After two days of dressage at Badminton, there are certain overarching trends you start to pick up on. The first, and most obvious, is that the calibre of horses in this country has reached a zenith so extraordinary that it takes a performance nearly worthy of pure dressage to put yourself out in front – as first-phase leaders Laura Collett and London 52 proved when they danced their way to a nearly foot-perfect 21 in this morning’s session. The second is that when you’re that good, sometimes the best thing you can do is rejig your entire system to remove all the pressure from the horse. We’ve seen this approach come up a number of times over the two days we’ve been ringside: Laura herself has opted to skip all her usual pre-dressage schooling sessions this week, trusting instead in her system and the years of good training she’s put into her extraordinarily consistent Olympic partner and letting him unwind and enjoy his home for the week without asking any difficult questions of him until his turn in the ring. Notably, we also saw Ros Canter present a newly invigorated Allstar B yesterday, who looks mentally and physically fresher after cutting out ringwork at home and instead working through the basics out hacking. It’s not just Olympic gold medallists and World Champions who are taking this approach, either: France’s Gireg le Coz, 14th after dressage with Aisprit de le Loge, warmed his horse up with a low-key spin on the lunge, and plenty of other riders besides favoured pared-back approaches to getting the goods in this pivotal first phase.
In some ways, it feels inevitable that the trend would shift this way. After two long years of pandemic eventing, horses and riders alike are all trained out: without the enormity of Badminton and Burghley on the horizon, most have had to aim for a cobbled-together couple of seasons of short-format competitions, the odd long-format opportunity, and a number of pop-up replacement fixtures, and that’s left plenty of time on the schedule to try to nail the infinitesimal details while riding at home. In many ways, this has served to raise the standards of flatwork significantly across the board; just as pertinently, though, it’s left plenty of athletes, both two- and four-legged, feeling just a bit burnt out. This paradigm shift towards horse-first production, towards prioritising a bit of a mental break and relying on long-established foundations, feels indicative of not just where the sport is at, but where the world is at. We’ve had our lockdown days of self-improvement — now it’s time to take a deep breath and go with the flow, for everyone’s sake.
This afternoon’s final session featured a number of major players, many of whom delivered tests that could arguably have been well in the hunt in previous, slightly less top-heavy fields of entry. Burghley winners Tim Price and Ringwood Sky Boy, for example, sit just inside the top twenty despite a pleasant test and a score of 29.1; closer to the business end, Olympic team gold medallists Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class, who were second here in 2019 and have won Burghley and Kentucky, find themselves uncharacteristically far down the board in equal eighth after dressage on their 25.9.
For Oliver, who’s used to finding himself at the top with the son of Courage II, with whom he briefly held the Badminton dressage record three years ago, it was a fierce disappointment: “For me he’s twice the horse dressage-wise as yesterday’s, and he ended up with the same mark in the dressage,” he says, referring back to yesterday’s ride with Swallow Springs, who sits equal sixth on 25.7. “But tomorrow isn’t about the opinions of three people sitting in garden sheds.”
In fact, there were just three tests in total that managed to squeak into the top ten as it was established yesterday: Laura’s leading ride this morning, of course, was the most significant, bumping first-day leaders Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser into second, Kitty King and Vendredi Biats into third, and Mollie Summerland and Charly van ter Heiden into fourth. US representative Tamie Smith takes fifth place with Mai Baum, while Oliver’s first ride, Swallow Springs, sits equal sixth with 2019 victors Piggy March and Vanir Kamira. You have to get to that Ballaghmor Class test, which is equal eighth with New Zealand’s Amanda Pottinger and Just Kidding, before you find another of today’s performances in the mix — and after that, there’s just one more in the top ten.
“We really weren’t sure what to expect with him coming in today,” says Ros Canter, who enjoyed an excellent 2021 season with her debutant Lordships Graffalo, winning hot CCI4*-S classes at Aston-le-Walls and Blair. “He’s only a rising ten-year-old, so he’s a very green horse and really, he’s come up through the levels during Covid, so he’s seen very little of this sort of atmosphere.”
This is the first time the rider has piloted any horse other than yesterday’s mount, Allstar B, at Badminton, and so she approached her test today with some caution – caution that, in the end, proved to be unfounded. They earned a 26 that puts them in tenth place out of 83 at the culmination of this phase after delivering a solid clear-round test.
“I was busy trying to quieten everyone down after William [Fox-Pitt]’s test, and I don’t think he actually batted an eyelid, so I thought, ‘why did I bother?!’,” laughs Ros. “He was such a professional.”
