“I could do without the nightclub music in the walk,” says reigning Pau champion Jonelle Price wryly after her test with Pratoni ride McClaren, who scored a 32.4 to sit ninth overnight after the first day of dressage at Pau, the final CCI5* of the 2023 season. She’s fair to say it, too: for all Pau’s abundant charms, some of its oddities aren’t always wholly conducive to eking the best possible marks out of a hot, fit event horse, and that pounding oontz-oontz music – which was, today at least, piped out of speakers localised to one part of the arena – is certainly among those. That was just one of the factors that created a significant ‘spooky corner’; others in the same area included a cameraman next to the judge’s hut at B, who was at his most terrifying for the first few tests when he had an umbrella over his set-up, and, of course, the arena’s big screen, which looms over the ring in close proximity.
That meant that many of the horses we saw today — even the very experienced ones — spooked either inside or outside the ring, costing themselves valuable marks and leaving the door wide open for day two’s competitors.
One horse who managed to get his spook out of his system before entering at A was Tim Price‘s nine-year-old Viscount Viktor (Viscount 22 – Nova EH, by Nobre xx), who took fright at the cameraman while negotiating his pass around the outside of the ring but then shelved any bad behaviour in favour of a professional, sweet test that belied his relative inexperience. That was enough to earn the pair a 28, which is just one-tenth of a penalty in front of their closest competition today – but over four whole marks better than their test at last month’s Blenheim eight- and nine-year-olds’ CCI4*-S.
“He’s coming along,” says Tim, who won here in 2021 with Falco. “He’s a young horse and unestablished at all of this stuff, but the end of the year is hopefully when you’re going to get a bit more, and when he’s going to understand the movements a bit more and start to relax. It was good today.”
That progression from Blenheim, he says, comes largely from simply giving the horse more exposure.
“It just feels a little bit more consolidated — a little bit going through the motions a bit more,” he explains. “I don’t have to make so much of a focus, in the days leading in, of making sure he actually knows his way through those movements. I can just think of relaxation: I can drop his neck, trot him round, get him used to the place and then when you go in and all that is your foundation, then the movements aren’t a surprise for him. So that’s what Blenheim contributes, because there, you’ve got to hack all the way over to the main ring and he was like, ‘whoa, this is so new and big and different!’ So it’s just nice to get to this stage. This is such a good environment for them even though it’s cats and dogs appalling! But it’s good experience.”
This is hardly the zenith of what’s to come for Viktor, who Tim tipped at Blenheim as his next big thing.
“He does actually find the work quite easy and so for me, it was actually a little bit of an underridden test. I was just going for a nice test with not too many mistakes, and then we can build on that over the coming years. The places he finds difficult are coming back from a medium or extended canter, and then he just likes to keep his body nice and long. He knows to come back, it just takes a little bit longer — that will get better over the next couple of years,” he says, adding that the progression feels marked: “I used to have to, not that long ago, sort of introduce a half-pass and then go for the half-pass because otherwise he might pop into canter or lose his balance. But now I can sit him up in the corner and say, ‘let’s go sideways’. And the same with the medium trot. I can come around the corner and say ‘let’s go’, and he goes into a good medium trot, and those moments are really fun in terms of training a horse and building it through the grades.”
Just a whisper behind him is another five-star debutant horse, this one ridden by a Brit: Piggy March put a 28.1 on the board with Coolparks Sarco, or Jeremy, who she inherited from her close friend Nicola Wilson after the European Champion’s career-altering fall at Badminton last year. The eleven-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding (Shannondale Sarco St Ghyvan x Coolpark Lady Diamond, by Coolcorron Cool Diamond) lost a couple of marks when delivering his final flying change a stride late, but otherwise, was polite and professional in the arena — a welcome change after yesterday’s arena familiarisation, when he was visibly unsettled by the big screen in corner.
“I mean, he was really nice until they put the screens on — then he got a bit panicked by that, but I don’t think he’s seen that,” says Piggy. “But today, I thought he was really nice. I might look at it back and be cross with myself for not just being a little bit maybe braver, I don’t know! But I didn’t ever go ‘oh dear’. He’s quite an attractive horse anyway, and it all felt consistent; he can get a bit above the bit and not be still in his head, but he felt quite still.”
