Looking Back at Maryland: Short Stories from the 5* and Beyond

In the midst of the hectic end of the season, do we really get to soak in all that happens at each event? Look back at the MARS Maryland 5 Star with us to reminisce with some new stories from the mixed zone and beyond about your favorite 5* riders (and maybe a corgi or two).

As media at a big event, we spend a lot of time in a small roped off area, known as the mixed zone, interviewing everyone’s favorite riders. What typically gets published focuses on how the event is going, the horses’ careers, personalities, or what the riders are planning on doing next. But, we’re privy to funny, heartwarming, and sometimes sad tidbits of information that often don’t make it to press. Our Short Story series brings these stories directly to our readers, so you can get to know the riders and their horses as well as we do (read more like this from the mixed zone at the Lexington CCI4*-S here).

Mia Farley and Phelps. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Mia Farley Talks Mindset in the Mixed Zone

Mia Farley is a total badass. She stepped into her first 5* event and onto Maryland’s toughest track yet and absolutely smashed it. You’d expect Mia to be stoic and bold, but behind the scenes, the 23-year-old California native is unbelievably relatable. This was her first mixed zone and she handled it like a champ. Interviewing her felt more like a conversation with a friend versus a formal back-and-forth.

In most mixed zone interviews, the first question asked is to recap your ride. On cross country day, Mia’s response was exactly what I would have said were I brave enough to do more than jump a few logs. “Okay, I don’t know, it was like I started and then there was a lot happening in the middle. And then I got to the end and I just kept kicking,” she said, laughing. “I keep saying there’s like no thoughts throughout the weekend. I kind of just came to the finish flags and I was done. I got off and all I wanted to do was make sure that he was sound and okay.”

I love that Mia didn’t feel like she had to come up with something highly analytical or over-the-top to say. Instead, she was honest. I think that most equestrians have this mental image of five-star eventers as fearless riders who bravely gallop into the unknown. In reality, a lot of these top eventers still struggle with the same fears and self-doubt as the average rider.

For example, we asked Mia how she was feeling as we looked ahead to show jumping on day two, she responded with “I am going to pray to something.” Whoever she prayed to, it worked. Mia and Phelps had no time faults and two rails down to finish in fifth place with a score of 40.9.

Mia even opened up to us about how her mindset as a rookie at their first 5*. “I don’t really know if it’s like good or bad. I’m here and I keep saying to myself, I’ve been here before. It’s basically the same thing– three-star, five-star,” she said as though trying to convince herself. “You know, I think there is definitely a difference but I keep pushing it aside and think of it as just another show.”

Behind the scenes, David O’Connor were on hand, not only to coach her through her ride, but also to help her with her mindset. “It’s pretty awesome, actually. He’s a really good coach, mentor, owner, dad- it’s kind of all of the above with him,” Mia said. “I can always call him. If I get ahold of him, I usually get some pretty good advice. Sometimes he tells me just to get off if I’m really emotional. I’ve learned to do that and to maybe try again later. But it’s been a very special experience working with him and Karen both.”

We love a relatable badass. Welcome to the big leagues, Mia!

Buck Davidson and Sorocaima

Buck Davidson and Sorocaima: A Reluctant Partnership

Thoroughbred lovers may know of Buck Davidson’s Maryland Five Star mount, Sorocaima (Rock Hard Ten – Sankobasi, by Pulpit). What many would call a war horse, Sorocaima left the starting gate over 40 times in his racing career before Jill Henneberg sourced him for a rather reluctant Buck.

From this single conversation with him, it seems that Buck Davidson would rather jump the most frightening fence on cross country than tell Jill Henneberg ‘no.’ “She brought him down to me in Florida because I told her I didn’t have time to go get the horse, and she said, ‘I’ll bring him down.’ I didn’t really have the guts to say I don’t really want him! Anyways, I thought, I’ll leave it for a week and I’ll get it vetted and get a better look at it. The vet will find something wrong with it and I can send it back.”

