As the sun sets for another year – ok, six months — on the UK eventing season, riders up and down the country will finally have a chance to catch their breath and reflect upon the season. For Holly Richardson, 2023 will undoubtedly stand out as one of the memorable seasons of her career, as it was this year that she and her long term partner, Bally Louis, made their 5* debut, finishing in 22nd place at Burghley – quite the result for their first crack at the level.
Holly has had the ride on thirteen year old Louis – who has no recorded breeding — since 2019, and they have progressed through the levels together, making their weekend at Burghley even more special. Louis, who is owned by Julie and Andrew Wingfield, was originally bought for their daughter, Sarah, and Holly was given the ride after Sarah gave up eventing. Louis still spends his holidays with Julie, who helps bring him back into work by taking him on ‘chatter hacks,’ with her friends and their horses, before he goes back to Holly to begin his training for the season ahead — a testament to the horse’s affable character, as Holly explains, speaking fondly of her long term partner; “He’s very easy to do everything with, though he can get hot and tense when he is very fit, and spooky – but he would never do anything naughty; he’s not got a bad bone in him. I don’t think he’s ever bucked or anything in his life, a proper good boy!”
When asked to reflect on her Burghley experience, 29 year old Holly, who also has a postgraduate degree in Equine Sports Science from Hartpury, said it had yet to sink in. Hardly surprising: like most hardcore eventers, she had an incredibly quick turnaround, taking three horses to Cornbury Horse Trials just days after she and Louis returned to her base in Richmond, North Yorkshire. It seems that her overarching sentiment, in those weeks after the event at least, was one of disbelief, a feeling that began as soon as they drove through the Burghley gates for the first time on Tuesday evening.
This is probably a common feeling amongst those competing here for the first time, set as it in in the parkland of the Cecil family home, with the palatial 16th century Burghley House providing the most beautiful of backdrop (if you’ve never seen it – ahem, where have you been!? – google it, we beseech you. House. Of. Dreams). Even as a spectator, it takes your breath way, but as Holly reveals, to compete there adds another element – “It was just so surreal as soon as you drove through the gates. You immediately knew you were at a big event – everything from getting your lanyards, to getting to sit in the riders’ lounge, which was just the next level up – you could just tell it was a big one.” Quite a fascinating insight for us mere mortals who can only dream of getting to experience that side of things. It didn’t stop there – the pinch me moments just kept on coming:
“We had a ride in the morning [on Wednesday] and then we got taken over to the main house for a rider’s briefing, which was just amazing – to go in the main was pretty cool! Then we had a photo in front of the main house with all of the riders, which was again, surreal – it’s at that point that you think, ok this is big stuff!”
No time to dwell on it though, as they had the trot up to prepare for, and Holly – unlike most of the riders at Burghley that weekend – had no official groom with her, other than Louis’ devoted owners and various friends who had volunteered their help, though they weren’t due to arrive until later in the week. Perhaps not a bad thing to be so busy at your first 5*, no time for nerves!
Even so, the reality of the daunting task that lay ahead began to sink in after she walked Derek di Grazia’s cross country course for the first time: “I just remember thinking, this is really big, and as I walked it seemed to just get bigger and bigger and bigger. I thought, surely it will start to let up at some point, but it just got bigger,” she remembers. “There was nowhere where they were kind to you, they were just biiiig fences. But I knew that I wouldn’t want to be sat on any other horse, I know how he can jump, and I know he’s got scope, and he’s so brave – I know I can trust him.” The perfect partner for your first trip around a 5* then, but even so, some of the fences seemed “unjumpable – like, why would a horse even want to jump this?!” Enter Chris Bartle – her long term trainer and mentor – and any doubts she may have had were soon swept aside; “he just makes it feel like you’re in his cross country field at home, so it seemed much more jumpable by the time I had walked it [with Chris] – I just had to take into account the terrain, and the hills,” she explains, with a wisdom defying her inexperience at this level.
Before they tackled the cross country however, they had to get through the first phase, and surprisingly, it was this that provided the most drama of the week. An earlier than expected dressage time – Thursday afternoon, instead of Friday morning – almost saw the careful plans that Holly and her dressage coach, Melissa Chapman, come unstuck. “I thought I would probably have a Friday dressage time, because I was number 38, so we’d worked out probably a Friday morning dressage,” remembers Holly. “Then we got the times, and I was last in on Thursday. I had planned for my coach, Mel, to come down and help me in the warm up on Friday, only then it turned out I was on Thursday!” Given that the dressage is, by Holly’s own admission, Louis’ weakest phase – “he tends to try too hard and gets quite tense as a result” – the help of her long term trainer was something that Holly was banking on to get the best out of him at their biggest competition to date.
