The Pau That Was: Analysing the Influence of Cross Country Day

Izzy Taylor and Be Touchable produce one of the rounds of the day to sit third after cross country. Unfortunately, the horse was withdrawn before the final horse inspection. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

One thing was for certain after last year’s Pau CCI4*: if you hadn’t previously been paying attention to the French four-star, tucked away in the foothills of the Pyrenees and the tail-end of the eventing calendar, you almost certainly were thereafter. It’s been all too easy, after all, to consider Les 4 Etoiles de Pau a ‘soft’ option; a sensible move-up course, or the haunt of first-timers. But to consider it thus would be to do it a disservice: Pau, which earned itself four-star status just 11 years ago, might not be a Badminton or a Burghley, but with just six events at this level worldwide, should it try to be?

“It’s always been a proper four-star, but it’s a very different track because it’s flat, and with the manmade mounds it just makes it a bit different, in that respect,” says Nick Turner FBHS, who represented Great Britain internationally in both show jumping and eventing before turning his hand to coaching. He took charge of the Brazilian eventing team at London 2012 and the Irish eventing team at Rio, and is one of the most respected trainers in the industry. He’s also been the man behind the CrossCountry App’s official coursewalk for the past couple of years, giving him the chance to dissect the questions from a broad spectrum of viewpoints.

“The horses who are a little bit colder, or lacking a bit of blood, can often get round here, but then you have your Burghleys, which a horse who’s less blood would likely find more difficult than this. But I think, dimensionally, it’s always been big — the terrain lends itself to horses getting round often, but to me, you’ve got to have your wits about you and not underestimate what’s out there.”

Course designer Pierre Michelet — occasionally, and mostly affectionately, dubbed ‘Michelet the Menace’ — certainly has a big job on his hands when it comes to creating a four-star track on the small swathe of land he’s been granted. Where Badminton, Burghley and Kentucky benefit from sprawling estates and long galloping stretches, which lend themselves to enormous timber efforts punctuated by tighter, technical questions, Pau works under almost completely opposite circumstances. It’s set just north of Pau’s city centre and, though it operates within the confines of a racetrack, which should, in theory, allow for plenty of galloping space, only a third of the course opens up into the track. The first and final thirds of the course wiggle their way through the limited space alongside the main road, fringed by garages, schools, and garden allotments. To get a better idea of what this looks like, check out Pau’s site from the air:

An overview of Pau’s site. The first and last third of the course cover the left third of the site, while the middle third criss-crosses the racetrack to the right.

Comprendez-vous? That works out something like this: as you can see, there’s not a lot of time or space for horses and riders to settle into a rhythm and just travel — instead, they’re always thinking ahead to the next adjustment or turn.

For the sake of comparison, let’s take a look at Badminton’s site. It’s a pretty stark contrast, and in both cases, it well and truly defines the identity of each event and the role it plays within the sport.

Badminton estate: so much room for ACTIVITIES.

2017: The Year of the Dragon

2017 was an interesting year for Pau. Michelet, who is known for designing tough, technical tracks — the Rio Olympics and that European Championships course at Strzegom were among his masterpieces, lest we forget — suddenly kicked into overdrive, creating a beast of a Pau course that caused myriad problems across the board. Many of those problems occurred in the first third of the course: the first water, in particular, was hugely influential, causing issues to 11 combinations. Of those, five retired or were eliminated at the direct route, which consisted of a hanging log into the water and then a bending line over two skinny brush arrowheads.

Ros Canter and Zenshera, eventual 7th-place finishers last year, jump through the first water on the 2017 Pau course. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Slightly further along at fence 11ABC, we saw a large brush atop a steep mound. On the landing side, and after bounding down the mound, horses and riders were faced with two angled brushes over ditches, with an acute turn between them. About halfway through the day, the second of these hedges was removed, taking with it some of the intensity of this tough, scrappy line. In total, nine combinations would fault at this combination through the day.

Nana Dalton and Absolut Opposition clear the final element of 2017’s influential ditch-and-hedge question, before the second hedge was removed. In the background, you can see the first two elements of this fiendishly tricky question. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

So what changed between 2017 and 2018? On paper, the numbers actually aren’t dissimilar — this year, we saw a 64% completion rate with 38 of the 60 starters finishing, as opposed to last year’s 63%. In 2017, 72% of the combinations who finished the course did so without jumping penalties, while this year 28, or, just shy of 74% managed the same. The number of double-clears was up this year, though; 2017 saw just two add nothing in this phase, while we had four come home without time this year.

