It’s been two achingly long years since we last had a CCI5* in the UK, and Britain’s conglomerate of eventers have felt every last minute of that wait. All, perhaps, except Pippa Funnell who, as the winner of Burghley 2019, has been Britain’s de facto five-star champion.
Okay, okay, maybe she’s been missing it too: “at my age, you don’t want to wait too long — I don’t know how brave I am these days,” she joked through the afternoon as the field of 32 came forward for their first-phase efforts. She certainly didn’t drop the ball in defending her title, either, though this week’s effort comes at Devon’s one-time-only Chedington Bicton International CCI5*, which acts as a replacement for Burghley this year. After delivering a top-ten test on her first horse, the stalwart Majas Hope, she came back into the ring at the end of the day and threw down a 23.9 with the lanky 12-year-old Billy Walk On.
“It’s not often I’m delighted, but I was delighted with the way he went,” says Pippa, who opted to scale back both horses’ flatwork in the lead-up to the event — a decision that paid dividends.
“He’s a very, very big horse, and I have to be careful I don’t overdo the work, so he’s done lots and lots of fitness work, which they’ll obviously need for this sort of track,” she explains. “But over the last week, I’ve been careful not to do too much dressage — and not just for the horse’s benefit. With [first ride] Majas Hope, I’ve found a much better system for him, and that is never to put a dressage saddle on [at home]. And I thought, ‘well, if it works for him!’ And actually, I’m much happier not doing sitting trot in a dressage saddle, so both horses have been in jumping saddles all week and the only sitting trot [I’ve done] is in the dressage test.”
“Yesterday he was quite fresh and tricky, so I did quite a lot with him yesterday and again this morning. And thenI held my nerve and really just kept him walking, because when he came out this afternoon he felt really on it and with me, so I thought, ‘I’m not going to do too much — it’s got to be [in the ring], not outside.”
That meant that when he entered the capacious main arena, he was able to make the most of his considerable movement to deliver a very nearly foot-perfect test.
“He was fabulous in his brain, and it’s all credit to the team here: it was a wonderful arena to ride in, lovely to ride on the grass, and actually, it was a lovely atmosphere. He was lovely to ride, and I’m pleased I did him justice. He’s always consistent, and has been pretty consistent in his tests. I tend to have one little blip in his tests, and it’s normally in a change or something. He’s getting stronger; he’s a really big, long horse and quite a lot to keep together.”
The last time Pippa found herself in this position, she went on to win Burghley — and though she’s perennially modest about her ability to deliver a fast and fierce clear round, it’s clear that she’ll be a formidable force to be reckoned with over tomorrow’s tough track.
“We all know what the sport’s like — I’ve got two horses that I feel I’ve got very fit, and I’m very much hoping they’re going to go well, but I know I’ve got speedier people and younger people snapping at my heels. My job is to give my horses as good, as safe and as fast a trip as is possible. Who knows what the results will be at the end of it, but when I get out there, I’m pretty sure I’ll be wanting it and competitive, and if I don’t, then I have to get my act together!”
And just as she was at Burghley, she finds herself just ahead of her great friend and longtime competitor Piggy March: “It’s very good news to get in front of Piggy, because she’s always at her best,” she laughs.
Piggy, for her part, took Britain’s other CCI5* back in 2019, winning Badminton with the tough and super-consistent Vanir Kamira. They posted a 25.5, which is her second-best score at the level — she posted a 25 at Badminton back in 2018, and regularly scores competitively despite not necessarily being built for this phase.
“[Dressage trainer] Ian Woodhead always tells me — because I’m like, ‘it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough!’ — that honestly, it looks fine. I know with her that the ‘clear round’ is the most important thing. I have to have her mind in the right place,” says Piggy. To make that happen, head girl Amy Phillips “just loose lunges her forever. We just try to sort of bore her, because she is what she is.”
“I joke the night before, saying ‘I’m going to make her into Valegro tomorrow!’, but she doesn’t find it easy and she’s a definite mare. There’s that fine line of it being okay or not. If she’s happy and she smiles, her movements are up two marks anyway, even if the movements are the same, because her expression can change her whole outlook.”
Piggy has long been waiting for another chance to run ‘Tillybean’ at this level, where she’s able to shine.
