Bec Braitling Reflects on a Return to 5* Two Decades in the Making

Bec Braitling and Caravaggio compete in the Lexington CCI4*-S. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Australian rider Bec Braitling got her first taste of five-star competition in 2003 at the age of 22. It was the final year of the long format of competition at Adelaide, and also the year eventual American transplant Boyd Martin would collect his first win at the level with True Blue Toozac.

Bec was teamed up with a 15.2 Australian Stock Horse / Thoroughbred mare, Just A Lady, who was also the first horse she had ever owned, purchased as a coming 3-year-old when Bec was 9. Breeding aficionados will appreciate the mare’s link to Will Faudree’s famous partner, Antigua, with whom Just A Lady shared the sire Matchwinner.

Bec and Just A Lady grew up together.

Together, Bec and “Lady” represented Australia in Trans-Tasman Young Rider Championships and World Cup qualifier competition before the mare was retired at the age of 18.

She now readies for a return to the level, a journey over two decades in the making and spanning three continents, this time with the tall, dark, and handsome British Sport Horse gelding Caravaggio (Vangelis – Courtesan, by Handstreich), who is owned by Bec’s longtime supporters at Arnell Sporthorses.

Tasting success at the top levels of the sport early on in life can be a blessing and a curse. Finding a top horse is often likened to discovering a needle in a haystack, but younger Bec didn’t know this yet.

Bec competes at Adelaide with Just a Lady.

“I thought it was pretty normal that you had a horse at the upper levels all the time,” she recalls now. “And then I didn’t have another horse like Lady, for quite some time actually.”

The Thoroughbred gelding Just Jealous (no relation to Just A Lady) came along soon after Lady and would be an Advanced horse for Bec, but a move up to 5* didn’t happen. But it was this horse that would travel to the United States with Bec, who had set her sights on relocation early on in her career after spending her summer break working for Phillip Dutton. In 2008, she’d follow the path set by other Australians who came before, hopping a flight for America with plans to settle there and start working back toward the top of the sport once more.

“It was always my plan to move here,” Bec said. “I had done what I could do in Australia; I did my first Advanced as soon as I was old enough and had hit so many goals with Lady. I think I knew that if I wanted to do this in a bigger way, I would need to do it somewhere else. We had grown up with the generation that had moved to England, and now people were starting to move to the U.S.”

Bec Braitling and Caravaggio. Photo by Sherry Stewart.

Bec started out basing with Phillip Dutton at his True Prospect Farm (PA) home base, eventually making friends with Jennie Brannigan, who told her how much she would love California. Jennie then in turn introduced Bec to Olympic medalist and Kentucky 5* winner Gina Miles, for whom she would end up working as an assistant. In this position, Bec honed her skills producing young horses and learning the ins and outs of running an eventing business. Eventually, Bec met Lauren Burnell, who she began coaching and eventually importing and re-selling horses with. On one fateful trip to the UK to shop for horses, the pair decided it was time to look for a horse for Bec to produce for top level competition.

Caravaggio was 7 when Bec and Lauren met him in England; he’d been sourced by Mike and Emma Winter and had, despite his pure show jumping breeding, shown some prowess as a prospective eventer. Sitting on “Ernie” for the first time gave Bec a feeling she couldn’t shake: “He always felt like he could jump a house, so I was in love from the beginning. It’s funny. I always said ‘I’m going to take this horse to Kentucky one day’, even though I had thought my five-star years were well and truly over.”

Bec Braitling and Caravaggio II. Photo by Ride On Photo.

Despite getting a “later” start to the sport as a 7-year-old, Ernie took to it like a fish in water. Dressage has been the pair’s biggest challenge; Bec describes the gelding as “really long and the back parts are really far from the front parts, so [dressage is] a constant struggle, but it works great for galloping and jumping!”

As Caravaggio’s career progressed to the Advanced and 4* level, Bec also hit the radar of the Australian selectors once more, this time as a potential senior squad member.

Originally, the target was for Ernie to step up to the 5* level in 2023, but a minor health setback would keep that plan from coming to fruition. Looking back, Bec is appreciative of the extra time she had – and the opportunities that came about in the original goal’s place.

