Young lovers turn rivals in Olympic horse ballet

British dressage rider Laura Bechtolsheimer will be fired by the ex-factor

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The Independent Online

Laura Bechtolsheimer's bid for Olympic glory could have been ripped from the steamy pages of Jilly Cooper's blockbuster novel Rivals: petite honey-blonde heiress from the English shires pitting her equestrian skills against her ex-lover, a dashingly handsome Teuton idol who will be astride the most expensive steed ever to compete in the esoteric world of dressage.

Bechtolsheimer, 27, herself German-born but with an accent more Roedean than Rhineland, rides a 17-year-old flaky bay gelding she calls Alf in the British team while her first boyfriend, Matthias Rath, 28, represents his homeland as their No 1 on Totilas, a £10m stallion purchased from Holland who is the Black Caviar of the dressage ring.

They have been rivals on horseback since their teenage romance broke up after she started university in Bristol. She says they are still "quite good friends, although I haven't spoken to him recently".

Their next encounter will be in Greenwich Park in August when, aboard her beloved Alf, she will attempt to out-manoeuvre her ex and his 12-year-old equine superstar in the bizarre event she calls "ballet on horseback".

"Of course I want to beat him, but I want to beat everybody," says Bechtolsheimer. "I always used to beat him but since he got this amazing new horse it's been pretty even. Naturally it will be rather competitive between us. But it's no big deal. I think we both see the funny side of it."

Despite her surname, Bechtolsheimer says she couldn't feel more British, having come here with her parents from Mainz as a one-year-old, to emerge as a prime hope for 2012 gold in an event in which Britain has never won an Olympic medal.

A granddaughter of the billionaire property magnate Karl-Heinz Kipp, who founded the Massa chain of department stores, her upbringing could not have been more Anglicised. Ponies, private school, a degree in politics and philosophy from Bristol and progression to the world's No 2 rider – and the best in Britain – on the idiosyncratic Alf, "a bit of a nutter".

The public conception may be that it is all jolly jodhpurs, Jilly Cooper and rolls in the hay in the back of horse boxes, but equestrianism is actually more blood, sweat and fears in a sport that demands the ultimate in discipline from animal and rider.

Particularly dressage, sandwiched between high-risk eventing and the more populist showjumping at Greenwich Park where, sitting straight-backed in top hat and tails, Bechtolscheimer will be putting Alf through his elegant paces in a sort of Dancing on Hooves, involving choreographed canters, quicksteps and pirouettes set to music.

It was a freestyle routine to the tune of 'Apache' by The Shadows which helped them to silver at the World Championships in Kentucky two years ago and a first-ever gold for a British team at the last year's Europeans. "He's a fussy one about about music," she says. "He doesn't like reggae and hates Elvis. A bit of a sensitive flower."

Alf, bred in Denmark, was purchased for her by her horse trainer father, Dr Wilfried, eight years ago. "He came with a lot of baggage, a wild one with a bad reputation. But as soon as I got hold of him I thought, 'I can work with you'. Now I love him to bits. We're chums. I know him inside out, every twinge he feels, I feel too."

Why Alf? "It's after that big ginger alien character that used to be on TV. My grandparents live in Switzerland where they show this American sci-fi programme a lot."

She has never been labelled a Plastic Brit, and is word-perfect on the National Anthem, which she has sung many times. "My surname is the only thing that's German about me. I have grown up in the English countryside in Gloucestershire and riding has been part of my daily life since I was young. But it was only when I was 15 or 16 that I got hooked on dressage. Some people might say it's boring, but it's not.

"It's like a mixture of gymnastics and ballet for horses, which need to be extremely refined in the way they move but must have enormous strength to be able to hold certain positions."

At the luxurious 28-stable family stud, she helps her father school a string of young horses. Not that it has always been a bed of English roses for the Bechtolsheimers.

One of Laura's three brothers, Felix, a rock group singer, has battled heroin addiction. "He had a really bad drug problem when I was in my teens," she says. "But he's been clean for over 10 years now and counsels others. It was a rough time for the family. We used to visit him in rehab in Florida and it gave me a new perspective on life. I got to see a lot of things that most people my age never would, especially a country girl like me."

She says the episode brought the family closer and believes their united support will help her through the pressures of an Olympics where her first love is now her main rival.

But when they start playing their tune, she will have eyes only for the new man in her life. A ginger nut named Alf.

Your guide to dressage

What is it?

Dressage, which comes from the French for "training", tries to show understanding between horse and rider through a series of movements at different speeds in a 60m x 20m arena. The final freestyle stage is set to music when horses perform intricate moves such as pirouettes.

How is it judged?

A panel of seven award marks out of 10 for each movement, deducting points for errors and poor style.

Who's in the team?

Laura Bechtolsheimer, 27, riding Mistral Hojris; Charlotte Dujardin, 25 (Valegro); Carl Hester, 44 (Uthopia); Richard Davison, 57 (Artemis).

What are Team GB's chances?

Excellent, despite never having won an Olympic medal. Bechtolsheimer is current World Championship silver medallist and the British team won gold and three individual medals at the last European Championships.

What happened in Beijing?

Holland's Anky van Grunsven won individual gold, the sixth woman in Olympic history to win three successive gold medals in an individual event. Germany won team gold.

When and where?

2–9 August, at Greenwich Park.

Alan Hubbard