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With such an incredible array of long-format events and championships on the calendar this summer and autumn, there are an enormous amount of rare opportunities to allow inexperienced horses or riders to learn and grow in pressurised situations — and that really does feel like the defining attribute of this year’s Military Boekelo CCIO4*-L. Other than the parties, obviously. The competition includes the finale of the FEI Nations Cup series, and so there’s serious competition for team and individual titles, but because each country’s first-string horses have all had opportunities to run elsewhere, the field is largely populated with the next generation of superstars, with a number of nine-year-olds and CCI4*-L debutants in the hunt.
When you get on the subject of up-and-coming superstars in Europe, the name Sophie Leube is rarely far from anyone’s lips. The former student of Ingrid Klimke has inherited her mentor’s sympathetic, effective riding style, and she’s earned herself a reputation for producing young horses, a reputation affirmed by her win in the Seven-Year-Old World Championship with the Trakehner stallion Sweetwaters Ziethen TSF last year. But now, with the exceptional mare Jadore Moi, Germany’s fledgling star continues to prove that she’s got what it takes to make it happen at the upper levels, too.
It’s hard to believe, really, that this will just be her second-ever CCI4*-L, but it is: she and Jadore Moi made their debut at Italy’s Pratoni del Vivaro last year, finishing third. Now, after the first day of her sophomore attempt, she’s leading the way by a smidgen, sitting pretty in the top spot on a score of 24.4 — just a tenth of a penalty off second place, and a tenth of a penalty better than the score she earned to take the first-phase lead at CHIO Aachen last month.
“I can’t really believe it — it’s still so new for me to be the leader,” laughs Sophie, whose spicy mount brought a bit of extra joie de vivre to the table today.
“She was very excited today; more than in Aachen. But that was when she came in to the arena, and directly when I started she said, ‘okay, I know what to do and I’m going to start listening to you!'”
This week’s test, which features more of an emphasis on medium and extended paces early on in the movements, worked well in Jadore Moi’s favour: “There’s much more extended work in the trot, and that’s one of her really good parts, so this was a better thing for us than Aachen. I think it was good because I could ride forward and not so much sideways in the beginning, because she was so excited today. In Aachen she was a little bit more relaxed, so it was a little easier for me — it was a bit more work today, but she was great!”
Continued improvement in the flying changes, too, has helped nail down the consistency in Jadore Moi’s marks, and though she may not yet believe it when she finds herself at the top of the leaderboard, it’s clear that everyone else has noticed what Sophie can do.
Though he was usurped late in the day by Sophie, Dutch lynchpin and birthday boy Tim Lips held the lead for much of today’s competition after producing a super mark of 24.5 with the eleven-year-old Zangersheide mare Lady Chin van’t Moerven Z, marking the first time the expressive horse has gone sub-30 at an international. But those eagle-eyed among you may recognise the horse for her partnership with another rider: Tim is catch-riding her this week to help her production, but she’s ordinarily campaigned by his student, China’s Huadong Sun, with whom she competed at the Tokyo Olympics. Now, while Sun takes some time to reconnect with his family at home after an intense Olympic lead-up in the Netherlands, Tim has teamed up with Lady Chin to take up a spot on the Dutch team and further her training and experience all in one go. But although he rates the mare, who was produced to CCI3*-L by Belgium’s Annesjien Wouters, particularly highly, he certainly didn’t expect to deliver such a significant career best effort in his first-ever competition with her.
“I was a bit surprised,” admits Tim with a smile. “I know the horse can do a very, very good test, but I also know she can be a bit tense — like at Tokyo, she had a 35.2 because of that tension. When she’s at home, you think, ‘wow, what a horse!’ So I’m really happy, because I didn’t want to put any pressure on myself this time, but I wanted to do the best I could for Sun.”
Particularly exciting were Lady Chin’s sweet, crisp flying changes, which scored 8s and 9s — giving no hint along the way that this movement has been an especially tricky one for the sensitive horse to master.
“At the beginning of the year, the changes were very difficult — she wanted to make them, but when you got past one, you’d get ten,” explains Tim. “So we really practiced it a lot, and today they were very clear for her.”
If catch-riding a horse for the first time at a CCI4*-L, nailing the changes, and delivering a test that blows all the stats out of the water isn’t quite impressive enough, try this on for size: Tim, who is heavily involved with training the Chinese event riders, spent six weeks in China in the lead-up to this event while his students contested the China Games. That left the responsibility of schooling Lady Chin firmly in the hands of Tim’s head groom Jillian Giessen, whose sympathetic, tactful approach to producing youngsters obviously paid dividends in settling the mare’s busy mind. And so a very cool, calm, and relaxed looking Tim and Lady Chin were able to dance their way into overnight second place: “I might look calm, but I’m usually not at all inside,” he laughs. “But today I knew I had to be, or it would all be over!”
