great, and got all the changes, so for me that was a real good, clear round of a test.”

Eliza, who’s often referred to as Queen Elizabeth at home to reflect her royal attitude, has often fulfilled a few of the more obvious stereotypes of a redheaded mare – but now, at fourteen, the daughter of Womanizer is truly hitting her stride.

“With age, she’s definitely growing up,” says Tom. “She’s seen a lot now — this would be her fourth 5*, so she’s been around and seen different things. So now she’s really maturing, whereas before, there’s so much going on in this arena, she’d have been looking around to see what’s going on. I think a bit of it is maturing, and a bit of it is just continuous development of the way she’s going.”

Tom will return tomorrow with a debutant horse in 15-year-old Brookfield Quality, as well as riding JL Dublin in the CCI4*-S in his bid for a spot on the British Olympic team.

“I couldn’t have picked three more different ones to ride this weekend,” laughs Tom. “I’m quite pleased that Eliza goes first, because she does her own thing. So then I can reassess on my riding and then go from there. Eliza loves cross country, so we let Eliza do what Eliza wants!”

Lara de Liedekerke-Meier and Hooney d’Arville. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The most emotional finish of the day was that of Belgian dynamo Lara de Liedekerke-Meier, who took third place with Hooney d’Arville on the eleven-year-old’s debut at the level, scoring a 31.6.

“It’s just so, so special when it’s one you’ve bred yourself,” she says through happy tears. Hooney’s mother, Nooney Blue, was a particularly special horse for Lara: she was her partner through five total Junior and Young Rider Championships, and then in her debut at Senior Championship level at the World Equestrian Games in 2010. The production of her talented daughter, though, has been something of a labour of love in more ways than one.

“With Hooney, it has been a long way – I’m going to be emotional again,” she says with a laugh. “It has been a long way, and it has been difficult. A lot of people said to me, ‘she’s so talented’, but it was difficult all the way. She has been tricky in the past, but I think she’s much more reliable now.”

And so, she says, “today, I expected nothing – just to enjoy riding a 5* again. Her mother had her last run here; she was brought down on cross country one combination before the last. So this is my little revenge on the past. I’m delighted with the test.”

Lara de Liedekerke-Meier and Hooney d’Arville. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Lara’s last ride at five-star was in 2017, when she rode here with Alpaga d’Arville – and returning to this level took a bit of convincing, not of Lara herself, but of her husband, Belgian chef d’equipe Kai Steffen Meier.

“Kai was a little bit not convinced about me riding 5* here because of the Olympics, because I have a strong position. I have five horses qualified, which are all competitive,” she explains. “So he thought it was maybe a risk not to take – the Olympics is every four years, while 5*’s are all the time. But I felt I wanted to stay sharp and, you know, we can fall at home, so I don’t need to be scared of my own shadow. I don’t expect much  from this 5* – it’s just to keep me on the nice road for Paris.”

The track, she says, “ will suit her, I think. It requires a lot of forward riding; there’s a lot of technicity with that. She’s quite okay with that. I’m confident if I ride well, she will be good. I’m not sure about the speed though – she has blood, but she needs a lot of preparation for every combination, which is where I’m losing a bit of time.  I didn’t have the gallops I wanted, because of the rain we’ve had in Europe, but she has a lot of stamina. The last two minutes could be quite something for her, because I’m confident she won’t be tired at the end. But I never did an eleven minute course with her, so I still have a lot of question marks – but I’m sure if I ride her well she might be really good.”

“I’m confident it’s the right choice,” she continues. “I had a super preparation. She was really good in Baborowko and Strzegom  She had a super run up to here, so I’m confident she’s ready. It just depends how I feel when I leave the start box – if she feels like she’s ready to tackle the speed and everything. I’m not going flat out to win it, but I’m definitely a competitive person so I’m going to try to make the best out of it.”

Luhmühlen is so often a fantastic showcase of up-and-coming talent, and today has been no exception: fourth place is held overnight by French debutante Julie Simonet and her Sursumcord’or, who posted a respectable 33.3, while fifth place goes the way of young British rider Storm Straker, who put a 33.6 on the board with Fever Pitch. Ireland’s Ian Cassells and Master Point sit sixth on a 33.9, while Britain’s Lauren Lillywhite and Hacien are seventh on 34.

Katherine Coleman and Monbeg Senna. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The first of our two US riders in this class came forward today, and will sit eighth overnight on a score of 34.2. That was British-based Katherine Coleman and Monbeg Senna, who come forward for the 14-year-old gelding’s sophomore five-star, having finished just outside the top twenty at 2023’s tough Badminton.

“I’m really pleased with him. He did a 31 of Badminton, and then he did a 29 in Kronenberg, and so they’re marking hard today, but he was so good,” says Katherine. “He’s kind of like a big, gangly thing, so the changes on that short side [in this test] are a bit like, ‘oh, where are my legs!’ But I’m really pleased with him.”

Katherine had originally hoped to take Monbeg Senna to Kentucky this spring, but a minor injury sustained while jumping out of his field derailed his preparation. But Luhmühlen, Katherine thinks, will be the perfect re-route and stepping stone on the way to targeting Boekelo this autumn, and then Kentucky next spring.

“For me with him, I think this is like, a 4* plus,” says Katherine. “What I need to work on with him the most, his kind of weakness or Achilles heel, basically, is his speed. He’s just a little slow, and he spends a lot of time in the air. So this, to me, is a wonderful course – it’s well within his jumping abilities, so I’m like, actually, this time I’m going to go out and try and be a little bit quicker. That’s the main goal this weekend. At Badminton, which was his first 5*, nobody was getting around. I was starting out like, ‘okay, I just want to finish, because you don’t know what you’re going to have’. But he finished that so full of running and with so much energy. I was like, ‘oh, I could have gone faster.’ This time I don’t want to finish and think that I could have gone faster.”

Samantha Lissington and Lord Seekonig. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

New Zealand’s Sam Lissington and her eleven-year-old five-star debutant Lord Seekonig very nearly stole the lead, until a few expensive wobbles in the canter work pushed their score down. Nonetheless, they sit in a very positive ninth place overnight on a 34.7.

“The quality is all there, and I think he’s going to be a low 20s horse at 5*,” she says. “We had just a few little wobbles today which then meant all my aids then havd a little bit of a different impact, so those are just little work-ons. But for a first 5*  test, I think the quality is all there and there’s more yet to come.”

Tenth place is held by Britain’s Caroline Harris and D. Day, who scored a 34.9. The scores across the board are achingly tight – just nine points covers the entirety of the class at this stage.

Tomorrow’s 5* will continue from 13.30 local time (12.30 p.m. BST/7.30 a.m. EST), and will feature some big names including Pau winners Ros Canter and Izilot DHI. You can follow all the action on Horse & Country TV, and join us after the fact for an in-depth debrief on the layout of the leaderboard.

The top ten after day one of dressage in the CCI5* at Luhmühlen.

EN’s coverage of the Longines Luhmühlen Horse Trials is brought to you by Kentucky Performance Products, your go-to source for science-backed nutritional support across all types of horses, disciplines, and needs. Click here to learn more about what KPP can do for your horse — thank you for supporting our wonderful sponsors!

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