“I don’t usually try something new at a four-star, but I took a risk and it paid off,” laughed 23-year-old Hallie Coon after the career-best test that earned her and Celien a 29.1 today at Pau. That something new could refer to a few things, really — it’s the first time Hallie and the eleven-year-old Dutch mare have dipped below the 30s in an FEI competition, as well as, just as pertinently, the first time they’ve tackled a four-star. But what she’s actually referring to is something else: not content with being an also-ran in her CCI4* debut, she dug deep and took her chances with a bold new tactic today.
“I got her a bit fired up in the warm-up so she’d be more active and pushing with her hindend,” she explains. “I’m always a bit scared of doing that, because she can get quite hot in the arena, but I decided to take the risk. I was sick of being mediocre, and I thought if I tried it, I’d either be really wonderful or really terrible! So we took the risk, and it paid off.”
It most certainly did — the pair’s three-star dressage average in their six runs this season has been 33.4, and to shave off over four marks at the biggest competition of your life, and riding the most difficult test yet, is a rare triumph.
“Honestly, coming into this I didn’t think there was any possibility of this outcome after day one,” she says. “It’s very, very surprising to me; I’m a little bit stunned and shellshocked still!”
But Hallie has always been quietly confident that the test was in there somewhere: “I’ve worked really hard, and I felt coming here that the horse was really quality and in a really good place, but I was questioning whether I could put it together on the day. I’m as surprised as everyone else is — and I know everyone is surprised,” she laughs.
But should she be, really? After all, she’s produced Cece herself, taking her from her first event through to Advanced in just under two years. She bought her sight unseen from a video — “she was just a blur, jumping around in the rain” — as a rising six-year-old, and though the Dutch-bred mare had only showjumped and thus never even seen a solid fence, she knew she had to have her. Hallie was just seventeen at the time, but she knew she was onto something special.
“There was something there, a certain spring in her step, and this exuberance that she took everything on with,” she explains. “She’s not perfect; her form wasn’t necessarily perfect, but attitude shone through for me. I try to work off my gut instincts and not overthink things, and so I just went with it. I was at Buck [Davidson’s] when I saw it, and I called my parents straight away — I’ve never relied on them to get me horses, but I knew I had to move fast. We got her cheap and everything just came together.”
Until that point, Hallie had enjoyed a taste of what was to come with Namaste, the tricky gelding she took over from sister Aryn and who she produced to three-star after moving up to him from her childhood pony. Though talented, Namaste wasn’t the easiest horse to maintain, and Hallie hoped that Cece might be the horse that could follow through on her major ambitions.
Celien made her eventing debut at the Novice level in 2013, jumping around Ocala International for an inauspicious 13th place. Then she moved up to Training level a couple of weeks later, but Hallie decided after this second event that the mare, who had only ever seen the inside of showjumping arenas in Belgium, needed some more time to grow and mature. She spent much of the next ten months riding her around the fields of New Hampshire, letting her figure out her balance and grow into herself. When they returned to competition in early 2014, they did so with all guns blazing: within twelve months Cece moved through the levels from Training to Advanced.
“She’s extraordinary — she went from nothing to Advanced so quickly, because no challenge was great enough for her and she just had to have it all thrown at her or she’d get bored.”
Now, Celien (Tenerife VDL x R Quicksilver, by Hamlet, a KWPN combination that sees her possess just 35.65% blood breeding) is eleven, with three-and-a-half seasons at the three-star level under her belt. After being named to the Emerging Athlete Eventing 5 program and receiving the Karen Stives Endowment Fund Grant, which allowed her to make her first competitive trip abroad this spring, a whole new world was opened up for Hallie and her mare. They helped the US team to second place at Houghton’s Nations Cup CICO3* in England, finishing best of the Americans in 15th place on their team debut and finishing on their dressage score of 34.7. Then, they took on the under-25 CCI3* at Bramham — widely regarded as one of the toughest three-star tracks in the world — and although an untimely abscess meant that they withdrew from the final horse inspection, they went clear across the country. Suddenly, Hallie realised that she could play with the big boys.
“Coming to the UK has been a brilliant experience,” she says. “It’s the first time I’ve been in a really high-pressure situation — Houghton was my first team appearance and I took it really seriously, so I was a bit crushed after my dressage. I just put a whole load of pressure on myself to get it done; I had to finish on that score, in my eyes. You can’t redo your first senior team experience. After Bramham, I realised that when it came to be crunch time, I could deliver. I’d always been a confident rider and competitor, but this gave me a whole new sense of confidence. I’ve never been put in that situation before — to find out I was able to rise to the occasion was as surprising to me as anyone else.”
