If you’ve never been to Mondial du Lion, the Eventing World Breeding Championships – or indeed, any event in France – allow us to set the tone for you. The stands? Absolutely heaving. The wine? Flowing from the get-go. The apples? Inexplicably free and plentiful. And the crowds? About as unruly as it gets. We’re all used to a very British approach to spectating: a pervasive silence, broken by the occasional groan or gasp as a pole hits the deck, or threatens to. At the end, polite applause, and a roaring cheer only for the person who takes it all.
Not so in France. Revved up by the commentator, who delivers information in minutiae over the tannoy as the horse is jumping, the audience cheers and claps particularly tricky efforts, reacts with soap-operatic sobs and shouts for every mistake along the way, and merrily starts laughing and bellowing their observations to one another after a pole topples. Never mind that the horse and rider are still working their way around the track – did you see that fence come down?! (This is to say nothing, of course, of the tour group of presumably unhorsey sixty-pluses, who appeared for the dressage with matching bum pillows attached to their belt-loops, sat raptly to watch a French rider, and then decided ‘sod this, he’s Irish’ as the next competitor was halfway through their test and left with all the quiet grace of a herd of Vikings invading a monastery.)
This is less a criticism of the French je ne sais quois than it is a useful primer in the key benefits of bringing a horse to a competition like this. Picture it: you’ve got a six- or seven-year-old who you truly believe can jump the moon, who occasionally brings all his constituent body parts into the same county to do something that’s starting to look like rather a smart medium trot, and who innately seems to understand that red goes on the right, white goes on the left, and all the fun stuff happens somewhere in the middle. You’re beginning to get quietly excited that a few years down the line, this little guy could find himself on the main stage at Badminton, Burghley, Kentucky, a major championship…but there’s one problem. So far, he’s produced some great results around Novice or Intermediate tracks – at Aston-le-Walls. How on earth can you prepare him so that he doesn’t lose his mind when suddenly, at the age of ten, he goes from performing for a sea of mud and three bored dads on fold-out chairs, to a packed grandstand full of fans?
You chuck him into the maelstrom of French madness, of course, and you let him rise to the occasion through the week until he makes a decision: he’s either a wilting flower who can’t stand up to the pressure, in which case you start strategising about how to un-wilt him, or he’s the cock of the walk, and all those French people and bum pillows are there just for him.
That’s why we see a relatively kind cross-country course here, as observed in Saturday’s report: the point isn’t to stage a championship course of the sort we saw at the European Championships or the Pan-Ams. Instead, it’s to encourage and educate, while appreciating that the most difficult part of it for these youngsters will be the many thousands of people surrounding them.
But for all that, the showjumping here does tend to be of a championship standard. It’s up-to-height, it’s square, and it’s certainly technical enough, with a jumble of tightly-packed fences creating a bit of a maze for riders to wend their way through, showing dexterity on either rein and an early inclination to adjust down a line. This year, we saw it at its toughest – not because the design had been amped up in any way, but because several weeks of rain had left the ground completely waterlogged. It was problematic on Thursday and Friday, when our competitors battled through the Somme to deliver their dressage tests, but as we hit the final hour of showjumping, it was truly horrendous. As British eventer Hector Payne glibly asked, “does anyone know who won the ploughing match?” Certainly, it opens up a valuable debate: should a world championship – and particularly one for young horses, the very future of our sport – be held on a surface?
The tough conditions were ultimately the decider in the CCI2*-L for six-year-olds. 12 of the 38 starters delivered a clear round – quite good numbers, actually, by Le Lion standards – but it didn’t always make for nice viewing, and many riders had to gently nurse their horses around the course so as not to dent their burgeoning confidence. The penultimate rider in the arena was Germany’s Sophie Leube, who had held second place throughout the competition with the licensed Trakehner stallion Sweetwaters Ziethen (Abendtanz x Zaria, by Campetot). Sophie was one of the only German remaining in the competition – though all had come forward for the final horse inspection, all three Germans accepted in the seven-year-old class had opted to withdraw as a result of the poor ground. But in such a competitive position, and mounted on a breeding stallion with a considerable jump, Sophie would have been on the wrong side of mad to withdraw, and so she gamely persevered.
But from the get-go, it was clear that the stallion was struggling with the footing. Huge efforts over the first couple of fences saw him scrabbling for purchase, and as he headed into the double at 4AB, it began to unravel. As he found his favoured deep spot at the base of 4A, his hind-end – so used to anchoring and powering him off the ground – continued to slide forward beneath him, and only his innate athleticism allowed him to corkscrew his way over the fence. But the rough jump over the first element gave him little to work with to the second, and as he skated his way down the line, he was forced to drop anchor. Though it was clear that he still couldn’t quite find his grip, Sophie nursed him through the line on their second attempt, and quietly popped him around the rest of the course for an otherwise clear round with 1.6 time penalties to add to their 4 faults. They would ultimately finish fifth.
