Stories from the Mixed Zone: Our Favorite Quotes from Day One in Tokyo

Japan’s Kazuma Tomoto takes his turn in the socially-distanced mixed zone. Photo by Shannon Brinkmann.

The beauty of the Olympics is that the leaderboard only tells one story – but every single person, horse, and supporting team out there has been on an extraordinary journey to get to this biggest stage of all. We’ll be bringing you a closer look at some of their tales of triumph, but first, join us in the mixed zone for some of our favourite quotes from the first day of dressage.

Kazuma Tomoto and Vinci de la Vigne – Japan (25.9)

Kazu was formerly a top showjumper, but switched to eventing in 2016 to aim for Tokyo. He relocated to England to train with William Fox-Pitt, and rides the former Astier Nicolas ride Vinci de la Vigne at his home Olympics. When he asked how he helps his horse relax in an environment like this, he revealed his top tips.

“Deep breaths! And not asking too much, keeping it as normal like we’re training at home. [William] always gives me a great idea, especially in the championships, or Badminton, or big events. He understands everything for big events – how to relax, how to fix horses, and the recovery, so he really helps with this.”

Kazu, more than most, wishes the Olympics could be open to spectators.

“It’s really, really special at my home country, but it’s really a shame to have no spectators here, especially for us Japanese riders and my family and friends. But still, we got so many messages and message cards, so we can do it!”

Kazu has benefited from working with chef d’equipe Laurent Bosquet, who has been influential in securing great French horses, including Vinci:

“[The French horses] are really, really clever. Always, [Vinci] could do his performance as usual – he’s a ‘bonne garçon’, right? A good boy.”

Arinadtha Chavatanont (Thailand) and Boleybawn Prince. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Arinadtha Chavatanont and Boleybawn Prince – Thailand (42.4)

Arinadtha, or Mint, was the trailblazer of the first session, and rides as part of Thailand’s first-ever Olympic eventing team.

“It’s very special, of course, because it’s the first time in our history to have the three of us here. Before we used to have individuals, but this time is the first time that we were able to qualify three riders. And to be here in the team – we will not be in a really top, top placing but we hope we finish with a really good score and looking forward to the Games.”

“[Trainer Maxime Livio is] special for me because he never puts pressure on the rider and he teaches each rider differently. My horse is a special one and he knows where is the strong point, so we really push that, and where he’s weak we really try to keep it not more weak. He really pays attention to the health of the horse. Every show, even in Europe, we always have a vet with us and the horse is a priority for me — even more of a priority than me, my body. Since he cannot talk, we really look after each little detail to see how he’s feeling, and since my horse loves bananas so much, the most important thing is to have bananas with me. He’s really happy to have bananas with him all the time — it keeps him really relaxed.”

Lauren Billys (Puerto Rico) and Castle Larchfield Purdy. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Lauren Billys and Castle Larchfield Purdy – Puerto Rico (39.9)

California-based Lauren talked about her decision to ride for Puerto Rico, for which she’s also been  involved in relief work in the aftermath of the 2017 hurricanes:

“In 2009, I was at an event and my grandmother was there. She’s from Puerto Rico – she grew up in Bayamón – and there was another rider there called Mark Watring, who competed at the Sydney Olympics. And so my grandmother went and talked to him, and we found out that her nationality transferred to my own. That’s how I got recognised as Puerto Rican, and I’ve been riding under the Puerto Rican flag since I’ve become an international competitor, so ever since I was 21. It’s been the way I’ve always competed internationally, and it’s the way I’ll always compete forever. I was just committed to going the furthest I could with my career, and I always pictured myself on the world stage – and Puerto Ricans are Americans. I’m really glad God gave me the opportunity to represent my heritage. It’s such an honour.”

Lauren spoke eloquently about riding as an individual at the Games.

“To be fair, I think it’s harder to shine as an individual; there’s not a buzz around you and behind you. And I think sometimes that shows, and I think that sometimes individuals are viewed as weaker riders or programs. So I feel a responsibility to say, you know, screw that, you can do it any way you want to, and it’s anybody’s day on any given day. So I feel that kind of responsibility for sure. There’s also just a lot of general logistical responsibility in terms of getting here – a lot of teams have the support of the finances of their country that support them in many grants to compete all over the world. I’ve worked my tail off to provide enough money for my family and also for me to be able to compete here. So it’s a responsibility at home as well as on the international stage.”

Lauren was affected by the California wildfires, which disrupted her preparation with her nineteen-year-old horse of a lifetime:

“I have a lot of gratitude towards him. I mean, I was thinking about that today – like, we are clearly meant to be here. We’ve had plenty of reasons why we shouldn’t be here. He almost died in 2018, and we survived a fire last year that nearly burned down our home. And so we’ve been through a lot – and even in the jog yesterday [when he was sent to the hold box], just that little spike of adrenaline, you know – we’re clearly meant to be here. I wouldn’t want to be here with anybody else. So today and this week is a celebration of our partnership together. He’s an older guy, but he’s pretty wise and experienced.”

