You won’t see any carved wooden animals or fake turquoise water complexes at Boekelo. This is straight-up cross-country — no frills, no cutesy distractions, nothing except you and your horse and 28 questions you’re going to need to answer in timed-quiz fashion.
(Oh, and also 60,000 spectators partying it up on the sidelines. But if you’re doing it right, they’ll just be a blur as you gallop past. And you’ll definitely be a blur to many of them.)
It’s a twisty, at-times claustrophobic track with lots of dips in and out of the woods, which will make time a big factor. Last year there were only four double-clear rounds out of 85 starters. Riders looking to beat the clock will need to keep their foot on the gas throughout.
There are also plenty of surprises along the way. Several jumps come up suddenly off turns, and the horses won’t have much time to get their eye on the fence before willing their feet to leave the ground. Mercifully there are a number of happy-go-lucky galloping fences tucked in there as well to give everybody a quick mental breather and confidence booster in between the more technical questions.
The carnival atmosphere is another consideration. Last year I had a hard time just walking from jump to jump, the crowd was packed so tightly in places. Boekelo is a party event and cross country day is the fever pitch of festivity — there are makeshift bars set up beside the galloping lanes throughout the course. (The joke is that riders who don’t make it around can stop for a drink during their long walk back to the barn.)
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The soirée gets rowdier as the day wears on, and all of our riders go in the afternoon, with second-placed Lauren Kieffer being the very last to leave the box.
I’m not worried about Lauren, though — in 2015 she neatly found the finish flags on two horses, including Landmark Monte Carlo who made a massive leap up the scoreboard from 46th after dressage into the top 10 thanks to a swift, efficient cross country round that accrued only 1.2 time. She’s got a 44-place lead on herself over last year, and I don’t expect a little atmosphere to distract this seasoned partnership.
And, to turn lemons into spiked lemonade: Every U.S. horse who competes at Boekelo this weekend will come away with the invaluable experience of competing in an atmosphere that will serve them well in future international competition.
Some thoughts from Coach David O’Connor and our U.S. contingent:
Ellie MacPhail: “I think it looks good. It think it will really suit [RF Eloquence] because it has a bunch of galloping tables at the beginning, which really helps him — when the questions come really fast in the beginning I have a hard time getting him settled in. He’s definitely easier at CCIs because he has time to kind of get his energy out at the beginning when there’s more galloping. There are a lot of accuracy questions on the course that will keep him thinking.”
Tamie Smith: “It’s very twisty — there aren’t many straight gallops — and the crowds here are very large and you don’t really know what to expect when you haven’t had a horse here before or a horse that has been in large crowds. My horses are typically very bold and brave so I know they want to jump the jumps — if they can see the jumps then they’ll be good.
“You just take one combination at a time and try to go for it as much as you can and have a good go and see what you get. I don’t think it walks really tough but knowing all the elements involved I think it is, actually, very tough, so I think there will be problems all throughout the course.”
Here’s a course preview from our friends at Cross Country App, with photos from all angles and insights from course designer Sue Benson. Many thanks to Willy Leysen for the recording!
Cross country gets underway Saturday morning at 10 a.m. local time (4 a.m. EST) with 9th placed Oliver Townend and Cooley SRS leading off — check out our feature on Oliver from earlier today here.
U.S. Cross Country Ride Times
12:20 p.m. local time/6:20 a.m. EST: Kylie Lyman and Lup the Loop (32nd place after dressage)
12:51 p.m. local time/6:51 a.m. EST: Tamie Smith and Dempsey (69th place after dressage)
2:28 p.m. local time/8:28 a.m. EST: Ellie MacPhail and RF Eloquence (21st place after dressage)
2:32 p.m. local time/8:32 a.m. EST: Tamie Smith and Twizted Syster (49th place after dressage)
4:04 p.m. local time/10:04 a.m. EST: Lauren Kieffer and Meadowbrook’s Scarlett (2nd place after dressage)
Let’s get this party started! Go Eventing.