It’s a familiar formula in everything from storybook fairytales and Star Wars blockbusters to Hogwarts lore in Harry Potter. Hapless pupil learns from teacher, competent pupil challenges teacher, (now) masterful pupil defeats teacher.
It’s also the basic framework for the story of German dressage legends Isabell Werth and Jessica von Bredow-Werndl. A bit of background: Werth is the most decorated Olympic equestrian athlete of all time. Von-Bredow-Werndl is the current double-Olympic champion and the #1-ranked dressage rider in the world.
She’s also a former student of Werth, with whom she trained in her early 20s, at a time in her career when she was struggling for both the horsepower and resources to take her riding to the next level.
“Isabell [would] shout at me a lot!” von Bredow-Werndl recalled in 2021. “But one of her riders told me, ‘As long as she shouts at you, she is interested in you.’
For nearly five years, von Bredow-Werndl was a regular fixture at Werth’s stable, where she credits the German champion with helping her break the nearly decade-long senior results ‘desert’ she struggled with after aging out of the junior divisions. In 2004, she had earned Individual and Team gold titles at the European Youth Championships at age 19.
“Isabell is an amazing rider, and for sure, also an amazing trainer,” von Bredow-Werndl said. “I’ve learned so many things from her, just by watching. She’s a genius.”
Von Bredow-Werndl went on to train with Holger Fischer, developing the KWPN stallion Unee BB up to Grand Prix and earning three, third-place finishes at FEI World Cup Finals before his retirement in 2018. After some time off to give birth to her son, von Bredow-Werndl’s string expanded with Zaire and the graceful Trakehner mare, TSF Dalera BB—her future partner at the Tokyo Olympic Games who would ultimately take her career into the stratosphere.
So, is the “princess” of dressage destined to unseat the “queen”? And just how do Werth and von Bredow-Werndl’s careers stack-up to date? Here’s a quick, side-by-side look at the first ladies of the German squad.
Werth earned her first Olympic gold more than 10 years earlier than von Bredow-Werndl.
Despite working as a lawyer after graduating from university, Werth committed to horses full-time by her early 20s, and won her first team gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics at age 23 (von Bredow-Werndl was 35 when she won in Tokyo). Werth won her first double-gold four years later, at the 1996 Atlanta Games—still eight years earlier than her former pupil.
Von Bredow-Werndl takes the cake for highest individual score at the Olympics.
Von Bredow-Werndl and Dalera’s whopping freestyle score of 91.732%—in a performance called “close to perfection” by one judge—not only pipped Werth and Bella Rose 2 in Tokyo (they finished on 89.657%), it bested Werth’s three, previous individual silver medal-winning scores in Rio (2014), Beijing (2008), and Sydney (2000). What’s more: Tokyo marked the first time that Werth and Bella Rose had been beaten in international competition in nearly seven years.
They’re both World Cup Final phenoms.
Werth’s World Cup Final record is the stuff of legend. In 24 appearances with nine different horses, she has never finished outside the top 10. She made her World Cup Final debut in 1992—and won—and has since gone on to 16 podium finishes, including five victories.
von Bredlow-Werndl, however, is already trending ahead. In her six World Cup Final appearances with two horses since 2014, she’s only missed the podium once, her first appearance with Unee BB. In 2022 and 2023, she won both the Grand Prix and the Freestyle with Dalera, the last while six months pregnant.
The European Championships may have set the stage for a four-way showdown at Paris 2024.
If Werth is the queen of dressage and von-Bredow-Werndl the princess, then Great Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin is the sport’s “grand-mistress” (at least according to the FEI). That would make 27-year-old Charlotte “Lottie” Fry, also of Great Britain, its undeniable ingenue.
The European Championships this month provided a possible preview of the top individual podium contenders in Paris next year, with von Bredow-Werndl taking gold on a new personal best score of 92.818%, Fry and Glamourdale taking silver on a close 92.379%; and Dujardin and the 10-year-old Imhotep earning bronze on 91.396%. Meanwhile, Werth and DSP Quantaz didn’t quite crack 90%, finishing in fifth place on 88.407%.
At present, all four women are likely looking ahead from the Europeans podium to the medal ceremony in Paris with bated breath. What could the City of Lights hold for dressage’s leading ladies? Only time will tell.