Lauren also wore a number of ribbons and pins: one in memory of much-loved California event volunteer Don Trotter, who passed away in 2019, one to represent Area VI, and another to keep her mother, who can’t be here this week, close to her. Her mother is wearing the same one as she supports from home.

Francisco Gaviño Gonzalez. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Francisco Gavino Gonzalez and Source de la Faye – Spain (47.7)

Individual competitor Francisco, who’s based in Seville, had a tricky time in the ring with this spicy, tense mare, who had to be nursed through with tactical, sympathetic riding.

“She’s a really difficult girl – a really difficult chestnut Anglo-Arab girl. I try my best but it’s really hard to find a way to work with her inside sometimes, because she gets really, really excited. The test is really short for her – it’s good because it’s short from one point, but it’s really technical and the movements come very fast so you don’t have time to prepare. I suppose she was going to be like that, but the worst part is done!”

“This is unbelievable for me – I think it’s a really big achievement for me. I’m just 24, when I qualified I was 22 and I was really happy. I didn’t expect to qualify, but the championships were going really good in 2019. We won a couple competitions, and she was amazing. And here, the feeling is… I am here, it’s incredible, and I’m really happy, I’m enjoying a lot; I’m trying to learn a lot from the best riders here.”

Francisco works as a pharmacist and has been at university for the last four years. He’s been training with Michael Jung for the last two years and prior to that, he trained with Andrew Hoy.

“It’s quite a difficult thing, but for me it was more difficult in university because I didn’t have enough time to do everything. I started the day at 5:30 in the morning and I rode my horses until 8:30, then from 8:30 to 12:30 I was in the lab in the university because pharmacy is a degree with a lot of lab work, and in the afternoon I had the lessons in the university, and then I came back to the stable and sleep and start again every day. And now it’s a bit easier, because my father is my boss so I have a bit more time to prepare. I was really, really conscious that I wanted to make it in five years a degree and make all my Europeans – Junior, and Young Riders, and also qualify for the Olympic Games – so I’m really happy with this.”

Thomas Heffernan Ho (Hong Kong) and Tayberry. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Thomas Heffernan Ho and Tayberry – Hong Kong (46.7)

British-based Tom rides the oldest horse in the field – Tay is an impressive 20 years old, and also the smallest horse at just 15.1hh. He obviously doesn’t know it, though; he gave a sparky performance in the ring that required careful management from Tom.

“I think he loves the sport as much as every athlete here. He doesn’t feel his age – he’s as sparky as a young horse, he still has life in him and to be honest, I don’t do a lot with him. We care for him the best we can, and we provide for him the best physios. Being in the UK with the racing industry, and eventing’s quite a big sport there, is a massive help. He looks after himself very well.”

“He thinks he’s the biggest horse around. I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of pony blood in him – he’s 15.1, so in terms of that, that might be why he’s still doing the sport. He has a fifth leg when he goes cross country; he loves it as much as I do. I would say the dressage is always a struggle with him – he finds it quite boring and competitive and he thinks he knows better. We’ve deliberately not practiced [the Olympic test] that much – so the intensity has helped him.”

Tom is Hong Kong’s first Olympic eventer.

“It’s always a proud moment when we represent our country in a championship. I was lucky enough to represent Hong Kong in the Asian Championships, Asian Games and the China National Games. I still have to pinch myself every time I’m here.”

Malgorzata Cybulska of Poland celebrates a great test with Chenaro 2. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Malgorzata Cybulska and Chenaro 2 – Poland (31)

23-year-old Gosia is a full-time student of Psychology at the University of Warsaw and makes her Olympic debut just two years after aging out of Young Riders. She’s spent a long time building up a great partnership with Chenaro 2, who she’s owned since he was a five-year-old.

“My horse Chenaro, he is the sweetest horse ever. When I got him, though, I have to say that I hated him – I hated him so much! He was like, ‘party!’ all the time. I was not able to work with him; my dressage tests were like 45%, because every centerline he was like, ‘woohoo, party time!’ and [gave me] nothing – just freestyle. So at first I really hated him and I was afraid of him. But with time we are already working seven years together, so I competed on him through Juniors, through Young Riders, and our biggest competition we’ve been to was European Championship at Luhmühlen two years ago. It was a really successful start for us. Now everybody says that he’s an angel, and he’s so calm, and so on, but what is the most important about him is that I really trust that he will help me with, for example, cross country. This is a huge thing, because this is my only horse. I’m not training, five horses a day, so I don’t have too much training. And competing at this level, I have to have in my head that if I do mistake, he will help me out – so he has a huge heart for this competition, and we are a great couple.”

