Marianne van Pelt
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Marianne van Pelt


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About Marianne van Pelt

Marianne van Pelt is an American journalist living in Ireland, where she rides and competes show jumpers and eventers.

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A Look at the History of Badminton Trot Up Fashion

Bill Levett and Shannondale Titan. Photo courtesy of Fiona Scott-Maxwell.

Bill Levett and Shannondale Titan. Photo courtesy of Fiona Scott-Maxwell.

The 2nd of May 2014 dawned cool and cloudy, a chilly wind blew, but an intrepid crowd still gathered 10-deep — those at the front having arrived early with chairs, stools and thermoses — around the trot-up area in front of Badminton House.

Who was there? Eventing fans, punters … and fashion bloggers. For their fortitude they were rewarded with a largely tweedy fashion spectacle worthy of the catwalks of London or New York. In fact, rather better thanks to the fact that every ensemble sashaying down the gravel catwalk included the ultimate fashion accessory: a super-horse.

What followed was a social media frenzy of fashion commentary — a little surprising given eventers’ pragmatic affection for jeans and paddock boots. It isn’t quite like this at any other event. Why?

Possibly because there’s nothing quite like Badminton Horse Trials, held at Badminton House, the ancient stately seat of the Dukes of Beaufort. Badminton is one of only six CCI4* events in the world and is the second of the three legs of the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing.

It’s a grand spectacle attracting crowds of up to a quarter of a million — the largest for any paid-entry sporting event in the UK and the second largest in the world. It has an impressive history, having first been declared ‘the most important horse event in Britain’ in 1949.

The grooms’ canteen is in the original great Tudor Hall; the welcome drinks party is hosted by the Duke of Beaufort, one of England’s great peers; Princess Anne and her daughter Zara Phillips have been frequent competitors. If you win, the Queen of England shakes your hand.

Perhaps it’s no wonder competitors want to look their best.

‘A real sense of occasion’

Australian Bill Levett finished 10th at Rolex last month, competed at Badminton 2014 on two horses, and is also competing this year with Shannondale Titan. He came to the UK in the early 1990s and competed at his first Badminton shortly afterward.

“There’s a real sense of occasion created by the history of Badminton,” Bill said, “and there are all those things that as a rider I read about when I was younger ‚ like the cocktail party with the Duke and the trot-up in front of Badminton House — that create the sense of stepping into another era.”

How has the trot-up changed over the past 20 years?

“For my first four-star, which was at Burghley in 1994, I wore jeans, and for many, many years I think it was only really the girls who consistently made a statement in the trot-up with their dress sense. The guys were much more subdued,” Bill said. “However over the last half a dozen years or so the guys have taken to doing so more consistently as well. It’s my personal view that it’s a nice addition to the event when people express themselves through what they wear.”

Indeed, the trot-up fashion show has increasingly captured the imagination of audiences, adding a bit of bling to traditional Badminton. Last year’s Badminton trot-up style was dominated by tweed — jackets, coats and skirts — but there was great sartorial range, with short dresses and heeled boots at one end, Ludwig Svennerstal’s tuxedo at the other, and Bill Levett’s tweed jacket with the strikingly elegant orange lining somewhere in the middle.

“I grew up in rural Australia,” Bill says, “so I’m a bit of a cowboy. My favourite ‘anchor’ clothes are Australian RM Williams products; I just feel comfortable in them. A Hume in Scotland sponsors my trot-up outfits, and they have a great range of jackets and trousers so that the only problem is there are always too many combinations of jackets, shirts and trousers to choose between. But they’re super helpful in getting me sorted in a calm manner without panic!”

Archie Hume of A Hume says, “We know our eventing customers put a huge amount into preparing for competition, getting their horses into top condition. The horses at Badminton are the premiere equine athletes in the world, and they look it. I can see why the competitors want to complete the picture by wearing something they feel great in. We’re honored to be a part of that.”

What will Bill be wearing in 2015?

“I only get to do two to three four-stars per year, and every one is special, but Badminton is unique,” Bill says. “There’s the history and then there’s the buzz of putting myself up against the big track, of putting years of prep to the test. The way people dress for the trot up reflects that, and the surprise is part of the fun.”

