In the Riders’ Words: Top Takeaways from Pratoni Cross Country Day

Photo by Shelby Allen.

Cross country day dawned on the 88 combinations set to take on the mostly-unknown track designed by Giuseppe della Chiesa at FEI World Championships for Eventing. Held at the park-like Pratoni del Vivaro with a relatively incomparable landscape and soil makeup, this year’s Championships presented a unique challenge on cross country.

Giuseppe was in many ways the ideal designer for this track — because he’s spent his life learning from it. “I have a long history with Pratoni, because I began by riding here,” recalls Giuseppe in an interview with Tilly Berendt. “I’ve always lived in Rome, and I started in racing before I moved to eventing. As an eventer living in Rome, Pratoni is your home. You’re training here, you’re competing here — and this famous slide is so interesting, because we always did it with young horses. Our five-year-olds were going down it, walking to start with, and then trotting down, and then you’d add in a little log, and then you jump down and the horses know how to do it.”

The famous “Pratoni Slide” proved to be influential — but perhaps not as influential as its 2007 counterpart due to modern event horses’ exposure to skinnies. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

What emerged from his design work (this was Giuseppe’s first World Championships design, but he built at Badminton for three years and also designed Pratoni’s European Championships track in 2007 at this venue) was a challenge that received mixed reactions upon the riders’ walks around. It was true: the track wound and twisted on itself, and many riders worried they’d not have the stretches of galloping their horses needed to achieve a rhythm. World Championships track are set at four-star dimensions but are typically more of the five-star technicality; other riders mused at the concept of a true five-star horse perhaps losing respect for the “smaller” size of these questions.

Of course, you don’t know what you don’t know, and there was only one way to find out exactly what awaited out there today. Tilly and Shelby spent the day debriefing with riders as they came in from cross country, and we’ll share some of their thoughts below. But first, let’s hear from Giuseppe himself:

“The idea was to try to more or less, find the root for everybody and in general, I must say that I’m happy. Clearly the best one had to work hard to get the time, but that was achievable. And I think that everybody more or less had time.

“I think that the conditions of the day were very good. So the horses jumped well, and that is good. Maybe, as I must say that riders are getting better and better. I thought that maybe the two corners up there would be a bit more difficult, a bit more demanding, but also there was a fair amount who did a fantastic job at it. So I would say it’s interesting. I designed here in 2007, the European Championships. And on the Slide there was something that was quite similar, or slightly different but was similar to this. But after 15 years of skinnies, horses seem, more or less, to jump them much easier.

“Clearly there are different elements that come in the design of course. And there are some technical elements, some elements that regard how comfort you want to make the course, how you how spectator-friendly…and also some technicality. Clearly if you run a course on this, you know, flat land you must also use a bit of what are the characteristics of the nature of the place. So I think that yes, there is more land to use, for sure. You can design many different courses here. For this championship, this was the course that I thought I wanted to design.”

Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Michael Jung (GER)

“I have to say sadly the ground wasn’t perfect, what we said also before this is not great for championship but yeah, in the end the course is tricky. The beginning is nice. You have a nice open gallop but then the middle part is very, very tricky. Turn left, right, forward, collect, up the hill, down, angle — and this is very difficult for the horses to, with this speed and gallop, still be so quick in the reaction and concentrate and keep the brain on. And you get a little bit the feeling when you get out of that and you have a longer gallop and then the horse thinks, ‘Okay, now we’re finished’, but then you still have to do two, three minutes. So you definitely have to try to keep the motivation and the power in the horse that they don’t think too early that they are finished and that’s a bit the tricky thing here.”

Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Yasmin Ingham (GBR)

“It was hard work actually, it was very intense. I think it was the terrain more than anything. You’re just constantly on the camber, up and down. But as I’ve said from the beginning, I’m just so glad that I’m sat on Banzai — he just really took it all in stride and just felt like he was really at home up in the hills.”

