Mollie Summerland might be young – just 21, in fact – and she may only have one horse to campaign at the top levels. But the Lincolnshire-based young rider has spent her 2019 season systematically proving what she and her partner-in-crime, the ten-year-old Charly van ter Heiden, who she’s produced herself, are capable of.
Today, the prodigiously talented pair put a score of 23.8 on the board, allowing them to take a commanding 3.3 penalty lead from Mollie’s mentor Pippa Funnell. Though the score is an international personal best for the pair at any level, it’s not an all-time record: that, remarkably, came in Charly’s second year of competing, when they produced a 14.5 in a BE100 section at Pontispool. Though they’re consistent performers in this phase, Charly has trended into the low 30s at the four-star level, a frustrating upshift from the mid-20s scores that he’s collected throughout his career. But today, Mollie opted to try a new tactic.
“I took a bit of a risk today in the warm-up; normally, I fall into the trap of giving him more and more and more work before his test,” explains Mollie. But the under-25 CCI4*-L at Bramham – the pair’s debut at the level – proved to be a turning point. A dressage score of 32.2 launched their week, which ended abruptly when Charly’s saddle slipped back onto his flanks across the country, and Mollie was forced to retire. “I spoke to my trainers after that [test], and we decided we’d try something different. So I lunged him for twenty minutes this morning, and then I just gave him half an hour [of work] before the test. I was a little bit nervous, because he felt full of it – he spun round as we were going around the arena before the test, and was being really naughty. I felt like I was watching a pan at boiling point! It felt like he was on the verge of bubbling over, and I was just trying to contain it all.”
But the plan, which paid dividends, wasn’t without tactical merit: “he’s such a flashy mover that if I give him too much work I can kill it, and then he loses the edge that he has over the other horses. I’ve ridden a few four-star tests now, and I’ve felt like I’ve been stuck at that point of riding good tests, but not leading tests, but I know that he’s more than capable of doing it. I’ve had to push myself out of my comfort zone and not hammer him in the warm-up, so he can come out with that super-flashy trot. But I’m not super experienced, so to sit there and try to contain these Valegro-style changes is so out of my comfort zone – but I’ve got to let him move underneath me and not restrict him.”
Though Mollie has been a familiar face on the Young Rider circuit, netting a top-ten finish in her team debut in 2018, she ricocheted into the spotlight in Belton’s Grantham Cup CCI4*-S this spring. There, she and Charly finished third of 118 competitors and won the Polly Phillips Memorial Prize, granted to the highest-placed British rider yet to make their senior squad debut. But expectations can be the heaviest burdens to carry, as Mollie discovered.
“It’s been really difficult, if I’m honest, because I started the season thinking that just getting around a four-star is great. That was definitely my mindset last year, too – even if I had thirty faults, that was great,” says Mollie with a smile. “But after Belton it was like, ‘right, so in the top ten is where I need to be.’ I felt like I was putting a bit of pressure on myself going into the competitions, thinking ‘well, I’ve been in the top ten before, I’ve been in the top five before – that’s what people expect me to do again.'”
For Mollie, who hasn’t yet aged out of Young Riders and doesn’t have the luxury of a string of horses to campaign, that pressure would become the basis for an important lesson.
“After Bramham, I was in quite a low place and I had a real wobble,” she says. “Luckily, we had a lot of lottery-funded World Class training in between, and I worked really hard with the sports psychologist in that. When you don’t have loads of horses and you’re not out all the time, you don’t see these accidents that happen – the horses pulling shoes, the tack malfunctions, the silly 20s. It doesn’t happen all the time, because I’m only going out twice a month – I’m not like other riders, who have six horses out every week. When you’re constantly competing, these things happen, but I take it a lot more personally, and I need to learn to ride the rough with the smooth and not let it get to me so much. I do find it hard, because I feel as though my reputation relies on one horse. After Bramham, all I wanted to do was go straight back out the next day and redeem myself, and I felt like I had to wait basically a month to do that. My reputation is totally based on Charly, and I don’t want to run the legs off him, but all I wanted to do was try again.”
Much of what Mollie has learned about training, competing, and building a business at the top level has come from her mentor and former employer Pippa Funnell, who was one of eventing’s earliest proponents of sports psychology. As it turns out, Pippa’s legacy goes well beyond teaching Mollie to produce top-class competitors.
