If someone wanted to approach the British spring season so far in the manner of, say, a literary critic, they wouldn’t have too hard a time in finding the central themes of the narrative: at Bramham, as at Badminton, we’ve seen horses who had to do their tumultuous ‘teenage’ phase in the harsh glare of the spotlight, who have faltered — fairly, you could argue — and been loudly doubted, and who have reached their zenith over the toughest, boldest, most influential of courses.
In many ways, Izzy Taylor‘s Monkeying Around delivers much the same flavour of fairytale as Laura Collett’s London 52: both horses overachieved enormously at the start of their international careers, making themselves darlings of the sport before hitting the ups and downs and wobbly bits that come part and parcel of finding their feet at the upper levels. For most horses, this bit goes under the radar: nobody really notices them until they’ve worked their way through the event horse’s equivalent of a robust undergraduate degree, and by the time they enjoy their first high-profile success, they’re much more secure in their work and have got the green run-outs and naughty moments largely out of the way. For a flashy horse who becomes the Six-Year-Old World Champion with one of the world’s most successful riders aboard, though, the public’s expectations are often almost unattainably high — and so although Monkey has had plenty of success, including tenth place at last year’s European Championships, a win in the Burnham Market CCI4*-L in 2020, which replaced Blenheim that year, and in the CCI4*-S at Burgham last season, it’s often been his little whoopsies (like that 20 and subsequent retirement in his CCI4*-S run at Burnham Market this spring) that have commanded the most attention.
The antidote to it all, as is so often the case with precocious horses, has been time, patience — and a sense of humour. We saw that pay off over the first two phases this week; the pair were second after the first phase on a customarily excellent 24, this time without any of the occasional practical jokes that the gelding can throw into the mix, and on cross-country yesterday he looked at his absolute best, adding just 1.2 time penalties to step into the lead.
Today’s showjumping round, though, was a bit of a different story. Jumping for the win comes with an extraordinary amount of pressure in its own right, but Bramham’s arena is particularly atmospheric to boot: it’s surrounded by slopes, creating a natural amphitheatre effect that’s reliably packed to the gills with spectators, screaming babies, barking dogs, and popping champagne bottles. In addition to that, today’s weather forecast brought with it a sharp, forceful wind that had flags whipping in the wind, flower pots toppling — and, in the round before Izzy’s, an entire fence sent flying.
That meant that Izzy’s best-laid plans to warm up and then head straight into the ring in attacking fashion were turned on their head, and as a result, their round wasn’t quite the easiest looking clear of the day, though it was, crucially, clear: the inordinately scopey gelding was sticky off the ground at each fence, but could use his natural ability as a crutch.
“He felt like I was going to have to do as much work as him!” laughs Izzy. “After the wall blew down I waited, and I waited, and I waited, and I thought, ‘oh, they’ll be done [rebuilding] by now’. Normally, I go into a ring and off we go, but I went in and we had a little trot round, and a little canter round, and then off we went — and it was fine, but he was a bit spooky and a bit like, ‘oh, are we actually doing this right now?’ Yes, we are doing this right now!”
Izzy went into the ring with 2.8 penalties in hand over Ros Canter and Pencos Crown Jewel, who had delivered an excellent clear round in tricky conditions to finish on their dressage score of 28 — the only pair in the class to do so. That didn’t give Izzy any rails in hand, but it did give her seven seconds to play with — a buffer she’d make best use of while carefully placing the gelding at each fence.
“It’s always nice to know what you’ve got [in hand], and the way it was, I needed to use them,” she says. “But I’m thrilled with him — he’s won his four-star long before at Burnham Market, and then to come here, which is a whole different competition in many respects, just proves to me that he’s a proper horse. He’s a real one, and I’m really thrilled for everyone that’s involved with him. There’s a lot of work behind them all, as we all know, so I’m delighted.”
Now, Izzy’s considering a brief foray back in the hunt field with the gelding, who she hunted extensively as a youngster: “We might go to a hound exercise and then in the winter he’s allowed to go to a meet — maybe not with me riding him though; he’s quite athletic!”