The heavy mist of the morning session may have been dreary, but third-placed Tamie Smith and her perky little professional Danito cast their own ray of California sunshine in the ring, throwing down an early gauntlet with their mark of 24.7. Though it didn’t quite match their level personal best — a 23.9 picked up at Jersey Fresh CCI4*-L earlier this year — a beaming Tamie explains that it topped the bill for the diminutive Hanoverian anyway.
“He was the best he’s been,” she enthuses. “He tries so hard that sometimes he’ll struggle a bit and get a little bit tense — like, I’ll miss a change because he’s anticipated it and is trying so hard.”
But, as she points out, the impressive-moving gelding is also low on mileage for a twelve-year-old, and each outing gives him more of the experience that will help him relax into his work and produce even more exciting tests along the way. The atmosphere in the main arena at Boekelo can never be underestimated, though: it’s a busy spot, with cross-country fences alongside the boards, buzzy marquees on all sides and, overlooking the whole thing, a colossal screen that is often guilty of catching sharper horses by surprise. But Danito took it all in his stride, and Tamie found herself able to use the extra sparkle to add expression to the test.
“In the ring with the atmosphere I felt him get a little bit electric like he does, which helps him because it makes him fancy,” she says. “But it also creates tension, which you don’t want to have — but when we went down the centreline I felt him go, ‘oh, okay’, and I could ride every stride and every movement. Normally I’m kind of playing it safe a little bit, so I was super happy.”
“I’ve not been here in eight years, and I’m struggling to recognise the place,” laughs William Fox-Pitt as he eyes the considerable improvements made to the venue in the interim, including the welcome addition of the surface in the main arena. “I keep losing my bearings — and I’ve had a bang on the head in the meantime, so I’ve got no chance of remembering where I am!”
He might not be able to find the poffertje stand (though nor can we, for what it’s worth), but William certainly looked at home between the boards today, delivering a 24.9 with the nine-year-old Grafennacht to hold overnight fifth in the mare’s third CCI4*-L start.
“She’s been in a good frame of mind, and it’s good for her to be able to get in an arena like that,” says William. “It’s great practice for the future, and she coped with it very well. She’s good at dressage, and so a few things probably could have been better — her mediums were sevens today, but they can be nines — but overall I was really satisfied.”
There’s no rest for the wicked, nor for the very, very talented, and newly-minted European Champion is back in action this week, this time riding CCI4*-L debutant and recent victor of the Blenheim CCI4*-S for eight- and nine-year-olds Coolparks Sarco. Their 25.6 secured them overnight fifth place — an exciting start to the sweet gelding’s move-up.
“He’s still a young horse at nine and this is his first long-format at this level, so you just don’t know, really,” says Nicola. “But he’s been feeling great; he went super at Blenheim and he’s been feeling really well ever since. You don’t know until you get into an atmosphere like this how they’re going to react, but he was super.”
This week is all about building for the future for the exciting young horse, who’s learning to take confidence from his rider as he tackles more intense competition levels.
“He’s a very nice horse to work with; he still gets a little bit nervous and needs reassuring, but as he does more and more this year, he’s getting easier to reassure with my voice and a pat, and then he’s back on side,” she says. “This week is another step up and he’s as prepared as he can be, but until we ask the question, we won’t know.”
Sitting pretty in sixth place overnight is France’s Sidney Dufresne, who pilots one of the field’s most experienced horses in 14-year-old stallion Tresor Mail, with whom he finished eighteenth at the World Equestrian Games in 2018. They, too, managed to nail down a personal best today, delivering a 26.2 that leaves their usual very-low-30s scores in the dust.
Perhaps there was something lucky in the air for those called Sidney (or Sydney, as it happens)? After succumbing to tension in the atmosphere of Aachen, where he posted a 39.4, Sydney Elliott‘s tall drink of water QC Diamantaire very clearly learned from the situation and used it to come back confident, cool, and absolutely brimming with the right kind of pizazz. That allowed Sydney to ride for every mark she could, and they merrily floated their way to a very respectable 26.7, the eleven-year-old Oldenburg’s best-ever CCI4*-L mark and less than half a penalty off a career best result.
But a delighted Sydney, who has carefully crafted her autumn season around a grand tour of some of Europe’s best events, wasn’t surprised in the slightest by the quality of her horse’s work today.
“This is what he’s normally like!” she says. “We could tell from the second we pulled in the other day that his whole demeanour was much more like himself. He’s so quiet, and he’s happy to have us around in the stall, and getting on him this morning for the pre-ride, it got me excited, because I was like, ‘I’ve got him today!'”
That rideability meant that Sydney could push for more expression, showing the rangy gelding’s paces at their best.
“It’s so naturally easy for him that I think sometimes, when he does get a bit panicked, it totally falls apart — but today, it was just so easy, and we want to keep pushing for more and more, but I’m happy with today!”
Ireland’s Padraig McCarthy sits eighth on 27.3 with his homebred and CCI4*-L debutante MGH Tokyo Phil after a polished, professional test that proved the gelding has truly grown up this season.