‘It’s always been a spectacle’

Author Debby Sly, who wrote the definitive history of Badminton, Badminton Horse Trials: Official 50th Anniversary Celebration: The Triumphs and the Tears, spent months combing through the Badminton archive while researching her book.

“If you want a historical perspective, people have always gone to watch the trot up at Badminton; it’s always been a spectacle. There are plenty of black and white photos of people sitting on hay bales to get a better view. The trot up is a great opportunity for people to see the horses close up in the flesh, without their tack, to really appreciate these incredible horses.”

But was it always a fashion show?

Debby explains, “I think people have generally always been smartly dressed out of respect, but the number of cameras you see at the event today has encouraged people to put that much more thought into their Badminton trot-up outfits. Now you see some of the younger competitors tweeting about their outfits long before the competition — something I as a horse person would be far too superstitious to do!”

Winning Badminton is the sort of thing young pony girls dream about as they drift off to sleep, the stuff of bowed heads, pressed hands, and whispered prayers, and dressing beautifully for the trot-up has become part of that dream.

Check out EN’s photo gallery from last year’s trot up at Badminton at this link and stay tuned for our full coverage of Badminton starting Wednesday! Go Eventing.

An Inside Look at Mike Etherington-Smith’s New Millstreet Design

A view of the hills beyond the Fairy Fort complex at Millstreet. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt. A view of the hills beyond the Fairy Fort complex at Millstreet. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

The great baseball player, Rogers “The Rajah” Hornsby once said, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Winter is a woeful season here on the west coast of Ireland. Storms tear off the dark North Atlantic, yanking down trees, stripping away roads. Any attempt to school a horse regularly is futile, and even the minor chore of walking to the stables leaves me rain-whipped, ice-cold, discouraged.

I tend to mope. I mourn. I see the dark side of things. I lose perspective. As the tragedy of another Irish winter unfolds, with its resonance of famine and plague, I forget that I am, in fact, just waiting for spring.

Practically the only thing that keeps me from leaping off one of the sea-bashed cliffs in front of my house is plotting my summer competition schedule. I slink round the internet, ogling the sites of summer horse trials… and the whole world brightens.

What goes into building these pleasure grounds? Who are the heroes whose dedication to natural obstacles and smooth turf makes my life worth living? I decided to find out.

Here in County Cork, we have a new cross-country course designed by the great Michael Etherington-Smith, designer for the Sydney and Hong Kong Olympics, the 2010 World Equestrian Games, the Rolex Kentucky CCI4* for the past 20 years, and many others.

After salivating over sunny photos on the website of the Millstreet Equestrian Centre, where the course has been built, I rang up Mike Etherington-Smith in a grateful mood.

Drishane Castle. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

Drishane Castle. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

“The building of a new course on this scale just doesn’t happen very often,” he explained to me. “It’s a huge investment in every sense, and it isn’t an obvious way to spend that kind of money. It doesn’t necessarily make a lot of economic sense. It’s more of a dream.”

Thomas Duggan is the dreamer. His family owns Millstreet Equestrian Centre, a horse show and events venue in the town of Millstreet. The centrepiece of Millstreet Equestrian Centre is a large indoor arena, but there are also permanent stables, restaurants, a trade village, all-weather arenas, and an international-standard grass arena. Across the street from the Equestrian Centre is a further 400 acres; this is where the new cross-country course has been built.

Etherington-Smith went on, “The site at Millstreet has great terrain for the competitors and great viewing for the spectator. The venue is fantastic, and the investment made is terrific. The Duggans have transformed it. I wish the sport had more of these.”

The new course flows over 300 acres around the ancient Drishane Castle, a 72-foot high fortified stone tower house built in the 15th-Century by Dermot McCarthy, the Lord of Munster.

The castle was taken over in 1728 by the Wallis family, who built a large estate house in the shade of the Castle. The Drishane castle, house, and estate later became a convent, and there are historic features everywhere: huge stone walls round the land, grand crenulated gates at the entrance to the formal drive, a 19th-century mill wheel and lime kiln, a prehistoric fairy fort amongst statuesque oaks, a crumbling graveyard. On the far side of the graveyard, an additional 55 acres have been set aside for a planned expansion.

