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EquiRatings Asks: Just How Influential is Show Jumping?

EN is delighted to partner with EquiRatings to bring you thought-provoking analysis on the future of eventing. Thank you to EquiRatings for allowing EN to share these articles. Click here to read more from EquiRatings, and be sure to follow them on Facebook and Twitter. Go Eventing.

Michael Jung and fischerRocana FST at Kentucky 2018. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

“Since the removal of the dressage multiplier, show jumping has become so influential — you just can’t afford to have a fence down if you want to win.”

Let’s qualify this. From 2014 to 2017 there were 2,650 international events and 69% of them were won with a clear show jumping round. In 2018, there were 703 international events and 72% of them were won with a clear show jumping round.

What about the more competitive internationals? Let’s look at internationals with 20 starters or more. From 2014 to 2017 there are 1,604 internationals that meet this criterium and 78% were won with a clear show jumping. In 2018, there were 418 internationals and 82% were won with a clear show jumping.

Since the removal of the dressage multiplier there has been an increase in the percentage of internationals won with a clear show jumping round. It is statistically significant, but the percentage increase is probably not as high as people thought. It has always been important to jump clear in order to win. It is vital to jump clear cross-country if you want to win, but do we say that cross-country is very influential because of this? No, we don’t. It is more about the overall contribution of penalties, but it must be relevant to winning because that is what drives the sport.

How we describe the phase influence in this article is based on how the top 50% of performers within each phase score penalties, using international results from 2014 to 2018 (the usual dressage multiplier adjustment applies). We break it down by class type because there is a big difference. For the dressage phase, we put the best score on zero so that we can compare it on the same scale as the other phases. The best score is usual in the mid-teens and the median score is usually in the mid-30s, so the plot usually goes from 0 to 20 rather than 15 to 35.

Why do we analyse only the top 50%? This approach focuses on the what it takes to win angle. In order to win an international, the sport should be aiming to require a competitor to perform in the top 50% within each phase – it’s not really an all-round sport otherwise. There is a cost to not performing in the top 50% but focusing on this is actually more of a distraction. Take a hypothetical situation where half the competitors go clear and inside the time on cross-country and the other half get eliminated. On one hand, the phase has been uninfluential because half of the field are on the same perfect score of zero, but on the other hand, the other half of the field are now out of the competition.

Don’t pain your head trying to account for these situations – we have done it for years! We don’t want half of the field eliminated – well, some might but the sport doesn’t. It doesn’t look good and it messes up TV and spectating when half of the field don’t jump the last fence. So, focus on the solution and the why. A competitive eventing result should be one where a competitor performs in the top 50% of each phase – that is hard to argue with, Now, let’s see what that looks like.

5*-L – Old CCI4*

This is the level of the sport where cross-country matters. Notice the difference between dressage and show jumping though. The top 50% range in dressage is about 15 penalties from the best performer to the median performer. In show jumping, nearly half of the field that remain will score less than 8 penalties. 20% of starters in the show jumping will add zero penalties. The top 20% of dressage performers will be almost 10 penalties behind the leader.

4*-L – Old CCI3*

The most notable difference is the drop in cross-country penalties when assessing the median. Regarding the top performers and what influences winning, the dressage phase has already become dominant. With regards to show jumping, we are seeing even more clear rounds, and the median value is now only 4 penalties. Show jumping might be the final phase and leave a recency bias – but already its influence is clearly way below the other phases.

3*-L – Old CCI2*

The percentage of competitors that pick-up zero penalties in both show jumping and cross-country is increasing noticeably. So much so that we don’t need statistics to point this out to us. We are entering the levels where a different ‘type’ of horse is preferred. Perhaps this is why show jumping feels so important, because more and more people jump clear. It adds pressure and non-clears feel expensive. But look at cross-country diminish. Are we really eventing at these levels?

