It’s been a scant few days since my plane from Italy touched back down at London’s Gatwick Airport, but I’m still in denial: without a scrap of exaggeration, I’d give just about anything to head straight back to Pratoni del Vivaro, where the vibe and attitude is as sunny as the weather (and that’s pretty damn sunny, as my odd collection of tanlines will confirm). The CCIO4*-S Nations Cup also acted as a test event for this September’s World Championships, giving us all a valuable chance to check out the place and figure out what to expect when the big week rolls around — and as I continue to sift through all my many notes and interview recordings to bring you other people’s perspectives on the place, I wanted to take a moment to share some of my own thoughts: thoughts on the hills, thoughts on the road systems, and thoughts on all those Pietros.
On the worthy challenge for the world’s best — and those on their way up
I’d guessed, as I glanced out the window of my EasyJet flight with a space gin in hand, that Pratoni might be a hilly event: as we coasted through our descent into the heart of Italy’s Lazio region, a great swathe of undulations unfurled below us. But as I’d never been to Pratoni, nor seen much in the way of footage from previous events there, I wasn’t prepared for just how unique the terrain at the event would be. Pratoni del Vivaro sits in an area of protected parkland, all of which used to be part of a chain of volcanos in the area some millions of years ago. The lingering effects of this make it an event like no other, and one that feels uniquely horse friendly: yes, there are relentless rolling hills through the crater, but there’s also extraordinary volcanic ash sand, which has a very different molecular make-up to other types of sand and soil, and simply cannot clump together on a molecular level. This means that it remains consistent, whether there’s a prolonged dry period (very likely) or heavy rain (less so). It won’t become mud, it drains spectacularly so doesn’t tend to give a ‘greasy’ feel on the hills, and it remains springy and almost loamy even when very arid. (Unrelated, but still fascinating, is that the curious science of these ‘ex-volcanoes’ actually has some effect on magnetic fields, too, and there’s a hill very near the event in which gravity is counteracted and rolling objects head upwards. It’s also easier to walk up this hill than down it — though I don’t suspect the same can be said for the hills at the event itself.)
My role as a journalist for the week at Pratoni was simple: get to know the venue, and as many of the secrets of those hills as possible, ahead of the World Eventing Champs this autumn. Preparations for a Championship aren’t always straightforward, and as we saw when Tryon took over the hosting role back in 2018, sometimes they can feel outright chaotic, but I was pleasantly surprised by Pratoni. Beyond some minor logistical tweaks, which are so small and uninteresting that they don’t even warrant me writing about for fear of boring you all to death, everything’s coming along swimmingly: no, they’re not trying to build a number of luxury resorts on site, nor are they constructing five-star restaurants within the premises, but in all ways, Pratoni is prioritising the horses to great effect. The central ‘hub’ of the event — the stables, grazing, arenas, and ‘back of house’ rider and official areas are all very close together, and it was easy enough to watch a test, nip up to the rider restaurant to grab a gelato and a bottle of water, and then head back down to the arena having only missed part of the next. Though the spectator area was mostly still being built and mapped out while I was on site, the country fair, VIP pavilion, and public bars and restaurants are similarly brilliantly located and will hone their focus on local produce and artisans, which will be a real treat for visitors. They’ll also enjoy how accessible the viewing is out on course; there’s a hill you can stand on that gave me a view of seven different combinations, plus a further six single fences, and I could happily have stayed there all day — but when I did meander away to get closer to some fences, I was delighted to find a big screen down at the water complex that allowed spectators to watch all the action unfold. It’s a small touch to implement, but one that does make a huge difference to the experience of watching a competition.
For me, the most important thing to keep in mind when assessing a venue ahead of a Championship is how it contributes to a fair challenge that gives the very best in the world something to sink their teeth into, while also offering useful educational opportunities for those horses and riders who are just stepping into the big leagues. Of course, the majority of the credit must go to course designer Giuseppe della Chiesa, but what a playground he’s got here. While Pratoni’s defining characteristic is its hills, it does also boast several flat loops, which Giuseppe has placed the tail end of his course over; this allows him to test stamina over the terrain in the first two-thirds of the course, but to ease off of tired horses and let them get home happily in the last third. His use of angled brushes and accuracy questions in these final couple of minutes mean that we should still see plenty of influence and drive-bys, but hopefully very few ugly scenes. I also appreciate the way he’s designed long routes: they’re not big looping circles through combinations, which can disrupt the rhythm and lead to ‘picky’ efforts — instead, they’re certainly very slow routes, but set out to ensure that the horse flows through and gains confidence from doing so.