‘Walter’ is yet another horse that, on first glance, doesn’t look like he should be 5’1 Ros’s type: like Allstar B before him, he stands over 17hh and is a long horse from nose to tail. But through his nine-year-old year, in which he performed consistently enough to be named as Ros’s direct reserve for the European Championships, he proved that his size is no impediment to his athleticism — nor his ability to make it happen when it counts.
“He’s a bit of a funny character: sometimes he can be very lazy, and sometimes he can be a bit hot, but actually, I don’t think it’s got anything to do with where he is [in the draw] — it’s just Walter’s way on the day. But I have to say, on the whole, that he pulls it out the bag on a big occasion, so that’s quite exciting.”
“Ten or fifteen years ago, that would have been the leading test,” says Pippa Funnell, whose 26.2 with her 2019 Burghley winner MGH Grafton Street put her in eleventh place at the end of the day. Excellent tests are nothing new for the gelding: it rather feels as though every British eventing season has a mainstay horse that’ll reliably top the first-phase leaderboard in CCI4*-S after CCI4*-S, and just a few short years ago, this horse occupied that spot. But for all his undeniable natural talent, he’s never been a straightforward horse – not even this week, as a seasoned fourteen year old and five-star winner.
“He was quite naughty this morning! But he was good [in the test] — I just feel, as with [yesterday’s ride Billy Walk On, equal 16th), that maybe I need a few more lessons. Carl [Hester] won’t be very impressed with me,” says Pippa ruefully. “I just didn’t have that jump after the first canter half-pass into that flying change, so he was a bit slow off the aids then and I had to ask him two or three times. Hopefully he’ll respond a bit quicker tomorrow!”
Part of the difficulty in preparing ‘Squirrel’ for these very good performances is overcoming his conformation – but this is just another facet of the job in this discipline, as Pippa explains.
“At the end of the day, the thing about this sport is that [horses] come in all shapes and sizes, and you can’t turn him into a London 52 or something. He’s got a short little neck, and so it’s always about trying to get the neck longer, but I thought he was very good in his frame.”
The Burghley winner is perhaps best known for his unpredictability across the country: while that victory, over one of the toughest Burghley courses we’ve seen, proved he’s got all the ability, he’s also very prone to naughty run-outs and wobbles. We saw this in action at his final prep run at Burnham Market, at which he deposited his rider on course. Still, pragmatic Pippa knows that when it comes to this horse, it’s often better to just keep moving on and not fret too much about the niggles.
“It’s quite a known fact that Squirrel can throw all sorts of things at me, but I’ll go out and get stuck in. He was great at Burghley, and yet crap at Burnham Market – you just don’t know with the horse, and he isn’t that easy in his ride again because of his build and shape and the fact that he goes a little bit downhill, so it’s difficult to control the shoulders. But I’ll get stuck in and ride him with my head, and I’m going to try to be competitive on both horses – Iif I’m not having a nice time, I don’t need to get the experience!”
William Fox-Pitt managed to slip into the top fifteen at the tail end of the day with Little Fire, who was ninth here in 2019. They bested their score of that year by nearly two penalties, putting a 27.3 on the board despite a tricky warm-up and a wobble in the second halt that earned them 2s from the judges at H and B.
“He’s quite edgy today, so he did well to settle down, though he didn’t walk quite as well as he can,” says William. “His halt and reinback were rubbish, but the rest was good. He’s technically the better dressage horse [of my two rides] so Friday afternoon is better, but he wasn’t settling down, and so I was wishing I’d been on yesterday!”
Part of ‘Aidan’s’ heightened mood has been due to his long-awaited return to a proper, atmospheric three-day – and like many horses here, he’s wholly aware of what’s to come over the weekend.
“He’s just been very electric, because he knows where he is — he knows it’s not Thoresby or Tweseldown, so he’s on his toes. I’ve just had him out plenty, hoping that he was going to settle down — and I think hope is the main thing, because he is thirteen and you think ‘for God’s sake, surely he’ll settle down eventually!’ Luckily, when you put him to work, he does try — he’s not stressed by his work.”
And so the dressage at Badminton draws to a close — but the competition, and EN’s coverage, is far from over. We’ll be bringing you some in-depth insights on tomorrow’s course from the riders who are preparing to tackle it, and in the meantime, you can check it out in its entirety in our comprehensive preview here. Cross-country will begin tomorrow at 11.30 a.m. BST/6.30 a.m. EST, and ride times can be found here. Until next time: Go Eventing!