Though Ros Canter and Pencos Crown Jewel delivered a round that was well-placed to put the pressure on the leaders, it certainly wasn’t without its drama: in the latter third of their round, the wind blew down fence six, an ostentatious green wall in the centre of the ring. Not only was it fully visible and in reasonably close proximity to the mare, it also landed with a loud crash.
“It’s Jasmine’s worst nightmare, something like that happening,” says Ros. “She’s not a huge fan of people or of poles, and when we broke her in, she was terrified of poles. So we have to be quite careful in warm-ups that things aren’t anywhere near her when she jumps — so that really was her worst nightmare.”
But despite’s Jasmine’s tendencies, her reaction was conspicuous only by its absence: she didn’t so much as flick an ear towards the offending fence, and finished her round in fine style.
“Bless her, she just carried on and she’s such a little warrior — she just keeps on fighting,” says Ros, who has produced the thirteen-year-old from the start of her career and is delighting in her hitting her peak this season. “She’s been on fab form this year. I always think of her as a little horse, but she’s just pulled it out of the bag in every phase. I think this year, particularly, our relationship is stronger than ever, and I think with a mare that’s really important.”
Part of strengthening that relationship has been learning to compromise in training — an ethos that has carried through a lot of what Ros is doing with her horses this year, including her World Champion Allstar B, who no longer schools at all but hacks extensively instead.
“I’ve learned she doesn’t really like going on the bit, so why do it very often? Probably, the last few years, I’ve potentially tried to over-train her and make her something she isn’t, and actually today we just bombed around like I would on a pony and had a bit of fun, and she went in there and absolutely loved it. So that’s definitely the way with her!”
Now, Ros is happy to let ‘Jasmine’, who was fourth in her five-star debut at Bicton last autumn, enjoy her moment in the spotlight.
“She’s an absolutely fantastic horse, and when you look at her record over the years, it’s phenomenal. But she’s always had that one horse [overshadowing her] that’s gone to a championships or something like that, so nobody’s really recognised her. She’s been my kind of second string for a long time, so it’s really great for her to get this result, and for her owners, too.”
“She was absolutely mega — I have no words,” says an emotional Kirsty Chabert, who secured herself a podium position after delivering a classy round for 1.6 time penalties aboard Opposition Loire, pushing them up a spot from the fourth place position they’ve held throughout the week. The eleven-year-old British-bred mare, who was running in just her second-ever CCI4*-L, didn’t look at all tired by yesterday’s exertions.
“She was really fresh — she effectively napped into the arena to get going, so you just go with it,” says Kirsty. “She’s a phenomenal jumper, and she always has been on the last day, but she can have a pole through exuberance in the short formats. I can’t fault her today; she was amazing.”
Kirsty had originally considered a Luhmühlen CCI5* run for the mare, who had just missed out on a spot on the Badminton start list, but decided to come to this instead as it’s her own favourite event: “It’s still my favourite event,” she laughs. “It was definitely the right decision!”
Now, the mare may be aimed at a Burghley run to finish her year, “but she’s such a good horse that maybe she doesn’t need to do another exertion event this year. We’ll see.”
One of the most impressive performances of the week has to be that of the nine-year-old CCI4*-L debutant Darmagnac de Beliard, superbly piloted by France’s Tom Carlile. They led the first day of dressage on their score of 29.3, ultimately going into cross-country in sixth place — and after zooming seamlessly around to add just 1.6 time penalties, they stepped up into overnight third place. Though they tipped a rail today, their three-phase performance was still good enough to secure them fourth — the gelding’s seventh top-five finish out of his eight career international starts.
“I’m chuffed with him; all week he’s been a great boy,” says Tom, who has earned himself a reputation over the years as one of the sport’s best producers of young horses. “I was pleased with his dressage — if anything, I let him down a bit, and he was superb yesterday. He’s a very good jumper, a careful jumper, but he’s still a little bit inexperienced with this atmosphere, so I’d have preferred a clear round, but the horse has generally done all three phases really well.”
Now, Tom is looking ahead to the next steps — a run at Blenheim this autumn, and then a planned CCI5* debut in the spring.
“He’s one that we rate for the future — had somebody told me [before coming] that he’d be fourth, I’d have signed for that, I think! There’s a lot to come from him.”