But Sophie’s issues on course had put the pressure on overnight leader Yasmin Olsson-Sanderson, who had held the top spot throughout with her self-produced KWPN gelding Inchello DHI (Chello III VDL x Barbarena O.A., by VDL Montreal).
“I saw the horse before me slide through the double, and I decided I probably needed to put my leg on there – forgetting that my horse has such a big stride that I wouldn’t want to push,” she explains. Her last-minute change of tactics tipped a solitary rail in an otherwise polished, professional round – but in this tightly-packed competition, one rail was all it took. The UK-based Norwegian rider, who has spent the week proving her capability against riders considerably more established, dropped down to bronze medal position, putting her less than a penalty ahead of France’s Nicolas Touzaint, a perennial winner here, and the Selle Français mare Demoiselle Platine HDC, by Quite Easy II out of a Robin II Z mare.
“I’ve never ridden at an event this big, and to be behind these guys that ride under pressure all the time [is huge],” says Yaz, who bases her fledgling business out of boyfriend Hector Payne’s Hampshire yard. Already, she’s looking ahead to next season with the talented Inchello DHI, sourced from Heidi and Ian Woodhead.
“I hope to bring him back next year; he’ll have learnt so much, and I’ve learnt so much, so hopefully he can go even better next year,” she says.
Yaz’s pole opened the door for two combinations to move ahead of her, putting her in exalted company indeed: the silver medal would go to France’s Tom Carlile, who bases his business out of the Hippodrome du Lion d’Angers, and who climbed from sixth to second after his fast clear with the Selle Français stallion Dartagnan de Beliard ( (Quite Easy x Royce de Kreisker, by Diamant de Semilly), a maternal half-brother to Boekelo top-ten finisher Birmane. This adds another FOD to Tom’s remarkable record here: from 2013-2016, he finished on his dressage score in all eight of his campaigns at Le Lion, and that really does just scrape the tip of the iceberg where his dominion here is concerned. But a record of success doesn’t necessarily make for an easy week, particularly in conditions like the ones we saw this year.
“At the start of the week on Wednesday, I was really chuffed to have a late draw in the dressage,” says Tom, his distinctive accent an ode to his French and British heritage. “It’s never happened for me before – I’ve been here thirteen or fourteen times, and I’ve always been in the first five to run in the six-year-olds. So I was pleased with that, but then when I saw the rain and the ground, I thought, ‘actually, I’d have been better off first…!’ But Dartagnan was fantastic all week – he’s such a great soldier and he has a really great mentality about life, about work, and about eventing. He really loves his job.”
A 28.3 dressage score earlier in the week put the pair in a competitive position, though Tom conceded that the horse had struggled to produce his best work in the bottomless arena.
“He was serious on the flat, if a bit bogged down – but he wasn’t the only one,” says Tom. “On cross-country our relationship was really good; he’s got a huge amount of scope and stride but he’s very light to ride, and he covers the ground so easily. Today, he came out on a mission not to touch a pole; he tried his heart out and considering the conditions, I couldn’t be more chuffed with him.”
Breaking the record for the most international wins in a season – previously 13, held by Michael Jung – evidently wasn’t enough for Piggy French, who is having the sort of season most people only ever dream of. (As Tom Carlile aptly put it, “second to Piggy is basically a win.” You’re not wrong, Monsieur Carlile.) She capped off her remarkable 2019 by taking the Six-Year-Old World Championship with Cooley Lancer (Coeur de Nobless M x Tante Catoche du Houssoit, by Ogano Sitte), who logged some of the most impressive airtime over the fences of the day, embracing his Irish roots to romp home with a clean scoresheet and the win.
“I’m just a very lucky girl, to be honest, and I thank the Craggs [of the Lancer Stud] who bought him for me last year,” says Piggy. “Richard Sheane of Cooley Farm said that he believed this was one of the best five-year-olds he’s had, and he’s definitely felt one of the best young horses I’ve had. All week, he’s felt like a World Champion to me – he’s a beautiful horse to work with and he’s got so much talent and such a fabulous way. It’s the icing on the cake of a lovely year, and it’s lovely to give back so much, as well, to the people that support you. It’s days like this that so many other people take away as being so wonderful as well, whether it’s the team at the end of a good year, or just wonderful owners, families that enjoy the journey and support you. I’m very lucky and very grateful.”
Now, Cooley Lancer will aim for an early qualification for the seven-year-old championship next season, which will allow him to then spend much of his season showjumping. All this, Piggy hopes, will help to create a horse who can be her next-generation senior team horse.