Though she might spot those margins for more bravery on her rewatch, Piggy’s decision to occasionally play it safe in the ring was one that was made with good reason: though Jeremy had settled into the idea of the big screen, he, like so many of today’s horses, wasn’t quite sure about that cameraman.
“Maybe I needed one more gear in there, but I was conscious not to then feel like I was chasing when he felt so nicely in front of my leg and under me — I thought, ‘surely this is quite nice’, and I just felt a little bit concerned with the camera just there. He was a little bit scared of it, but other than that, I thought he was nice.”
For Piggy this is a second five-star in as many weeks: she arrived here straight off the back of a run ’round Maryland with another debutant, Brookfield Cavalier Cruise. That means that she’d not ridden Jeremy herself in over a week on Monday, a situation that requires a bit of extra care and thought to manage appropriately.
“It’s not ideal — it’s not ideal at all, and then you’re conscious of not getting here when they’ve travelled and just picking up the reins and working them really hard straightaway,” she says. That, and the continual deluge that’s plagued us all day, also impacted the way she opted to warm up: “The weather today has been fairly horrendous, so I didn’t give him long, because he felt very good. I’m delighted with his brain as well; he really went in there and was very rideable and very relaxed.”
One of the earliest tests of the day was also one of the most competitive: reigning European Champion and Badminton winner Ros Canter piloted the seasoned five-star mare Pencos Crown Jewel (Jumbo x Cornish Queen, by Rock King), a maternal half-sister to her stable star Lordships Graffalo, to overnight third on a 28.3 after a test that, like Piggy’s, was well above and beyond the work she’d been doing while schooling yesterday.
“She was actually a bit lazy yesterday, and probably, if anything, she’s just naturally a bit on a forehand — sometimes she just needs to lift up a bit in front, [which was the case yesterday] but I’m absolutely delighted with what she just did in there,” says Ros with a smile. “Myself, personally, I feel like it’s been a bit harshly marked — but I haven’t spoken to anybody that watched it properly yet, so there might have been things I could have done better, but I was really delighted with the way she went.”
This year, Ros has been experimenting with the mare’s warm-up regime, and now favours a much more low-key approach to getting the good stuff in the arena.
“You just have to persuade yourself that twenty minutes is plenty in the warmup, and most of that is spent in walk: I do two minutes work, have a walk, two minutes work, have a walk, two minutes work, have a walk, and then I walk down here. She just needs to feel good in her body, and the day before a competition, sometimes she looks spicy, but she needs to look spicy in order to be upbeat enough in there for things like the changes.”
Pippa Funnell sits fourth overnight with Billy Walk On on his first trip to France since his young horse years, but while most of us would be frothing at the mouth to score a 29.6 at this level, Pippa was frustrated to post the second-worst score of the 14-year-old gelding’s seven-strong five-star record. They, too, suffered a spook in the ring — “he’s probably too experienced for that, really” — but the source of her frustrations wasn’t her horse, but rather, an anomaly in the stewarding that seemed to have been rectified later on in the day. Pippa was one of several riders who was sent down the chute from the collecting ring well before the prior test had finished, which meant that her on-the-boil and impeccably warmed-up mount suddenly had to contend with the confusion of ping-ponging back and forth down the chute until he could finally enter the ring.
“I was fuming,” admits Pippa, “because we were sent down so early, when the test before still had all the canter work to do. I came back [to the warm-up] because I realised [the rider before me] was on her walk, and then I was sent right back down again — so that was annoying, because it was just enough that I lost the lovely feeling that I had out here. A lot of it is about split timing, isn’t it, at this level? Not overdoing it, not underdoing it, and loads of transitions just before so he’s prepped up and ready — but then he doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going because I kept on having to turn him back from the arena. You want to go straight in when you’re sent up.”
The top four at the tail end of today’s competition are all household names in the sport of eventing, as are several more of the top ten — but for many fans of the sport, the rider in fifth place might be something of an unfamiliar face. 23-year-old Nadja Minder came to Pau with her horse of a lifetime, the 16-year-old Swiss Sport Horse Toblerone (Yarlands Summer Song x Medelyne), hoping to gain experience at a new level to them both; she certainly didn’t expect that that would involve delivering a competitive performance in the first phase. But that’s exactly what they did, putting a 30.5 — a top-three score for them across their 31-run FEI career — on the board to sit at the business end going into day two.
“What a time to do it!” says a delighted Nadja, who is Switzerland’s sole representative at Pau this week. “I mean, this horse keeps impressing me; keeps making my dreams come true, still. I’m so proud of him. The dressage was never the easiest phase for him, and we had to work a lot and we really had to make him believe that he can do it in the ring. I mean, he thinks he can jump a seven star cross-country but, it’s so cool that he now believes in himself when he’s in the ring, too, and shows off like he did. I’m so proud.”
Getting to that point, she explains, has just been a matter of patience and sympathetic riding to work out Toblerone’s comfort zones and gently expand them, taking everything back to basics as needed to reestablish his confidence.
“It took me some time to really figure out how he ticks, and it’s a little bit the same in the show jumping,” says Nadja. “He wants to be careful, but he doesn’t have the technique to do it, and when he’s unsure he maybe even starts to stop at the colourful fences. It was a little bit the same in the dressage. It was like, when we were easygoing, and he felt safe, he was super, and from the point we wanted to push him more or wanted more, to get higher marks or a flashier trot or whatever, but it felt like it stressed him out. Maybe I’m not the right jockey to ride it properly, but as I got to know him better, I think I figured the training out, to just not push him too much, and to really make him believe, and then it just got better. But sometimes, like at the beginning of this year, I had a little bit of a step back again, because I wanted too much again, and then he started to stress out in the ring, and then nothing works anymore, and now we’re back to normal.”
Nadja’s long been dreaming of making the move up to five-star — one that isn’t always common with many of the continental competitors, who’s pathways are often more championship-based. But the growing string of horses she’s producing to the top level opened a window of opportunity to make the move up with her old friend, with whom she contested this year’s European Championships and last year’s World Championships.
“To be honest, I was thinking about [coming to Pau] since last December. But it takes a lot of good circumstances to get your horse to five star. The thought process behind it was that the Europeans went well, and the cross country wasn’t that long, [because it was shortened to eight minutes]. So it wasn’t really a long format, even though the horses got tired anyway. I always wanted to ride a five star, and I luckily have other horses in my stable who I can think about for Paris next year. Maybe if there was only Toblerone, I wouldn’t have had the courage to come here. But I thought, it’s the time to do it, and if not now, when?”
Toblerone has been Nadja’s partner through the realisation of so many of her lifelong dreams: before the World and European Championships, they picked up an individual eleventh place finish in the 2021 Young Rider European Championships at Segersjö, and she contested her first-ever four-star with the gelding that year too, giving her valuable mileage to bring several more of her horses to the level. And so this moment? It’s understandably a pretty major one.
“I’m so f*cking proud of him,” she beams. “I have to be careful that I don’t start to cry! But right now… he’s so special. When he came to me, we didn’t know that he is this good, but it’s always very special when riders have their Young Rider horse [through to Seniors]. When you’re a young rider, you maybe have more time to process a partnership, so the process comes naturally than when you’re more experienced and you maybe have owners who push more or whatever. But we never had expectations with him — it just happened, and he made the step from Young Riders to the Senior camp so easy. I don’t know if even now I know what I have with him. Maybe in a few years time I will realise how incredibly special he is. I don’t know if I can appreciate it — I appreciate him like crazy, but maybe in a few years time I really will know how special he was.”
New Zealand’s Muzi Pottinger sits sixth overnight on a 31.1 with the full Thoroughbred, Just Kidding, while Kylie Roddy and SRS Kan Do, who were eleventh here two years ago, are equal seventh on 31.7 with Izzy Taylor and Happy Days. The top ten is rounded out by British-based Frenchman and five-star debutant Gaspard Maksud on his World Championships top-ten finisher Zaragoza, on a 32.9, just behind ninth-placed reigning Pau champ Jonelle Price and her Pratoni team bronze medallist McClaren, on a 32.4.
Tomorrow sees a full day of dressage on the agenda, beginning at 10.00 a.m. local time/9.00 a.m. BST/4.00 a.m. EST with France’s Cedric Lyard first in the ring with the experienced Unum De’Or. Check out the times in full here, and if you want to follow along with the form, you’ll find EN’s 5* Form Guide here. Tune in for the live stream via Horse&Country TV, and keep it locked onto to EN for live updates, full reports, and plenty of behind-the-scenes glimpses of all the goings-on via our Instagram account, too. Until then: Go Eventing!