“She was fourteen when she last ran at Burghley. She’s dreadful at one-days; she’s like, ‘what’s the point of being here?’ and she gives no feel. You can’t just pick her up and go into a dressage test; this actually took the last month of trying to get her back into shape mentally and physically so that I can just get on her ten minutes before, pick her up and put the pressure on, and have her believe and trust and go and do her best. So the one-days are quite painful, so she’s not been running very much, and I was just hoping that she would come back into shape.”
Though there’s something admittedly surreal about a five-star in a new place, Tilly — like many of her fellow four-legged compatriots — is wholly aware of what she’s here to do.
“She’s used to Badminton and Burghley and she knows the places well, so she knows when she walks to the arena [that she’s at a five-star]. This is different, but even things like going on the grass — I hadn’t done that all week because she has delicate feet, so we have to stay wherever we can that’s as soft and pleasant as possible to keep her happy. And so I think she thought, ‘this is something new; this is an occasion!'”
That innate perception of an occasion — and the desire to rise to it — is what makes the mare such a success at the upper echelons of the sport, says Piggy.
“You wouldn’t pick her out [as an obvious superstar] like a Ballaghmor Class, that’s like, boom, but my god, her heart is just… you know, she’s a pain in the butt all the time, but that heart is what a good mare is all about.”
Making your CCI5* is always a thrilling, nerve-wracking prospect — but for 27-year-old Will Rawlin and his self-produced VIP Vinnie, their debut has been nothing short of magical so far. They sit third going into tomorrow’s cross-country after delivering a 25.6, even despite two early errors in the trot work which saw Vinnie break into canter.
“Being behind Pippa and Piggy is amazing,” says Will. “I’m super proud of him, because he just pulled it out of the bag. I made an absolute howler of a mistake in the first medium, and I was like, ‘ah, shit, we’ve really messed this up.’ But then I thought, ‘okay, right, just relax. That’s one movement done, and there’s plenty more to come’. So we knuckled down and he really gave it his all — but there’s so much more to come from him.”
27-year-old Will, who led the dressage at Blenheim on Vinnie in 2019 and finished third in the CCI4*-L for under-25s at Bramham that year, knows his horse as well as he knows himself by now — quirks and all.
“He’s quite arrogant, and he knows he’s good and has an opinion. When Michael, my groom, was getting him ready and doing quarter markers, Vinnie was absolutely having none of it and wouldn’t stand still — he’s very opinionated and he knows he’s special, so he likes to tell everyone he is.”
Now, on the eve of the biggest challenge of their lives and in an enviable position to tackle it from, Will is remaining positive — but pragmatic — about what’s to come.
“I’m excited and ready to get stuck in, but equally, it’s my first five-star,” he says. “I do want to be competitive but my main aim is to get my first completion and get that under my belt with a good ride.”
The road to five-star hasn’t necessarily been straightforward for the talented 11-year-old Fonbherna Lancer. He was originally produced by New Zealand’s Neil Spratt, who gave the gelding his FEI debut back in 2018, and from then on out, Izzy had the ride, producing him to four-star and campaigning him at Boekelo in 2019. After that, though, owners The Lancer Stud moved the horse to Piggy March’s string, and she competed him successfully through 2020 and early 2021, notching up top-five finishes in CCI4*-S classes at Burnham Market and Little Downham. The plan had originally been to aim him for his CCI5* debut at Burghley this autumn, but when the cancellation announcement was released earlier this spring, his owners decided to reroute him to Luhmühlen. But Piggy wasn’t yet qualified to run a five-star with him, as she’d withdrawn before cross-country in their one CCI4*-L entry because of concerns about the ground, and so the horse was moved back to Izzy five weeks before the event. Then, of course, those pesky travel restrictions came into place, and Izzy was also temporarily sidelined with a broken collarbone, so Luhmühlen didn’t happen for them — and now, he makes his five-star debut in the originally intended week at Burghley’s replacement event.
Today, though, they made the best of their unique situation, earning themselves 25.7 for overnight fourth place.
“We made mistakes, quietly, all over the place,” says Izzy. “He’s such a beautiful horse in his brain and his movement and everything. I just get annoyed with myself because he’s so beautiful and a little mistake feels like a massive one on him, whereas on a more average horse you wouldn’t even notice it. I hope with some more cementing of our partnership, he’ll learn to enjoy the atmosphere in the future and be a real show off. We haven’t really done very much, so we’ll have to have a bit of trust tomorrow.”