Luckily, their Burghley debut meant as much to Melissa as it did to the rest of Team Louis, and she did indeed come to the rescue, cancelling the eight lessons she had scheduled for Thursday so that she could make it in time to help Holly and Louis. Even then, Louis was struggling to cope, despite Holly’s attempts to settle him; “He was quite hot, working down at the stables, and already I was thinking oh no, he’s not going to like it; he’s going to find that big arena a lot,” she recalls. Remarkably however, Louis proved her wrong – and made Melissa’s eleventh hour arrival all the more worthwhile – by keeping his cool, even when faced with the crowd’s congratulatory cheers for Tim Price and Vitali, who had just laid down an incredible first phase score of 18.7. A hard act to follow, but Holly’s own steed would go to succeed her expectations too – albeit for very different reasons – by remaining responsive and willing throughout their test. As is so often the case at such prestigious events, it was if Bally Louis knew what a momentous occasion this was, leaving his nerves behind him to rise to the challenge, and allowing Holly to hold his hand throughout the biggest test – dressage or otherwise – of their respective careers, to deliver a performance that only hours earlier, his rider was worried would be beyond him.
“When I got on to go in for the test, he actually felt really calm, and I thought oh, ok, he’s got this, and then he went in and he was unbelievably calm, just amazing,” she says in almost disbelief. “He just stayed with me and did everything I asked of him, I couldn’t believe it, actually!” Holly was even more surprised at how emotional she got after the test too: met by Louis’ ever supportive owner, Julie, who was herself in tears, Holly also found herself welling up – not something she is accustomed to, but surely a few tears at your first 5* – especially when it has got off to such a good start, are to be expected! Plus, as Holly points out “it’s such a nice feeling when they try their best for you” as those of us who have been lucky enough to experience this harmony will agree, no matter the circumstance.
However, the biggest challenge was yet to come: that ominous cross country track. Luckily for Holly though, another walk of the course found her instep with none other than but the recently crowned European Champion, and winner of the other big ‘B’ (Badminton, that is, for those of you who have been living under a rock), Ros Canter. A timely reminder, if ever one was needed, of the incredible community that exists within Eventing, even between competitiors, as well as the way that even those who compete within the highest echelons of the sport don’t deem themselves too highly to help those in the earlier stages of their careers. It is also good to hear that even Holly, herself a professional event rider, and thus much accustomed to rubbing shoulders with ‘celebrities’ like Ros, can get a little starstruck, remarking that to walk the course with such a legend was indeed, “pretty cool!”
Another early morning course walk on Saturday allowed Holly to run back over the plan that she had made in the 3 days previously, before taking Louis out for a quick ride and jump before the cross country arrived. As is often the case with a seasoned event horse, he knew what was to come, something Holly felt even that early on: “He was really hot at that point, he was ready to go. I couldn’t make him stand still – he definitely knew what was coming!” Did Holly watch any of the cross country action before her round? Not a chance! “I literally went back to the lorry and hid! I couldn’t hear any commentary, my friend just talked to me about random stuff – nothing important – she was really good [at distracting Holly] and I didn’t even think about the cross country. I wasn’t even nervous, I was just really calm and relaxed.” Her unflappable nature is certainly a strong point – as has been well documented by even the most experienced of competitors, nerves are almost unavoidable on cross country morning, and something that many top riders have had to learn to manage effectively, but it seems that this is not something that Holly has to deal with. Lucky for some!
Maybe the lack of nerves can also be attributed to her unfailing belief in her partner that day – a lean, mean, cross country machine, who made nothing of Ian Stark’s notoriously challenging CCI4*-L at Bramham earlier in the Summer, where he finished 22nd. Since the early days of his career, he has shown incredible ability and bravery across country – “Ever since I did my first Novice on him, he has been unbelievable, he’s just flown up the levels and I’ve never come across anything that has phased him yet. Everything I ask him to do, he just keeps saying yes, and keeps jumping. We have had a few mistakes along the way, but it’s usually because I have made an error and fallen off him or something – he’s never actually done anything wrong,” explains Holly, self-deprecatingly. Unnecessarily so, it must be said, given that she has produced him to this level herself and as we all know, teamwork makes the dream work. This proved to be the case once again at Burghley. Her initial reaction to her clear round? Simply that, “It was really good.” Yet this does not really do it justice for theirs was one of the classiest rounds of the day, belying of their inexperience at the level.
