Wishing a happy retirement to the fabulous Classic Briolinca

  • Written By: British Dressage
  • Published: Thu, 16 May 2024 08:00

On her 18th birthday on 15 May – which was celebrated with a special cake made from some of her favourite foods – Gareth Hughes announced that his multi-medallist Classic Briolinca would be retiring from international competition.

Gareth Hughes Classic Briolinca Lukasz Kowalski

Known as ‘Princess’ by those closest to her, including owners Gareth, his wife Rebecca, daughter Ruby and long-time friend Julia Hornig, Briolinca joined Gareth’s yard in Warwickshire as a three-year-old when Rebecca spotted her star credentials while on a horse-buying trip in the Netherlands. The pair began their competitive career together in 2013, before riding their first international Grand Prix – at Hartpury CDI3* – in 2015. Briolinca soon become known for her party piece moves of piaffe/passage and canter pirouettes, which could always be relied upon to bring in the marks from the judges.

A string of good results meant that they were long-listed for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, but Gareth sadly had to withdraw the mare from selection following the recurrence of an old injury while competing at the FEI Dressage Nations Cup in Rotterdam, the Netherlands that June – her first time representing her country. Following a period of careful rehabilitation, they were able to return to competition the following year. In 2018, they were back on Nations Cup duties, this time at Compiègne, France, where the team finished fourth, before going on to take top honours at the National Dressage Championships in 2018.

The duo was finally able to make their championship team debut in 2019, when they were selected for the FEI Dressage European Championship in Rotterdam. There, Gareth and Briolinca were the best-performing British combination, finishing in the top 10 in all three of their tests. This result saw them awarded British Dressage’s International Champions of Great Britain trophy, which goes to the highest placed combination at the respective annual championship, in a ceremony at the London International Horse Show.

The pair was gearing up to campaign for the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021, but an unfortunate front leg injury early in the year meant that the Trento B mare had to step aside to allow stablemate Sintano Van Hof Olympia the spotlight. After a considered recovery programme over a 12-month period, she and Gareth made their international competition comeback at Compiègne CDI3* in May 2022, where they took victory in the Grand Prix and finished third in the Grand Prix Special.

Given the set-back, their call-up for the FEI Dressage World Championship in Herning, Denmark in 2022 was an emotional one. They helped the British team of Charlotte Dujardin and Imhotep, Lottie Fry and Glamourdale, and Richard Davison and Bubblingh to a team silver medal, before going on to finish fifth in the Grand Prix Freestyle with a floorplan set to tracks by Madonna – which earned them a new personal best score of 84.043%

That winter, delighted with how good his then-16-year-old mare was feeling, Gareth entered Briolinca in her first indoor show – London International Horse Show. They delighted the home crowd to take second place in the Grand Prix Short and Grand Prix Freestyle, finishing behind newly crowned World Champions Lottie Fry and Glamourdale, and improving on their personal best in the Freestyle by half a percentage point. They were runners-up once again at the CDI4* Grand Prix and Grand Prix Freestyle at Royal Windsor Horse Show the following May.

The best was still yet to come, with Gareth and Briolinca making their third championship appearance at the FEI Dressage European Championship in Riesenbeck, Germany. Reunited with Charlotte and Imhotep, and Lottie and Glamourdale, and welcoming back Carl Hester with new ride Fame, they went on to take top spot on the podium and achieve the coveted team gold medal.

“If you’re lucky in your career, you get to compete at the very top level and horses like Briolinca make it happen,” said Gareth. “She’s special, quirky and not straight-forward, but immensely talented and always tries her heart out. In our last few tests, she gave me 200% again and again, and I’m grateful to her for giving me everything.

“I’ll certainly miss competing with her, her following will miss watching her, and the sport will miss her – she’s been good for our sport. But it’s the right time. She’s given her best, had an amazing career and we want her to go out on top. She’s sound and healthy, and it’s easy to be tempted to go on, but when you have the ‘should we, shouldn’t we’ thoughts in the back of your mind, you know it’s time.