But numbers need quantifying, and the way that Michelet planned his course this year reflected much of the feedback he received after last year, which made for rather tough viewing and saw some seriously experienced combinations head home very early in the course. Rather than building almost impossibly technical questions, which can tend to punish, rather than reward, the efforts of even the best jumping horses, he created a stamina test that made use of even twistier sections of track and man-made mounds. This created an equally influential course that didn’t feel, well, heartbreaking in the way that last year’s often did.

“I wasn’t in love with it last year, at all,” says Nick Turner. “I felt that it was unfair on horses, and punished those with a big heart, and that was my one concern last year – that it was just one ask too many. The fences came up much more rapidly, and there were a lot more combinations. Within the waters, it was a lot more technical. I didn’t feel last year’s was overly horse-friendly, whereas this year, Pierre had softened it to a degree, but it still was a true four-star course. It allowed horses to read the questions much more than last year’s course did.”

Nick cites the ditch-and-hedge question at 11ABC last year as one of those asks too many: “I was glad to see it removed this year.”

Kim Severson and Cooley Cross Border clear 34A… Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Of course, this was still a Michelet course, and a Pau without some tricky and seriously technical questions would just be, well, a go-karting track. This year, one of the most influential combinations on course came very near the end at 34AB and 35. Utilising the last of the man-made mounds (a phrase that never seems to get any less questionable, no matter how many times I type it), any combination that’s placed here has historically been a bit of a late heartbreaker, chucking eleventh-hour 20s at otherwise clear combinations. This year, he placed a large, but straightforward, brush-topped rolltop at the crest of the hill, and as our competitors wound their way down, they encountered two offset skinny arrowheads — in fact, the same skinny arrowheads that had caused so much drama in last year’s first water. There was an alternative route, and the two arrowheads were separately numbered, which allowed for some creativity between the two, but for the most part, competitors sought not to waste any valuable seconds through the penultimate combination.

…before popping down over the direct route at 34B. They would be the first of several high-profile combinations to glance off of the next skinny at 35. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

So what made it so tough? Horses and riders are tired at this point, both mentally and physically, and traversing a final bit of terrain like this is tough work. So, too, is rebalancing and finding the right line as they speed down the hill, and this is a great example of that adaptability that Michelet built to seek: many riders walked this line six, seven, eight times, trying to figure out whether the obvious four-to-two stride method was the right one, but ultimately, what you got depended on how your horse landed from 34A. More often than not, it was a much shorter, flatter effort than anticipated, and those who adapted on the fly and held for three balanced strides between the two skinnies were home clear.

The crucial point here is that Pierre Michelet was able to take the feedback from 2017 and spin it into something constructive: the hard combinations still existed, certainly, but we saw him make use of separate numbering (34AB and 35, rather than 34ABC; 24AB and 25 in the middle water rather than 24ABC), which allowed for a slightly wider margin for error, and we saw a much more even smattering of issues across the course, rather than carnage in one or two locations. In fact, that penultimate combination at 34AB and 35 was, by the numbers, the most influential on the course — and it only caused problems for five of the competitors. The result? A course with true four-star technicality, but one which relied on time and survivable, innocuous glances off fences to turn the tables, rather than cheap thrills and spills.

Apportioning Influence: The Role of Cross Country on the Leaderboard

Only four of the top 10 after dressage managed to stay within this elite group — World Champion Ros Canter and Zenshera produced the goods for the second year in a row but slipped two placings to fourth after adding 7.2 time penalties. They made this up overnight, though, when the withdrawal of Izzy Taylor‘s Be Touchable, also a top-10 remainer, boosted them to third. Interestingly, Ros thought this year featured a harder course than last year’s track, with its energy-sapping, tight loop back around into the first water.

“I thought it rode tougher this year. There was that extra little loop at the beginning, going through the water twice, and it was just all over the place,” she explains. “Last year I had the most amazing round, and you don’t have those very often, but I definitely had to work a little bit harder this time. He tired more this year than he did last year, and I think it was just the circling around — he’s not a Thoroughbred, and he has to dig deep from the word go.”

Ros Canter and Zenshera jump into 2018’s final water. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Elsewhere in the top 10, Denmark’s Peter Flarup and his Frankie climbed from 10th to seventh, moving up one more to third overnight and adding just 5.2 time penalties. Our eventual winner Thibault Fournier, an incredibly impressive first-timer at the level, was fifth after dressage, but his foot-perfect double-clear catapulted him into the top spot with Siniani de Lathus. To watch his round back, and the rounds of his fellow French compatriots, is eye-opening — it’s suddenly easy to see how each of the tough combinations on course should be ridden. There’s a good reason for that, and it’s not just ‘Sissou’s’ naturally open stride — it’s how Thibault rides him into each fence, with minimal fuss and set-up.