There are warhorses, and then there’s eighteen-year-old Ringwood Sky Boy, who makes his seventeenth (yes, really) CCI5* start this week with New Zealand’s Tim Price. Initially bought as a cheap resale project with a penchant for bolting, ‘Oz’ couldn’t be shifted and has since become a part of the furniture at the Price family’s Wiltshire farm, where Tim has put in the time and effort to help his 2018 Burghley winner thrive in his work. Today, that resulted in a competitive 26.7, good enough for fifth place overnight, which puts them in a strong position to climb from tomorrow.
“I’m just super proud of him, because he’s not a dressage horse. Over the years, he’s learned to work with it and to try and enjoy it a little bit — and he almost stood still three times, so that’s good,” says Tim with a laugh. “It’s not a given with him, because his anxiety sits quite close to the surface. But he’s a senior man now, and I think he’s learned to deal with who he is. He really does try, and that’s the thing with him — what used to just be exertion and effort in just one dynamic, which was just to throw himself to the other side of the jump whether it was a big five-star fence or a showjump that he wasn’t supposed to touch, he’s been able to refine that desire to please into being the whole package for doing this sort of job. I’m super proud of him, and he’s a credit to himself, really.”
William Fox-Pitt returns with Oratorio II for the horse’s second CCI5* of 2021, after a competitive run at Kentucky this spring ended with a surprise fall at the tail end of the course — but Oratorio, who’s a son of William’s Pau winner Oslo and a previous Blenheim CCI4*-L runner-up, looks fit and well as his redemption arc yawns ahead of him. Though their test was, perhaps, rather on the conservative side today, it was correct and pleasant, earning them 27 and overnight sixth place.
“Maybe it was a little bit too dull to get in the low twenties, but I thought he really did his best and I was thrilled with him,” says William. “And I was really thrilled I went the right way, because I’ve never done this test before and the brain doesn’t always work these days. You never quite know when it’s going to let you down!”
Their score today is less than a penalty better than the 27.9 they posted at Kentucky, but William says that the quality of the work has improved in the interim period — an assertion that bodes well for future, bolder efforts.
“The Kentucky test was very nice, but Chris [Bartle] gave me some comments and on the videos, which was really useful, and I’ve worked on that to get a bit more expression,” he says. “He couldn’t have done much better; he gave me a really good feeling and felt very rideable. I could always probably say that I should have ridden a bit more, but I know today that some horses are feeling quite tense in there. He was actually very cool, and I’m pleased about that because it’s quite isolated out there — they’re certainly on a stage.”
World champion Ros Canter comes to Bicton off the back of a highly successful trip to Scotland’s Blair Castle last week, where she won both the CCI3*-L and CCI4*-S, and her mount this week is another up-and-comer — this time, the 12-year-old British-bred mare Pencos Crown Jewel, who overcame some stage fright for a 27.1. Like Pippa before her, though, Ros’s success in the ring has come partly as a result of scaling back her flatwork enormously at home.
“I really haven’t practiced a test [with her], so I was quite nervous I was going to go the wrong way — I like to practice,” she explains. “She just likes hacking on a long rein, to put it simply. The excitement you saw here was actually nervousness; she’s actually a lazy horse, but she’s quite out of her comfort zone with people. She likes to keep herself to herself in the stable and everything, and people around her make her suspicious. We call her Miss Health and Safety at home — she’s just a suspicious person and she wants to make sure everything’s okay before she does something, so it’s just about making sure she’s all right, telling her she’s a good girl, and not telling her off. I’ve just found that hacking her on a long rein and keeping her happy and relaxed is really her way. She’s so honest that she’ll do everything you ask her to if you have her in the right frame of mind. She doesn’t need to do it every day — she just needs to be happy.”
This is ‘Jasmine’s’ second trip to Bicton this season — she finished ninth in the tough CCI4*-L earlier this summer, adding 7.6 time penalties to her 32.4 first-phase score.
“She came here in June and was very good — I was just a bit slow. But who knows, to be honest. Every time I’ve stepped up a level I’ve thought, ‘she probably won’t go another level’, and then she keeps going. So I’m very openminded about it — we’ll take it as it comes, but I know that whatever she’ll do, she’ll do her very best.”
As if leading a CCI5* isn’t enough, Pippa Funnell also sits eighth on her first ride of the day, the reliable Majas Hope. They put a 27.4 up, making this the third international test in a row that the 14-year-old gelding, who has historically been a low-30s scorer, has delivered in the 27 bracket. But the exceptional performance came after a slightly tricky morning for the rider.
“I had just changed into my whites all ready to go, and was trying to stay away from the puppy and the dogs so I could try to stay clean, and then I get the distress call from Emily, my groom,” she explains. Emily had begun studding the gelding up for his test, only to discover a problem: “I’ve got a fantastic farrier, but hey — we all make mistakes, and one of the front shoes had the holes punched in, but he hadn’t threaded them. So I couldn’t get any studs in that one front shoe. But you know, that’s the fabulous thing about our sport; everyone was so accommodating. Unfortunately, the blacksmith was stuck in traffic, but I was allowed to slip in later in the order.”
The only other option, she says, would have been to do the test sans studs in front: “and on grass, that would be like me running in one high-heel,” she says.
Pippa opted not to give Majas Hope any more work with the extra time she’d been afforded, a decision that evidently complemented her low-key approach to the final week of preparations she’s undertaken at home. But although her rejigged times allowed her to ride her test under better circumstances, it’s had a major impact on the structure of her day.
“I got up very, very early this morning to work in for a ten o’clock test,” she explains, “and then I was going to ride and then walk the course.”
Shifting her test to just before the lunch-break meant that she didn’t have enough time between horses to do her second walk, though: “so I’ve only actually seen the course once so far, because obviously [this event] is a day shorter!”
“Oh god, what’s wrong with me?!” laughs Gemma Tattersall, wiping a second flood of tears away after her test with Chilli Knight, which earned the pair a 27.9 for overnight ninth place. It’s not hard to see why she might be feeling a touch emotional, mind you: “I guess having produced him from the beginning,” she reasons, “and [because] he was like, ‘mummy, I’m doing my best!’ He always does his best, but he was just great. If I was being mega-critical, in the second change he was just a little bit extravagant — it wasn’t quite as perfect as the first one. But I thought he did the best trotting he’s ever done. I mean, his trot is terrible, but it was very good trotting for him! I was just really proud of him.”
‘Alfie’ is a son of Chilli Morning, William Fox-Pitt’s 2015 Badminton winner, who relocated to Gemma’s Sussex yard upon his retirement and was a significant part of her breeding programme. That means that Gemma hasn’t just known her eleven-year-old since he was a youngster — she’s known him since the day he was born.
“He’s a funny little horse,” she says fondly. “I wouldn’t say he’s the brightest horse in the world, but he just always tries to please, and that’s what makes him what he is — he just always tries his best. In training, in competition — he always tries to do what I’m asking him. I describe him as a typical gelding and a ‘yes man’; if I ask him to do something, he’ll give it a go. Very rarely is he difficult or in any way naughty. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him put his ears back in his life; he doesn’t know how to be nasty or horrible at all. He’s not a flamboyant jumper or anything — he makes me laugh out loud sometimes, because if he comes to a fence that’s a bit wider he just goes ‘oh, mum, I think I need to stretch my knees out further!’ Whereas other horses might [jump bigger].”
Though Alfie’s five-star debut in 2019 saw him pick up an education 20 penalties, he’s finished no worse than seventh in all three of his CCI4*-L starts and has established himself as one of the fastest, most consistent cross-country horses at the four-star level. But, as Gemma explains, eventing isn’t so cut-and-dry that she can guarantee she’ll still be in this position come tomorrow evening.
“At the end of the day, he’s a horse, not a machine, and anything can happen. Look at my falling off Arctic Soul at Burghley two years ago — he’d done something like ten five-stars and never had a problem, but I fell off. Anything really can happen.”
Olympic gold medallist Oliver Townend brought two horses, each at either end of the experience spectrum, to Bicton this week — but it was the 16-year-old long-time campaigner MHS King Joules who found himself in the best position at the end of the day, sitting tenth on a 28.1 despite some early spookiness in the test.
“That’s him — he’s getting more like that as he gets older, unfortuantely, which is probably not the right way around to go,” laughs Oliver. “But while he’s sound and healthy and definitely wanting to do it — perhaps too much, sometimes! — we’ll keep going with it. There’s no pressure on him — he’s an old horse now, and we all know that he’s very talented, but we also all know that he’s very tricky in all three bits. But we respect him and love him for who he is, and we work with him every day with the quirks. We’re very happy with him.”
Tomorrow takes us into the heart of the action, with cross-country getting underway from 12.30 p.m. local time/7.30 a.m. EST. The big, bold, hilly track looks set to be enormously influential — and you can get a preview of what’s to come with insight from designer Captain Mark Phillips here. For all the information you need to watch the action, click here.
We’ll be back with plenty more content from Bicton — until then, Go Eventing!