Renowned for her black army uniform, Italy’s most successful dressage rider is moving on up in the senior ranks on her impressive gelding Fixdesign Eremo del Castegno.
Photography RASMUS MALMSTRØM Text MARIA GRAAE Styling LINE JARDE/ The Horse Rider’s Journal No.9
Small in stature and very laid-back, Valentina Truppa does not fit the typical image of a dressage diva when she meets us in Herning at the European Championships in Denmark. She has a natural summer tan and is wearing jeans, a white T-shirt and sneakers, her shoulder-length brown hair fixed in a bun, revealing several piercings in each ear. Valentina had her Olympic debut in London last year at the age of 26, riding the Italian horse she and her father trained from novice level. When she entered the Olympic arena at the Final among the very best in the world, she not only accomplished a personal goal, she was also the sole Italian rider – indeed, the first Italian finalist in 25 years. And at this year’s European Championships in Herning, she’s part of a young Italian national team, of which two of her fellow riders – Federica Scolari and Micol Rustignoli – are also her students.
Italy’s most successful dressage rider is no stranger to the absolute top level and championships; she celebrated her first big successes in dressage as a Junior and Young Rider. As a multiple European Young Rider gold medallist she earned a total of eight European medals and is a triple-consecutive winner of the World Cup Finals for Young Riders in Frankfurt. In winning the Frankfurt World Cup, she also became the first Italian in history to win one of these events. She celebrated her Olympic debut in London the same year she earned bronze in her very first World Cup final.
Though her father is a successful dressage judge, Valentina has by now established herself in her own right. Having started riding while very young and competing from the age of 12, she earned her first European medal in 2004 at the European Junior championships, and her life has been dedicated to horses and dressage ever since. Today her mornings are spent riding, while the afternoons are busy teaching students. Her life with horses as a professional athlete at the top of her game does not leave room for much free time. So, immediately after the Italian Championships in 2012, she and her father carefully studied their calendar to plan ahead for an Italian team qualification at the European Championship in Herning the following year.
How do you prepare for a championship like this one?
“I make sure I eat and sleep well and simply focus. I don’t get nervous. I tell myself, ‘It’s just sport, not warfare – and if you make a mistake you’ll have the opportunity to do better next time’. By now my horse is used to going to shows – at home I always ride to music to make sure he’s familiar with it, and sometimes I even invite a photographer over, so he gets used to the noise of the camera. Ermo is great at piaf and passage, but with the canter that comes afterwards he can get almost out of control. He’s hot, as he should be to do a good Grand Prix, but he can be quite spooked, which makes it hard to keep him in control. The last three or four months I’ve finally found the best way to avoid the problem by repeating the transitions between piaf and canter more quietly. I keep working on it, and that is how I solve my problems.”
You’re also a trainer for two of your team mates.
“My students are both just 25 years old, and have advanced from small tour to Grand Prix within this last year. To be here at the Europeans, their first big show, all of sudden riding beside Edward Gal, is a big experience for them, and for me as well. To me they did well, they focused and learned a lot. As a trainer I try to do a lot like my father: speak about horses in the stables, and then outside the stables talk about other things and have fun as well. It’s very important to me that I explain to my students why I ask them to do this or that. The goal is not to make them robots but to allow them to think for themselves, because in the end one is all alone in the arena.”
In daily life, Valentina runs her parents’ equestrian centre, Centro Equestre Monferrato, with her father. Dressage is still a fairly minor concern in Italy but it is on the rise, and the Truppa family’s centre serves as a cradle for Italian dressage, located in Asti, near Torino, in Northern Italy. It’s also where Valentina grew up with her mother, father and her brother in a spacious, typical Italian country house. Today she lives in an apartment in Asti, which is a small, medieval city. The area is quite similar to Tuscany, with plenty of picturesque countryside and vineyards. September is definitely the best time to visit, because of the truffles – which the area is famous for – and of course the fine wine, she says.
Her father and trainer, O-judge Dr Vincenzo Truppa -– or Enzo to friends -– was the first Italian dressage rider to compete in a World Equestrian Games in 1982. Apart from her father, elite trainers George Theodorescu and Hubertus Schmidt have been the greatest influences on Valentina’s development as a rider and trainer. It was her father who was by her side as she progressed from being the European Champion of the Young Riders to being top ten in the world rankings and a top-level Grand Prix rider at Championships.
What’s it like, being trained by your father?
“When I was quite young, I made up a rule: in the arena he is my trainer, and I am the student; when we are out of the stables, we talk about everything except horses. Since he is still my trainer after all these years, I would say the rule has worked rather well.”
What makes you proud?
“The best sensation a horse can give me is when it does its absolute best in that very moment. In the arena, I’m competing with the other riders, of course, but I’m also competing with myself. If I can improve one or two points on my results, it gives me great satisfaction. I know my horse’s weak points and work hard to improve them.”
Hard work and results have led Valentina to being a member of the Carabinieri since 2004, which means being part of the Army and gaining financial support but also an obligation to get top results.
“The Carabinieri is the army of the republic. It was originally founded as the police force of the Kingdom of Sardinia, so it’s quite old. It’s a sport team, really. I don’t have a ‘real’ job there – they are a sponsor, more or less, they help with transport and such. It requires good results to be a member, otherwise you quickly get replaced. And of course there is the uniform, which makes me look different from the other riders, since I’m the only one here and at the international dressage scene that wears one, but now it feels normal. When I wear the uniform I keep a double of everything in the truck, because if I forget anything there’s no one to borrow from – no one else wears black pants with red stripes.”
Now aged 28, Valentina has already trained eight horses to Grand Prix level. “I did my first Grand Prix at 15 on my father’s horse at a national show in Italy. I mean, why not? If you don’t try you’ll never know your potential. We wouldn’t possibly be able to buy educated horses, so we usually buy our horses as foals. I’d say we were very lucky with Eremo – he was just six months when we got him; I didn’t even know his true talent until he was eight or nine, and as a young horse he was quite lazy. It’s true what George Theodorescu says: you can never really know about a horse’s real talent, you just have to wait and see. In training horses, time is our best friend.”
How did your style develop?
“As a child I loved to watch Isabell Werth ride, and to me she’s still the queen of dressage. Even now with all the young riders like Charlotte and Helen conquering the scene, Isabell is still here. I would be over the moon to achieve just half of what she has. You can always learn from others, and in my mind Isabell and Anky Van Grunsven are still some of the best.”
Are you an open person or more private?
“I’m actually very private, but I’ve learned to be more open and public. I like to hide away where there are not too many people; at a show like this I prefer to have my quiet moments just to listen to the radio or read a novel. At home, a trip to the cinema, shopping or going to a restaurant is all the excitement I need. I would even say I prefer horses to humans, that’s my thing. I cannot imagine another way of life, even though I tried other sports as a child; I always knew I wanted to ride.”
Is there anything you are fussy or particular about?
“At home it does not matter as much if my boots are not completely spotless, but during a competition like this I am particular about pretty much everything! My groom says he hates me because I like to do everything myself and do not leave enough work for him. But as I always tell him: four eyes are better than two.”
How does it feel to be around horses so much?
“My love for horses comes before competitions and everything else, really. Just look at the para-dressage here – it’s incredible what horses can do. I learned to be around horses and respect horses long before I ever thought of competing. They are wonderful animals: the relationship between horse and human is something so unique. Just look back at history where would we have been without them – we owe them so much.”•