“He’s really improved a lot,” says Padraig of the ten-year-old gelding. “He’s been a very weak horse, and so we’ve taken a really long time with him and he’s only stepped up to four-star this year. Every run he’s gotten better and better, and I think he’s still at the very beginning of it. I’ve got a really, really good feeling about him for the years ahead; even when he was weak and backwards, he still made good results.”
For Phil, this weekend will see him thrown truly in at the deep end: as a young horse who stepped up during the pandemic, he’s never yet encountered proper crowds, and will have his focus tested on Saturday.
“This horse is very genuine, but he’s never seen crowds like he’ll see on Saturday — so you never know how that’ll affect them,” he says. Nevertheless, the gelding is being produced with greater long term aims, and whatever happens next, he’ll learn valuable lessons for the future.
“My wife Lucy had kind of stopped riding [in 2016], but seeing me at the Olympics was making her itchy to get back to it,” Padraig recalls. “She thought, ‘we must have something in the field that can do it’, and went down and picked him out, like, ‘you look like the right sort!’ She called him Tokyo Phil, but unfortunately Tokyo came a year too soon for him — so maybe I need to rename him Paris Phil!”
Ninth place is held by Belgian team and CCI4*-L debutants Maarten Boon and Gravin van Cantos, a ten-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare who’s so gentle that Maarten’s children can help look after her.
“She’s the most fun horse ever,” he says with a broad grin after nailing down a super 27.7, a four-star personal best for both and a mark indicative of some very exciting things to come once the finer details have been perfected.
“We’re still struggling with the changes — the rest is quite okay, and they’re getting there,” he says. “But now we have a whole winter to work on that!”
Finally, Germany’s Ingrid Klimke opted to pare her warm-up with Equistros Siena Just Do It right down after an overexuberant test at Aachen put them on a 34.7 — but keeping it simple here, by giving the nine-year-old mare a lunge and then a short, sweet warm-up ride that didn’t make her sweat paid dividends, and they earned a very respectable 29.2 to carry into Saturday’s competition and see them round out the top ten on day one of dressage.
Today’s competition saw every team competitor produce a test, which means that tomorrow’s all about the individual competitors — and we now know how each nation stacks up as they head into Saturday’s cross-country.
Though the USA lead for much of the day, a solid score of 30.6 for Izzy Taylor and her nine-year-old CCI4*-L debutant Hartacker allowed the British team, with its line-up of inexperienced horses, to drop the early score of James Rushbrooke and Milchem Eclipse and sneak into the lead. Theirs is a slim margin, though: the British team score is 81.1, while the US holds onto second place on 83.5, which works out as a six second difference on cross-country day. The formidable German front sits another four seconds behind them on 85.3, ensuring that the quest for eventual top honours will be a hard-fought one.
But, says team anchor Jennie Brannigan, who posted a 32.1 to hold eighteenth place with FE Lifestyle, “I wouldn’t want to be on any other horse on cross-country day. The cross-country is easy for him; he’s got, like, an 18-foot stride.”
That impressive stride and forward-thinking attitude doesn’t always make for an easy dressage ride, but Lifestyle’s work in the ring was peppered with really pleasing moments and just a couple of little mistakes, including a slightly sharp transition into canter after the gelding accidentally knocked the board and startled himself. At just eleven years old, and with an impressive CCI5* clear at Kentucky under his belt already, there’s a lot to be excited about where this inexperienced talent is concerned, especially as he gets stronger over the coming seasons.
“This is huge for him to come here. He did a three-star back in 2017, and then I had a year off, and then he did Tryon last year and Kentucky this year, and those are the only long-formats he’s ever done,” says Jennie.
Sitting just a hair behind Jennie, Matt Flynn and Wizzerd go into day two in provisional nineteenth place on a 32.2, nearly a penalty better than the score they earned here in 2019.
“You’re always hoping for a little bit better, but on the day I’m pretty happy with that mark to start this competition,” says Matt. “He’s a real worker, a real soldier, and a really good boy, and there are just various places where we can shave things off in the future.”
The twelve-year-old gelding makes his return to Boekelo with two clears around Kentucky under his belt already, plus that confidence-building clear here two years ago, and the pair look set to help give the Brits a run for their money — even if they might need a hand warmer or two in the process: “He lives in Florida all year, so he thinks this is a lot different! He was in 100-degree weather not that long ago — now he’s been shaved and dropped in the cold end of the pool!”
Tomorrow’s competition sees the 28 individual competitors come forward to contribute their scores to the leaderboard, and we’ve got three US representatives among them. Here are the times in full, and here’s when you can tune in to cheer on our three American gals:
- Hallie Coon and Global Ex: 11.26 a.m. local/5.26 a.m. Eastern
- Katie Ruppel and Houdini: 12.35 p.m. local/6.35 a.m. Eastern
- Tamie Smith and Solaguayre California: 2.49 p.m. local/8.49 a.m. Eastern
We’ll be back with all the news and updates you need to know — until next time, folks!