2*-L – Old CCI1*

Where is the cross-country line? Most of the top 50% score zero so the impact of cross-country basically disappears. Hence the evolution of the phrase ‘dressage competition’. Again, show jumping feels important but it pales in comparison to dressage – however, the influence of show jumping notably overtakes that of cross-country in this class type. The problem for the sport is that this level has the highest volume.

This graph explains in one image why most young eventers spend hours trotting in circles and then blast dressage horses around the cross-country, picking-up zero penalties but not necessarily riding well. If the sport has a future then change should start here. This is not balance – this is domination. We can’t really lament the the art of cross-country disappearing if this is how the majority of the sport is weighted and influenced. If you want people to train a certain way or breed/produce a certain type of horse, then make the attributes matter.

Conclusion

What feels or what appears to be influential is susceptible to our flawed human perception at times. Ingrid Klimke lost the gold medal at WEG in the last second of the entire competition. It carries the most amount of recency bias. While her show jump cost her gold, don’t ignore the phenomenal advantage that she built up in the first phase. She still finished ahead of Andrew Hoy who scored above 70% in dressage and finished on it. In the international sport over the past five seasons, 58% of competitors have finished between 0 and 4 penalties in the show jumping. That is not a large amount of influence. Next time Ingrid does a low 20s, or even teens dressage, don’t expect 58% of the field to be within 4 penalties of her!

Test the Best: EquiRatings Discusses the Future of Eventing

Sam Watson, founder and product director at EquiRatings and 2018 World Equestrian Games team silver medalist for Ireland, wrote a thought-provoking opinion piece last week about the future of eventing. Thank you to EquiRatings for allowing us to share this article on EN. Click here to read more articles from EquiRatings. Go Eventing.

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Last week I posted the ‘why’ article. It posed the question of what the objective of eventing should be – why should we do what we do? Those questions will ultimately be answered by people with far more experience and knowledge than me, but I have since been asked for my opinion, so here it is…

No one will write the ideal script in a week, so expect flaws in my initial draft. Like most things, you will get it wrong plenty of times before you get it right, so I’m sure the key principles will evolve or even pivot. However, it is times for progress, not perfection…

Objective: To have three major events that each attract 5 million viewers. To be achieved within the next five years.

Why 5 million viewers? If 5 million people want to watch the sport then it is a great spectacle. There will never be 100% agreement about the ideal length of a cross-country course, the max height of a show jump or whether dressage technicality should increase, so we should focus on a macro objective that has more commonality. Successful sport should inspire and excite – the metric to assess if we are achieving that is viewership. The figure of 5 million will need refining – the objective should push the boundaries of what is possible, but it should be achievable.

Why three major events? Regarding growth, the foundation of the overall economy, if you can’t see it you can’t be it. You have to put your sport in front of viewers if you want growth and economic health. Children pick up a tennis racket because of Grand Slams like Wimbledon or a golf club because of Majors such as the Masters. Showcase your very best, therefore a select group of events that push the elite athletes out of their comfort zone would be my idea of how to sell our product.

Why within the next five years? If your goal doesn’t have a timeline then you are less likely to achieve it and you are highly likely to be inefficient. No more trying – trying is accepting failure as an option. It is time to do.

Strategy: Safely Test the Best

Why test? Top sport is about athletes performing to a level that the average person believes is impossible. That is what entertainment is about. Similar to magic, the best sport is about fascination and amazement. If what the very best do looks possible then it isn’t testing enough. I don’t know how someone returns a tennis serve that is it at over 250kph…seriously, it’s insane!

Why the best? Be elitist, not inclusive. The Olympics takes athletes based on quotas, not talent. Who is the best Icelandic tennis player? I doubt 5 million people can answer that question. If you want to reach the pinnacle of your sport then you should get there because of how you perform, not because of where you are from. Inclusivity is an important growth tactic but it shouldn’t be the core strategy. So, we should design the sport to test the best rather than facilitate a diverse group.

