Friday at Badminton: Oliver Townend Leads at the Lunch Break; Gemma Stevens is Comeback Queen

Oliver Townend and Swallow Springs lead the way at Badminton. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

The first half of the first day of competition is behind us at the 2023 Badminton Horse Trials, presented by MARS Equestrian, and leading the charge into the lunch break is Oliver Townend with the first of his two rides, the former Andrew Nicholson mount Swallow Springs. They set an early standard as the third pair into the ring this morning, and the ground jury of Angela Tucker, Andrew Bennie, and Xavier Le Sauce roundly rewarded their test with a 23.2 that wouldn’t be usurped.

The score is a career best at CCI5* for the 15-year-old gelding (Chillout x Kilila, by Cult Hero), eclipsing his previous personal best — a 23.6 — achieved at Burghley last year. The very good score came despite one mistake: as the Irish gelding entered the extended trot, he broke to canter for one early stride. The rest of the test, though, was a testament to the marking power of accuracy: though Swallow Springs hasn’t got big or extravagant paces, he’s been meticulously produced, and delivered a very technically correct performance.

Oliver’s two rides this year are at the peak of their careers in their mid-teens — second ride Ballaghmor Class, who will perform his test tomorrow, is sixteen — and to this end, Oliver credits his team on the ground for keeping them feeling their very best.

“It’s great for the team; we’ve come here with two older horses, and I don’t think they’ve ever felt as good as they do now, whatever the result. To turn up with a fifteen- and a sixteen-year-old and for them to still be improving is very positive for everybody at home, who all put in the early starts. It’s a very good result.”

Oliver Townend and Swallow Springs. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Oliver originally had five horses entered — a testament to the remarkable strength in depth of his string — and was able to use those extra entries to swing the drawn order the way around he’d hoped for his two horses.

“We tried to get Swallow Springs on early enough,” he explains. “You can only do so much Badminton to help yourself with the draw and so forth, but at the same time, we’re very happy with where we drawn. I think that will suit him down to the ground; I’ll be able to pick fresh ground. He’s the quickest event horse I’ve ever ridden, so fingers crossed.”

Our friends at EquiRatings discovered that Swallow Springs will be Oliver’s eightieth starter at this level since 2008 – a remarkable (and, we have to assume, exhausting) effort – and one that has seen him hone his craft to something of a science over the years. But experience isn’t the only thing that’s helping him to consistently make a bid for the lead at this level – he has another weapon in his arsenal, too.

“Better dressage horses!” he laughs. “I always felt that I had a certain amount of feel, perhaps, but I wasn’t able to do it stylishly. I’ve obviously always rode a lot of young horses and breakers and problem horses, and now I’m on the raw material — so there’s no excuse not to go in there and do a nice job. Hopefully I’m continuing to improve, and hopefully I’m getting more relaxed in that. But at the same time, the horsepower is a different world to what it used to be.”

Even with those many, many starts behind him, Oliver, like all the rest of us, finds it easy to get caught up in the thrall of Badminton, and all that it means to the sport: “It’s just special to be here,” he says. “I wore out VHS videotapes watching this place [when I was a kid], and as you get older you think, are you going feel the same when you get here? But the minute you arrive at the stable yard, you know you’re somewhere very special. It’s just a huge privilege to be here and as I get older, I’m enjoying it more and more. I’m trying to take the pressure off myself and kind of smile occasionally and just enjoy the whole thing. I’ve got two beautiful horses, with beautiful chances, and I’m just enjoying being here.”

Gemma Stevens and Jalapeño are all smiles after their nearly-leading test. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

The very last rider of the morning batch might have had to wait a while for her score to come through, but when it did, Gemma Stevens‘s whoop of joy could be heard throughout the stadium. She earned a 23.3 (“damn it, I was so close to beating Oliver,” she laughs) with Chris Stone’s Jalapeno, who returns to five-star for the first time since 2019 after over a year off and no small amount of care and patience from Gemma and her team.

That score marks Gemma’s own personal best at the level – an accolade that usurps another Jala test.

“It was actually really enjoyable — the horse is lovely to ride,” says Gemma. “She’s very soft and fluent and she felt completely relaxed. I could really ask for the movements, and I felt like I tried to ride every single inch of grass of that test — and she let me.”

Though Gemma is best known, perhaps, for her longtime partnership with the late, great Arctic Soul, this was always his trickiest phase – and now, finding herself aboard a horse who can really relish the atmosphere of the first phase is a particular joy.

“I felt myself really enjoying it — and that was just so nice after years of sitting on the old boy,” she laughs. “It’s just really nice to go in there and sit up and enjoy it — and try to smile!”