But first, she’s looking back at 2019 – a year that’s done and dusted, but for a one-day event with some ‘truly feral creatures’ next week (“I’ve begged the girls not to clip them,” she laughs) – with a smile and a disbelieving shake of the head.
“It’ll never, ever happen again – I think the longer you stay with horses, the more you realise that,” she says. It’s certainly a far cry from her nightmare season of 2012, which saw her hit emotional rock bottom after a series of disasters lost her much of her support. Then, she says, she felt as though she was screaming and no one was listening – but now, shrouded in glory from success after success, she’s remarkably gracious, mentioning over and over again how wonderful these wins are for the people who support her. If, like JK Rowling, Piggy has made rock bottom the foundation on which to rebuild her life, it’s looking like a very strong foundation indeed. And with it, she finds, comes a hopeful pragmatism that allows her to ride the waves as they come – crashing, rolling, or dribbling in to shore.
“The important thing that stands over everything is that you never, ever take the whole thing for granted,” she says. “You still put in the same amount of work, the same amount of effort as we all do – you’re trying to improve yourself and improve your horse. You also always have to remember to enjoy what we do. It’s such hard work and there are so many black clouds that come along; you always question yourself, thinking ‘why do we do this? Why do I have so many horses? Why do I, every weekend, go and do this?’ But you know that when that wave comes back and things do turn around that you’ll have these little patches that make it all so worthwhile.”
“It’s so lovely to then give back to people. It’s expensive, and we can’t do it without everyone that’s behind you, whether that’s an owner, or grooms. Everyone works so hard, and doesn’t necessarily get the results, so it’s just so cool, when you’re having a moment like this, to give something back to everyone who’s been so loyal to you.”
For the Cragg family who own Cooley Lancer, it’s a particularly special victory.
“Emma, who owns this horse, has been through an awful time with cancer, and it’s been awful last year. This year, we’ve had a few wins with First Lancer, a horse that they were told was basically a write-off, and just to see how much it means makes it so much more special,” explains Piggy. “I just come away from things like this thinking, ‘shit, I’m a lucky girl’ – I have a bloody nice horse, and it busted a gut today; I could have put anyone on it and it would have jumped like that. To see how much it means to people – it just takes them away from the daily shit that they have to deal with. It gives rays of sunshine to people – it’s just cool all around when things go well. So now we just need to bottle it – and I probably need to retire!”
Though fifteen wins is an impressive coup, it wasn’t something that Piggy targeted – nor is it something she thinks she’ll replicate again.
“In my head, I’m not like, ‘next year, I’ll do sixteen!’, because it’ll never happen,” she says. “Of course I’ll be at home in my arena, working away to get the best out of every horse, but to be honest with you I didn’t even look this year until after Blenheim – I don’t do any social media, so I didn’t know until someone actually told me I was one off Michi’s record. I was like, ‘oh, that’s cool – what have we got left?!’ So we entered everything that was already going to go out for a run; we didn’t pull anything out just for that. The only thing I did enter, which I wouldn’t have otherwise, was Bicton next weekend. I thought, ‘why don’t we take two or three there to give it a chance?’ Am I going now? Nope,” she laughs.
Two Happy Boys Take the Seven-Year-Old Title
Another rider who’s not been having too shabby a time of it is indefatigable Kiwi Tim Price – and this week, he managed to set a record of his own, too. In climbing from 13th to the top spot with Happy Boy (Indoctro x W Amelusina 17, by Odermuser), he delivered the highest climb to win in Le Lion history.
“This is an event you always dream of winning, but not many people actually get to win,” says Tim, who heads to Pau as his final international of the year this week. “To look at the top ten [here], you’d think that the win could come from anywhere – they’re all top-class riders, bringing their best horses here.”
For Tim, the poor ground was something of a benefit to Happy Boy, who popped around clear and quick, one of just a double-handful to do so.
“I absolutely think the conditions played their part – he’s got a very deliberate jump, and on this kind of ground, that really helped him,” says Tim. “I’ve got a lot of faith in him, and I was able to just go in there and just believe in his jump. It was quite a nice approach and today, it worked out – but it was totally unexpected.”
Tim has ridden the gelding since he was a five-year-old, and originally sourced him from Ireland’s Padraig McCarthy, who has also been responsible for Burghley winner MGH Grafton Street, two top ten Badminton finishers in Cillnabradden Evo and MGH Bingo Boy, and Vendredi Biats who, with rider Kitty King, was the best of the British at this summer’s European Championships. For Tim, Padraig’s Devon base was an ideal spot to track down the next generation of talent, and Happy Boy fit the bill from the off.
“He’s been a cheeky horse – he sort of matches his name,” says Tim. “He’s a happy horse, but in a disruptive, cheeky way rather than in a useful way. But he’s maturing now – I was very happy with his dressage, which was a personal best for him, and then in the jumping he just heads out and gets the job done. It’s very exciting for him and very unexpected for me and his owners. We’ll see what the future brings for him.”
