Day one at the Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials didn’t quite start how Tom McEwen might have planned — “I’ve got puppies in my lorry, and they woke me up at five!” he bemoans with a laugh — but nevertheless, he rallied those dwindling energy levels to produce a serious test on Fred and Penny Barker’s oversized MHS Brown Jack to take, and hold, an early lead in the CCI4*-S for eight- and nine-year-olds. And as in the CCI4*-L, that day one gauntlet isn’t going to be an easy one for tomorrow’s competitors to catch: they posted the gelding’s four-star personal best of 24.6, uniting the judges at E and M, who each gave the smart test a 75%.
That test came despite an unforeseen challenge: “I was hoping he’d have a friend next door in the ring,” says Tom, referring to the side-by-side competition arenas, which have seen horses and riders entering in pairs to perform their tests in tandem through the day, “but there was no one there. So I was like, ‘right — he’s going to have to be really mature.’ And he was; he was fantastic.”
The ride, he says, was just about “on par with his test at Bramham”, at which he scored a 28.7, but today, both the highlights and the little errors were more numerous.
“With him, it’s just general progression through basics and strength,” says Tom. “His highlights are that there’s a lot more air time, but in a relaxed way rather than with tension, though that’s probably the wrong word. It’s just really nice air time. The little mistakes were that he just got a little bit tense coming into his last change, and because I went for a bit more extended trot today, we just took two seconds to find a balance.”
But, he reasons, “they’re all minor minor things and it’s all part of the learning stage.”
For a big horse — the nine-year-old Irish Sport Horse (OBOS Quality 004 x Gowran Lady, by Cavalier Royale) sticks at over 17hh — that time to learn, and to itemise one’s limbs, is key, and although he’s making his Blenheim debut a year later than planned thanks to last year’s clash with the World Championships, that’s something that Tom is taking in his stride as he fine tunes everything the gelding needs for a top-notch performance.
“He’s Mr Relaxed when he’s in a relaxed place, but he can be a bit of a panicker, and because he’s so big, he can move his weight a bit,” says Tom. “It’s just getting him in the right mindset, and the more he relaxes and listens, the more you can ride for a test like today — but when he panics, it’s time to just pop him away and try again later. He’s just taken time; he’s a powerful horse, and he’s better over a bigger course, and so we’re just playing around a bit with him.”
Just one-tenth of a penalty behind Tom is his fellow Brookfield Stables rider, Piggy March, who posted a 24.7 with Brookfield Future News to take overnight second for the eventing enterprise spearheaded by owners John and Chloe Perry and Alison Swinburn.
“He’s a horse I’ve always thought a lot of, and I think he’ll be a five-star horse,” says Piggy of the eight-year-old Irish gelding (Future Trend x Cashmere Breeze, by Last News xx), who she’s piloted throughout his international career. Like MHS Brown Jack, he’s a big horse — and like many Irish-breds, a slightly late-blooming one, and Piggy’s now beginning to dial up the pressure she puts on him in competition.
“He’s not done masses this year, and because he’s a big-framed horse, we’ve taken it easy with him,” she says. “This is a great competition for him — the jumping in the main arena on Saturday will be a whole new thing for him, and I’ll be really interested in how the whole week goes for him.”
That week has certainly begun positively; this is just his second CCI4*-S test, and though he’s scored exceptionally well at the lower international levels, his only previous test at the level saw him post a 34.8 — a ten mark difference between starts at the level.
“The work he did today is as good as he’s got at the moment, and I was so impressed that he wasn’t spooky at all — he was very settled, and he’s getting more and more expressive and starting to come off the floor,” says Piggy. “He’s a very blood horse, and so it’s great to see that there’s all this movement coming out of him.”
That tendency to spookiness hasn’t been a major factor in ‘Matthew’s’ production — “he’s quite simple,” but, Piggy says, “for some reason, every now and then, white boards do feel like they have dragons in them! It’s frustrating at times, but he’s a good boy — it’s just the confidence, and getting out and doing it. He was at Bramham for the CCI4*-S, and there were definitely dragons down at A that day, but the thing with these big arenas is they only get the confidence and experience by getting in there and doing it.”
Tim Price has been introducing a fierce little string of future superstars to spectators so far at Blenheim; this morning, it was Viscount Viktor who took the spotlight, taking overnight 21st on a score of 31.4 and totting up another bit of valuable experience en route to becoming, as Tim describes him, his next big star — and this afternoon, all eyes were on the flashy Jarillo.
The nine-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Dantos x Fiorilla, by Alicante) isn’t just flashy to look at — though he is that, with his four white socks and sweet white face — he’s also expressive and mature in his balance in his movement, too. That tidy little package combined to earn the pair a score of 26.7, putting them into overnight third place.