Lo and behold, Buck’s worst nightmare came true: the PPE went fine and the vet didn’t reveal anything wrong with the horse. What a bummer!

Begrudgingly, Buck took the horse to an event. “So then I took him to a Preliminary a couple of weeks after I had him. He did like a 24 in dressage and I thought, [here Buck rubs his hands together] ‘Oh, here we go. I’m gonna pay off this farm real quick.’ And then I go into show jumping, and I get like six down. And then I went cross country… and he ran off with me completely. Needless to say, I still own the horse and the farm.”

Ah, a true Thoroughbred type of ride — difficult, chaotic, and slightly out of control. But over the years, Buck and Sorocaima, “Cam,” have built a relationship based on hard work and grit. “He’s just an out-and-out trier. Every single day, he tries to do what he can do. And you know, it’s just a balance of always not trying to push him past what he can do,” Buck said. “He’s a very sweet horse and I guess he raced 40 times or something. And one of the people that was doing an article on him asked his racing trainer why he kept him for so long. They said ‘Everybody likes to ride him.’ And that’s Cam, everybody likes to ride him.”

Together, Buck and Cam conquered the Maryland 5 Star and finished in ninth place with a score of 61 even.

Hannah Sue Hollberg points to her supporters after delivering a clear round aboard Capitol HIM. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Hannah Sue Hollberg: Code Name Smurf
As we gathered around in the mixed zone interviewing Buck Davidson, Hannah Sue Hollberg rode by aboard Capitol H I M. Breaking from the interview, Buck called after her, “Good luck, Smurf!” and went right back to what he was saying like he hadn’t just called someone a small blue troll seconds before they went down the centerline. I just had to know the story, so when it was Hannah’s turn in the mixed zone, I asked her about the nickname.

“It’s from the Pan Ams,” she said, shaking her head. “He calls me Smurf because… Well, we got our team kit in Houston and we went in and got to pick our stuff out. It’s really fun. And the next day everybody’s like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna meet in the lobby and you’re gonna wear something.’ And I thought they said, ‘Wear all your stuff.’ So I had everything blue, like head to toe. I was swishing down the hall in my tracksuit and Buck said, ‘You look like a Smurf.’ So he started calling me Smurf. Now Shannon Lilley calls me Smurf, too.”

But that’s not all, for Hannah was not about to be outdone. “I started calling him Lance, Lance Davidson. The entire Pan Am games, he was obsessed with who was the most famous athlete. He was asking everyone. So, we kept telling him, ‘It’s you, it’s you. You’re the most famous athlete at the Pan American Games.’ And then the Lance Armstrong thing was going on, so we started calling him that,” Hannah started laughing. “I don’t know, it’s just weird. He’ll answer to it, too. If you’re in a crowd and everything. It’s really funny. And we’re neighbors in Pennsylvania, too. He got me a golf ball that says Smurf on it. We’re really good friends, he’s awesome.”

Bobby Meyerhoff and Lumumba, wearing the now-retired racing saddle. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Bobby Meyerhoff: Retiring the Racing Saddle
If you’ve seen photos of Bobby, you may find yourself squinting at the saddle he’s riding in, thinking, ‘Isn’t that a bit small?’ For a while, Bobby rode his horses in a racing saddle– yes, even cross country. In 2021, he told Eventing Nation that it made all the difference in training his horses. “It helps me feel a lot more what’s going on before it happens. It actually makes me ride a lot better because there is only one place you can be. I can feel every vertebrae down there back because there’s no tree there. It’s almost like riding bareback with stirrups.”

But when I asked the experienced 5* eventer if we would see Lumumba in the teeny, tiny saddle this weekend, he sadly shook his head. “After I fell at Kentucky last year with my other mare, the girls said, ‘Hey Bobby. It’s time.’ So, we still use it at home, and it’s good for training and all that, but they don’t want me to go cross country in it anymore.”

Safety first, Bobby, safety first.