The time will certainly be a factor, and good galloping horses who are real stayers will come into their own here. The clever decision to put the final phase on grass, too, means that this shouldn’t end up being a dressage competition — the gentle undulations of the jumping arena, combined with the aftereffects of the previous day’s exertions and the challenging track designed by Grand Prix showjumping designer Uliano Vezziani, who has been so influential in bringing grass arenas back to top-level jumping, will mean that the competition will surely come down to the wire in September. And that’s what we need: an event that isn’t a walkover even for the very best horses and riders, but also gives developing eventing nations a chance to grow and learn through the week. Pratoni feels like a treasure trove of competitive and educational opportunities, and I’m excited to see how it plays out when we get to the real deal.
On the Swiss team, who just keep getting better and better
The greatest success story of the test event was the Swiss team, who have always had the potential to be excellent but are finally taking the bit between their teeth and riding aggressively, rather than playing it safe and relying on other teams’ mistakes to get themselves a placing. That’s due, in large part, to the help of Andrew Nicholson, who was drafted in to help them with their cross-country riding in the lead-up to the 2019 European Championships. He’s still in the role now, and when you watch him at work, it’s hardly a surprise he’s stuck around — he’s a natural coach and takes real pride and joy in helping to produce his riders to chase down results. The pride he felt on Saturday, when five of the seven clears inside the time were delivered by Swiss riders, will have been enormous — and probably bigger, even, than their eventual win of the Nations Cup leg, which was hard fought until the very end. They’re starting their season on a serious high, and that’s a great place to begin their pathway to Pratoni. Their main goal there is to produce a result good enough to earn them a qualification for the Paris Olympics, but every time I see them — and I’ve been watching them closely for several years — they get better and better. They’re very nearly at the point where they can start thinking realistically about chasing down medals.
Robin Godel, who won the test event, continues to be absolutely world class — I faintly remember describing him as a ‘continental Andrew Nicholson’ for his natural instincts and horsemanship about four years ago, and his union with the man himself has brought him to a whole new level. He’s got ice in his veins and doesn’t seem to feel pressure at all, but watching him across the country is a masterclass in innate focus and balance. I’ve been backing him and Ireland’s Cathal Daniels as the two best cross-country riders of their generation for a long time, and my resolve on that front has only been bolstered by his exceptional performances here. I’m rooting for him to have a good stab at an individual medal this September, which would help to shift some of Switzerland’s keen interest in showjumping over to eventing.
View this post on Instagram
Beat Sax offered the feel-good story of the week when, at the age of 62, he made his team debut, contributing to that big Swiss win with his only horse, Secret IV. This debut came after over four decades of competing, proving that dreams don’t give up as long as you keep on fighting for them — and everyone I spoke to told me with enormous fondness that he’d been a real lynchpin for team spirit. That can never be underestimated: we saw last season how good the US team can be when it’s cohesive and collaborative, as it was at Aachen and Boekelo, and so having a team member like Beat, who not only delivered the goods on Saturday, but also keeps everyone in the winning frame of mind, is crucial.
On the other end of the age spectrum, 22-year-old Nadja Minder was impressive on both her horses, and was the only rider to bring two horses home clear and inside the time on Saturday. (She also told me I was cool at one point, but she’s young and her judgment calls will improve over time.) Like Beat, she brought a palpably sunny energy to the team, and I never saw her without a smile on her face all week — but in the saddle, she’s laser-focused and will absolutely be a rider to keep a close eye on over the next few years. It’s no surprise at all that Andrew’s having a jolly time coaching these guys, because they’ve all got everything it takes and the right attitudes, too.
On the proliferation of Pietros
“I have a riddle for you to solve while you’re in Rome,” Swedish rider Christoffer Forsberg sagely messaged me at the close of the competition. “What is the name of the rock upon which the Catholic Church was built?”
“Oppression, probably,” I replied, before delivering my final answer: Pietro — the Italian version of Peter, one of Jesus’s apostles, and Petra, the rock upon which he built his first church.