Why safely? The first reason is obvious – because we care. If a horse owner was down to their last euro, they would buy a scoop of oats rather than a loaf of bread. Secondly, If the objective is viewers then you have to balance two factors incredibly skillfully – excitement and horse welfare. You won’t get sponsors or air-time without an acceptable level of risk, but you won’t get 5 million viewers without a phenomenal test of human and equine skill. Managing risk alone is not enough; we must create a phenomenal product for consumers and participants.

On a personal note, I believe that equestrian sport gives a huge amount of satisfaction to horses. It is well documented that exercise is vital for mental health in humans; I believe the same goes for horses. I also believe that it gives horses a superb quality of life, and incredible levels of care are the norm rather than the exception. However, I fully acknowledge that we use horses for our pleasure. Out of respect and gratitude, it is our duty to manage risk as best we can. We will not eliminate it – if we eliminate the risk then we eliminate the sport.

Tactics: Provide Clarity

Be clear about what we are testing, how we are testing it and why we are testing it. Fans should understand the sport in this order – what, how and then why.

We test a wide range of athletic, mental and skillful attributes across three phases called dressage, show jumping and cross-country. These attributes include speed, footwork, accuracy, power, carefulness, submission and fitness. I’m not going to write the entire script…!

How we test these attributes is by setting a test and scoring it using a penalty system. The way the scoring system is designed facilitates the emphasis placed on each set of attributes.

Why we design the sport this way is to set the most extreme test of skill for the human and equine partnership. While we avoid pushing any one physical attribute to an extreme level, the complete test of attributes makes the sport the most complete, difficult and exciting test of horse and rider.

Tactics: Emphasise the Unique Selling Point (USP)

Not only is cross-country a fascinating and amazing spectacle, capable of capturing the hearts and minds of 5 million viewers, it also presents a test of skills that cannot be seen in any other branch of equestrian sport. In terms of what we test, place more emphasis on cross-country than we do on dressage and show jumping. My personal recommendation would be 20:60:20 as the ratio of influence on dressage, cross-country and show jumping. Why? It is unique and exciting.

Unlimited rewards for dressage performance but an optimum time in cross-country does not work. Growth in sport means increased competition, and this has resulted in people going after that unlimited advantage in dressage. Our sport gravitating towards dressage horses going cross-country, rather than cross-country horses being trained for dressage, takes away from our USP. We have adapted our horses and our training systems to help us win, but ultimately the sport will lose.

We made a mistake; we had a glitch in our scoring system that didn’t get exploited until the steeplechase phase was removed and the sport grew. We can fix it, but we need to act fast. Cross-country penalties at top level are increasing because the modern horse lacks the capabilities. If we adapt the sport to suit the horse, we will not recover.

Tactics: Increase Speed

Controversial…! This is how we achieve more emphasis on the thrilling cross-country phase. It requires the horses to be more talented, it requires the athletes to be more skilful and it produces a spectacle that is more exciting. It is so simple and obvious. Far too many people make the time on cross-country that it cannot be an elite, fascinating and amazing test. Why hasn’t it happened? We are scared of bad and dangerous riding. Is that the mentality of Formula One? We’ll drive slower so that the average driver can fulfill their lifetime ambition and compete at the top level, even though they present a higher level of risk?

I would love to play a few games at Wimbledon with Federer, play the back nine at Augusta with Rory McIlroy, have a go as striker for Manchester United and drive against Lewis Hamilton in the Monaco Grand Prix. None of those things will ever happen. Why? I am thirty-three. No one starts out in those spheres at thirty-three and has time to meet the required standard. Raise the bar. The right people will jump higher.

Tactics: Turn Professional

Grassroots level is the heartbeat of the sport. It makes it work; it also symbolises our wonderful character. However, have you ever seen a heart beating? The top level is the face of the sport. In entertainment, and sport is entertainment, the face sells. We die without grassroots but we also die if the grassroots are drawing more attention than the face, or in this case, than the professional level of the sport. We don’t need to change the grassroots. Increasing speed probably wouldn’t work. We just need to make our face more interesting!

