It’s easy to forget two things about England when you don’t live there all the time, and I’m reminded of both as I drive towards Clark and Jess Montgomery’s barn — just how wet, damp and cold it can be when it rains and rains and rains constantly, and just how beautiful the countryside is all around you.
These are things Clark Montgomery and his wife Jess are pretty well assimilated to by now as they begin their fourth year based in England, and although it’s doubtless been a hard road, the fruits of their labour are obvious and couldn’t have ripened at a better time with Clark having the best year of his professional life so far in 2015 on Loughan Glen, winning the Blenheim CCI3*, Belton CIC3*, Somerford Park CIC2* and finishing 6th at Luhmühlen CIC4*.
Coming into the 2016 season Glen has been named the Chronicle of the Horse’s 2015 Eventing Horse of the Year, EquiRating’s 2015 Horse of the Year, and is rated number one on Eventing Nation’s 2016 Rio Olympic Power Rankings. How does this make Clark feel? “It feels fantastic that 2015 was that successful, and it gives me confidence that if I can just hold that form coming into this year that we can go to the Olympics and not just go to the Olympics but actually be competitive at the Olympic Games.”
Team Montgomery are based in a brand new, purpose-built ‘American style’ barn at Aston Farm near Gatcombe and have access to an indoor arena, outdoor school, fantastic hacking and a 7-furlong all weather gallop. Clark has a string of nine horses to compete this year. His support team includes Sally Robertson and Karen Hughes, who take the best care of them in the world, along with working student/rider Bella Lee who started this year. On the other side of the stables is Christina Hendrickson from Colorado, here training with Clark. There are also two other clients who have a dressage horse, an eventer and a young horse in training.
Universe, or Buzz is back in business and the hope is that he’ll be competing again by the end of the summer. “I don’t really know if we’ll actually aim him for a CCI this year, we’ll just have to see how his fitness comes along.” Next door to him is his half brother Scooby Do, show name: Fast and Furious, 5 years old and the spitting image of his illustrious relative. “He’ll start doing some little competitions here and there, mainly show-jumping but maybe an event by the end of the year.”
An eye-catching grey joined the string at the end of the year, “We bought a 7-year-old that’s been a pure show-jumper. He’s a really, really fancy horse owned by Linda Gunderson in California. We have really high hopes for him. I think he could be a horse that could be highly competitive worldwide as he comes along.” Also new to the team is two-star horse Ziggy, or Spezific One: “The (Event Rider Master) series would be great for him as he’s quite flashy on the flat and he’s quite big so potentially he may not be best suited to the long CCI4* but he should be fantastic for the series.”
Wyoming “is a super 7-year-old German-bred horse that I have been producing over the last couple of years. He is on the market to sell and is going to be a really competitive horse for someone.” George “is a 5-year-old phenomenal jumper prospect that I’m having a lot of fun producing,” and Tango, “a 5-year-old that Libby Agnew, Charlotte Agnew’s mum, bred and is a little bit big for Charlotte. We have him in training and she wants us to bring him along.” Lastly, “I also have Culino, a 6-year-old. He’s so fancy he could do either career but we’re thinking more show jumping.” That makes up the string.
“We make the diary up the night before with the schedule for the horses. We’ll get the stable finished by 9 a.m. usually at the latest. Bella then cracks on with the horses that are on her list, and I do the same on mine. The weather now has finally started getting good enough now that we’re going over to the outdoor arenas, and we’ve gone to practice show jumping and cross country schooling on the all weather. Hopefully by the end of the month we can get back out on the grass to school before we start competing.”
Loughan Glen, naturally though, follows a slightly different plan as Clark tries to navigate the best path towards Olympic selection for him.
“He hasn’t had much downtime since Blenheim because we wanted him to maintain a level of fitness and not get too soft. Throughout the winter I was doing more dressage training until the first of the year. Starting January I stopped doing that and started hacking on the hills. At this point he’s working on the hills three times a week, mostly by himself because he can be a bit funny in company.”
“At the first of the year he started galloping once a week on the gallop. Now he’s galloping twice a week on the all-weather gallop. We’ve noticed with Glenn that he likes the longer (7 furlong) flatter gallop mainly working on his speed. Other naturally fast horses may want the slower, higher incline gallops which you can easily find around here as well. It’s another bonus about being in this area because you have the mixture — depending on the type of horse you can find what they need.”
“We are going to do CICs to prepare him for the Games, no CCIs. I’m aiming to do three CICs by the time they make the selection for the team at the end of June, so the plan is for him to run at a couple of national shows, one in March, one in early April just to get back in the groove of things, and then we’ll go to Belton. I need to be competitive at at least one or two of those to prove that he’s back in form but I certainly don’t feel that I need to be competitive in the sense of going for time on cross country at all three.”
“With variable weather and footing conditions it’s still up in the air a bit. With that said if the footing is good, if the track is good, and if he is feeling super then I may try to be competitive just so we keep the competitiveness up between the two of us leading up to the Games. There are a few different options — the ones I’m thinking about right now are Belton, Houghton and Hopetoun, they just seem to fit well in the calendar, and then alternatives are Chatsworth and Bramham potentially. It’s just nice to know that we have those five competitions to pick from depending on all the variables that can come into play in preparation and competition.”
It’s hard to believe that Clark and Glen can ace the dressage at Belton, Badminton and Blenheim etc etc whilst rarely schooling at home, it sounds too good to be true, and although Clark admits how frustrating that might seem to others he maintains it’s a system that works for Glen and one he intends to stick to this spring.