 

Victoria Scott-Legendre and Valtho des Peupliers. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Victoria Scott-Legendre and Valtho des Peupliers – South Africa (39.5)

French-based Victoria lived in her native South Africa until she completed university, and her background in the sport is, perhaps, a bit different than most riders.

“We were lucky enough to have some really nice venues that happened to have some wild animals on the property, and I’ve had a dressage test where a herd of zebra have come through, and a couple of occasions where some giraffe have popped [their heads] over the trees. The horses are often quite spooky about that and do a 360, so we have to chase away the animals – so it was fun! It’s a great experience, and it’s almost normal for us – but sadly I didn’t bring a South African horse!”

Victoria crowdfunded her trip to Tokyo:

“Our federation is, of course, not the most concentrated on horses, so we don’t get as much support as other nations. Coming here can be very costly, so we did a GoFundMe campaign, which was so, so well-supported worldwide. We had a lot of help and we got to our goal, which took a bit of the financial burden off us, because we had a lot of stress on the preparations and that helped us to breathe and focus on the goal. It was amazing – from all around the world we had this wonderful support.”

Jesse Campbell runs through his safe words. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Jesse Campbell and Diachello – New Zealand (30.1)

Jesse joins power couple Tim and Jonelle Price on the Kiwi team, and is sharing a room in the Olympic Village with Tim – though no word on who’s big spoon and who’s little spoon.

“We’ve got code words for if they, you know, need some one-on-one time!”

Diachello has come into his own this year after a careful production period, and until late last year, Jesse has intentionally run him slowly.

“I think it was a little bit out of necessity because when I first got him, he was so fat. I couldn’t even get him around a pre-novice cross-country! I was very mindful of what a talented horse I had, and my owner allowed me so much time to produce him. I said to him, ‘look, it’s gonna be a long term thing to get him fit and strong to do his job.’ You know, sometimes I’ve been well placed and I’ve had to go and get twenty time faults because he’s not quite there, but he’s now starting to – he’s got a five star under his belt, and he’s ready to give a little bit more.”

Mélody Johner and Toubleu du Rueire. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Mélody Johner and Toubleu du Rueire – Switzerland (36.1)

Mélody took the ride on Toubleu just last year, and they tackled their first FEI event together in September. Mélody show jumped originally, but took up eventing three years ago after her husband challenged her to try it.

“He came to me one year ago, and he was always simply simple and just so great to ride. We did a lot of master classes when we had Covid [restrictions] and no international eventing. It was a really good chance for all the Swiss riders to work and do something like a real international eventing competition. I had to do the three shorts, three longs, four shorts, and four longs [to gain the qualification], so it was quite short. But he was always good, always cool, and always fun.”

Mélody makes the use of Switzerland’s striking natural terrain to prepare her horses for events:

“We have a lot of mountains, so really, we’re up and down and for us, it’s natural to have horses who have good condition to do eventing.”

Phillip Dutton and Z. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Phillip Dutton and Z – USA (30.5)

This is Phillip’s seventh Games, and he’s seen plenty of changes in the sport along the way – not least, this year’s change to a three-person format:

“I started off in Atlanta [in 1996] where you had to carry weight and you had to be a minimum weight, and [there were] roads and tracks and steeplechase, and so yeah, it’s come a long way. I really liked this dressage test. I think three in a team is certainly going to make it exciting, because you don’t have a drop score, and I’ll be interested to see every team’s tactics and plan as they go out. But if I had to say, I’m not a fan of three on a  team. I think it was ideal having the four and being able to drop a score.”

Weerapat Pitakanonda and Carnival March – Thailand (38.2)

Weerapat is part of the historic first-ever Thai Olympic eventing team, and he partners a former Piggy March ride in Carnival March. The horse finished in the top ten at the Young Horse World Championships with Piggy, and was the first horse to receive the ‘March’ suffix from the business she and husband Tom set up.

“I bought him off the end of 2019. And we’ve been together for one and a half years, roughly. It’s quite a short period for us, and it’s a new relationship for me, yeah, but we work hard. Maxime [Livio] is my trainer, and he helped me a lot to fix it, to improve dressage, to make me jump better. We will try to focus on and do more improvements.”

All the Thai riders relocated to Maxime’s base in France to mount their Tokyo campaign – and with the delay of the Games and the pandemic, they were forced to spend an extra year abroad without seeing their families. Being here makes it all worth it for these riders.

“It feels amazing – I’m so excited. This is the first ever team eventing team for Thailand, and yeah, we work hard. We’ve been working for years towards this, and especially with the paused format of the Olympics, we need to stay in Europe longer. And then finally we made it. It’s quite difficult to go home because COVID, and there was no flights, and also there’s the restriction of when we go to Thailand, we need to quarantine ourselves in the public state quarantine for two weeks. It’s a waste of time, so that’s why we need to stay in Europe most of the time.”

 

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