Pietro could feasibly be the answer to just about any question asked about, or during, the test event and indeed, when I put up a question box on the EN Instagram story, one of you even asked why there are so many of them. At Pratoni, you could use it as some sort of bird call: stand in the middle of the lorry park and shout ‘Pietro’ and about ten men would probably come running. One time at Luhmühlen, consummate Italian dreamboat Pietro Roman told me that the ratio of Pietros in eventing is actually extraordinarily high as it’s not as common a name as you might expect in Italy. I don’t think I believe him.
On embracing my inner Alberto Ascari (reluctantly)
Pratoni has an extraordinarily rich history that dates back to the 1960 Rome Olympics — which also must be roughly the last time anyone bothered to pave the roads. Driving in the area around the event is an extreme sport in and of itself, with extraordinary gradients and hairpin bends that you have to navigate, a touch sweatily, in first gear, and a ‘Hail Mary and sod the rest’ attitude shown by the locals that adds just a touch of zest to every experience. Spotted someone they want a chat with on a roundabout? No bother — an Italian will simply stop with no warning and go for it. Going 70kph in a 30? The Italian behind you will drive so close behind you that you’ll suspect his Fiat is programmed to operate like a Labrador, getting a good sniff of your rear end before roaring past you at a speed that would make even a German on the autobahn wince. I’ve been back in England for 24 hours and have already had to rein in my newfound Italian spirit, which has seen me do THAT very Italian all-purpose hand gesture and loudly call someone an idiot out of my open car window several times. Whoops.
The views are phenomenal — the whole town of Rocca di Papa and its offshoots sit on a vantage point high enough to see practically all of central Italy, but god forbid you get distracted while winding up or down the pseudo-mountain, because there’s not much in the way of guardrails to stop you from plummeting to an admittedly very atmospheric death. There’s also, for some reason, always Italians just wandering willy-nilly in the roads, so you have to approach all those bends with caution, because even if there’s an available sidewalk, they love to just meander up the middle of the lane and seduce their own demise. And don’t get me started on the one-way systems: Google Maps will lie to you, and dare you to do potentially terribly dangerous and illegal things, but as it turns out, even the people familiar with the roads are slinging back a limoncello and doing it too. Welcome to Pratoni, where the rules mean nothing and the points don’t matter (unless they’re earned while on a horse).
To be honest, you’re not actually much better off on foot, as I discovered while trying to work out crosswalks in Italy. In the UK, the system is pretty simple — if you so much as glance at the crosswalk, all the traffic in the vicinity comes to a juddering halt and everyone tuts while you do an apologetic little jig-jog across the road, waving your gratitude with one of those uncomfortable little smiles that just makes your lips disappear. In Italy, that little jig-jog becomes an all-out panicky sprint as you realise that the oncoming traffic simply is not stopping. The next time you come to a crosswalk, you’ll act more cautiously and wait for the road to clear, and then all the drivers will shout at you for being an idiot and not understanding that you have the right of way. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, frankly. On the plus side, everything around here is absurdly cheap, so you can calm your nerves with a couple of litres of wine without having to break a banknote.
On falling in love (with horses)
One of the greatest joys of travelling abroad for events is getting the chance to spot horses I’ve not seen before, and meet riders I haven’t yet encountered. It’s why I love covering the Six and Seven-Year-Old World Championships at Le Lion d’Angers so much, but a CCI4*-S always throws up a good field full of newbies to my personal radar — and this week was no different. There were a few horses I really loved watching, and whose careers I’ll be following with interest.
The foremost of those was Aracne dell’Esercito Italiano, ridden by Emiliano Portale for the home side. The ten-year-old Italian Sport Horse stallion, who was actually bred by the Italian army, finished just outside the top twenty and second in the Italian National Championship, and although his first phase performance was hampered by some tempestuous moments, he shone in the jumping phases. It was during cross-country that I fell irreversibly in love: his natural gallop is extraordinary and looks tailor-made for Pratoni’s relentless hills, and it’s paired with a phenomenal jump that helped him to deliver one of just seven faultless showjumping rounds, too. A glance back at his record previously shows that he can easily go sub-30 when he doesn’t get starstruck in the main arena, and he’s been consistently quick and reliable across the country, with five international wins already in his short career.
“This is what it’s all about for the fans,” said Sam Watson with a grin as he patiently listened to me wax lyrical about the horse on Saturday evening. “The smile on your face while you’re talking about him tells me everything.”