“At Luhmühlen four-star the entire focus was on his fitness so there were a couple of mistakes in his dressage, but he still scored a 37! For Blenheim the only thing different I did was two weeks out we went to a local dressage venue and we prepped the test a couple of times. That seemed to make the difference in him going in there and having him much softer and no mistakes.”
“At this point he’s old enough — he knows his job, he knows the movements so I don’t have to drill him. The less I drill him the happier he is. It gives me the time to focus on his fitness which we know has always been a bit more of his issue, and that’s paid off in aces. I know that two weeks out I can prep the test a little and make sure he’s soft and on my aids. At this point I’m confident that he’ll go in and earn a good mark so why would I change things now? I specifically try to not overtrain any of my horses but he’s the only horse that I’ve ever had like this. It’s a pretty phenomenal trait to have!”
“I have good people on the ground around me at home between Sally (Robertson) and Jess, and I really take their opinion seriously in what they see and think needs to be done. I video myself a lot in training and watch that. I’ve always found that if I get consistent training I tend to overthink it, so I do a better job just sticking to myself and training my own way. David (O’Connor) and I have a great relationship because I’ve known him and trained with him for so long, so the times that he pops over and gives me a little tune up seem to be key.”
At the beginning of this year Jess has taken a slight backseat at the yard after the birth of their daughter Vivian in December, although she’s still an integral part of the management of the entire operation, and still the most glamorous wife, and now mother, on the British Eventing circuit!
“Clark and I communicate every day all day about the horses — he calls from time to time when he’s on one, or in between so I kind of talk to him mid-morning, and then about noon when he eats his lunch, and then also obviously when he gets home from work — we make a plan for the week, and day to day. I don’t really feel out of the loop because of that, but it’s funny to not be there, and only be at the barn a few days a week because I’m so used to seeing all the horses so much more than that, but I do still feel a part of it.”
“Having my mom here to help me with Vivi allows me to do anything that I feel is important without a second thought. I’m lucky enough to have someone that both Clark and I trust, Vivi is really happy with Mom so I can walk out the door and not have those pangs of ‘is this what should I be doing?’”
Vivi’s arrival has changed her parents’ perspective too. Jess realises, “When we first got to England we thought we would be here for 10 years plus and continue to compete, but once I was pregnant we started to think about how we wanted to raise our daughter, and in the course of a lot of conversations, sometimes five minutes long, sometimes five hours long, it became clear to us that it was really important that Vivian know that she is American and be raised with that sense of where she’s from.”
Clark concurs, “Jess and I are American and it’s important to us that Vivian is raised knowing this. I really enjoy being in England and the Brits, I absolutely love them all to death, but I want her to know her culture and where we’ve come from. Family is a huge part of it too.”
“Fortunately Jess’ mom gets to spend quite a bit of time here and is helping us care for Vivi which is tremendous, but the rest of the family just don’t have the chance to come over much and it makes me a bit sad that they don’t see her and get to be a part of her growing up. So absolutely if we were able to spend more months each year at home in the States, especially once Vivi gets a little older, it would mean a tremendous amount to me.”
“For us to stay over here full time we need more support. We’ve recently gained a little bit of support but we still need more. That along with the winters being such a dead time in England means it makes sense for us to try and find a way for us to make a base in Florida for the winters.”
“Whether we take the entire string to the U.S., and then come back over here to England for the summers or leave the big string in England and just take a few horses to Florida in the winter, I don’t know in which direction we’re going to go yet with that, but I’ve started to put some feelers out to see if there’s a student maybe that would want us to come and base with them in Florida, and potentially then they could come back with us for the summers in England.”
“With these new series that are happening now like the Event Rider Masters, it actually offers enough prize money to help pay for the expenses which has always been the problem with flying back and forth — the chances of winning any money at a CCI are so slim that it is hard to justify. This year we have at least five competitions where you have a chance of winning serious money, and since they are all CIC competitions, not CCIs, you could do them on the same horse.”
“The plan is for more of these large purse competitions in the future which encourages a summer tour and that’s really exciting. There’s no way that I can’t not come to England for the summers, I don’t want to lose the competitive edge that I’ve gained from being here. It would be fantastic if we could figure out a way to come back and forth a little more instead of just being here all the time.”
Clark can see the new Event Rider Masters Series and the Shearwater Insurance Tri-Star GrandSlam (£50,000 to the winner of three out of five designated CIC3* events) being a real game-changer for the sport.
“I don’t know why people wouldn’t start shopping for horses specifically for these series — they’re only CICs so you don’t necessarily need to have all the thoroughbred in the world. Obviously they’re still going to have to be good cross country horses but they won’t need the stamina for a longer CCI. It may end up changing your mind on what you want to do even if you have a CCI horse. If it’s quite a competitive horse in a CIC as well then you have a chance of making a lot more money by going to a series than you do by going to a single CCI.”
“That’s definitely something I’m thinking about right now — I’m trying to build up a string of Advanced horses so that I can still get to the Series and have a horse for the Championships. It’s disappointing this year that I don’t have another horse for the Masters while Glen does his preparation schedule for the Olympics.”
Hopefully that disappointment will be forgotten come the Olympic Games this summer. Many thanks to Clark and Jess for taking the time to chat, and wishing them the best of luck as they prepare for a busy spring season in England. Stay warm, stay dry, Go Glen and Go Eventing!