A Swiss pony competitor through the Mill Water Complex. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

A Swiss pony competitor through the Mill Water Complex. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

Etherington-Smith explained that as a designer, “When you lay out a course, you always try to make it rider, horse, and spectator friendly. It was a lovely bit of terrain, with some special features. When you lay out a course you begin with the start and finish and then it sort of follows on from there.”

“The start and finish were a no-brainer in this case because you wanted these near the main venue. Then you decide where you’re going to put the water. The Duggans wanted to restore the 19th century lime-kiln, and we said why don’t we put a water there. Then you want to get the course to go up by Drishane Castle, which is spectacular. And so on.”

It took about a year to build the three-star course, with planning beginning in August 2013, when Etherington-Smith drew up the master plan for a full CCI3*, and the ground-breaking beginning in October with the cleaning and clearing of the land.

There were setbacks. Over the winter, historic storms felled dozens of trees, and it took the team at Millstreet more than a month to clear the devastation. Then in
April heavy rains forced them to push the grass sowing date back three weeks, so that the grass hardly had time to grow up before the European Pony Championships, which ran over the course last August.

An enormous amount of effort and care went into growing that grass. Rough stubble fields had to be painstakingly transformed. First the land was sculpted to smooth out curves and slopes, then a full six inches of heavy topsoil was scraped off and replaced with stone-free, perfect, well-draining earth.

As Etherington-Smith explained, “Footing is the most difficult to get right. It was all a bit nerve-wracking with the wet winter, but at Millstreet they rightly used
turf people and followed their advice to letter. A massive investment went into getting the footing right and now you have what’s there: terrific footing. Why don’t you go see for yourself?”

A view of Mount Cara beyond Millstreet. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

A view of Mount Cara beyond Millstreet. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

I drove up to Millstreet to meet Thomas Duggan, who could not have been more charming. I asked him how the economics of building a world-class cross country course work.

“They don’t,” he said. “If you want to make money with your money you don’t do this with it. You do this for the love of it. It’s a passion.”

“But it was always in our head here at Millstreet that this land would be suitable for a cross-country course. A CCI3* course is up to 6,270 metres;  a four-star is up to 6,840 metres or 7 kilometres. You need a lot of scope to do that – and thankfully we have it. We felt it would complete our facility; we’re unique in the British Isles in how many all-weather arenas we have available for the dressage and showjumping.”

Duggan cheerfully drove me round the new course in his big warm truck. The sun shone; the Irish grass glistened impossibly green as it does in all the songs and stories.

“Believe it or not,” Duggan told me, “these fields were mostly corn stubble. We had the land rented to different farmers, and the nuns before us had it rented too, so there was decades’ worth of neglect on it.”

More beautiful hills surrounding Millstreet. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

More beautiful hills surrounding Millstreet. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

“The finish on the top is vital,” Duggan went on, “so we went for a horrendously expensive three-way mixture of grass seed – I think the seed alone was over €50,000. We followed the recommendation of the Sports Turf Research Institute and sowed it at a very dense rate.”

“An agronomist called Jim Kelly nursed the baby grass from the time we set the seed. He took soil samples and rebalanced the soil where needed. He came every few days to check it, to tell us when to feed or water it.  We were worried it wouldn’t be ready in time for the Pony Championships, but God leant a helping hand.”

Duggan’s team also built three serious water complexes: a vast lake with an island, a shamrock-shaped pond with two large swan-shaped jumps carved from enormous trees felled in the storms, and a water splash incorporating the working 19th-century mill wheel.

Duggan explained, “We wanted it to be beautiful, and we wanted it to have an Irish theme. I went to all the big events in the UK and took photos of the nicest fences, and then I followed up to find out the right kind of paint. You see, a jump is like a beautiful woman: if you put the wrong paint on her she’s ruined! I also bought gypsy caravans off the Internet from up the country, and had copies of the wheels made in Poland to dress the fences. We had large and small versions made of all the fences. And we planted about 1,000 trees.”