Why professional? In order to raise the bar and increase the test we need professional levels of accountability. If you jeopardise the welfare of your horse, yourself or your sport, then you suffer the consequences. If we want dressage judging to be impeccable, then invest in that level of professional service. If you want athletes to inspire and amaze five million people, then create an environment and a culture that will facilitate that. If you want to increase speed, then you need better ground conditions which means you need professional venues and teams.

EquiRatings: Does Eventing Have a Clear Objective?

Sam Watson, the founder and product director at EquiRatings and 2018 World Equestrian Games team silver medalist for Ireland, wrote a thought-provoking opinion piece that asks tough questions about the future of eventing. Thank you to EquiRatings for allowing us to share this article on EN. Click here to read more articles from EquiRatings. Go Eventing.

Sam Watson and Horseware Ardagh Highlight at Luhmühlen 2018. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Leaving the house for a three-day event means saying goodbye to two young boys aged four and five. They ask the question ‘why?’ a lot …! If it concerns vegetable consumption, the question doesn’t get as much air-time, but as two adoring faces look up at me as I carry my last two bags out to the lorry, I pause to entertain their enquiries.

-“Daddy, why are you and Mummy going away?”

“Because we’re taking Ben and Toby (the horses) to an event.”

-“Why?”

“Because eventing is fun and it’s what Mummy and Daddy do.”

-“Why?”

“Because Daddy gets to go cross country and jump lots of cool fences really quickly.”

-“Why?”

“Er, because someone thought that would be a good idea a long time ago…?!”

The conversation ends when the children have taken the adult to a place where the adult becomes unsure. They are satisfied, whilst I am left pondering the meaning of life, or in this case, eventing. I think the kids are on to something though. Why is eventing what it is? Riders bemoan a lack of prize money. Event organisers bemoan a lack of income. Sponsors bemoan a lack of audience reach. We have the constant balance between safety and spectacular, but what are we actually aiming for? What is the objective of eventing?

Phase Influence

Eventing is a three phase sport. Cross-country is the only phase that is unique to eventing with dressage and show jumping existing in their own independent forms. What should the balance be between the phases? Should all three be equal – a 1:1:1 ratio? The complete and balanced test of horse and rider. Or should dressage and show jumping be equal, with cross-country holding more importance – a 1:2:1 type ratio? I have heard a ratio in the past which heavily weighted cross-country as the most influential, with dressage then taking more weight than show jumping. Whatever the balance is, I believe that it is vital that this influence ratio is agreed upon and made known to all.

Knowing the target influence of the sport would help us to explain it and manage it so much more effectively. We have some judges that use a wide range of marks while others keep the scores tightly bunched. We have cross-country courses that result in one person achieving the best score and we have others that result in over 50% of the competition achieving what is deemed to be the optimum score. Without a clear objective we don’t know what is correct. Can over 50% of competitors achieving a score of zero on cross-country really be accurately describing the optimum level of performance? Surely it is just the average level of performance?

We could argue that the sport has gravitated towards one where we compete dressage horses in the cross-country rather than train cross-country horses to perform dressage. Competitively, this makes complete sense. At the WEG in 2018, sixteen horses scored zero on cross-country, but one horse received just short of a four-penalty lead in the dressage. If you want to win in eventing then be exceptional in dressage and be good enough in the jumping phases. As a rider, we keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Generally, we have horses with more dressage movement and less stamina and quick footwork. Why? Because cross-country doesn’t matter as much as dressage. This only throws up more questions. The biggest ones we need to discuss more — is this the objective of eventing? Are the objectives of riders aligned with those who must govern the sport nationally and internationally?

How Do We Make Cross Country Matter More?

What is the purpose of cross country? What are we testing and why? In the old days it was about survival, but those days are gone through no choice of anyone within the sport. The Aintree Grand National changed its fence profile to reduce fallers, it was either that or get shut down. To quote Darwin “adapt or die”. Personally, I see cross country as a skill-based sport. I don’t see why horses need to fall any more than one in fifty starters, or even one in every one hundred starters, even at the highest level. With the use of varied terrain there will be inevitable trips and stumbles, as well as the odd misjudgement, but we can manage the crashing rotational falls better. They are frightening, not exciting.

