Britain’s eventing circuit is so ludicrously well-stocked with horses and riders at the upper levels that it sometimes feels like a bit of a treat to focus one’s attentions on a slightly smaller field of entries — and Scotland’s much-loved Land Rover Blair Castle Horse Trials is always rather a perfect foil for the triple-digit entries we often see at the other four-stars beginning with B in this country. Because of the distance (it’s tucked into the Scottish Highlands, a place so far-flung that even a Glaswegian will let out a long, low whistle and remark that ‘that’s a wee bit far, lassie,’ if you mention where you’re heading), and because of the specificity of the course (quite literally on the side of the mountain, so more fool you if you opted to skip any steps in you or your horse’s fitness routine), and because of its spot in the calendar (nestled amidst an embarrassment of riches where top-level long format events are concerned), Blair’s CCI4*-L field can ordinarily be described as something along the lines of ‘small but perfectly formed’. This week, we’ve got 21 combinations entered — rather a beefy year, comparatively speaking — and this gives us the chance to focus on some exciting, inexperienced horses and some unfamiliar faces among the riders, too.
This afternoon, all 21 came forward for the first phase, but you’d be hard-pressed to call the overnight leader an unfamiliar face. British team stalwart Nicola Wilson has been on exceptional form this year with her Bicton CCI4*-L and Hartpury CCI4*-S winner JL Dublin, but this week, ‘Dubs’ has stayed at home to prepare for another party. In his place, it’s twelve-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Erano M‘s time to shine — and he’s set the tone from the get-go by taking the first-phase lead on 29.4, the only sub-30 score of the class.
“He’s quite light on his feet and he’s quite expressive. I was pleased with his test — there were a few little things that can be improved upon, but no major whoopsies,” says Nicola, who rides the charismatic gelding for owners Rosemary Search and Lady Milnes Coates. “His changes felt lovely — very clean and expressive — and overall, I was very pleased with his attitude in there. He coped very well and was very rideable.”
“[Bicton] was a big ask, but he was fantastic there,” says Nicola, who’s produced him through from Novice level. “He’s relatively inexperienced at this level, so he’s here to do as well as he can. He isn’t very blood, but he’s quite catlike and he’s light on his feet.”
Like her compatriots in the lorry park, Nicola’s mostly just happy to be back at Blair, which sat out 2020 due to pandemic restrictions.
“We love Blair, and his owners love Blair, so we just like to come and support these three-day events in the north,” smiles Nicola, glancing around her at the sunlit hills and vistas of the dramatic Scottish landscape, once again blissfully filled with people and horses.
Sitting in second as we look toward’s Saturday’s cross-country phase is Lauren Innes, who balances competing eleven-year-old Global Fision M with her busy role as a chartered accountant. Although the KWPN-registered gelding has proven he’s capable of scores even lower than today’s 30.5, he hasn’t always been the easiest ride in this phase.
“I’m really pleased with him — he hasn’t done any dressage on grass at all since May,” she says. “He can get really hot, and when he gets hot, he kind of loses it. But today, he stayed really calm — I couldn’t ask for anything more! He’s by Flipper d’Elle and he’s very French, in his brain. He’s the most confident horse to jump thing; nothing is too big, and he has the utmost belief in his ability. I don’t think he’s ever lost his confidence. But that confidence gets him a bit hot in the dressage sometimes, so he’s had to work a lot on it by going out and doing British Dressage [shows]. I was out the weekend before we came here, and I do six or seven shows before I even start the season so he can learn to do a test and not blow up. So that’s been a challenge, but we’re finally getting it! There’s definitely still more to come, and I know that I can start asking more and more in the arena now.”
Though the pair started their 2021 season with a 43.5 in Burnham Market’s CCI4*-S, they’ve since produced five very respectable international tests, slipping into the 20s on three occasions this year. That’s partly due to a creative warm-up routine that Lauren has devised to avoid any anticipation of the atmosphere to come.
“I go from the stables straight in [to the ring],” she explains. “I don’t do anything — I warm up like, an hour [before the test], put him back in the stable, let him go to sleep, and then I can just get on and go when it’s time.”
Today, that meant that the gelding was able to settle into the test and focus, despite the buzz of a busy ring packed with three arenas, constant noise from the tannoys, and a throng of spectators.
“His canter work was really good; I felt like he was very balanced, the changes happened and the half-passes flowed really well out of them,” says Lauren, who scored consistently around the 7 mark throughout the test.
This will be a fourth CCI4*-L for Lauren and Global Fision M, who finished eleventh at Bicton in June — an extraordinary result for a rider who has only ever ridden at the upper levels on one self-produced horse, and who does all the manual labour herself around her full-time job. But while all this might sound like a collection of tough hurdles to overcome, Lauren’s unconventional path to this point is actually what led her to the gelding.