Gemma Stevens and Jalapeno. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

We last saw Jala, who was previously partnered by Belgium’s Karin Donckers, take on this level at Pau in 2019, where she sustained an injury that saw her sit out all of 2020 and a large chunk of 2021. But in bringing her back, Gemma has left no stone unturned where management and fitness are concerned, which means that her routine coming into a big event — such as Blenheim, where she finished in the top ten in both 2021 and 2022 — are wholly different from the regime that Gemma’s other horses undergo.

“She’s been swimming once a week and galloping once a week since the middle of January, because I wanted a long, slow process,” says Gemma. “I didn’t want to pummel her with too much at once, because she gets a bit sore in her back and her body. So we’ve gone for the long, slow approach, and I’ve been so careful with her prep. It’s all been about working on her strength — like, really just keeping her happy and strong and actually not doing too much schooling. In a two week period, I’d probably only school her three times. She goes to the water treadmill twice a week, and she canters, and she’s been doing some fitness hacks — very slow trotting up hills. I feel like I’ve learned how to manage her, she’s a lovely, lovely mare, but she’s fragile. I think it’s all about horsemanship, every time you get a horse fit, you learn something new.”

Just as Jala’s customised fitness routine has helped her blossom, so, too, has Gemma’s own workout regime.

“I actually did twenty minutes of Pilates before I got on today!” she says. “I think I’ve just grown up a bit. I’ve got stronger. I’ve been working really hard on my own fitness. hat’s probably what it has changed a little bit — getting myself really, really fit and strong and feeling better.”

That Pilates session may have had another knock-on benefit: “I felt really relaxed today,” she says. “Just chilled, and I went in there, and yes, you get heart flutters, but I didn’t feel tight or tense, I just felt relaxed. So maybe I’m just getting old!”

Tim Price and Vitali. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Tim Price‘s Tokyo mount Vitali put the naughtiness of yesterday’s first horse inspection behind him to deliver a sweet test that, while not quite in the realms of his 21.3 at Burghley last year, earned them a competitive enough 27.1 for third at the lunch break. While it’s not quite what he was aiming for, he’s tempering his expectations — after all, he explains, there are still two very big jobs to do.

“You’ve got to be philosophical in this game, and while he’s an outstanding dressage horse, I want him to be an authentic five-star horse — and so it’s about three phases,” he says. “So I’m just trying to spread my feelings across the three phases, even here straight after the dressage. [The score] could have been a lot lower had I not had a couple of fluffy bits in the canter. The trot work was some of his best, and he’s a fantastic dressage horse, so unless you absolutely maximise on all those elements of what he can deliver on the flat, you will be a little bit disappointed. But a 27 with a few mistakes is still not too bad.”

Like many five-star horses, Vitali is a funny sort of soul – which is why Tim would always rather find himself on board than trying to trot him up in front of the ground jury.

“I don’t know the best way to describe him, but he needs support,” he says. “And when you give him the right support at the right time in the right way, then he can look soft and lovely. He’s a fun horse — I really like him and I respect him immensely for what he does.”

Tom Jackson and Capels Hollow Drift. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Last year’s Burghley runners-up Tom Jackson and Capels Hollow Drift sit fourth at this early phase after putting a 28 on the board — the 12-year-old Irish gelding’s best score yet at this level, despite left-to-right changes that still aren’t quite established.

“I’m over the moon with the horse,” says Tom. “I know there’s a couple of little mistakes in there, but on the whole, I felt that he was going better than he’s ever gone, so I couldn’t ask much more. He’s improving all the time, and particularly the change on one particular rein has been difficult, but they were clean this time — just a little bit exuberant. So we’re definitely going in the right direction, and he’s still a relatively young horse so hopefully we can keep edging closer. He’s a lovely mover and a very rideable horse, but he’s not necessarily the biggest flashiest mover, but I thought he felt really smart.”

Harry Meade and Away Cruising. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Harry Meade rounds out the top five at this stage after a smart test with longtime campaigner Away Cruising, who posted a 29 — another level personal best for the horse, who has only slipped sub-30 on one previous occasion from his six prior starts at the level.

“He’s a lovely, Irish, old-fashioned type; he’s not a big-moving warmblood, but I was really pleased with him — he put in a very solid test and didn’t really miss a bit,” says Harry. “Last year, I kicked myself because I wanted him fresh and I shortened the warm-up to do that, and then he was too fresh, so this year it was once bitten, twice shy – I worked him a little bit longer, perhaps ten minutes too long, and he just lost a bit of his sparkle. But it was a lovely clear round of a test, so job done!”

Dressage will commence again from 14.15 BST (9.15 a.m. EST), with Tom Rowland and Possible Mission launching us into the second half of the day. You can follow along live via Badminton TV, follow along with our up-to-the-minute live updates, and tune back in for the full report shortly after the close of play. Until then: Go Eventing!

The top ten at the lunch break on day one of Badminton.

Badminton Horse Trials: [Website] [Entries] [Schedule] [Live Stream – Badminton TV] [Radio Badminton] [Tickets] [EN’s Coverage]

5 1 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments