And that’s a wrap on dressage here at the 2023 Badminton Horse Trials — a memorably soggy one, mind you, but a day of sport in which the cream really rose to the top. This morning’s leaders, Kitty King and Vendredi Biats, now find themselves in overnight second place on their score of 22.3, thanks to a narrow usurping by last year’s runners up, Ros Canter and Lordships Graffalo, after the long lunch break.
They put a score of 22.1 on the board, which thoroughly trounces their 26 here last year – but though first ride Pencos Crown Jewel, who sits 17th on a 29.2 going into cross-country, has been on best behaviour this week, ‘Walter’ has been a bit of a different story. We caught up with delighted groom Sarah Charnley just after his test, who confessed that it had taken an hour and a half to get plaits into him for the trot up, while Ros herself told us yesterday that he has “rocked up and thinks he knows his job a little bit better than me — so there’s some work to be done!” Today, though, all that hard work from the whole team paid dividends, and he delivered a performance that belied his scant eleven years.
“He’s just an immense horse,” says Ros. “He came out the start of this week extremely fresh and excited, very jolly, and giving way too much all of the time — and I didn’t know whether I’d get it in there, but he started to settle this morning and then he goes in and he loves it — he absolutely loves it. I mean, the crowd could stand up and start stamping their feet and the horse would just give a little bit more, and just enjoy it a bit more. He’s never had any fear, and that’s what makes him so great.”
Though the continual rain lead to some inevitable deterioration of the dressage ring, Walter made light work of the going, which Ros attributes to his light build — even if he does stand at over 17.1hh.
“He danced his way through it,” she says with a smile. “He’s a slight horse and he’s light on his feet, and I suppose he’s lucky that he’s only carrying me as well, which is hopefully going to help tomorrow! He’s a beautiful horse to ride, and I just think the world of him.”
Though the horse’s score has improved, Ros tells us that the process of getting to that even more competitive state with her World Championships partner has just been a case of refining what was already there.
“It’s just consolidating. He’s always been very steady in his trot work, but there’s even more medium and extended to come, I think, and more expression in the half passes, and then the changes — I still have to get everything absolutely right.”
One thing that’s still on the ‘to do’ list, though is solidifying the flying changes, which Ros explains are still slightly fragile in their execution. Today, the latter two snuck up into the 8s, while the first two dipped down to the 6s.
“I was out there [in the warm-up] with Ian [Woodhead], and every time I did a change, he told me to do something different,” Ros says. “He’s just a little inconsistent in the feeling he gives me running up to a change, so it would be great if I could get them really steady. But I try stay very relaxed with him because he’s a giver of a horse, and he is only still eleven. Hopefully in five years time there’s going to be more, but I’m certainly not going to come out next year and try and change anything.”
Now, Ros has the perhaps unenviable task of mentally preparing for two runs across the (very wet) country on two different horses — and though the 2018 World Champion has no shortage of experience, it’s going to be a test of skills she’s not yet had to use at five-star.
“I’ll hold my hands up and say I’ve never ridden in conditions like this above two- or three-star level,” says Ros. “I’ve actually only been at this level for four or five years, and we’ve been blessed with sunny and hard conditions most of the time, so it’ll be a new experience for me, definitely. I think it’s a serious question. And I think tomorrow’s going to be a case of reacting and looking after the horses, but being attacking so that they have the best ride possible.”
Kitty King and Vendredi Biats remain in second place going into tomorrow’s cross-country on their score of 22.3, while day one leaders Oliver Townend and Swallow Springs now sit third on 23.2, followed by Gemma Stevens and Jalapeno on 23.3 and this morning’s Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser in fifth on 23.6. Although Oliver had hoped that the only horse who might beat his day one ride would be his second day ride, the hugely experienced Ballaghmor Class didn’t quite get there: his first and final flying changes earned him 4s and 5s, pulling his overall mark to a still very competitive 24.7, good enough for sixth overnight.
“I’m pleased enough,” says Oliver. “Honestly, if it carries on like this, I don’t think dressage is going to matter too much, so he’s close enough, and I was happy with his mind in there. The conditions are horrible, and the ground in there isn’t easy — it’s very, very patchy, but I’m happy with where we are, and on to the next bit.”
For Oliver, today’s very wet conditions may be something of an exciting challenge: both his horses are in their mid-teens with plenty of experience — particularly Ballaghmor Class, who has won at both Badminton and Kentucky, and has never finished outside the top five in any of his seven previous five-stars. Nevertheless, he plans to set out of the start box with his horses’ individual needs at the forefront of his mind.
“It’s obviously going to be very, very tricky, and we’re just going to have to be sensible. It’s going to be one of those Badmintons — it doesn’t happen very often, but we’re just going to have to go out and ride the horse, ride the course, look after them, and see where we get to.”
