Laura has defined the rise of British dressage to the centre of the world stage with her equine partner Mistral Højris. The Horse Rider’s Journal meets her right where it all began: at Hof Kasselmann.
Photography THOMAS BACH JENSEN Text MARIA GRAAE / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.8
This year, Horses & Dreams brought Russia to Germany. The international equestrian sports festival at Hof Kasselmann in Hagen, in late April, was as colourful and varied as the theme country, Russia – and not to be missed. An extensive programme mixing classic sport and German hospitality with highlights of Russian culture attracted 67,000 visitors from near and far. And as Germany’s first big international tournament of the outdoor season, the show, at the foot of the Borgberg mountain, attracted many top riders.
One of them, Laura Bechtolsheimer – now Tomlinson, after marrying polo player Mark Tomlinson earlier this year – competed with Mistral Højris for the very first time since winning team gold and individual bronze at last summer’s Olympics, and won a crystal-clear victory in the four-star Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special.
Although she considers herself British, Laura was actually born in Germany in 1985, the granddaughter of German billionaire property magnate Karl-Heinz Kipp, and when she was one year old her family relocated to Britain in the Cotswolds. Her father, and now trainer, Wilfried, who represented Britain at the 1995 European Championships, wanted his children to be brought up in England. Laura has known Hof Kasselmann since her pony days and we met up with her near the stables there.
“I did my first international show here in 1999, as well as the Junior and Pony European Championships,” she says. “It’s always a great show and I usually start my season here. We’re spoilt with a big team of people who are all very helpful. It’s all very professional, the conditions are great, and it’s a very familiar atmosphere.”
Riding her handsome chestnut Danish Warmblood, she once again took her place at Horses & Dreams where the two of them showed their signature piaffe and passage, scoring two 10s on the final centreline from judge Stephen Clarke. A truly wonderful performance, it was also one of their last, as plans are in place for a farewell performance in August at the European Championships in Herning, Denmark. Laura affectionately refers to Mistral Højris as Alf. Their partnership began years ago when Alf was at Prix St Georges level. It hasn’t all been plain sailing though, as he was a bit of a wild child in his younger days, Laura explains, and even now he can still be very sensitive.
The pair competed at Young Riders level in 2005, before moving into senior ranks, and going to the European Championships in 2007 and the Beijing Olympics in 2008. At the 2009 European Championships in Windsor, England, Laura and Alf led the British team to their first ever team silver medal, as well as taking bronze in the individual competition. A year later, they were second to the Dutch super-combination of Edward Galand Totilas in all three classes at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, and won team gold at the 2011 European Championships in Rotterdam as well as individual bromze – and then team gold and individual bronze at the London Olympic Games.
Why retirement now, when Alf seems in tip-top form?
“He’s 18, but he certainly doesn’t know it, and he still feels very supple and athletic. He’s almost like a toy. In the warm-up, I can really play with him and change gears, from low key to lots of energy. With him you get exactly what you ask for. He has nothing left to prove after last year and I can fully enjoy having a horse like him. I hope we can do two or three more shows together, but he doesn’t owe me anything any more, it’s really in his hands. His birthplace is Denmark and it would be a good way to finish his career there at the Europeans. I would like to stop competing him while he’s still the way people remember him, at his best.”
So how did your story with Alf begin?
“With love at first sight. I was very young, just 19 and I wasn’t in a rush. I think it has been very good for him: There wasn’t too much expectation; it gave him the time he needed to mature. He’s a very loyal horse, he would never let you down, he’s like the friend you trust with everything.”
What’s it been like realising your Olympic dream on home ground?
“It’s a very happy and content time for me; now it’s very much about having fun and enjoying each ride, and a chance to bring up my younger horses without pressure. I’ve been going to national competitions and been quite busy with the wedding planning. I must say Mark’s proposal was good timing! The Olympics was such a high and it would have been easy to fall into a hole afterwards.”
What are the difficulties and benefits of being married to a fellow professional athlete and equestrian?
“Equestrian sport is a very special kind of sport. You have to be so focused on the wellbeing of your horses; it’s a different lifestyle, you never stop worrying, so a passion for horses helps. He understands horses and the need for planning involving horses. We try to support and watch each other as much as possible, but obviously it can be difficult when we are both committed to our own horses. But so far the benefits very much outweigh the difficulties! Polo is fast and furious, very much like rugby – aggressive, even – and it takes another kind of horse, also very athletic and very impressive. The polo approach to feeding and management is still a bit old school, so I try to influence Mark on different ways of doing things. So far he’s listening to me!”•