“There’s a lesson that I learned from Pip that didn’t truly sink in until I’d left, and it was about perspective. She was like, ‘okay, it might feel like the end of the world at the time, but there are bigger problems in the world, and we’re lucky to be doing the sport we do’,” Mollie explains. “I think some of the things I’ve seen go on in my own life have helped me to keep that perspective. After Bramham I was gutted, but I thought, ‘I’m fine, my horse is fine, and now I need to just learn from it – and ride in a breastplate next time!'”
We suspect she won’t mind being overtaken by her young protege, but nonetheless, it’s something of a surprise to see Pippa Funnell and MGH Grafton Street in any spot but the top one after this phase, such is the eleven-year-old’s consistency between the boards.
“Now I just wish he’d get the consistency in the other phases,” quips Pippa, who rides the quirky gelding for long-time owners Jonathan and Jane Clarke. It’s easy to spot the source of her exasperation, paired as it is with an unflinching belief in the horse’s ability. MGH Grafton Street’s record is something of a tale of extremes: he’s proven that he’s more than capable of delivering the goods, with top ten finishes in CCI4*-L classes at Blenheim (2017, 2018) and Tattersalls (2017), but he’s tricky, too, clocking up problems across the country at Belton, Houghton, Bramham, and most frustratingly, when in the lead in Tattersalls’ CCI4*-S in May.
“[The consistency] is my aim for him, but he’s got a sense of humour. He really should have won at Tattersalls, but he was naughty – I’m the first to blame myself, but he’s got all the ability, and he’d been travelling class,” says Pippa. “It was his humour, his way of saying, ‘I’ll have the last laugh’ – I slowed him at the drop [off the mound] so that he could get straight into the corner after it, and then he just stopped at the drop. He’s one of those horses, though, who comes out of the stable and seems to say, ‘well, I’ll be good, but at some point I’m going to put two fingers up at you!’ But that makes me want to persevere with him – hopefully, he’s just waiting for the right event to come along and it’ll all come together! Jane’s the most patient of owners.”
That pervasive sense of humour showed through today, when MGH Grafton Street added himself to a long list of horses who spotted a monster at the A end of the arena. Fortunately, professionalism won out, and all thoughts of monsters were vanquished once his test began in earnest.
“It was a little bit of a surprise when I got down to the corner and he bucked twice,” laughs Pippa. “Luckily, I was down that end when they rang the bell, so I did a circle – and he bucked. Then I thought, ‘well, I’ve got time to do another little 10m circle’ – and he bucked again! So I then had to do a third 10m circle to say ‘listen, behave yourself!’ And then I entered. But he was good, because he behaved himself despite feeling like he was really rather enjoying himself. I was pleased that he kept a lid on it, but the judges could probably see that he was a little bit bright. But he didn’t do anything wrong, and it’s nice when they can still concentrate even if they’re a bit fresh.”
Independence Day might have come and gone the day prior, but Liz Halliday-Sharp and Deniro Z did their bit to uphold a touch of patriotic spirit between the boards nonetheless. Their score of 27.5 saw them lead the CCI4*-S at the end of the day on Thursday, and while their lead was usurped by Mollie today, they sit in a competitive third place going into tomorrow’s jumping phases.
The score represents a personal best for Deniro Z at the level, and comes just a week after the eleven-year-old Dutch Warmblood strolled to an easy victory in Brightling’s CCI3*-S, his final full run before he makes the trip to Aachen later this month. It’ll be his debut at the venue, and a first trip to the event for Liz, too – and although the proximity of the competition means that she won’t run Niro cross-country tomorrow, his performance thus far suggests that he’s peaking at exactly the right time. And those pesky flying changes, which have been his one weak spot? As it turns out, Liz has a secret weapon that’s helping to perfect them.
“I’ve been going to Talland [School of Equitation] to train with Pammy Hutton,” Liz explains. The dressage trainer’s status in the industry verges on legendary – she’s taught most of the world’s best riders, and she sizzles with wit and wisdom. And as it transpires, she’s played a pivotal role in Liz’s development as a rider. Liz began training with Pammy when she first came to the UK in 2000. Though she was based with William Fox-Pitt, travelling to Talland afforded her the opportunity to gain her BHS qualifications, and laid the foundations for a professional relationship that would impact upon her riding for many years to come.