But the one thing that didn’t surprise her was how easy it was to get to work in the UK, even when sharing warm-up rings with the likes of Oliver Townend, the Price family, and Andrew Nicholson.
“The only thing that could have freaked me out about the top guys being around was that maybe I could have gone up against them, thinking it didn’t faze me, and choked. That would have been a real thing for me, discovering that — in my head, we’re all human, everyone makes mistakes, and some people are more successful than others. It doesn’t scare me or affect me, but I have great respect and admiration for all those guys that would make a lot of people starstuck. I feel like I can relate to them — we’re all here for the same reason.”
After the disappointment of Bramham, Hallie knew she had two options: she could let her time in the UK come to an end and try again next year, or she could get creative and continue the learning experience. She opted for the later, and picked up the phone to her friend and confidante Richard Sheane, the brains behind the world-famous Cooley horse-sourcing enterprise in Ireland.
“After Bramham, I wasn’t really sure what to do, and I had to regroup and make new plan. My first call was to Richard; we’d met through Liz Halliday-Sharp a few years prior and he’d been really helpful when I was in search of a young horse, so I felt that he was the person I could go to, and trusted. We hopped over to his stables in Ireland, and from there, we were able to prepare for Mallow CIC3*, which was the final qualification we needed to go four-star. I went home for a couple weeks and they prepared her for me and really made it so that I was able to do it all. They were wonderful with her, and they’re genuinely amazing human beings. They took me in even though I wasn’t on a Cooley horse, and there was no benefit to their business as such — they’re just really genuine people who are willing to help out.”
After Mallow, Cece enjoyed a well-earned holiday before the excitement of the latter part of the season. In August, they headed to Millstreet CICO3* for their second team appearance, though their sophomore effort didn’t go quite the way of the first. The US team failed to complete, and though Hallie finished the competition happy with the way Cece felt, they incurred an early and uncharacteristic 20 penalties for a step back at the event’s infamous Irish bank.
After a summer of flying back and forth between Ireland and the States, where her remaining horses still needed runs, Hallie was ready to head back to the UK for the final preparations. She’s been based at Liz Halliday-Sharp‘s Chailey Stud this autumn, where Liz’s string of horses shares equal turf with the top-level dressage horses piloted by Luke Baber-Davies.
“We all do our own thing at Chailey, but it’s a great place to have been based because Liz will give her input here and there while we’re riding, just little things like, ‘activate the hind legs,'” Hallie says. “I also get to see dressage horses schooled every day – really good Grand Prix horses. Having that as the everyday standard might have upped my game a bit. They say you have to be around people who raise your standards, and both of those guys have certainly done that for me this fall.”
Now, after eighteen years of four-star dreaming and two nearly-there moments — Hallie first intended to make the move-up at Kentucky in 2014 and then again in 2015 with former three-star horse Namaste, but last-minute problems put paid to those plans — she’s finally at her first CCI4*.
For the girl who once “begged on my hands and knees to go to Ocala with my sister”, where they ended up having to share a bed for three months to make it work, this is the dawning of everything she’s ever hoped for. She’s even treated herself to the rare help of a groom for the week — freelancer Prairie StipeMaas Tobul, who formerly worked for Doug Payne, heads up her support team for the week. She’s also enjoying the support of Voltaire Design, Fairfax & Favor, and Holland Cooper clothing, as well as team chef d’equipe Erik Duvander.
On her way to the top level, one thing’s for certain: Hallie has always found her own way to adapt, survive, and thrive in the sport she loves, and she’s not going to stop anytime soon.
“Next, I’d like to bring a horse or two over to compete in the spring,” she says, thinking ahead to what looks set to be an enormously exciting career. “Through that, I’m hoping to make it stick and stay in the UK. I’d like to aim for every senior team possible, have a horse at every level, and tackle the four-stars and the Event Rider Masters classes.”
We’ll be cheering Hallie on throughout the rest of the weekend at Pau (and beyond!) — you can watch her go cross country tomorrow at 4:06pm local time/11.06am EST, and you can find her on Instagram, too, where she’s busy documenting her adventures. Fellow four-star eventer Tom Crisp has kindly bestowed upon Hallie the charming nickname ‘Flat White’ — she, um, likes coffee — and so we propose a hashtag for your online cheerleading needs. #FlatWhiteGoesToFourStar — and she’s making it look easy so far!