Intensity has become a bad word. As has speed. Stamina is a safety concern. I would test speed and intensity more. I believe that this results in sharp reactions, and high levels of skill which produce excitement. We want horses to think quickly, we want riders to be skilled and we want audiences to be enthralled.

I would make a clear distinction between short format and long format eventing. Like cricket (T20 vs Test) or rugby (Sevens vs Test), they are almost different sports. Too often, horses bred for short format that attempt the long format results in fatigue and injury. The short format can work brilliantly; equine stars being seen on a regular basis, show jumping tested to a higher level with fresher legs, and speed and intensity rounding off a crowd-pleasing spectacle. Aachen is a great showcase of the short format. ERM have shown that it can attract a new audience.

The short format often results in very few or even no competitors achieving the optimum time on the cross country, so it then becomes more influential as a phase. Short format also has a far lower horse fall rate than long format at each level of the sport. Stamina could be a factor, as could longer galloping stretches with horses being more susceptible to switching off. However, long format events regularly produce extremely high proportions of the field jumping clear and within the time. How do we make long format cross country matter again?

What are we trying to test? Accuracy? The knocked-flag rule is not liked by some. Precision? Penalties for frangible activations are not liked by some. I don’t think it is fair to horses to make the fences narrower or more acute. I don’t think it makes sense to build the solid obstacles any higher (although I do think the max heights should be used more). Terrain is definitely a ‘must use’ in order to test footwork and the ability to correctly balance a horse, but beyond that, I believe there is scope for debate about the future of cross country.

Skill-based sports should improve. The next generation should be better than the current one. But with so many competitors already achieving the perfect score on cross country, how do we advance the test. Option fences being penalised? Knocked flags being penalised? Knocked fences being penalised? Speeds being increased?

We can discuss those tactical changes until the cows come home, but we will get nowhere without a clear understanding of why. Why do we leave the start-box? Why should owners buy horses? Why do we train and compete? Why do fans come to watch or tune in on the livestream? Why should sponsors get behind eventing?

What is the perfect eventing performance? Why? Horses with the quality of La Biosthetique Sam FBW are becoming very rare. The three-quarter bred is now the half-bred. Why? What is eventing and what is cross-country? What does the future look like and why are we going there?

EquiRatings Presents: Brits Against the World at Luhmühlen 2018

One of the hottest fields in Luhmühlen history comes forward for the CCI4* this week. Will we see Great Britain dominate the event? Sam Watson of EquiRatings makes his case. Keep it locked on EN for wall-to-wall coverage from Germany starting tomorrow. Go Eventing.

Piggy French and Quarrycrest Echo on their way to taking a dominant win in the Event Rider Masters leg at Chatsworth. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

There is a four-star achievement that hasn’t been achieved outside of Australia for ten years. That in itself should be a clue, but the answer is quite the task — a complete top-five clean sweep by a nation in a four-star. Australia did it eight times between 2008 and 2016 on home soil at Adelaide. For geographical reasons it is quite the outlier, so we will focus on the other five majors, plus any World Equestrian Games (not possible at an Olympic Games) that took place between 2008 and 2017.

We use a simple points system to measure those that have come close. Five points are awarded for first place, four for second place, down to one point for fifth place. The maximum for a full clean sweep is therefore fifteen points.

Most Recent Clean Sweeps Outside Australia

In 2008, this awesome dominance by a nation in a major was achieved twice — both times by nations on their home soil. At Burghley, William Fox-Pitt led home a one-two for Great Britain with the mighty Tamarillo taking the win and the ever-reliable Ballincoola finishing runner-up to his stablemate. Mary King followed up with the three-four aboard Imperial Cavalier and Apache Sauce, with Nicola Wilson completing the quintet with her stalwart Opposition Buzz.