“She really took me under her wing and put me on loads of good horses – she taught me how to do everything I know how to do now. She taught me how to teach horses to do stuff,” say Liz. “She still brings up all these things now when I see her, and I’m like, ‘you taught me that when I was 21!’ I’d say she changed my life, as far as dressage goes, so it’s been brilliant to go back. I went to see her last year for the first time in ten years, probably, and this year I’ve tried to book in as much as possible. I’ll bring five horses and ride them back to back, and it’s great, because she saw them last year.
“She’s like, the master of flying changes, too. She’s so clever with understanding them – she says they’re the only thing that’s just a trick. The horse just has to learn how to do it; it’s not like training them to do a half-pass or anything like that. It’s literally a trick. Her big thing is really focusing on the new hind leg that needs to travel forward, and then stopping the front end. It just breaks it into different pieces. She always focuses on body weight, and making sure your body’s in different places. So actually, it’s a lot of little things – maybe stopping the front end just a little bit more. But with a horse that finds it difficult – and really, Niro is the one that finds it the most difficult – it’s such a help.”
The work paid off today, with both changes showing considerable progress and development.
“The right to left change still needs work, but it was miles better than where we’ve been. The left to right one, though, was a proper one – in the test I was like, ‘oh my god, that felt clean! Was that clean?!'” laughs Liz. “It’s great practice to come and do a test in the arena here; you see a lot of experienced horses get in there and blow their wad, but he was great. He’s always been the loveliest horse to train on the flat – when I got him as a seven-year-old he knew nothing, but it all came to him so easily. Except the changes, which have taken forever! It took him years to even do a late change. I think mechanically, it’s quite hard for him, because he’s a bit bum-high – and now that he knows what he’s meant to do, if he gets it wrong he gets a bit flustered. But he’s the most wonderful horse, and I adore him – we’ve got such a great partnership, and it might be a bit cheesy, but I love him and he loves me. He’s always been my horse. He’s so cool – he just needs a bit more time.”
Now, with Aachen looming, it’s all systems go for Liz and her top horse.
“I’m so excited to go – I’m pumped. I’ve been the reserve a few times, but have never actually gone, and I’ve always wanted to,” she says. “I’ve watched it online, and I know how tough it is, but you can only know as much as you do. He suits a good, attacking course, and he’s got a ginormous stride, so a bold track will suit him.”
And if it does? Then there’ll be a third five-star on the cards for the talented gelding, who recorded a top ten finish in his level debut at Luhmühlen last year but had a surprise blip early on course at Kentucky this spring. Despite the initial disappointment, though, there’s been no lingering ill effect: “He’s back to being Niro, and being naughty in the warm-up, and launching himself around, which he didn’t do at Kentucky – I really feel like I’ve got my horse back, and the experience hasn’t affected him at all. He’s a great horse and I think something was just a bit off that day – but hey, that’s horses. Now I need to man up and go to Burghley!”
Liz has had a busy and successful week so far, with Carpe Diem IV returning from an eighteen month hiatus to enjoy a cruise around the CCI4*-S and her three CCI3*-S rides posting double clears for top twenty placings. While Carpe Diem’s 34.7 score sees him sit in 27th place overnight but, Liz explains, a competitive run isn’t the goal.
“I’m not going to run for prizes with him at all this year – hopefully he’ll run well here, and then he can have a giant holiday, and then, if I can keep things going the right way, we’ll be all in for Kentucky. He’s the most brilliant jumper, and probably the best cross-country horse I’ve ever sat on. He’s unbelievable, like, epically incredible. He went round the 4* here as his first Advanced a few years ago and just cruised round. He’s so honest, and so careful, and just desperately tries for you. He gives me an incredible feel, so I can tolerate what doesn’t feel so nice on the flat. I’ve truly never had a horse quite like him, but he’ll get there – he’s only twelve, and I’m determined to sort it. He’s so difficult on the flat – he looks really nice, and he’s so handsome, and he does clean changes and turns on the haunches and everything, but I can’t describe it. He’s just so difficult, especially in the right canter – it’s like riding four different horses. He’s always been that way, but maybe it’s more highlighted now that I’ve got so many others!”
Tomorrow, we’ll be heading into the showjumping in Barbury’s undulating main arena, and then straight to the rolling bowl of the Wiltshire estate for the cross-country challenge. Want a sneak peek at the course? Click here to check it out.
Until then, folks – GO EVENTING!