“He’s a very sharp little red-headed thing that’s a little bit scared of his own shadow sometimes,” says Tim. “But it’s nice to be somewhere for a couple of days, rather than at a one-day event, because we get to show him the places and give him the confidence to ask him a little bit more.”
Handily, the gelding finds the atmosphere and eery quiet of the main arena a more relaxing environment than the hubbub of a warm-up ring full of friends: “He’s actually a little horse-shy,” explains Tim. “It’s a nice way around to have it though. It’s the same in the showjumping; he’s a really cool little jumper, and sometimes the warm-up arenas are a bit manic, so when he finally gets in the arena, he’s like, ‘aaaah, this is better — let’s go and jump some jumps!'”
For now, Tim’s focus with Jarillo is development — but in time, he’s confident that the horse is going to be a real weapon in his arsenal. With four top tens out of six FEI starts on his record, and a clean sheet across the country in international competitions, it’s hard to disagree with him, and heartening to see him afford the requisite time to letting that strength develop at its own pace.
“He’s working at a good level, and he’s got a lot of exciting things in there,” says Tim. “As he gets more established at this level, I think I’ll be able to go for a bit more, to come out of a turn and really just hit the button for an extended trot, whereas now, I’m nurturing him around a bit.”
British-based Aussie Sammi Birch holds fourth place overnight on a score of 27.9 with Jutopia (Caretino Gold x Bali-Utopia, by Sandreo), who also adds a positive tick in the box for the Dutch Warmblood studbook.
“This is her first ever attempt at four-star, and so she hasn’t done this test in a competition before — and I’m thrilled with her,” says Sammi. “I had a baby earlier in the year, and she’s a nine-year-old, so she’s probably a bit greener than some of the others, but it’s very exciting to have her here.”
While Sammi was off games, Jonelle Price deputised by bringing the mare to Spain to showjump for the winter — a nifty little swapover that might not have worked so well for a young horse, were it not for Jutopia’s best quality: her brain.
“She’s just the sweetest thing, and she tries harder than any horse,” enthuses Sammi. “If they all tried as hard as her, we’d have a yard full of superstars!”
2021 Luhmühlen winner Mollie Summerland might have bid a bittersweet farewell to her famous partner, Charly van ter Heiden, who’s now soaking up the sun in Ocala, but the horse who’s moving into the top spot in her string is no slouch, either.
“I really do think he’ll go sub-20 in the future,” she says of Paula and Adrian Cloke’s Flow 7, who rounds out the top five on day one with a score of 27.9. “He has so much ability on the flat and I think we’re just scratching the surface of what he’s capable of. It still feels so green, and he’s not seen many atmospheres like this, so I think he’s definitely one who’ll go right down.”
The Oldenburg gelding (For Romance x Hauptstutbuch Disney) only began his international career in the latter part of 2021, and as a big horse, has taken time to physically mature — a process that remains ongoing. But his progress is also clearly evident from event to event; where the flying changes were particularly tricky for him at the beginning of this season, they’ve already matured into something much more flowing and functional, helping him to nudge his four-star scores down from the mid-30s we’ve seen when they’ve slightly fallen apart in the ring.
“It’s quite remarkable, actually, what he’s achieved with the lack of mileage he’s got,” says Mollie. “He’s new to all this, and he’s big and still quite weak, but he continually excels himself. He has all the ability to be a top one, it’s just about time — I could take him up the hills and all that [to physically strengthen him], but at the end of the day, he’s a big horse and he just needs time to grow into himself.”
Mollie, who is herself a formidable dressage rider and trains with the likes of Carl Hester and Olivia Oakley, is also settling into translating the language that she shared with her former top horse into how she works with her greener up-and-comers.
“I knew Charly inside out, and he’d basically speak to me in the warm-up and tell me if he needed to do more or less,” she says. “With Flow, it’s a bit more of an unknown quantity; I wasn’t sure whether to do much more with him this morning, or whether to leave him, and so it’s still about building that relationship and learning what ticks with him and what the best system is like. We try different things at every event; at Jardy [Nations Cup] I actually undercooked him, and then with the big screen and the speakers, it wasn’t enough — but he’s coped really well in there today, so it shows how much he’s come on.”
The best of our US competitors in the ring today was Hallie Coon, who cruised the nine-year-old Cute Girl to a 29.5 and overnight equal seventh, just a fraction of a penalty behind sixth-placed Oliver Townend and En Taro des Vernier. For Hallie, who relocated from Ocala to base in the UK in December, getting to know the Holsteiner mare (Coventry x Caligula, by Clearway) has been a process of ups and downs, trial and error, and an unwavering commitment to learning, which has seen them spend much of their tenure here learning under Australia’s Kevin McNab, with whom the mare won the Seven-Year-Old World Championship two seasons ago. Now, they’re continuing to work part-time with Kevin, but have relocated to Wiltshire, to the base of fellow US rider Katherine Coleman, where they’re working with British team performance manager Dickie Waygood and, like Mollie, dressage rider Olivia Oakley.