Tons of top soil and grass seed, a lake, a pond, a thousand trees. Etherington-Smith said, “The luxury of getting involved in creating venues from scratch on this scale just doesn’t happen very often.”

No wonder.

Charging through the Fairy Fort complex. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

Charging through the Fairy Fort complex. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

“If you build it, they will come,” said a voice to an Iowa farmer played by Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams – and so he built a commercially implausible baseball field out of sheer love for the game. He built it, and players like Rogers “The Rajah” Hornsby came.

Millstreet will host its first International Horse Trials the 28th – 30th August 2015.

Michael Etherington-Smith and Thomas Duggan and all the blessed course designers and builders have built it – at Millstreet, at Millbrook, and many places in between.

We are coming. Spring is coming.

Horses In Ireland Are Like Drugs

Seller at TIHA Sale 2014 Seller at TIHA Sale 2014

“What was the best day of your life?” my young son asked me years ago.

Immediately I remembered competing in a hunter pace on a bright New England autumn morning, so clear I could taste the golden light. I remembered the fragrance of leaves, soil, saddle soap, horse sweat.

I remembered the exuberance of my dapple grey Irish Sport Horse, flying up and down flame-red hills, bounding over stone walls as if he had wings. I remembered his joy and confidence, felt the joy and confidence he gave to me. That was one of my best days, I thought. That is a day I will savour for the rest of my life.

“Was it the day I was born?” my son asked.

I started. “Oh. Um. Yes,” I told him. “The day you were born was by far the best day of my life.”


Marianne van Pelt on the best day of her life

Someone once said that horses in Ireland are a drug, and I hungered like an addict for the high of riding that Irish Sport Horse cross-country. From the day he arrived off the airplane everything was fresh, everything an adventure.

I felt lucky to have him, but at the time I didn’t know how lucky I was. Now that I live in Ireland, I know that little horse was the embodiment of centuries of hard-won traditional Irish bloodlines, bloodlines that are today under threat.

“Long ago every farmer had a horse that drew the plough during the week, hunted all day on Saturday, and took the family to church in style on Sunday. That one horse had to do everything, and the weak ones fell away,” veterinarian Des Barnwell explained to me recently at the Traditional Irish Horse Association’s (TIHA) Hunter Show and Go Sale on the grounds of Scarteen House, in County Limerick, Ireland.


Seller in front of Scarteen House TIHA Sale 2014

These horses, I was told, were mostly bred in small numbers by individual farmers, as a minor sideline to their serious farming. The horses were crosses of heavier working Irish Draughts, Irish Cobs, and Connemaras with retired Irish Thoroughbred racehorses. The Thoroughbreds brought fire and stamina, while the Draughts, Cobs and Connemaras provided hardiness.

“The ones with Connemara blood are seriously tough”, said Barnwell. “They grow on rock. They live where you die. And they’re clever. All the horses you see here can think on their feet. They get themselves out of trouble. In Ireland we’re all do-it-yourselfers – there are no rich owners – so the horses have to be good for amateurs.”


At the TIHA Sale 2014

The historic Irish breeding system sounds haphazard when compared to modern centralised state-funded scientific methods, but it worked because conditions were scant, the demands on the horses were real, and only the strongest, soundest, and smartest survived.

It worked because Irish limestone soil produces grass rich in the calcium that grows strong bones, and it worked because the Irish are natural horsemen.


At the TIHA Sale

But in the 1980s, cash-strapped Irish breeders began selling their good broodmares to rich foreigners.

“They sold the family silver,” according to Chris Ryan, one of the organisers of the TIHA sale, and the owner of Scarteen House.

“There used to be a mare harnessed in every farmyard waiting, ready to work all day long, and usually with a foal at her feet too. These were great mares. They might have looked heavy, but they were light on their feet as cats,” Ryan said as we stood in the sun watching a big grey sail around the Scarteen cross-country course.


Purchasers trying horses, TIHA Sale 2014

Over the past twenty years, these mares have become harder and harder to find. Meanwhile, in addition to selling their good homebred broodmares, Irish sport horse breeders fell for Continental stallions. Traditional Irish bloodlines, the product of centuries of hard-scrabble evolution, muddied. The TIHA is one of a few groups trying to preserve what’s left.