Tamie Smith and Mai Baum. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Tamie Smith (USA)

“We had spotters at the beginning of the course. We had a really good meeting last night with Ian [Stark]. We’d walked the course and we had our ideas and if it rides this way, great, if it doesn’t ride that way and the rider didn’t mess up, let me know. But it rode the way we had planned and the Slide rode better than — obviously I’d never done anything like that, and I only got to watch the video from like 1853 where they were trying to kill themselves. And I was like, well, they’re not gonna have that, they won’t put that one on the course. So then when I got here, I was a little bit pooping my pants — it I had my heart racing a little bit this morning again! But it rode great and what a great thing for the Americans to have Ian. He’s a legend. So we have confidence and he showed us how to ride fast.”

Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Oliver Townend (GBR)

“A different test to normal, but I think a very fair and cleverly designed test. I don’t think it particularly suits some of the older horses such as London, Ballaghmor Class, Toledo de Kerser that have been around those big five-stars like Badminton and Burghley because this is definitely smaller, dimensionally, and you’re up and down the hills and the terrain is tough. So you know, they want big open courses that they can attack. So the distances didn’t suit my horse, and he’s so genuine, even when he didn’t want to listen, he eventually did and the one thing he does love is jumping between the flags, which makes my job a lot lot more relaxing. If he sees the fence, then you know he’s gonna try and jump in for you.”

Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Julia Krajewski (GER)

“Yes, it’s a twisty course. But it’s a championship. Tokyo was, for me, more intense and more stressful to ride. Here, they were difficult questions, but you always had some time in between to reorganize yourself, pet your horse. I gave her quite some pets and in Tokyo there wasn’t much time to do that! And I find the course built in a way that we as the more experienced riders have to work, but if you’re not quite up at the level you have the chance to get home because you can just slow down a bit in the end and the horses have the chance to jump and make it home in a good way. So I have to say, well, I know that some riders complain, but for my horse it was great.”

Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg TSF. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Boyd Martin (USA)

“This track doesn’t suit him. He’s so suited to the five-stars. You know, the Kentucky’s that are just long gallops and I can get him settled in. Here, it was sort of like Tokyo where it’s a bit sort of turning and stopping and starting and the sunlight was a bit weird by the end of the day. But I have to give the horse credit. He just tries and tries and tries, and you know, it’s his best attribute with a horse that’s done as much as he has. Just a legend.”

Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Tim Price (NZL)

“It’s just the ground is the ground and so I think I just had to focus on the ground a bit more than the jumps. Probably the terrain, the lumps and bumps, and being on a camber and just knowing — and I think I’m quite lucky to have done Burghley a couple weeks ago, because it’s all about riding the ground rather than the jumps — and so even though this is quite different ground, a similar thing where there’s just moments where you just want to take your leg off them. And there’s moments when you’ve got to give them a squeeze and it sort of relates to where you are on the ground and things.”

Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Ros Canter (GBR)

“I knew he’d be able to keep his speed or accelerate up the hill. And I think that’s key because once you’ve done the hills, it gets very twisty. And if they feel a bit tired, that’s when they’re going to be hard to steer. So I was fortunate in that sense that he kept galloping,
No, it actually rode as I walked it, but again I think it helps having a horse like Lordships Graffalo to be sat on. You know the big horses that aren’t as easy to ride as him that it will probably become harder work.

Gaspard Maskud and Zaragoza are the bright spots in an otherwise turbulent day for the French. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Gaspard Maksud (FRA)

“It was hard work…And I felt all the way she was good, little bit of a bad jump coming out the first water, but the way she jump out it’s better to just turn on and just let her working out the strides. Sometimes you got to make a quick decision and, well, this time it worked so we won’t complain.”

Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Tom McEwen (GBR)

“I just think the camber’s real unnecessary for horses. Personally, I know they need it for media, for TV, and keep us in a small space but we’re in the most beautiful park and to me, that seems — that’s definitely where I lost most of the time. And to be honest, if I had two, five more minutes I would’ve been back on time again. He just needed those last minutes on the flat. And to be honest, all the striding was short, honest, and it doesn’t suit a — everyone thought he wasn’t a Burghley horse when he’s younger — he sure is that big striding, galloping horse. So yeah, just had to tinker around for a little awhile.”