Interestingly, the separate numbering of fences occasionally led to some questions — did they, or didn’t they? “I think the numbering was wrong there – if you committed to that arrowhead, you should have been deemed as presenting. It’s too close to tell,” says sixth-placed Tom Crisp. Give the above video a watch and see what you reckon.

“Michelet is very clever in how he sets courses; maybe, on first thought, they don’t look overly technical, but they are, actually – you have to keep the concentration,” explains Nick. “I think it’s the forwardness of the lines; they’re built for that very forward, very French way of riding, and when you start adding strides or not staying committed, it can cause issues. But also, within that commitment, you can get it wrong — you can commit to the distance between the first two fences in a combination, but if you have a third, that’s where we saw it unravel, somewhat. Michelet encourages forward riding, but that forwardness can just create a lack of traction in the hind end, that connection, really. If horses are used to being ridden that way — as the French horses usually are — it’s fine, but our way of riding, more traditionally, is a little bit more connected, so some of these fences end up being on the end of a horse’s stride.”

“Yes, we can” — eventual winner Thibault Fournier gives a masterclass in forward riding across Pierre Michelet’s Pau course. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Chris Bartle, chef d’equipe of the British team, agrees with this assessment: “Pierre always sets very forward distances, he really commits riders, which suits the French style of riding, and so I think those who really attacked it normally had a good ride through. The spread of questions on course were often related to that distance issue, that positivity, and saying ‘yes, we can!’ and going for it in a rather French style of riding.”

It was a great day overall for first-timers — four of the top 10 going into show jumping were debutante riders, while six of the horses in the top 10 after cross country made their debut at the level last week. Notably, three of these top 10 horse-and-rider pairs are French, including Thibault. They also had three of the four double clears we saw — Thibault is joined in this honour by fellow debutantes Alexis Goury and Clara Loiseau, as well as Gemma Tattersall and Pamero 4 —  corroborating the idea that their style of riding, and the style of riding that Pau favours, really is that different from what we’ve become accustomed to in the UK and US.

Playing the Four-Star Comparison Game

The biggest climber of the week was Great Britain’s Tom Crisp, who we spoke about in our final report from the competition. Tom moved an incredible 45 places up the leaderboard after cross country, finishing 48 places up after a double-clear show jumping round. His score of 37.8 in the first phase had him well off the pace with the 11-year-old mare Liberty and Glory (Caretino Glory x Little Runnymede, by Ginger Boy), a petite homebred owned by Tom’s wife Sophie and her father Robin Balfour. But now that we’ve seen the dressage coefficient removed, there’s much, much more room for movement — only five marks, or just over 12 seconds, separated 15th place after this phase (William Fox-Pitt and Little Fire, 30.5) from 42nd (Patricia Pytches and CES Ballycar Chip, 35.5).

Tom Crisp and Liberty and Glory. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“This year’s Pau course wasn’t as twisty as previous years — I thought it had a nice flow to it,” reflects Tom. “As a course builder, Pierre questions the horse by using open striding. Is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing? It just is what it is, really, and you have to go to Pau prepared for it. When in France, ride like a Frenchman; be open and attack the distances. Oddly enough it did work; there were certainly places where you’d walk it and think it wouldn’t, but it worked for me and it worked for most of the people who rode it positively.”

For Tom, it’s crucial that four-star tracks retain a high level of influence on the final standings, but there’s a fine line between asking the right questions and entrapment of horse and rider.

“You want to test the rider’s accuracy and ability to hold the line, and you need to test boldness and all that sort of thing, but you don’t want to trap horses and get them to a place where they no longer understand where they’re meant to be going,” he explains. “It’s such a fine line because in many ways, you want to catch people out – otherwise, you end up with a high clear rate and not a lot of change on the leaderboard. It becomes a bit cheap if everyone’s getting around; I much prefer to see a lower completion rate at the top level. If I’ve gone to a Burghley or something and I’ve not completed, I’ve always thought that that’s the way it should have been.”

We spend a lot of time debating how we can maximise the influence of the cross country phase, without setting an impossible — or dangerous — challenge to less experienced competitors. When Captain Mark Phillips got it so right at Burghley this year, I implored the eventing community to shout about it, and in this case, I say much the same thing. Pau is not yet perfect — as a four-star, it’s still in its infancy, and getting it really, truly right at this level is a very, very difficult prospect — but Pierre Michelet is to be praised for using what he learned last year to streamline the conceptual basis of his cross country course and create something that was as quintessentially Pau as we’ve yet seen.

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