After yesterday’s team-focused day of dressage at Military Boekelo CCIO4*-L, there was a serious first-phase gauntlet thrown down: Laura Collett and Dacapo delivered an excellent 21.9, earning them the lead and posing a serious challenge to all those who would follow. And in today’s line-up of individuals? No one could quite manage to catch them — but a few of her fellow countrymen gave it a jolly good go.
Best of today’s line-up was Tom McEwen, who comes to Boekelo just off the back of running the London Marathon in just under three and a half hours — and there were plenty of eyes on his ride today. This marks his first major competition with the reigning European Champion JL Dublin, who took that honour with Nicola Wilson at Avenches last year, and with whom she fell at Badminton this spring.
Throughout the summer, speculation was rife about which rider might end up with the eleven-year-old Holsteiner, and ultimately, owners Deidre Johnston and Jo and James Lambert made the call to send him to Tom to ride a couple of months ago. Since then, he’s quietly gotten to know the gelding at home and in a couple of national level shows, and the pair made their international debut at Little Downham’s CCI4*-S last week, withdrawing as planned prior to cross-country.
“We’ve done two Open Intermediates and had great, great fun, and then did Little Downham just to see where we’re at,” explains Tom. “He’s obviously a true competition horse, and he’s at his best when he feels that people are watching him.”
Today, they produced a very likeable test, albeit with wobbles in the flying changes, earning a 25.6 to sit equal fourth with Tim Price and Happy Boy.
“He was absolutely mega, but I just made a few mistakes,” says Tom. “They’re learning mistakes, which is a shame, but he was fantastic. This is our first proper show together, so I was delighted — obviously we’re going in there to do as well as we can, but he was phenomenal.”
Those mistakes, as Tom explains, are par for the course when getting to know a new horse — particularly one that has been produced to this level by another rider.
“He was absolutely nailing the changes outside, and then we absolutely fluffed them inside, so that was fantastic,” he laughs. “And there are just a few other little areas where I could balance him and show him off more. You can show him off for a 9 in every movement, but if you don’t quite get that balance then it won’t be as good as it could be. So it’s just little teeny things, really; a couple of holes and bits and bobs and just finding out where to balance. But he’s so genuine, and so rideable, and that’s all down to Nic, really. She’s done all the work, and I’m just getting to enjoy him now. The power, and the balance, and just the presence he’s got is phenomenal, really.”
Tom is keen to ensure that her part in the horse’s story remains as much of a starring role as it ever was: “Nic really wants me to get on and learn him myself, but every single bit of advice from her is so important. I really want it to be that if she wants to be a part of it, she is; it’s a horrible circumstance, and I’m unbelievably lucky to have the horse — so for me, she’s one of the owners, really. I’m very fortunate to have her backing behind me.”
It was certainly a good day in the office for Britain’s individual contingent, and particularly for Sarah Bullimore, who now has two exciting debutants in the top ten going into cross-country. Her first came yesterday, when eight-year-old Evita AP put a 28.4 up for the British team, which sees her in eighth place — but today’s ride, the nine-year-old Irish Trump, went one better. He earned a 27.5, one of his best-ever international scores, and will go into cross-country in seventh.
His excellent score came after a fluid test with an expensive mistake: he changed legs while turning before the second flying change across the centre line, and then, much less expensively, had a moment of hesitation in the transition to the extended trot. But, as Sarah explains, he’s not been the most straightforward character — and his performance today felt like a victory in itself.
“He’s such a nervous, introverted little person — he looks like he’s really relaxed, but there’s this inner turmoil going on, which means he’s taken quite a while,” says Sarah. “He can just sort of shut himself in his box, and then you’ll be using your legs and using your reins and nothing happens — he’s like, ‘I can’t hear you, I’m in my box!'”
His pre-test schooling sessions hadn’t necessarily filled her with confidence for today, either: “I’m chuffed to bits, because that’s the most rideable he’s been, especially considering that yesterday he decided he couldn’t do a change at all — and then today he was so good at them that he threw in a couple of extras!”
Irish Trump finished twelfth in the eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S at Blenheim Palace last month, which proved a valuable stepping stone in helping him to gain confidence in busier environs.
“That was certainly the biggest atmosphere he’d seen up until now, and he was fab there, but there were a couple of little mistakes where he sort of dropped me — whereas actually, even though he still made mistakes today, he actually stayed in front of me and it felt like he’d really come on from the experience,” says Sarah, who bought him as an unproven rising six-year-old in Ireland, where he’d been produced by an amateur rider.
“We’d been over to Ireland to the sales, just for a bit of a jolly — but you’re always looking out for something. A friend out there who does a lot of sales said he had one at home, but he said ‘it’s raw as raw and isn’t ready to come to the sales, but come and have a look at it, because the talent is there’. And he was raw, but I loved what he had there.”
His early education has meant that his progression has been necessarily slower, in order to fill in the blanks in his foundations.
“There were quite a few basics missing, so he’s had to relearn a few things,” she says. “When I first got on him, he didn’t know about going on the bit, and bend was completely alien to him — we literally could’t canter a circle as he’s got such a huge, powerful canter. It’s taken a long time for him to learn to actually hold it together and sit, and it’s still a work in progress. Hopefully the older he gets, and the stronger he gets, he’ll be able to hold it more and more. It’s been a long process, because it’s often slower to undo and redo the basics — it’s very different to the mare I have here, who’s a year younger but I’ve had her throughout, so it’s all straightforward and there’s no crossroads, it’s always a one-way street in the training. Whereas he questions it — he goes, ‘well, I used to do this’ — so I have to work on deleting those bits. If I can crack him, though, I really do think he’s seriously talented — he’s a proper five-star horse.”
