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As it turns out, sometimes dreams really do come true. That’s certainly been the case for 23-year-old Mollie Summerland, who made the long, tough trip to Luhmühlen, circumnavigating a plethora of travel ban difficulties, to contest her second-ever CCI5* this week. There was always going to be a great shot for her to lead the dressage – this is something of a speciality for both horse and rider — but there’s never any certainty about five-star cross-country, particularly when it trips up much more experienced pairs. When Mollie and Charly jumped the fastest round of the day to retain their lead, she made sure to enjoy the moment – because she was certain it would be her last day in that position, as showjumping has typically been the phases she’s found the trickiest. Without a trainer there to help her, and with a dimensionally and technically tough track ahead of her, it would take guts and grit to get the job done. And when second-placed Christoph Wahler jumped a foot-perfect clear round ahead of her, there would be no margin for error.
But despite tapping their way around some of the trickier fences on the course, every pole stayed where it was meant to be, and Mollie and Charly sailed through the finish – three seconds over the time allowed, but clear. They’d won, despite having no trainers, Team GB support staff, nor full-time grooms on site with them.
“It doesn’t feel real,” she says, going on to share her unique strategy for preparing for the round.
“I sent the videos to my showjumping trainer, Jay Halim, this morning – I was walking around the course filming the whole way around and he sent me voice notes back of how to ride it,” she explains. “I really struggle in this phase. I don’t have much confidence in the show jumping at all — I’d much rather would go and do the dressage or the cross-country again! But he was just brilliant. He actually was a bit tapping and touching a few, but he just pulled it out of the bag today. It was enough pressure going in there as it was, let alone with Christoph doing a beautiful clear just before.”
Mollie focused on maintaining a positive rhythm around the track, and didn’t realise until after she’d finished that the clock had tipped over into the red.
“I know that I can pick up some time penalties where I get nervous and I probably do one too many strides, so I did try to move up to the triple bar and then round to the final combination, but actually for myself I just wanted to jump a clear, so that was my main priority,” she says. “I’ve spoken a lot to my sport psychologist this week, which has been really helpful. And all she’s ever said was ‘you can’t control anyone else, so just go out there and do the best for yourself and concentrate on your performance, and if it’s good enough on the day then that’s the way it goes’.”
Mollie’s victory will come as little surprise to anyone who’s followed her career with the 12-year-old Charly van ter Heiden, who she bought as a five-year-old and produced through the levels herself. In the last few seasons, they’ve notched up a string of impressive results against top-class combinations: second at Barbury CCI4*-S to Andrew Nicholson, third at Waregem CCIO4*-S, and top ten finishes in the Nations Cup finale at Boekelo CCI4*-L and at their debut CCI5* at Pau last season. But despite a clear and impressive upward trajectory, this is Mollie’s first time winning a three-day event.
“I’ve never won a three-day, so that’s the first time the national anthem has ever been played for me and I did cry most of the way through it,” she says. “I know my mum would have been sobbing at home watching on the TV. It’s one of those things that you dream about, and I’m very lucky that I got to experience that.”
Both of Mollie’s parents, like her trainers, have had to follow along with the event from home, due to travel restrictions in Germany. But one special connection did manage to make the trip: Charly’s breeder, Klaus Steffens, who hasn’t seen the horse in person in nearly a decade but who considers him the best horse he’s ever bred. With a friend along to translate, Klaus was able to see Charly and Mollie produce their leading cross-country round yesterday — and then be reunited with the horse who’s made so many dreams come true in the wash-off area afterwards.
For Mollie, who has become a popular role model for her candour about mental health, Charly is the horse of a lifetime – and that means that the tricky trip out to Germany, which saw her spend ten days quarantining at the base of Tim Lips in the Netherlands, has just been one of a string of fortuitous gambles.
“He’d never jumped under saddle when I bought him, I just tried him on the flat and that was all that mattered to me,” she says. “So they loose-jumped him for me and he was a good boy — but he jumped once and I said ‘oh, that’s good enough, that’ll do!”
Shortly thereafter, Mollie went to train at Pippa Funnell’s Billy Stud, and decided to bring Charly along.
“I could only take one to Pippa’s and I decided to take Charly, even though he was younger and really naughty, but I just had a gut feeling about the horse. She helped me kind of work out how his brain ticks and how to get the best out of him and I still really try and run by that philosophy in the way I work him at home.”
Once the successes started coming, so, too, did the offers to purchase the horse for significant sums of money.
“I could have sold him for what would have been, for me, a life-changing amount of money,” she says. “Sometimes I was the one saying ‘oh no, we should sell him’ and my dad talked me out of it, and sometimes it was the other way around. Obviously it wasn’t meant to be, and I’m so glad that I’ve still got him because he is absolutely my horse of a lifetime.”