In the summer of 2023, Bec was tapped to represent Australia in overseas competition, traveling to Europe to contest the CCIO4*-S at Aachen (Germany) and the FEI Nations Cup of Eventing leg at Haras de Jardy (France) before continuing on to the UK to compete in the 4*-S at Hartpury and the 4*-L at Blenheim.

Bec Braitling and Caravaggio II strike quite a profile. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Bec recalls her experience at Aachen as a pivotal, defining moment in her and Ernie’s partnership. “I was very overwhelmed at first,” she describes. “Aachen was very eye opening for me in that sense. That was my first really ‘thrown in there’ experience. I would never exchange that because it helped me decide if I was going to stick it out. I was really grateful for that really tricky introduction and I now feel really confident in how to manage those opportunities for my horse. I made a mistake there and got caught up, but I just remember thinking ‘holy hell I can’t believe how good this horse is,’ so that gave me the confidence to want to stay in Europe and work through that and gain experience. All the events I did were great for producing him to that standard where I felt like he could tackle this next step.”

She also noted the education she received in Europe regarding conditioning. “Learning in Europe about being able to condition him a little better – that really changed him,” she said. “He’s a completely different shape now; he’s gone down a few girth sizes. I grew up riding Thoroughbreds where the fitness came a little easier, and conditioning them versus Ernie who looks bloody but ultimately he’s still a warmblood has been challenging so that was a big part of the learning.”

Praise for “Ernie”. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

I asked Bec if it felt wholly different, aiming at a 5* so many years after her first one. “Weirdly it doesn’t feel too different,” she mused. A major difference this time will be the fact that the competition is now in its modern, short format. “I do remember thinking that the steeplechase was very fast and very long and then you went out for another twelve minute course after that. So it’s funny, even when as I’ve been doing my gallops, especially my longer gallops, I have been reflecting more on what it was like to be out on Lady doing that, so I feel like I have the benefit of having lived through that time. A five-star is a five-star, and doing one has a sense of history about it.”

Bec Braitling and Caravaggio leap into space in true Ian Stark style. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

These days, Bec is based out of the Baxter family’s Twin Rivers Ranch (Paso Robles, CA), staying busy competing her string of horses as well as coaching (she’s a sought-after clinician and has also coached Young Riders for Area VI and the USEA’s EA21 program). She’s a vocal proponent of eventing on the West coast, while also acknowledging the benefit of venturing outside of one’s comfort zone when it comes to preparing for a major milestone.

“I think what’s really important is somewhere in the horse’s development, there has to be that exposure to East coast competition,” she elaborated. “Anything out of your comfort zone is what you really need to do. I would have been more inclined to go east had I not gone to Europe last year, but in that sense you have to know what you’re preparing for instead of being surprised when you get there. For me to even have done [the Lexington CCI4*-S] and Tryon last year, it was beneficial to expose myself at those competitions before I try and do something big like a five-star, and I think that goes for everyone. I think that’s key for people like James [Alliston] and Tamie [Smith] – they know what’s expected. It’s not saying you can’t prepare that horse for the competition from here, but you definitely need to get your feet wet ahead of time. And I think that’s really important for all of us – yes travel is annoying but if you want to live here you can’t have your head in the sand. You need to know what level you need to be at in competition and training, and you do need to immerse yourself in that at some point.”

Bec Braitling and Caravaggio II. Photo by Sherry Stewart.

While the major milestone of ticking that 5* box looms, another prospect also sits on the horizon: Bec is currently eligible to be selected for a spot on the Australian team for Paris. But she’s keeping the next competition at the front of her mind for the time being. “For me ultimately there’s not many times you get the opportunity to do a five-star and for Ernie and myself it’s a real focus to ride at that level,” she said. “My focus is really on that, so I’m thinking about getting the best performance I can out of there instead of trying to play a safe route. You never want to pass up opportunities.”

21 years can all at once feel like multiple lifetimes and the blink of an eye. The world, and the sport of eventing, has changed immensely since Bec last left the start box at a 5*, but she’s approaching the experience knowing she’s done her homework and that she’s wielding all of the knowledge she’s picked up along the way.

“Funnily enough, I think I took it a lot for granted at that age when you experience it in that way,” she said. “Whereas you come to it twenty years later with all the ups and downs in between, maybe you have a bit more of a jaded approach, but ultimately it’s a very similar feeling.”

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