“I bought him through [Irish event rider and co-director of Global Event Horses] Brian Morrison, who I’ve known for years,” she says. “He was like, ‘come over and see some horses’ — they hadn’t bought him, but they knew of him. He was a five-year-old, and hadn’t done anything, but he’d be my horse of a lifetime.”
Lauren’s friendship with Brian began when she was studying Biological Sciences at Oxford. While she hadn’t been a part of Britain’s bustling Young Rider circuit and teams, she was able to pursue her passion for competing through student riding, helmed by the World University Equestrian Federation. The set-up of the federation means that no competitor is required to have their own horse; instead, students go head to head in heats, each riding the same horse to determine who has exhibited the best horsemanship. Success at student riding competitions can lead to opportunities such as the Student Riding Nations Cups, which give riders from universities around the world the chance to compete together. The system has produced an impressive array of riders on the cusp of the big leagues: Lauren has since ridden for Britain at the CCI3*-S European Cup; Brian was long-listed for the Irish Olympic team; Spanish team rider Esteban Benitez Valle has ridden at the European Championships and, excelling in a rather different avenue in the industry, 2018 Equestrian Journalist of the Year Lucy Elder is one of the media’s foremost reporters.
“Through doing the Nations Cups you meet so many riders from different countries, and you just never know when it’ll lead you to find a horse like him,” she says fondly.
Holly Richardson might have stumbled quite accidentally into being a professional event rider — “and I don’t really think of myself as a professional, I just have a few horses to ride now!” — but she’s making a very competitive mark indeed on her debut CCI4*-L. She sits third going into cross-country with Caraghs Buffet after putting a 30.6 on the board. Though Holly doesn’t consider this phase her horse’s strongest, she piloted the Irish Sport Horse gelding to a real clear-round result, remaining accurate and correct to never slip below 6.
“He’s definitely not good at dressage, so I don’t know how that happened,” she says with a laugh. “He’s built completely the wrong way; he’s really downhill and has really short front legs. But he tries really hard and he’s so obedient — he was really calm today, but he isn’t always. He’s usually quite hot in the ring, and at Aston-le-Walls [CCI4*-S] he just bucked and bucked and bucked!”
Yorkshire-based Holly, who studied Biomedical Sciences at university before pursuing a Masters in Equestrian Performance, never intended to ride full-time — but she also didn’t intend to hang on to Caraghs Buffet for this long, either.
“I got him when he was five as a project, and he was really cheap — about three grand,” she says. “I was like, ‘oh, I’m just going to produce him a bit and sell him on — and then I accidentally kept him.”
Best laid plans, eh? After focusing her academic attentions on the science of racehorse fitness, she made her way to Australia to work with some of the industry’s newest technology, which measures fitness using heart rate monitors and stride length analysis among a range of indicators to give an accurate reading of a horse’s current fitness levels and its potential to improve. Though her intended career has deviated somewhat as she’s picked up more rides on her return to the UK, she continues to do some work with the Australian company and hopes to see performance analysis of this kind implemented more widely into eventing.
“It’s amazing to put it on two horses who you think are about the same level of fitness, but then the difference in the recovery is huge,” she says. “I’ve been able to put it on younger horses and say, ‘okay, well, I don’t think this is going to be able to go on.'”
Though a debut CCI4*-L is a major milestone for any rider, Holly is taking her own brand of pragmatism — and a whole lot of science — out of the start box with her as she makes her mark on Blair this week.
Simon Grieve and Drumbilla Metro are probably the most experienced pair in the field this year, with four CCI5* starts under their belt as a partnership, including a top-30 finish at Badminton in 2018. This is a first trip to Blair for the 14-year-old British-bred (that’s Drumbilla Metro, not Simon), and comes as they enjoy a significant upswing in their dressage results. We saw them end last year in the low-4os at Little Downham CCI4*-S, and though they’ve been consistently in the 30s this season, they’ve erred towards the other end of the scale. Today’s test, though, was polished and professional without a hint of a mistake from beginning to end. Simon’s been waiting for his big week for a while — and this could be the first step towards something very exciting over the course of the weekend for the prolific competitor.
Rounding out the top five is Ali Wilkes, who made a long journey from the other end of the country worthwhile with a respectable 31.4. She rides eleven-year-old Hanoverian mare Social Butterfly, who makes her sophomore appearance at CCI4*-L this week after an educational debut at Bicton earlier in the summer. There, the pair posted a 44.8 — so whatever Ali’s been feeding Social Butterfly in the meantime, we’d like to buy some.
Tomorrow turns our focus to the 42-strong CCI4*-S section, plus we’ll be taking you on a tour of the cross-country challenge (and we might even take you to the tartan shop, if you’re very lucky). Until next time, folks, Go Eventing!