The final top three is populated by these kinds of partnerships, and the home nation was enraptured to see Christoph Wahler take second place aboard the striking grey Carjatan S in their first full five-star. After making the trip to Pau last year and withdrawing before the cross-country after an incredible mid-20s test, Christoph came to Luhmühlen prepared — but without necessarily thinking that he could come so close to the top spot.
“What’s to expect, I don’t know! But he was incredible; I’m so unbelievably proud of him because he really stepped up one more step,” says Christoph, who has worked hard since last year to make major changes to the gelding’s fitness and stamina.
“I already thought he’d be [prepared for the step up], but there’s always little things that we can do better and now today and yesterday especially, that was just foot perfect. You put so much effort to get here and it pays off, and he’s incredible.”
27-year-old Christoph, whose family owns a large dressage stud about 45 minutes from Luhmühlen, has been on a long journey with the gelding, who is one of just a few event horses he runs.
“I got him as a five-year-old from an auction nearby. I think he did the littlest level of cross country with [Swedish eventer] Christoffer Forsberg, and then I got him and since then nobody else has ever competed him,” he says. “He’s always been my horse for the future. There were a couple of people that told me he would be good, but what counted most was when Rudiger Schwarz told me he was a championship horse if I look after him properly. He was just turning six when he saw him for the first time and he said, ‘that’s the sort of horse we’re looking for, and now you just have to develop him well.’”
That prediction came true when Christoph and Carjatan were selected to ride as individuals for Germany in 2019’s European Championships, also held at Luhmühln.
“He did get to a championship two years ago, and now we’re on five-star level — and that’s just insane to go all the way with a horse like that,” Christoph says. Along the way, the journey has been marked with the ups and downs typical of the sport: they’ve picked up excellent results, including that great performance at the Europeans and a team and individual win in the Nations Cup at Houghton in 2019, but they’ve also had trickier times, with some tumbles in waters at four-star level a couple of years ago. For Christoph, even the start of this week was something of a low point: rather than putting another mid-20s score on the board, they had some differences of opinion in the ring to go into cross-country on a 32.1. But producing one of the rounds of the day over Mike Etherington-Smith’s tough track strengthened Christoph’s resolve and rewarded his infallible faith in his own horse of a lifetime.
“He’s a little bit of a special character – you’ve seen him go good and go bad and go very bad and very good,” he says. “But horses like him, you just connect to on a different level than any other horse. IHe’s the first horse I look at in the morning and the last horse I think about in the evening – and there’s many horses in between, but he’s always the first and the last.”
An arduous journey from the United States paid off for Ariel Grald and the Irish Sport Horse gelding Leamore Master Plan, who began their week in eleventh place and steadily climbed throughout the weekend to finish third in their third-ever five-star. Even more remarkably? Each of their runs at the level has come at very different venues: they were 12th at Kentucky in 2019, 10th at an incredibly tough Burghley in the same year, and now, third at twisty, turny Luhmühlen. Though she’d originally planned for a Badminton debut with the horse this year, she was forced to put her plans on hold while she waited to see what might run in 2021.
“I knew I wanted to go abroad again, rather than do another Kentucky, because it was important for me to gain experience by getting out of my comfort zone,” she says. “I’d never been to Luhmühlen before. My horse is pretty strong, he’s a big horse and he likes to really gallop so I’d say this was a little bit of a trickier track, but we specifically chose this event for him to give both him and I a different education and a little bit tighter turns, a little bit more technical – where he can’t just run at everything, which is sort of his style. So I was really impressed with the course, which was beautifully decorated and so well laid out. I think he and I gained a lot of confidence from our run this weekend.”
Ariel has spent nearly a month away from home to make this journey happen, supported along the way by her owners as well as US team coach Erik Duvander, who made the journey to Germany, and fellow competitor Jennie Brannigan.
“I live in North Carolina, but I spent two weeks up in Pennsylvania to get some extra help because Erik Duvander was up north,” she explains. “The horses went to JFK and flew to Liege last week and then had a long lorry ride out here, so we’ve been here since Saturday. The horses traveled great, we’ve had great travel support and to be honest, it was a lot easier than I thought. We were all wound up and we had all these documents, we had everything sorted and were prepared for the worst – and it was actually quite smooth.”
“It definitely was a team effort,” she continues. “We had a lot of support from so many people in the US to get over here, and we’re really lucky that this event was able to run, because I know it’s a really difficult time for everybody and we’ve each had creative journeys to get here. But we have a lot of backing from the US; our team coach Erik Duvander is here for the weekend and we’ve had a lot of help this spring. My owner, Annie Eldridge, wasn’t able to travel over from the US, but I know she’s been waking up very early every morning to watch the live stream, so she’ll be ecstatic. We’re just very, very lucky to be here. It took a lot, but we had a great flight, we had such great hospitality and everybody has been so welcoming here.”