“We are very concerned,” Eammon Gleeson, a founder of the TIHA, told me. “The Irish Draught is an endangered breed. It’s one of the reasons for the TIHA, and one of the reasons for this sale.”

The TIHA Hunter Show and Go sale featured 42 pre-selected, pre-vetted traditionally-bred Irish Sport Horses and Irish Draughts between five and ten years of age, and 16 to 17 hands high. All the horses came with a documented pedigree showing four generations of purely Irish bloodlines.

Dozens of buyers from Ireland, the UK, the US and Europe took the opportunity to view and inspect the gleaming, braided horses, who calmly galloped round the Scarteen cross-country course, which includes the stone walls, brush, banks, water, and even wire. Buyers were then offered the chance to ride the horses over the same course and make a private deal with sellers.


Making the deal, TIHA Sale 2014

Daniel Crane, who lives in the UK and Ireland, bought three horses there last year, the first year of the sale. “You know what you’ve got once you take a horse around that track”, Crane told me, nodding in the direction of the bank. “The sale saved us hours of driving higgledy piggeldy roads from yard to yard. And one of the horses I bought here – he’s showing us he’s a great horse every time.”

No one is saying the traditionally bred are the only good horses in Ireland. Some continental crosses shine. The Irish Sport Horse Studbook dominates the sport of eventing, leading the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horse (WBFSH) rankings for eventing almost every year since the inception of the rankings in 1994.

In 2014 alone Irish Sport Horses won Rolex, Badminton and Burghley – and they weren’t all exclusively traditionally bred. But the TIHA hopes that the preservation of the traditional bloodlines will save the best traits from being watered down – or lost altogether – and allow for thoughtfully considered crosses in the future.

Seller at TIHA Sale 2014

Seller at TIHA Sale 2014

There was one saucy little grey at the sale who reminded me of my Irish Sport Horse, but someone else got there before I could even try him. In fact, many of the horses were sold that day, and most of the rest sold over the following week for anything from 5,000 to 10,000 euro.

I was disappointed. My fingers were itching to get at those reins. I’ve been sticking to show jumping lately, but the sale’s left me shaking with that old Irish cross-country hunger again. Next year I’m bringing my checkbook. I need more best days.

Note: The Monart Elite Event Horse Sale offers purchasers a similar opportunity to inspect a selection of pre-vetted Irish Sport Horses in excellent trial facilities on November 5th  2014.

Camphire Showcases Irish Horses and Hospitality

Ireland's Sam Watson on Horseware Lukeswell on their way to first place in the CIC3* at Camphire international Horse Trials. Photo courtesy of Dan McGrath/Editorial Images. Ireland's Sam Watson on Horseware Lukeswell on their way to first place in the CIC3* at Camphire international Horse Trials. Photo courtesy of Dan McGrath/Editorial Images.

Camphire International Horse Trials had a milestone year, with a record number of entries from a record number of countries, a record number of spectators and four days of almost constant sunshine. With a truly international field this year, Camphire played host to competitors from Qatar, Hong Kong, the USA, Great Britian, Australia, New Zealand and Sweden. In fact, with a 30 percent increase in entries, Camphire had to begin a day early to accommodate all the dressage times.

“We received so many entries. We had to stop and think about what we were going to do,” Camphire HT organiser Paul Brady said. “We thought about balloting, but we really wanted to accommodate everyone. So we added the extra day of dressage, and we doubled the number of stables on-site, and it’s worked out really well.”

The event, set on the grounds of the historic Camphire House on a bend in the majestic Blackwater River, was blessed with a clear day on Thursday and almost too much sun and temperatures of up to 29 on Friday. Large numbers of spectators arrived in shorts and sat by the Camphire Bar tent, tanning. There was a run on ice.

Some competitors slipped down to the old ferry crossing to swim in the river. In the stables, there was a water shortage, and water had to be trucked in by Glanbia Agribusiness. Riders walked the course in preparation for Saturday’s cross-country and began to voice concerns about the ground.