Andrew McConnon and Ferrie’s Cello. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Andrew McConnon and William Fox-Pitt: A Bromance for the Ages
If you’ve been following Andrew McConnon’s career, you’ll know that he spent two years in England working with William Fox-Pitt. Andrew’s road to the five-star level has been rocky. In 2014, he lost his upper level event horse, and was given the ride on Rachel Jurgens’ Ziggy to gain more experience at the level. But once Ziggy had to step down and an opportunity came up to ride with William, Andrew decided to use the break to get an international eventing education.

“I knew him as a horseman before going to England, as a kid watching him go around Kentucky and bringing horses over [to the USA]. He was always my favorite rider,” Andrew said.

At first, he was a little disappointed that his new mentor couldn’t provide him with that quick fix that would get him to the five-star level. “Before we went over to England, I wanted to know what his secret was, what he did at the event or what he did in the warm up or what he did schooling at home. And there wasn’t any trick or gimmick, there wasn’t any particular thing that he did to create his horses. He’s just an unbelievably natural cross country rider. So I was a little disappointed to not come back with a trick or a secret or something like that.”

Look at these two! Mentor and Mentee, out for a ride together. The bromance is palpable.

Secret-less, Andrew simply had to put his nose to the grindstone. “The Brits don’t teach lots of lessons, so it was monkey see, monkey do. Anytime I asked him for help, he was there and he did help me a lot. But it wasn’t an American program where it’s a formal lesson at 11 o’clock. It was ‘Watch me do this,’ he said. “So that was really nice to be around him for those two years. It does take time. I’m still watching and trying to be a fraction of his ability.”

William graced us with his presence this year at the Maryland 5 Star, looking “perfectly coiffed” as always. Not only are we excited to have him here, but Andrew is also feeling buoyed by the support of his mentor.

“I really respect him. Working with him, I got to know him as a person outside of horses, and he’s somebody that I would like to emulate on and off the horse. He’s wonderfully supportive, and he’s very relaxed and so it was really comforting to have him here and really fun to walk across the country with him. You know, he’s serious about it, but he also is realistic and understands different people’s plans and he’s really supportive.”

This is what eventing is all about -– riders supporting riders and helping each other do their best by the horses, by the sport, and by themselves.

Booli Selmayr and Millfield Lancando. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Booli Selmayr: Honoring the Late, Great Jess Halliday

When Booli stepped into the mixed zone to discuss her dressage ride with Millfield Lancando, I was distracted from the conversation by her perfectly matched outfit, featuring blue and gold stripes on her helmet, a blue beaded stock tie pin set against a tie with subtle gold appliques, canary shad belly points, and a small black and blue ribbon pinned to the right breast pocket of her jacket. Curious about the ribbon, I asked her what the story was behind it.

“This is actually for my late friend, Jess Halliday,” Booli said, touching the ribbon on her shoulder. “She was my best friend and one of those people that you meet and you’re just like ‘oh, this is my soulmate.’ And she unfortunately lost her battle with cancer two years ago.”

Not being from Area I, I didn’t know Jess personally, but I am familiar with her story and the Buck Off Cancer movement. After hearing a little about her from Booli’s point of view, she sounds like someone I would have loved to get to know.

While Jess lost her battle with cancer, she’s still eventing alongside Booli. “Blue and black were her cross country colors. So I always wear, you know, a little bit of blue everywhere for her, and black. Her colors were black and blue; black and gold were my colors. So, we tried to mesh it so she can come along on the rides with me.”

When you cheered for Booli this weekend, you cheered for Jess, too, who rode with Booli right on her shoulder.

Editor’s Note: Also, a major congrats to Booli for finishing the Monterey Bay Half Marathon this past weekend. She also ran this in honor of Jess, besting her first half marathon time by a whopping 30 minutes. Nice job!

Piggy March and Brookfield Cavalier Cruise. Photo by Sally Spickard.

The Brits vs The Yanks: Course Walk Strategies

In the interest of exploring how different methods of walking the course could contribute to the success of the British, we asked everyone their course walking strategies.

