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By the time Wiltshire, England’s Barbury Horse Trials rolls around each July, there’s a definite sense of having truly made it to British summertime, however fickle that concept may be. Set in a natural bowl in the sprawling, patchwork landscape, Barbury doesn’t just become a rare sun trap – it also captures and contains all the area’s folkloric magic and distills it into something you might be able to capture if you gallop fast enough across the country. Oh, and there’s a great gin bar.
This isn’t just one of British eventing’s most beautiful sites, though – it’s also the heart of a national mecca for the sport. Countless household names of the sport live nearby, including many of the country’s bevy of relocated Kiwis. And so it’s only fitting that those Kiwis tend to come here and do rather spectacularly well for themselves: in fact, Barbury’s winningest rider is Andrew Nicholson, who has taken the CCI4*-S title here every year from 2012 to 2016, and remains the reigning champion from the last time the class was run back in 2019. As you venture towards the event, the signs on the road point you in the direction of Avebury, the largest Neolithic stone circle in Europe – and here, you’re in the domain of the horse of the same name, who proved very nearly unbeatable over this course in his heyday with Nicholson.
But while the indefatigable rider finds himself well in contention on his 2019 champion Swallow Springs, posting one of just three sub-30 scores to sit on 27.7 going into tomorrow’s jumping phases, it wasn’t quite enough to earn him the lead. Instead, that goes the way of fellow countryman Tim Price, who rides his Tokyo mount Vitali in a final outing before heading into Olympic quarantine on Sunday. The pair’s partnership is still a new one – they came together at the tail end of 2020, after the 11-year-old Holsteiner gelding was campaigned through to CCI4*-S by New Zealand’s James Avery and subsequently shuffled between riders. But although Vitali hadn’t competed in an FEI event since late 2018 by the time Tim got the ride, he hasn’t wasted any time proving himself in his new partnership: after some early-season showjumping outings in the Spanish sunshine, they headed to Strzegom, Poland, to tackle the gelding’s first CCI4*-L, which they duly won. Then, they headed to Luhmühlen last month to contest the highly coveted CCI4*-S class, where they finished sixth with some considerable first-phase improvements, eking a couple of valuable marks off of their dressage tally. Here, they’ve done the same again, putting a polished and professional 25.6 on the board – enough to momentarily silence those who wondered about this surprise choice of Olympic mount.
Though Tim was busy wrangling some of his Novice horses around Barbury’s formidable hills this afternoon, we spoke to him at length about Vitali at Luhmühlen, where Tim felt that the pieces had all finally slotted into place.
“I just know he’s going to be a horse that challenges those top dressage horses,” he said. “His trot work [has improved]; he has a really great canter with natural activity, but the trot is more of a genuine entity in that it tends to show where we’re at as a partnership. But now, I can ride much better shapes in it, and he has a great medium trot – so it’s fun to do a test where you can show that off three times in the first 45 seconds!”
Overnight third – and the last of those sub-30 scores – goes to Laura Schroter and Willem Van Wup, who are certainly among Britain’s most exciting and undersung up-and-comers at the top level. They put a 28.4 on the board, giving them a four second margin ahead of fourth-placed Ailsa Wates and Woodlands Persuasion, on 30.2.
But let’s go back to those Barbury vibes for a moment, shall we? It might not be quite back to normal yet – England is eking out its social distancing regulations for another couple of weeks, after all, and so the masses aren’t descending en masse on our horse trials just yet – but everywhere on site there’s a sense of calm that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s not a forced calm, like the kind we’ve endured through spectator-free events, nor is it a calm that suggests any lack of fierce competition at the venue. Instead, it’s a calm a little bit akin to a sigh of relief: it feels like the trepidation is easing, like several hundred jaws are unclenching, like we’re inches away from the finish line and almost within touching distance of everything we’ve loved and missed and worked our way back towards.
It’s a little bit like a lazy day at summer camp after a week of climbing mountains and doing giddy trust-falls; this week, it feels remarkably like everyone has silently agreed to do away with any of the extraneous pressure and just take a moment to enjoy the ride. Perhaps these are the moments we’ll remember once we’re out of the metaphorical woods: alongside the tough and barren bits, and the glory days to come, there will be a faint but pervasive memory of these halcyon days in which we knew something wonderful was just around the corner.
There are stories spanning centuries about sightings of phantom horseman in this pocket of Wiltshire. They gallop with abandon on small horses with flowing manes, weaving in and around Avebury Circle. The purpose of their chase is unknown: is it a summoning? Is it a celebration? Or is it all just a trick of the light; a bit of wishful thinking from the esoterically-minded? Whatever it is, their spirit is channeled here in the Barbury bowl – and we look forward to seeing what’s to come over the course of tomorrow’s day of competition. We’ll be bringing you a full report from the CCI4*-S showjumping and cross-country, plus plenty of bonus content as we soak up all the fun in the sun. You can follow along with all the action, too, via Horse&Country TV – they’ll be streaming cross-country from across the levels all day long. Don’t miss it!
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