The day’s competition saw some of the biggest climbs we’ve ever witnessed for top placings at Le Lion, and our silver medallist is no exception: Liz Halliday-Sharp‘s Irish Sport Horse gelding Cooley Moonshine (Cobra x Kilpatrick Duchess, by Kings Master) was ninth after the first phase on a 29.3, and then dropped to 13th after adding just 1.2 time penalties across the country. But his classy clear round over the poles, aided by the impressive amount of hind-end power he possesses for a horse so young, allowed him to sail right back up the leaderboard to ultimately finish second, just 0.4 penalties behind the winner.
“If I hadn’t had those time penalties [on Saturday], he’d have won it,” lamented Liz, who knows all too well the fine margins at Le Lion: after all, Cooley Moonshine led the six-year-old class last year throughout, just tipping a rail on the final day to slip to third. But nevertheless, Liz delights in the performance of her talented up-and-comer, who holds a significant place in what is becoming an enviable string for the sole US representative at this event.
“I’m thrilled with him – he’s a wonderful horse,” says Liz. “He’s quite quirky, he’s quite difficult in the mouth, but he’s all the things you want in a really top horse and I think he showed that today. He jumped one of the best rounds he has in his life; I don’t think he touched anything, which is amazing in these conditions.”
Cooley Moonshine is owned by the Monster Syndicate, who bought the horse after his performance last year.
“I’m just sad that they couldn’t be here,” says Liz. “But it’s so exciting for them, and this week shows what a class horse he is. He’s very exciting for the future, and one of the best horses I’ve ever had.”
Liz also finished thirteenth with the small but plucky Flash Cooley (CSF Mr Kroon x Castlefield Ruby), who jumped ninth from the end. For the seven-year-old, who has about a year less experience than his peers, the jumps must have seemed twice the height by the time he entered the quagmire, and he pulled two rails – the first two of his international career, which has seen him deliver foot-perfect rounds in all seven of his previous runs.
It was Tom McEwen who had sagely pointed out yesterday that today would be a lottery, and that the leaderboard could change dramatically throughout the day – and so it did, sending him from top spot down to a final third place when he and Brookfield Benjamin Bounce tipped a rail in the final line. But such was the difficulty of today’s showjumping, in which just 10 of the 53 starters jumped clear, that he was able to maintain a podium position, finishing third with the Irish Sport Horse (Nazar x Ashmores Zoe, by Grange Bouncer), who was previously campaigned by Kevin McNab and Patrick Whelan.
“I was delighted with the horse, although obviously it’s gutting to miss out when you’ve been in the lead,” says Tom, who stepped into top spot after Saturday’s cross-country saw dressage leaders Josephine Schnaufer and Viktor 107 pick up time penalties after a miscommunication early in the course.
“What he’s done this weekend has been far beyond our expectations, even though he’s gone very well internationally this year. To come out and jump the way he did was incredible – but the only good shot I saw in the entire round, I managed to have down,” laughs Tom ruefully. Still, there’s much to be excited about: Tom has had the ride on the oversized grey for just under a year, and his gutsy performance in trying conditions speaks volumes about what must be to come for the gelding.
“He’ll probably do Blenheim eight- and nine-year-olds next year; we’ll see how he’s progressed from this,” says Tom. “I think he’ll have learned a lot here, and will have matured – and he’s showed us that he can really cope with the atmosphere and everything that’s involved, too.”
William Fox-Pitt finished a happy fourth with Grafennacht (Granstolz x Nachtigall, by Narew), climbing from eleventh after dressage and making his Le Lion comeback after his accident here in 2015 a successful one, while Tom Carlile took fifth place with Cestuy la de l’Esques (King Size x Gaia of Ultan, by Ultan).
The Selle Français Studbook took top honours in the breeding competition, ably assisted by Kitty King and Cristal Fontaine (6th, 7yo), Tom Carlile and Dartagnan du Beliard, and Nicolas Touzaint and Demoiselle Platine HDC. The Irish Sport Horse Studbook had to accept a close second place, less than two points behind them on an aggregate score delivered by Liz Halliday-Sharp and Cooley Moonshine, Tom McEwen and Brookfield Benjamin Bounce, and Jesse Campbell and Global Candy Boy (7th, 6yo). The KWPN studbook rounded out the top three, with scores to count from Tim Price and Happy Boy, Yasmin Olsson-Sanderson and Inchello DHI, and Heidi Coy and Halenza (10th, 7yo).
That’s all for now from Mondial du Lion – next, we’re heading down to Pau for the CCI5*-L. Stay tuned for a form guide and plenty of pre-event tasters to come shortly.
On y va!