As rider after rider encountered problems, and the leader board changed almost none stop throughout the day, Holly and Louis almost made the course look easy, taking the direct routes and making mincemeat of even the toughest of the combinations. Even Holly was surprised with how easy Louis made it feel: “He just flew round, I couldn’t believe it! He just really surprised me – I mean, he’s an amazing horse, and I knew he could do it, and I knew he was brave enough, but it’s a different level, isn’t it?” She’s not wrong there: Burghley is often ranked as the world’s toughest 5*, with the already challenging cross country course made even more so by the extraordinarily undulating terrain, making the time particularly hard to achieve, even if you do survive the infamous Burghley challenges – challenges such as the Leaf Pit, the ginormous Cottesmore Leap, the Trout Hatchery – the list goes on. It was at one such challenge, Defender Valley – which course builder Derek di Grazia had riders jump through not once, but twice – that Holly was given a further boost by shouts of encouragement from Louis’ feverishly excited support team, as she recalls, laughing:“You can hear it on the TV – it’s quite funny – they all scream ‘Go on Louis!’ and from then I was like, right we’ve got this!”
Even so, the further around the course they went, jumping fence after fence without issue, Holly found herself increasingly amazed by how well it was going, comforting herself that even if it did all go wrong before they crossed the finish, it wouldn’t matter because they’d already achieved a fair amount. “Every fence I jumped, I kept thinking, oh well, we’ve ridden that, it doesn’t matter if it ends now because we’ve jumped the Leaf Pit – I can say I’ve jumped the Leaf Pit – and then he jumped the Trout Hatchery and I thought the same – that’s brilliant, he’s jumped that, it’s fine, and then he just kept going and going! Before I knew it, I was flying up to the last fence, and I thought right! Don’t mess it up now,” offering a generous – and hilarious – insight into the mind of a 5* event rider!
Met at the finish by Julie and Andrew, somehow Holly managed not to cry, despite the rest of her support team being overwhelmed with emotion. “I was just amazed that he had done it!” Swept off to speak to the media – another new experience – Louis was taken care of by the veritable army of supporters that had come down to cheer him on (who needs one groom when you can have several?!), Holly was understandably exhausted by the Saturday evening. As for her incredible horse, he took no time to recover: “We trotted him up that evening, and he just bounced out, he had a bit of grass, and lots of apples and carrots, and he was really happy with himself – and he was again on Sunday morning.”
Again, Holly was thrilled with Louis’ performance in the show jumping, too. Very few riders managed to pull off a clear round – just 6 out of the 32 combinations that came forward on the final day left all of the rails in their cups – and Louis was no different, bringing 2 rails down, to finish on a score of 70.9, having incurred 26 time penalties the day before, too. For Holly though, ever pragmatic and positive, it was still a very good performance from her horse. “He had a couple [of poles] down, but he jumped fab, so I couldn’t really ask for any more of him on that last day,” she says, fondly. Plus, as she points out, the final phase – like the first – can be worked on and improved upon, whereas a naturally brave cross country horse is hard to come by, and Louis certainly proved himself to be a pro in that respect; “Show jumping wouldn’t be his best phase anyway, so a couple down is fine – we can work on that – but we have definitely got our cross country horse.” It is not a slip of the tongue that sees Holly refer to Louis as ‘our’ cross country horse but instead is tribute to the fact that Holly is surrounded by a mass of supporters – not least of all Louis’ owners – something that she is evidently very aware of, and indeed grateful for. As the old adage goes, ‘it takes a village,’ to get a horse to this level, and this is all the more apparent by Holly’s memories of the event, which are peppered with mentions of the various people that helped to make the Burghley dream a reality.
It is a reality that Holly – and her band of merry men (and women) – will be able to relive time and again, too, as Julie made sure to buy many a photograph of her fearless horse and his rider enroute to that coveted top 25 placing in their 5* debut – as well as the video. The initial screening of that video had yet to take place, though plans were already in place for Holly, Julie and the various other people that make up Team Louis to gather round and relive that momentous week together – along with the all important Champagne of course! That, along with the photographic evidence of their fairy tale weekend, will surely provide a glimmer of light in the long, dark winter to come – along with the promise and excitement of what lies ahead for this formidable duo next season, too – not least of all a trip around another, rather prestigious, British 5* (hint, it also begins with B,) in the Spring. If every thing goes according to plan, that is.
For now though, Louis is back at home with Julie, enjoying a very well earned break – though the same cannot be said for Holly, who still had the latter end of the season to complete with her younger horses, at least one of which could perhaps be her next 5* horse. Still, the memory of what Holly refers to, in her usual, understated way as “a pretty good week” will leave her flying high for some time yet, as well it should, for she and Louis not only showed the power of what hard work, grit and determination can achieve, but also, more than ever, what horse and rider can achieve when they have such an unbreakable faith in one another, and a bond that can make even the wildest of dreams come true. Here at Eventing Nation we cannot wait to see what lies ahead for this dynamic duo next season, and until then…Go Eventing!