Ariel rides with a maturity and professionalism well beyond her 32 years that makes it hard to believe that Leamore Master Plan is only, in fact, her first-ever four- and five-star horse. Like the two riders ahead of her, she’s known throughout the cheeky horse’s burgeoning career that her faith would be rewarded when he reached the top.
“I couldn’t be happier with my horse,” she says. “I’ve had him since he was a 5-year-old and we’ve kind of come up the levels; he was my first four-star and my first five-star horse and he’s done a lot for me, so I’m so appreciative of every day I get to ride him.”
Fourth place goes the way of France’s Luc Chateau, who produced the biggest leaderboard climb of the week to move from 20th place after dressage with Troubadour Camphoux after adding nothing to their first-phase score of 39.8. Behind him, Michael Jung and the youngest horse in the field, CCI5* debutant fischerWild Wave, jumped a classy clear round to take fifth, despite activating a frangible pin on course yesterday.
To absolutely nobody’s surprise, Michael Jung took the win in the CCI4*-S and German Championship aboard fischerChipmunk FRH – but the surprise did, perhaps, come from the fact that the horse jumped a foot-perfect clear round over an incredibly technical and tough showjumping track. This phase has historically been a weak point for the pair since Michael took the ride on the gelding, who was produced to four-star by fellow countryman Julia Krajewski. Time and careful production has won out, though, and the pair will head to Tokyo looking stronger than ever.
“Chipmunk jumped really good and gave me a really good feeling in the warm-up — powerful, but still listening, and jumping really well,” he says. “You need a very good partnership [to be able to train towards the showjumping improving in this way]; he has to fight with me together. He has to be clever, to watch the fence, to see the last stride and then listen to the rider and how I sit with my leg and hands. It’s a lot of things together, so that takes a lot of time to build that. Definitely, with the spectators, the pressure makes a lot of difference – and there wasn’t that, this time.”
Sandra Auffarth took second place on Viamant du Matz, who was named today as her reserve horse for Tokyo – she’ll head to the Games with Let’s Dance 73, who had an uncharacteristic blip across the country yesterday.
“It was so much fun today because he’s such a good jumper and came out so fresh,” she says of Viamant du Matz. “He gave me an amazing round yesterday; he was so powerful, so focused, and so quick in his own way. He’s really special and super safe, so it’s so good to enjoy it. He’s quite a shy horse, especially with different people, so even in his stable he’s always going backwards like ‘what is going on?!’ So you need a lot of time for him to trust you, and in the dressage, he’s needed that time too. He’s a naturally quick horse and always wants to go the short way — sometimes in the dressage arena too, so you always need to stay on your line! But I like that; it makes him super special and so careful. You can’t even ride over a pole on the ground in walk because he’s so shy, but that’s why he’s such a special horse for the jumping.”
Australia’s Andrew Hoy and Vassily de Lassos produced their best-ever test as a partnership on Friday, scoring a 27.6, before delivering the fastest round of the day yesterday. Today, they jumped a flawless clear round to finish on their dressage score, giving their own Olympic hopes a fighting chance.
“It’s definitely going in the right direction, but this kind of thing doesn’t change from today or tomorrow,” he says. “To go from 70% to 75% is relatively easy, but to go from 75% to 80% is another thing entirely. It’s not one thing that fixes it all. I believe that we can still make improvements, but it’ll only be proven with the results.”
Andrew credits the great team around him with his recent successes — and the forty years of career successes in his life so far.
“As a person, I’m driven to keep on improving, and to try and learn more and try to find a better way. The sport has changed so much from where it was in 1978 to today’s sport, and as athletes, sometimes people get upset with rule changes and things. I don’t get upset, I just think ‘how can I work with this?’ We’re in the entertainment industry, and so we have to provide entertainment for the people who watch and the crowds who usually come to these events. [My wife] Steffi is my rock; she understands the sporting side but also sees the business side of it all. It’s the people that you put around you: this is something my father said to me when I was seventeen years old. He said, ‘if you want to be good, place good people around you.’ I’ve never forgotten that. It’s not just about having them around you — it’s taking their advice and making it actually happen. We’re all good at listening, but many of us aren’t good at activating it. The learning process is hear it, listen to it, and activate it.”
And so we come to the end of an extraordinary week at Luhmühlen, where the organising team, competitors, and gathered support teams have created a week to remember despite ongoing restrictions and a total closure against spectators. Though eventing looks a little bit different in the height of a pandemic, this week has proved that history can still be made — and dreams can come true — no matter how tough the world may seem. To all those who continue fighting for the sport, and for one another, we salute you. Go Eventing.
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