Eventing flashback: Poland’s proud history revealed on eve of European Champs

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1965 European champions Marian Babirecki and Volt.
1965 European champions Marian Babirecki and Volt.

Poland is preparing to host the 33rd European Eventing Championships for the first time next month at Strzegom. Not since 1965 has a rider from Poland has stood atop the podium, but the country is proud of its history in eventing at the top level.

The first European Championships took place in 1953 at Badminton in Great Britain. There were 40 riders from five countries competing,  but the Polish team had to wait four more years for its debut, when in 1957 in Copenhagen Jan Kowalski and Litawor finished in 13th place. Two years after that at Harewood in Britain, the Polish team were close to the medals, finishing in fourth place.

The first and so far the only Polish rider to reach the top of the podium at the Europeans was Marian Babirecki riding Volt. In 1965 in Moscow, then capital of Soviet Union, the Polish rider won gold over 38 other riders. Although he was only 14th after the dressage, a great cross-country ride and clear showjumping round gave him the victory.

Above: Video from the 1965 European Championships.

Babirecki was considered to be the best rider in Poland after World War 2. He was not only successful as a showjumping, dressage and eventing rider, he was also a jockey and was second in the famous Velká pardubická steeplechase in 1956. At the end of his riding career Babirecki moved to Cuba, where he coached the national equestrian team. After a few years, he went back to his profession as a carpenter. Babirecki was also a scuba diver and it was while diving in the Atlantic Ocean that he died.

Polish equestrian fans had to wait until 1981 for another success, when the Europeans were at Horsens in Denmark, when the team of Mirosław Szłapka and Erywań, Jan Lipczyński and Elektron, Krzysztof Rafalak and Dajak, and Mirosław Ślusarczyk and Ekran won bronze.

Jan Lipczyński and Elektron at the European Championships at Horsens, Denmark, in 1981.
Jan Lipczyński and Elektron at the European Championships at Horsens, Denmark, in 1981. © Jan Lipczyński

It was the first event at championship level for Jan Lipczyński, 24.

“In the early 1980s Polish riders started to have some success in international competition so heading towards the Championships we had combat-ready attitude but we didn’t consider ourselves as possible winners,” Lipczyński recalled.

“Taking part in the Europeans was a huge experience for us. Going through the cross-country course at this level was making big impression even on the experienced eventers. The format of the competition was completely different at that time. The cross-country phase had a different level of toughness, different distance, which was close to 30km, also fences had different dimensions, huge “wagons” were jumped.

“Nowadays the difficulty of the cross-country is about technical tasks, not the size of the fences and for this reason the safety of riders’ and horses’ has grown. It used to look totally different. The toughness of the cross was determined by the size of the fences and falls were not unusual,” Lipczyński said.

Krzysztof Rafalak, who also made his debut at Horsens, said some of the fences were so large that after the official course inspection, they were changed. “I was the last one starting in the team. After Mirek Ślusarczyk’s misfortune on the cross-country course, I felt pressure to do everything to finish my ride so that we could be classified as a team.”

Just six teams finished from the 13 taking part.

Mirosław Szłapka, pictured on Mozambik in 1990.
Mirosław Szłapka, pictured on Mozambik in 1990. © Dominika Sztanka / Bazakoni.pl

Team member Mirosław Szłapka, who in 1980 was sixth at the Moscow Olympic Games, said Horsens was a challenging competition.

“I remembered the level of toughness of cross-country course in Moscow so the one in Horsens was friendly, in my opinion. Hilly terrain was similar to Biały Bór land where we had a training camp before the Championships. Contrary to the one in Moscow, this cross-country was fair for horses, he said.

Even so, “40% of the horses didn’t complete it. Two of the fences were especially difficult: the bascule bridge and the triple bar caused most of the problems,” Szłapka said.

Szłapka placed fifth individually at the championship. In the dressage test he was placed second by two judges and 19th by the third. Had the marks all been at the same level he would have a chance to stand on podium.

But bronze medal at European Championships was then the biggest achievement by Polish eventers after World War 2.

“After winning the medal we were euphoric – we had a feeling that history was being made,” Lipczyński said.

This year’s European Championships run from July 17 to 20. Longstanding BBC equestrian commentator Mike Tucker will be one of the presenters, accompanied by Chris Ryan of Ireland, and Polish presenters Szymon Tarant and Błażej Dudzic.

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