“She’s still in work and will continue to be a schoolmistress on the yard. Julia comes and hacks her regularly and Ruby may do some national competitions with her – she’s a horse that enjoys being ridden, but now is the right time to take the pressure off. We’ll listen to her and what she wants to do – no pressure, just enjoyment for her.

“We have so many people to thank for everything they have done over the years, but a special thank you goes out to our friend and amazing owner Julia Hornig, who has been nothing but incredibly supportive since we found Briolinca as a three-year-old. A very special thank you goes to Steph Sharples, who has given her life to ourselves and Briolinca throughout her career. Also to the British Equestrian World Class Programme, who have given us undivided support throughout the years, and to our trainer Carl Hester, who has been part of our journey. The biggest thank you goes to Briolinca, though – our one-in-a-million heart horse.”

Briolinca’s owner, Julia Hornig, has been a key part of her story from the moment the mare arrived on Gareth’s yard and has always been there to support her on the world stage.

“It has been an incredible journey owning Classic Briolinca,” said Julia. “A journey where decision-making and persistence produced the ultimate victory of team gold. I owe a huge thanks to Rebecca for choosing a horse she knew would go the whole way – and being amazing enough to hand the reins over to Gareth at the right time. Gareth’s relationship with Briolinca has so obviously been one of love – how could they go all the way without that? She’s our heart horse”

Briolinca never travelled anywhere without Gareth’s head groom, Steph Sharples, by her side. Steph adored her charge and made sure she never wanted for anything.

“Ultimately, she’s my best friend,” explained Steph. “She’s given me so many happy memories and taken me to some amazing venues and shows. The feeling of seeing her and Gareth in the arena, do what they do best so effortlessly and harmoniously, will never leave me.

“She’s definitely keener on people than other horses, and loves fuss and attention – scratches, cuddles, anything. She loves her treats – spearmint Polos and bananas are her favourite – and watching her eat sweets is hilarious because she curls her tongue around them and sucks on them for about 10 minutes.

“At big shows, there was never any question she’d deliver the best test she could – she knew what to do and has a heart of gold. I’d have to say that Herning had my best moments with her – the team medal was special, but for her and Gareth to finish seventh in the Special and fifth in the Freestyle made me so proud. I was chuffed that the whole world got to see what we already knew – how special she is.

“Nothing will change on the yard now because she’s still my number one and will always be the first to be fed! I’d do anything for her – I’m 100% devoted to her care and her retiring won’t change that. After all our years together, we have such a friendship and bond. Sure, the big shows are exciting, but it’s the trust and bond you develop with the horses that really matter.”

The World Class Programme’s Dressage Performance Manager, Caroline Griffith, has known Briolinca throughout her career.

“I first saw Briolinca at Gareth’s yard as a young horse, and you had the feeling then that she was going to be very special,” said Caroline. “She was a real athlete who exuded harmony and lightness in the arena. In Gareth and Briolinca, we had brilliant team members – in fact, the envy of other nations – and their record together speaks for itself. They have consistently been at the top of their game and the sport for the last five years, including winning medals for Great Britain at World and Europeans level.

“The journey she and Gareth have travelled is inspirational in so many ways, not least in seeing a horse and rider develop from the start of her career as a three-year-old to ending it with such incredible achievements. It has been a privilege to watch and be a part of. 

“Princess will enjoy an amazing retirement being looked after by those who have known, loved and cared for her throughout her career – her groom Steph Sharples, her owner Julia Hornig and, of course, Gareth and Rebecca. We wish them all the very best.”

All at British Equestrian and British Dressage would like to thank Briolinca for everything she has given to our championship efforts and the sport of dressage during her career, and wish her a long, happy retirement. We’re grateful to Gareth and his family, Julia and Steph for sharing her with us and for the part they’ve played in showcasing dressage.

To quote Gareth from the FEI Dressage World Championship in Herning: “What makes a Grand Prix horse? A horse that lets you train it to Grand Prix. What makes a good Grand Prix horse? A horse with heart.”

We can all agree that Briolinca is most definitely a horse with heart.