Up first is the world-renowned William Fox-Pitt who put in a stellar podium performance at Maryland with the relatively inexperienced Grafennacht, finishing second. Having trained and worked with several of our American riders, including Andrew McConnon, Liz Halliday, and Lexi Scovil, Fox-Pitt is widely regarded as a great horseman on both sides of the Atlantic. His course walking strategy is well thought out and quite detailed. Although we sprung the question on him during the press conference, he had an answer ready to go.

“The first time is obviously to have a look and get a feel for the course just to get an overall opinion of how it’s been presented. The second time is to start looking at all the options out there and to assess where the concentrated areas are of questions and what parts of the course are going to be a big focus,” he said. “The third time, you’re very much planning what is good for you and your horse. The very best riders in the world are the ones that are very quick to go to plan B and C without any doubt. So you really have to have a very clear approach to exactly how the horse is going and what will you do if they’re going like that and how would you go if they’re going like this? Or are they going to be getting tired? Are they still going to be fresh? Assessing all kinds of scenarios really. The last time, I walk the course on my own and walk around focusing on my line, the grass I’m treading when I walk, where I’m turning, what I’m aiming at, looking at all my lines and imagining that it’s going to be great.”

Eventual third-place finisher Oliver Townend only added that he approaches walking the course with the same sort of strategy. “Very similar philosophy, we’ve obviously been brought up with this similar sort of system and trainers. You know, we’ve both ridden under the yoke of the British system,” said Oliver.

On to the Americans. I spoke with three American riders about their approach to walking courses and got three different answers. Arielle Aharoni, located on the East Coast, walks the course multiple times and focuses on evaluating each combination as a piece of a puzzle.

“I walked it a couple of times already. The first time I went out I was like, ‘I have not seen a lot of these things before ever in my life.’ And the more I go out there, the more I think that I have seen these, just in different pieces,” Arielle said. “Like the bounce down to the one stride to the bounce out, you know, I’ve had bounces down, I’ve had bounces out, now we’re just putting it together. And you know, there’s combinations out there where I think it’s definitely gonna be challenging if you don’t get it right. But I’m pretty confident in my horse finding the next element.”

Whereas Arielle builds her confidence with each walk around the course, Cornelia Fletcher balances involving friends and family with getting in the zone. “The first one is a social walk. And the second one, you sort of start to figure out your plan. The third one, you’re zeroed in, all you see is the path you’re gonna ride,” Cornelia said. “At a five star, I would walk it four or five times, and I try to do it by myself the last one or two. I turn my phone off, and get completely focused on the zone.”

While Cornelia developed her strategy with help from coach Mike Huber, I really don’t know where Doug developed his strategy, although I’d assume he developed it himself based on experience. As he told us on our Instagram Livecast, Go Eventing at Maryland, “I just walk it twice.”

Nevertheless, his simple approach seems to be working well for him as he and Quantum Leap have a near-spotless cross country jumping record in the entirety of their FEI career together.

Arielle Aharoni and Dutch Times. Photo by Abby Powell.

Arielle Aharoni: Finding Those Boots

When Arielle walked into the mixed zone, a roped off piece of grass may as well have been New York Fashion Week -– but like, equestrian. Wearing a beautiful black shadbelly with silver appliques, Arielle walked onto the catwalk of the Mixed Zone and absolutely slayed. “This is Pikeur, and I got it because it sparkles,” she said.

But while sparkly Pikeur is always amazing, the real story is her boots. One week before the Maryland Five Star, her boots broke. “And these boots– Oh, let me tell you about these boots,” she began. “I wear ego7s, and every time I break them, I just buy the same exact size and design. And when I went to the store, they didn’t have my size and it was the week before coming here.”

Like any sensible equestrian who knows the value of a dollar, Arielle headed off to the Horseman’s Outlet and took a look at the consignment boots. And, in a moment reminiscent of Cinderella or the Sisterhood the Traveling Pants, there they were: the boots.