“It was too hard,” Brady said. “So we asked Fergal O’Hanlon of Equine Acres Ireland to come water the course with his aggragator. But Fergal said to me — I need someone to show me where to go or I’m going to water places that don’t need doing. So I got on a quad and drove in front of him. We started at 9 p.m. and finished at 7 a.m. without stopping. It was a long night, but it worked — the ground was good and the riders were very appreciative.”

World-renowned course designer Mike Etherington-Smith’s cross-country course flowed over the naturally undulating grounds of Camphire House and the neighbouring farm of J. Browne along the Blackwater River, with several innovative fences, including one made from an enormous fallen tree. The fallen tree’s trunk was so large that a ramp had to be built to make it jumpable.

Other jumps included bog oak and spire, the native thatching rushes from the Blackwater River. The course rode very well, but the time was tight in the CIC3* class, and no one was able to complete within the time allowed.

“There’s a push to make the course natural and in keeping with the beautiful natural environment here,” landowner Marie Browne said. “We use what’s on the ground. And there are three sisters who come to dress the fences. They’re very creative, and they do a great job making the course look fantastic.”

Ireland’s Sam Watson won the Castleacre Insurance Brokers and Chubb Insurances CIC3*, Camphire’s showcase class. It was a week of highs and lows for Watson, who has been selected to represent Ireland in the World Equestrian Games in Normandy this August and whose second son Toby was born just days before Camphire began.

Watson had a difficult start to the weekend, with minor injuries to his horses, including his top horse, Horseware Bushman. Left with only his upcoming 9-year-old Irish Sport Horse Horseware Lukeswell in a highly competitive field of 41 that included silver medalist Australian Lucinda Fredericks and British Flora Harris, the odds looked stacked against him.

However, Horseware Lukeswell and Watson put in a beautiful dressage performance on Friday to earn the high score of 42.3, which put him in the lead, almost 10 points ahead of second-place winner Flora Harris on the stunning bay gelding, Bayano. A clear round in the showjumping by Watson followed by the fastest cross-country added only 4 points to Watson’s total, garnering him the winner’s place on the podium.

In the TRM CIC2*, Ireland’s Ciara Glynn and the 7-year-old Guidam gelding Gee Que bred by Mary Quinlivan won, while the Horse Sport Ireland CCI2* was won by Great Britain’s David Doel on Miss Caruso. Doel was on form at Camphire, also winning a second in the TRM CIC2* on Billy Pastime.

The West Waterford CCI* class went to another British rider, Heidi Woodhead on DHI Bruce Almighty. The Eventing Ireland CIC* was won by the USA’s Elisabeth Halliday-Sharp, the American LeMans race car driver and television presenter who traveled over from her home in England to Camphire in a bright orange private plane and matching orange shirt. She also had a respectable eighth-place finish in the Castleacre Insurance & Chubb Masterpiece CIC3* on another Irish-bred horse.

The Bucas Young Rider CIC2* went to Great Britain’s Sophie How, riding Bojangles HRS. She also earned a fifth placing in the Castleacre Insurance & Chubb Masterpiece CIC3* with Pebbly Aga Khan, the horse she rode to individual gold in the FEI Junior European Eventing Championships in Poland in 2012. The Bucas CIC* Young Horse class was picked up by British star Laura Collett and Mr. Bass, a 6-year old gelding by the Holstein sire Carrico.

Emma Jackson, of County Down, won both the Horse Sport Ireland 4- and 5-year-old master classes, adding to her third placing in the West Waterford CCI*. The Masterclass was held on Sunday morning, and featured a new Skylighter Trophy, cast in solid bronze and presented by Joe Craig, who sponsored the trophy. The young horses were assessed on their confirmation, flatwork, a short showjumping course and an inviting short course of cross-country obstacles.

“The objective is the find the horse with the most potential as an event horse, not necessarily the finished product,” said FEI Judge Judy Bradwell, who helped establish a similar class at Badminton Horse Trials. The class is intended as a showcase of Irish event horse breeding, and Horse Sport Ireland provided a prize fund of €1000 for each class.

[Camphire International Horse Trials]