The bustling crowds were delighted to get a chance to watch the newly-crowned World Champion, Yasmin Ingham, in action, and she certainly didn’t disappoint, piloting Rehy DJ to a 28.7 and first-phase ninth place. The twelve-year-old Irish Sport Horse, who Yasmin rides for longtime supporters Sue Davies and Jannette Chinn, looked on super form — a relief, certainly, after a near-miss incident after the first horse inspection on Wednesday. En route back to the stables, the gelding was spooked by a water bowser being turned on and got loose, ultimately sustaining a superficial graze to his elbow. Out of an abundance of caution, and to give his veterinary team the opportunity to ensure the graze wasn’t atop any further injury, the decision was made to pull him from the British Nations Cup team and run him as an individual, which meant that his test would take place this afternoon, rather than part of yesterday’s line-up.
“We were very much a bit touch and go, but he feels good now, and that’s the main thing,” says Yasmin.
Unlike many of the horses who come into Boekelo’s atmospheric main arena and get a bit starstruck by the buzz, ‘Piglet’ has plenty of experience in these sorts of environments, having competed with success here previously and at Aachen this summer — and so his default response is the opposite.
“He did feel a bit lazy today,” admits Yasmin. “I felt like I was having to kick him along a bit. He’s very different to Banzai — they’re almost polar opposites, actually, so it’s funny getting on a really sharp one and then moving on to Piglet, who’s not sharp at all in this sort of atmosphere. But he was very good in the test, even if we made a couple of small mistakes, like shaking his head a little bit before the first change, which then upset that a bit — it was clean, but it was very late, almost around the corner.”
That natural relaxation, though, means that Piglet thrives in a part of the test where many event horses flounder: “His walk was a real highlight,” says Yasmin. “It’s so funny, because that’s his best pace — we always laugh that his walk is the best. He gets his neck really loose — he loves his little walk. And he was much better in his canter work — the medium canter was very good. We’re still working on the medium trot, because he hasn’t really got the uphill paces naturally; he’s a little bit downhill and on the forehand, so he just kind of scoots along a little bit. We’re trying to get him a bit more uphill and flicking his toes a bit much, and it’s all getting a little better. I think it was a solid test to start with, and his jumping phases are the best bits, so we can look forward to that!”
Throughout the morning, no one was able to crack yesterday’s top ten — and so there was a great buzz of excitement when, just before the lunch break, Italy’s Pietro Grandis and Scuderia 1918 Future posted a 29.2, which is their second best-ever four-star score and put them right in the mix. Though they were shunted just out of the top ten by the end of the day, their very good performance sees them go into cross-country in 12th place, just 0.3 penalties behind France’s Morgane Euriat and Baccarat d’Argonne.
“He’s an outstanding horse, and I’m really looking forward to the winter break to put in some good dressage work, because he really has the potential to put us on top in this phase,” says Pietro, who spent several years working as Michael Jung’s stable jockey before moving on to focus on building his string this year. “I really want to be able to come here and [deliver that score] for him, and for the owners, because everybody involved deserves it. But so far I’m happy — it’s such a great competition, but in the end, it always ends on Sunday, so this is just the beginning.”
For Pietro, who bounced back from a nearly career-ending injury years ago, every day is a learning opportunity – and a step closer towards the long-held goals he’s been focusing on. His first Boekelo experience, and just his fourth CCI4*-L after several years focusing on accruing mileage on horses such as fischerTakinou, Highlighter, and fischerWild Wave, certainly feels like a milestone.
“I’m really looking forward to this great cross-country course, and for me, what I’ve missed is the chance to ride in this atmosphere, with these crowds of spectators,” he says. “I’m finally here, and I love it. I want to test myself and my horse to see how we get along with it all — but so far, it’s really exciting. This atmosphere, and what these people organise and put on for us here, it’s what makes you wake up at five o’clock in the morning and go muck out stables. We spend a lot of time riding young horses and being put on the ground, and if there wasn’t something like this to aim for, it would be hard to keep that fire inside. So I’m really grateful to all my supporters for giving me this opportunity for us all.”
Scuderia 1918 Future, who was originally produced by Ellinor Björk and Erika Hakanson of Sweden and then briefly ridden by Great Britain’s Holly Woodhead, has been his competitive partner since 2020, and though he’s not one of the youngest horses in the field, Pietro is looking forward to a bright future with the gelding.
“He’s not really young — he’s fourteen, but he’s a pretty green horse. He came out late at this level and has definitely never competed on a stage like this, but he’s a very fresh horse, so with a bit of work and some more training, I think we’ll be hearing about him in the next years.”
“I like to call him Manny the Mammoth, like from Ice Age, because he really looks like him — in the winter he puts on this coat that makes him look like a mammoth,” he laughs. “He’s a big boy with a small head and a cute eye, and he’s really friendly — not very respectful of the people who take him grazing, but he’s fantastic. He puts on what I call the track mode, like a Ferrari, and then he switches off after he’s performed and just stands around wanting a cuddle. He’s very sweet, and he’s been a great horse for me, because he’s always with me — even if we change things, he’s never let me down.”
Tomorrow sees our focus turn to Adrian Ditcham‘s cross-country challenge, which has taken a step up in difficulty from its previous, slightly softer years. We’ll be taking a closer look at the test to come later on, and cross-country itself will commence from 10.45 a.m. local time (9.45 a.m. BST/4.45 a.m. EST) in the morning. Check out the times here, and until next time: Go Eventing!