“They didn’t have ego7 boots in my size, but they had a pair of custom boots that didn’t work out for someone. So, I said ‘Let me just see if one of these fits.’ They fit perfectly. They were originally $1000, but they had a 50% discount. Plus, I had a $200 credit. Yeah, I got these for pretty much $200,” Arielle grinned like a Cheshire cat with catnip.

Girl, that is the find of the century. 5* riders: they appreciate a good deal, just like the rest of us.

We’re also happy to report that Arielle’s Dutch Times, whom she pulled up just two fences from home on cross country, is back home at her farm and recovering well. The diagnosed injury was a rupture of the superficial digital flexor tendon, though the deep digital flexor tendon or suspensory ligament were found to not be involved. Arielle says her best friend will stay with her forever, and whether he returns to any sort of work remains to be seen and will be up to what he wants to do. You can read more on Dutch from Nancy Jaffer here.

Monica Spencer and Artist. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Thoroughbreds Got Their Moment in the Spotlight

For a few years, the iconic Thoroughbred, which was once the prized for its endurance and talent, seemed to be drowning in a sea of warmbloods. But at the Maryland 5 Star, Thoroughbreds once again had their 15-minutes of fame. Three of the top 10 horses were Thoroughbreds. Mia Farley and Phelps, Buck Davidson and Sorocaima, and Monica Spencer and Artist were all excellent examples of how successful these horses can be at the upper levels of eventing.

As it turned out, even renowned course designer Ian Stark is a fan of the breed. “I thought Mia’s horse went brilliantly, she rode amazingly considering it’s her first five-star. What really thrilled me is, because I’m a racing man, he’s a Thoroughbred. So while I won’t make a rude gesture to the warmbloods, I’ve always been a Thoroughbred person, so I’m delighted for her.”

No one should be surprised that Ian is spot on. Mia Farley and Phelps, owned by David O’Connor, put in a stellar performance that left the mixed zone jumping up and down and cheering. The five-star rookie pulled off a fast and careful cross country round that wound up being the only double clear trip of the day and earned her 5th place. As a rookie competing against household names like William Fox-Pitt and Piggy March, it was impressive to say the least.

“I think him and I were fighting for it. I’ve never felt so in tune with a horse,” Mia said. “Even though I felt like we both kind of didn’t know what we’re doing, we both knew the goal was to get to the other side.”

Monica Spencer’s New Zealand Thoroughbred Artist were the perfect example of how big a Thoroughbred’s heart is. These horses will try their hearts out for their person, which came in handy when Monica tackled Ian Stark’s formidable course. “Well, it definitely felt like the hardest trip we’ve ridden but he’s so good. You know, if it’s in front of him, he’ll try and jump it. He was very reliable the whole way around,” Monica said in the cross country mixed zone, only moments after crossing the finish line.

Sorocaima, or “Cam,” is the only true ex-racehorse of the bunch. Not only did he race, but, in my opinion, he’s a true warhorse with 43 starts under his belt. This true athlete made $82,396 on the track and has now gone on to compete to the highest levels of eventing. When asked to describe the course in three words by USEA’s Kate Lokey, Buck gave her four, “Lucky to ride Cam.”

From the Fans

It’s not all about the competitors at the Maryland 5 Star! You were all very busy on social media throughout the weekend. To tide you over until next year, check out these Instagram reels to experience Maryland from a fan’s point of view.

This corgi had his human really well-trained. Look at the style over those fences! The MARS Pet VIP area was hugely popular with humans and dogs alike.

Get a groom’s eye view of what it’s like to win the Maryland Five Star from Francesca Denning, groom for 2023 five star winner Austin O’Connor.

From the Young Event Horse Championships

There was some tough competition at the USEA Dutta Corp Young Event Horse Championships presented by Dubarry. HSH Afterglow & Caroline Pamukcu were crowned champions in the 4-year-old division, while Shmick and Boyd Martin won the 5-year-old division.

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