Though it was a disappointing blow to see the withdrawal of Laura Collett‘s 2022 Badminton champion London 52 from the entry list a couple of weeks ago, she still duly logged an excellent starting score with ‘second string’ Dacapo, with whom she sits seventh overnight on 25.2 — a level personal best at the 14-year-old gelding’s second five-star. Though ‘Cal’ hasn’t always been the easiest character, this is the latest in a now quite considerable string of mature and polished performances from the reformed bad boy.
“He hasn’t been in an atmosphere like that before, but he held it together, which I was quite pleased with,” says Laura. “He had every excuse to have one of his moments and not give it his all, but he really tried in there, even though obviously it’s a bit muddy and a bit gluey.”
Of course, it’s not over until it’s over — and as the weather’s worsened, the reigning champion, like so many of her fellow competitors, is shelving some of her original plans for tomorrow’s cross-country in favour of a fence by fence, line by line, minute by minute approach.
“When we walked it I thought it was a great track and a proper 5* course in all the dimensions and everything, but to be honest, now it’s just about feeling what you’ve got underneath you,” she says. “I don’t think you’ll be really riding to the minute markers. It’ll just be a case of looking after the horses, and especially with Dacapo, trying to just keep him thinking that it’s easy, when it’s not going to be easy.”
William Fox-Pitt, who delivered one of the last tests before the lunch break, now sits eighth with Grafennacht on a 25.8, while Maryland 5* winners Tim Price and Coup de Coeur Dudevin slot into ninth overnight on a 25.9 — an improvement of 1.5 marks on his Maryland test of last year, even with mistakes in two of the changes and a divisive final centre line.
“Even though he’s won a five star, he’s an up-and-coming horse, and it’s a new thing for him to to get lower on the flat,” says Tim. “So this is by far the best quality he’s shown in the ring. There’s a couple of mistakes, but he’s just got so much action in his hind end, and it’s quite hard to get his bum down and just get him through in that moment. We’ve been getting better and better outside, but inside [the ring] he was almost too overreactive, just from a bit of nerves, I guess.”
The tough French horse, who was campaigned previously by Australia’s Chris Burton and, briefly, by Tim’s wife, Jonelle, is the type that Tim hopes will cope well with the muddying ground tomorrow: “He’s a great scrambler,” says Tim, “and he’s got the action where it’s a bit of a sufferance in here in terms of a flying change, but for the ground, he’s brilliant. He just battles and runs, and so I’m really looking forward to him in these conditions — which isn’t to say it’ll go totally to plan, but he doesn’t really pay attention to the ground in the way he goes and who he is.”
As he heads to the startbox, he’ll carry with him a bit of wisdom inherited from another great Kiwi.
“He’s the last to go, so [the ground] isn’t going to get any worse than it is with him — but the rain’s moving, actually, so at least the ground isn’t holding,” Tim philosophises. “They’ll be slopping through it instead, and we do get to practice in it out here. I remember Andrew Nicholson saying to me once that when the ground’s like this, go and put them in it: part of your training and preparation is to let them experience that kind of ground and grow in confidence.”
Harry Meade rounds out the top ten after the first phase with his second ride, the former Tom Carlile ride Tenareze, who delivered a 26.9 — his best international score since his earliest two-stars.
“It’s his best test, at his first big five-star,” says Harry, who also sits 16th on a 29 with the experienced Away Cruising. “He hasn’t been in this kind of atmosphere, so you always learn something about them. I was thrilled with how he went; he goes over the top very easily, so I did very little with him beforehand, and he was very cool in there.”
Though the weather has changed dramatically since Harry completed his first test yesterday, his aim for the day to come hasn’t, particularly, even with the rapidly changing ground and the changes it has effected to the course.
“I don’t think it changes the plan; usually, you ride on the feel the horse gives you and when the conditions are like, this we ride accordingly,” says Harry. “I just hope they don’t change the course any more, because horses go in this going. I think the worst conditions are when it’s been dry all week off the back of a wet period and it’s really holding. In this, they should go well, and I think it probably makes people ride better because they don’t chase the clock so much — they ride the horse underneath them. I think there’s a danger, if you if you make too many adjustments to the course, that it encourages people to just ride like they’re machines, whereas the greatest benefits to horses from their riders is when there’s an element of forecast fatigue, because you make sure you hold some back in the tank. If you change the course too much more, people won’t hold it back.”
Tomorrow’s cross-country challenge is set to begin at 11.30 a.m. BST (6.30 a.m. EST), and has already seen some changes to the track, including two removed fences and a number of take-off and landing treatments from the hardworking ground crew here at Badminton. Keep it locked onto EN this evening for further information, plus thoughts from the riders on the tricky track to come — and as always, Go Eventing.