On the ground:

“I was pretty wrong, it was fantastic. They’ve done a great job; coming out the water was spot on from the work they did. Everywhere was, to be honest, not far different from how it walked. So good on them. They knew what their ground was and they did a great job.”

Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Shenae Lowings (AUS)

“Well, it’s funny because when I was out there riding it I didn’t go, ‘well, I’ve never done these questions or ridden anything like this’. Yeah, the Slide was very different, but you couldn’t really plan how that was gonna ride. You just had to react to it as it came. But overall, the questions I had been asked before, but it was definitely probably the toughest track that I’ve jumped.”

Photo by Shelby Allen.

Sam Watson (IRE)

“I really enjoyed that, even though it was hard work. If it’s not hard work, we all go clear in the time and today doesn’t matter so much. Today we’re out of our comfort zone. I think people will be out of the comfort zone today. There’s nothing wrong with that — it’s high performance sport. And I think Giuseppe is — you have to be a genius now to push us out of the comfort zone and make it horse friendly to jump around. The speed we go, the time penalties is we get is our decision. It’s our responsibility. We must know how much energy the horses have, we must know how fit they are. We must manage that from the start to the finish. And if we don’t, it’s on us. It’s our responsibility. So the course designer for me has done his job. It’s a very safe track to jump. It’s a hard track to ride. Congratulations, Giuseppe, I think.”

Photo by Shelby Allen.

Christoph Wahler (GER)

“I think Michi said some very true things about the course designing yesterday already and that’s pretty much my opinion, too. They didn’t want to hear that before, so I guess they don’t want to hear it afterwards, but I didn’t think it rides well. My horse tired out quite quickly because of all the turns. He jumped jumped amazingly well over everything that I put him in front of. And I think then he just got a little bit tired and had to play it safe at one or two routes where he just didn’t feel bouncy enough and powerful enough in the canter to rode the direct lines. But in the end, it is what it is. It’s a clear now for the team. I would have liked to go faster, but today I couldn’t.

“It takes a lot out of the horses because then you turn them away, you turn them back, you have them jump maybe a close distance. And that stuff, that just tired him. He’s a big horse with a big stride and big jump. You put him in on a course like that, at Luhmuhlen, he just flies. You put him on this course, he just has to dig really, really deep.”

Photo by Shelby Allen.

Senne Vervaecke (BEL)

“It was a bit of a roller coaster, and of course the terrain is quite hard and I think you normally have a very fit horse. I never really have a trouble with them being very tired at the end of the course but now at minute five, I felt okay, this course goes a lot of uphill, definitely in the beginning, It’s a lot of questions. I had to take it a notch down to bring her very safe home. She’s so honest and on all the questions, even if I didn’t come 100%, she’s like, ‘don’t worry. I’ve got you. I know what the flags are. I will just go through it.'”

Hawley Awad and Jollybo. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Hawley Bennett-Awad (CAN)

“Actually I was proud to go out first. For them to have that much belief in me to go around is kind of special. You know, to be on Jolly — she’s absolutely amazing. I lost my rein coming down the Slide. I literally came down the Slide with one rein. Any other horses would have run out and looked for an out; she went straight. And, you know, that’s why we give her carrots, right? You know, it’s just that bond and relationship I have with her.”

Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Laura Collett (GBR)

“He was very keen the whole way, I just think having jumped around Badminton it felt a bit small and it was quite difficult. Even just the straightforward fences I was having to really make him listen because he just wanted to go flat out. He’s very well and he’s come home safe and sound and that, for me is the most important thing.

Holly Jacks and Candy King. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Holly Jacks (CAN) – Candy King

“Honestly it’s probably one of the best rides I’ve had on him. I think it was set up for success where I had the uphill to kind of blow some steam off and I was able to let go and it’s been awesome. I have to say, Matt Ryan’s been our new technical advisor and he was on the phone to my coach, Buck, a lot and it was just like having Buck here. So I think I’m really appreciative of having a new technical advisor come in who has spent the time learning how I need to learn. I felt like it went slow motion and things went to plan.”

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