Ireland’s Susie Berry is also looking ahead to five-star with her fifth-placed mount Ringwood LB, but theirs will come around rather sooner: they’re aiming for Burghley as a debut for the gelding, who began his week in seventh place on 29.6, slipped to tenth after adding 4.8 time penalties yesterday, and then climbed up to fifth today despite knocking a single rail. Behind her, local rider Kristina Hall-Jackson made a spectacular climb with CMS Google, who moved up from 42nd place to 15th yesterday, and then onwards to a final sixth place after jumping a clear round with 0.8 time penalties.
Oliver Townend and new ride As Is, another former mount of Andrew Nicholson, took seventh place despite activating a MIMclip on yesterday’s cross-country course, which plummeted them down the order to twentieth place. But so rare were faultless rounds today — just seven of the 39 starters managed them — that their stylish effort sent them soaring back up the leaderboard. They’re followed by Ros Canter and Rehy Royal Diamond, whose steady round and 12.4 time penalties yesterday sent them down from ninth to 21st place, but whose clear round with 0.4 time allowed them to climb back up the order and finish in eighth.
“He’s come on so much in the last couple of years; he’s always wanted to be desperately careful, but his timing was out quite a lot,” says Ros. “He’s got an unusual style and he uses his neck, so it’s often caught him out. But in the last two years, he’s just jumped clear round after clear round, and it’s like he’s suddenly realised how to do it — and he’s really honest as well. He really wants to do the job, so that’s lovely.”
There were plenty of impressive climbs up the leaderboard today, including that of eleventh-placed Alex Whewall, who won the George Lane Fox Memorial Trophy for the biggest climb of the week after moving up from 55th place with Ellfield Voyager. But one rider who made a great leap up the leaderboard was so taken by surprise that she very nearly missed the prizegiving.
“I’d changed into my jeans and taken her plaits out, and we were about to leave,” laughs a breathless Tiana Coudray, who never quite expected that her clear inside the time today would propel her from overnight 22nd to the top ten — but such was the influence of this final phase that she was able to climb, climb, and climb some more to an eventual ninth place with the twelve-year-old Holsteiner mare Cancaras Girl. This is the horse’s first international placing after a few steady and educational seasons, and Tiana is delighted that the time has come to show off all that she’s been working on.
“She’s so lovely, and she’s just been chipping away. It feels like she might be finally showing what we’ve always thought was in there; she’s never had a big result, but she’s always shown enough promise that she’s been exciting,” she says.”She’s done one CCI2*-L, one CCI3*-L, went to Bicton CCI4*-L off the back of nothing, and so she’s still an unknown to us. At this point, this is her third CCI4*-L, so it’s becoming more clear, but it’s still really early in her upper-level career. Her mileage is incredibly low, which is why it was so important for us to come here and put this mileage on her. And obviously we were disappointed not to get into Badminton, but to have a good result this weekend has really confirmed that she was ready for that.”
They began their week in equal 31st place on 34.7, then climbed to 22nd after adding 8 time penalties over yesterday’s track. Today, they delivered one of the seven totally faultless rounds of the class to complete their climb — and confirm that a much-considered Burghley debut this autumn is the right plan for the horse.
“In hindsight, I’m so disappointed to have had the time penalties I had, because she’s a horse that must have been one of the best horses to finish yesterday,” says Tiana. “She absolutely cruised up the hill, we threw some water on her, and she looked around like, ‘shall we go around again?!’ She was unbelievably quick to recover, and now I know that about her and can be braver about how much I push her. This is by far the biggest test she’s ever had, and that’s why we came here: for me, this is a really important step for her future, so I’m absolutely thrilled. Of course I wish I’d gone faster; with the way she jumped today, I believe she could have finished on her dressage score, but having said that, she jumped a super round yesterday, she’s on amazing form, which is so exciting, and we just finished in the top ten at Bramham!”
New Zealand’s James Avery put in the work through the week to enact a quiet climb up the leaderboard, ultimately finishing in tenth place with Hazel Livesey’s One of a Kind II after beginning in seventeenth after dressage.