All these factors, and all that education, have helped Hallie to unlock a new side to the occasionally mercurial but enormously talented little mare, who’s found a new flow to her extravagant movement in the ring.
“We’re just learning a lot about her and how to manage her,” explains Hallie. “I think the maturity is coming, finally, and the ability to just go in there and take a little bit of a breath. And now I’m able to, too, because I know a little bit more about what to expect with her, so that’s been really helpful. We’ve just been sort of grinding away things bit by bit.”
Getting the measure of Cute Girl’s massive movement has been a huge milestone, she continues: “It’s so hard to actually get it rhythmic within all the gaits; like, collected, medium, all the things in the same rhythm with her, because she is a little bit all over the place. And then she does use it against you — and when they move this big, if you don’t get it just right. They absolutely nail you. So consistency is really what we’re after.”
Canada is out in force at Blenheim this week thanks to the help of a set of travel grants kindly put forward by Kelly McCarthy-Maine and Shane Maine, which saw a full north-of-the-border team take on the Nations Cup at Arville, Belgium, this summer, and then continue their education on this side of the pond. One of those? Small animal veterinarian and reptile specialist Katie Malensek, who’s been based with Tim and Jonelle Price through her tenure here and will continue to be so until after the CCI4*-L at Lignieres in France at the beginning of next month.
Her partner for her exciting sabbatical is the nine-year-old Landjaeger, who she’s owned since he was a weanling and with whom she’s made her return to the upper levels for the first time since her Young Rider years. Today, they tackled their third four-star test as a partnership, and showed the extraordinary consolidation of skills they’ve been working on since flying over, delivering a significant level personal best of 29.9 to take overnight tenth, just fractionally behind equal-seventh-placed Tom Crisp and Dassett Rock Star (“this horse might actually make me enjoy dressage,” he quips) and ninth-placed Oliver Townend and Caunton First Class.
“I’ve been working with Jonelle over the last month or so, and we’ve really been working on trying to change his shape and get a little more energy and power in the gaits,” says Katie. “For where he’s at in his career, I’m super happy. It’s about balance — he’s not built with the most uphill, smooth conformation, so he works against himself a little bit, but he tries really hard, and he always wants to do the right thing.”
Being able to take the time away from work to train, thanks to “a great crew at home” has been transformative, says Katie.
“It’s been an amazing experience. I have a full time job; I’m a small animal veterinarian and I own a practice, so to have the time to just focus on this horse and the training and just immerse myself in the programme with the Prices and watch and just take it all in… I’m definitely not taking any of it for granted. I have to go back, because someone’s got to pay for it, but honestly, I feel I’m very proud of the fact that I’m an amateur, I work really hard at it, and I find a way to do it.”
And to do so with a horse she’s had throughout not just his career, but his life? That’s even more special.
“We’ve raised him, broke him, trained him — and I’ve actually tried to sell him several times because his legs are all crooked and I didn’t think he’d get this far,” laughs Katie. “He just keeps surprising me — so now he’s not for sale!”
One of the most exciting horses of the day was, arguably, British-based Yank Katherine Coleman‘s Sirius SB, who’s probably one of the greenest horses here — he’s making his Advanced debut in this class — but also quite possibly one of the most naturally talented. You’d be forgiven, at a glance, for mistaking him for World Champion Banzai du Loir — “I get that a lot,” laughs Katherine — not just for his stamp, but for his effortlessly airy movement. The pair impressed roundly in their test, just losing marks here and there for inexperience, to earn a 30.3 and overnight thirteenth place.
“This is his first time doing changes in a test, so it’s really exciting,” says Katherine, who sourced the horse from Jody Amos, who had, in turn, sourced him from Harry Horgan. “I think he’s one of the nicest horses I’ve ever had. His trot’s amazing — it’s unreal, and his gallop is insane. He gallops the way that he trots. His weak point at the moment is just his showjumping; he’s super scopey, but he doesn’t quite know what to do with it yet!”
This week will be a foundational milestone in his learning journey — and whichever way the competition itself plays out, Sirius is absolutely in his element.
“He’s so funny — he’s actually calmer at a show than he is at home,” Katherine explains. “At a three-day, especially, he just gets into his stall and takes a breath, but at home, he’s such a busybody — he’s dancing around in the cross-ties and pawing in the truck. He comes to the competitions and he absolutely loves it.”
Tomorrow sees the CCI4*-S dressage resume again at 9.00 a.m. (4.00 a.m. EST), with Italy’s Vittoria Panizzon and DHI Jackpot first into the ring. Alas, there’s no livestream for this phase — but keep it locked onto EN for all the news and updates from this class, and stay tuned for a full report on the feature CCI4*-L shortly!
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