The same year also produced an Adelaide-esque performance from the USA at Kentucky, taking the top eight places in a field that perhaps lacked the usual strength of European raiders that we are now used to in more recent years. Phillip Dutton won the event with Connaught, and he still remains the most recent U.S. rider to do so. The fun fact here is that if Boyd Martin (8th place) had been riding for the USA at the time (instead of AUS), then it would have been a top ten clean sweep for the hosts.

Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class at Burghley. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Closest Encounters

Since 2008, there have been a couple of big efforts from nations, but the top-five full-house remains elusive in a sport that is clearly becoming more evenly spread between the powerhouse nations.

10 pointers: The U.S. have picked up ten points on three occasions, each time for finishing 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th — the relevant years were 2012, 2014 and 2016. The 10-point haul has also been achieved twice by New Zealand, both times aided by a win from the maestro Andrew Nicholson. These came at Burghley in 2013 and then again at Badminton in 2017. Great Britain had a fruitful 2009 at Badminton when they just reached the double-figure mark of ten points, and they did it again with a raid on French soil at Pau in 2011.

11 in 2011: Team GBR are also responsible for the only 11-point total which again was another foreign raid, this time trans-Atlantic. The big hit coincidentally came in 2011 courtesy of a Mary King one-two, a result that ultimately crowned the British favourite our most recent female world number one in the sport.

The 12 point podium full house: In both 2009 and 2011, Luhmühlen had a home 1-2-3, which secured Germany a hefty 12 points on both occasions. In 2009, it was Michael Jung who topped the podium with a first four-star win for the great La Biosthetique Sam FBW. He was backed up by Andreas Dibowski and Dirk Schrade on that occasion, and then two years later it was Dibowski who took top honours with Sandra Auffarth and Frank Ostholt tucked in behind.

The closest count of 14: Burghley 2017 is the closest we have come in ten years to the top-five full-house in the Northern Hemisphere. It signalled the completion of Chris Bartle’s one-year ‘Great British Rebuilding Project’ with a 1-2-3-4 led home by Oliver Townend. That result turned out to be the beginning of an agonisingly close Grand Slam bid, and it saw Townend finally take the mantle of world number one after his two fruitful visits to Kentucky and Badminton in 2018.

Mr Bass makes his four-star debut as a hot favourite. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

A First Full House On Foreign Turf

So, the crux of the matter is whether the in-form Team GBR can deliver the full knock-out blow at Luhmühlen 2018 and become the first nation to complete the clean sweep at a foreign four-star. The Eventing Podcast gives a full run-down of the key contenders in the preview show, but my bet slip would have the names Bulana with Nicola Wilson, Quarrycrest Echo with Piggy French, Billy The Red with Tina Cook, Mr Bass with Laura Collett and Zenshera with Ros Canter on it.

For party-spoilers, watch out for the reigning Badminton winner Jonelle Price with her 2015 runner-up Faerie Dianimo. Andreas Dibowski is always a force at his home four-star, and to add some darker horses in to the mix then the first-timer Deniro Z for USA’s Liz Halliday-Sharp is an exciting prospect, as is the more experienced Horseware Stellor Rebound who could give Sarah Ennis a highest four-star result for Ireland this century. Finally, never rule out Dutch favourite Tim Lips with the his reigning National Champion Bayro.

Call it wild speculation for Team GBR this week or call it obscure trivia for the eventing junkies. But either way, consider yourselves educated in the realm of four-star domination and prepared for the mid-season major at Luhmühlen.

Follow EquiRatings on Facebook and Twitter for exclusive stats from Luhmühlen.

EquiRatings Road to Rio: Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen

Eventing is a numbers game. Lowest score wins, simple. At EquiRatings we analyse eventing numbers like no one else. Our six years of international results translates into 15 million crucial pieces of data that can scrutinise strengths and weaknesses that sometimes even the best trained eye can overlook. Our Road To Rio series is an overview of the leading combinations heading towards next year’s Olympic Games. We’re delighted to team up with our U.S. media partner Eventing Nation and introduce to you the first of our medal contenders.

Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen at Luhmühlen. Photo by Leslie Wylie. Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen at Luhmühlen. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Oliver Townend broke his own record for international appearances this year with an incredible 82 starts under his belt in 2015. Clark Montgomery went for a different approach. This year we saw him on just four occasions under FEI rules. No other rider has ever given us a better display of how low quantity can produce incredible quality. What’s even more remarkable is the turnaround produced by Clark between his 2014 and 2015 campaign.

In 2014, with both Universe and Loughan Glen on the road, we saw Clark compete nine times. The output of those runs were three completions, no Top 10s, one clear cross country jumping, no clear cross country inside the time, and just one sub-60 finishing score. His average dressage of 43.2 was a beacon of hope, as were the four clear show jumping rounds from seven attempts. There were hard luck stories for Clark in 2014, but the overall stats from that season must have required a great deal of mental strength to overcome.

With only Loughan Glen to compete in 2015, the pressure to produce results must have been immense for the combination. We first saw them at Belton — 39.8 in the first phase and into second place. No real surprise; these two are super talented in the dressage arena. They left all the coloured poles in place and took over the lead. Again no surprises really, but now the pressure must have been bubbling under the surface.

Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen celebrate their Belton win. Photo via Clark on Facebook.

Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen celebrate their Belton win. Photo courtesy of Clark Montgomery.

They had been in a similar position at Belton the previous season, second after dressage and clear show jumping, but the cross country caught them and 20 penalties scuppered their hopes. In 2015, off the back of a tough season, they buried their ghosts and produced a fast clear cross country to take the win. Belton was the largest field of the year at three-star and four-star level with 106 starters — this was a serious result!

Their next start came at Luhmühlen, this time stepping up to the highest level for a four-star. Again a solid start to the first phase with 37.1 and into the top 10. The cross country was still a huge question that this pair needed to answer. They did so in some style by only adding one second (0.4 penalties) to their first phase total. They finished off the event with a clear in the final phase and finished sixth at a seriously competitive four-star.

With consistency starting to appear, Clark nurtured the confidence and quality that was now emerging in their performances. They reappeared at Somerford Park in a CIC2*. Their score of 35.0 in the dressage saw them lead from pillar to post, adding just 1.2 time penalties on the cross country course. Another win and again he saw off a huge field in doing so — 113 starters lined up and none of them could trouble this combination that now seemed to be on a considerable roll!

Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen (USA). Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen on their way to a 37.1 dressage test at Luhmühlen. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Blenheim was their final appearance. Again they led the first phase, this time on 33.8, a number that is now hinting strongly at medal contention in Rio. What is even more impressive is that they finished on it. They took down another high-class field, this time comprising 101 starters. We would be very surprised if one horse, in one season, ever wins three internationals all with over 100 starters. A phenomenal achievement.

While dressage was always a strength, it improved in 2015 — 39.8, 37.1, 35.0 and 33.8 shows a consistent trend, and if any horse starts to hit the 20s next year, then maybe it is this one. The show jumping was strong, but this year it was perfect — four from four, 100 percent.

The cross country jumping had been a significant weakness. This year they may have avoided Badminton, Aachen and Burghley, but their reward was again perfection in terms of jumping four clear cross country rounds. In fact, in four runs they added just 3.2 penalties to their first phase total — an average of just 0.8 per run.

Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen zoom into the lead at Blenheim Palace CCI3*

Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen storming around the Blenheim Palace CCI3* course. Photo by Samantha Clark.

Clark’s dressage average of 36.4 is better than Michael Jung’s (37.3), Ingrid Klimke’s (41.5) and William Fox-Pitt’s (41.6). Luhmühlen and Blenheim may not have been the toughest cross country tests in the calendar this season, but they are more than adequate trials for an Olympic Games.

In the past five Olympic events, the USA have claimed more individual medals (4) than anyone else. NZL (3), GER (3) and GBR (3) will be hoping to catch them in Rio. Should Clark and Glen make the U.S. team, they’ll have their sights set on continuing a strong tradition for the Stars and Stripes.