He’s spot on, too: while there’s always plenty of hype built around the sport’s big names, I think a lot of the fun comes from spotting something that’s not in the spotlight and cheering it all the way to the finish. I’m not sure I’ve ever taken so many photos of a horse simply galloping from one fence to another, but Aracne warranted it, and in total fangirl fashion, I had to track Emiliano down as he packed up his lorry, simply to tell him how much I adored his horse. I’d love to see him make a return to Pratoni this September but whatever happens, he’s just writing the first chapters of his upper-level career, and he looks set to be a seriously exciting horse for the Italian front. For now, I’ll be content with scribbling his name in (admittedly very large) hearts on the cover of my notebooks. He is high-speed poetry in motion.
Another horse of the week for me was Joystick, who was best of the third-placed Swedish front, finishing eleventh with Aminda Ingulfson. Aminda made her own four-star debut at the end of 2019, and this was just her second Nations Cup appearance, but as chef d’equipe Fred Bergendorff told me on Sunday, she’s a real fighter and exactly the kind of person he wants on the squad. I got to know her over a jolly dinner at the event, so was always going to follow her rounds with interest, but even with unbiased eyes her team ride — one of two horses she had at Pratoni — really caught my eye. He was reasonably quick across the country and jumped a faultless showjumping round, but what really won me over was how much fun he looked to be having as approached every fence. He absolutely radiated joy in his work (fittingly, given his name), and he was so obviously game and genuine, with a super connection to his rider. Some days it’s fun to deep-dive into performance analysis; other days, all I want to do is sit back and enjoy watching the horses who look for the flags and delight in digging deep. He’s absolutely one of those cool characters.
So many of the Spanish team’s horses’ names read like microwave models (“the Taraje CP 21.10 comes with five heat settings, and can defrost a chicken in ten minutes!”), but there’s some real talent in their oddly-monikered line-up. Eduardo via Dufresne had a bit of a seat-of-the-pants round across the country with Maribera Pomes 15.6, and they were one of rather a lot of combinations to pick up a drive-by at the first combination, but the game, gutsy little nine-year-old ticked so many boxes for me: she’s an Anglo-Arab, which has always been enormously appealing, and she’s got all the scope, talent, and quirks inherent to the breed. She looks the very picture of ‘try’ and certainly found her way out of some tight spots on Saturday. Produced sympathetically at these top levels, she should make a really cool, successful little horse.
Newly relocated Kiwi Amanda Pottinger was a real one-to-watch with her top horse, Just Kidding, at Badminton — but Pratoni proved that she’s got a very good double-hander at the upper levels. Good Timing might have been making his four-star debut in Italy, but he tackled both courses with a maturity well beyond his years, adding neither jumping nor time on Saturday and tipping just one rail on Sunday for a spot in the top twenty. His flatwork isn’t where his stablemate’s is yet, but it’ll get there — and in her short tenure in Europe so far, Amanda has proven she’s an exemplary producer of event horses. I’ll be excited to watch her develop her string in her time here.
It wasn’t to be for the Germans this week as a team, but individually, they had some exciting moments: I confess I’ve never wholly backed Ingrid Klimke‘s Equistros Siena Just Do It, because her very obvious talent has always come paired with a tendency towards tempestuousness that I wasn’t sure she’d get past. But Ingrid certainly knows better than me, and whatever she’s been doing over the winter with Siena has paid dividends. The mare looked at her best in all three phases, with a will to win that I hadn’t previously seen in her. In a tricky week for Ingrid, that three-phase performance will have meant an awful lot.
Elsewhere in the German line-up, Sophie Leube and J’Adore Moi continue to be one of my favourite upper-level partnerships, and I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am to see them among the entries for Luhmühlen CCI5* next month, which will be their debut at the level. Though they weren’t in the upper echelons of the leaderboard this week with their ten time penalties across the country, this extraordinarily attractive mare has all the goods, looks like an oil painting, and moves for a ten when she can settle into her work, and I truly believe Sophie is one of the most underrated riders in Europe at the moment, despite winning Boekelo last year with this horse and taking a Le Lion win the season prior with Sweetwaters Ziethen TSF. I’d put money on her winning a medal of some sort with J’Adore Moi in the next couple of years.
Finally, an honourable mention must go to the ride of Spain’s Paula Urquiza Domingo. ‘Hand Solo del Amor‘ must be the only event horse in history to have a name that so blatantly references a very specific type of self-care.