The CCI1*: For the Riders, For the Horses, For the Future of the Sport

Mallory Stiver and Hennessy Venom in Carolina’s CCI1*. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It’s easy to get caught up in the glitz, the glam, and the unforgettably amazing riding in the four-star divisions, especially at major events like the Setters’ Run Farm Carolina International. But while it doesn’t get as much spectator attention as the major leagues, the newly instituted one-star division plays an important role in keeping horses and riders safe, confident, and thriving.

To get the inside scoop on the one-star division, I spoke with the winner of the 2022 Dark Waterspoon LLC CCI1*-S at Carolina International, Olivia Coolidge; 2023 SRF Carolina International Dark Waterspoon LLC CCI1*-S rider Mallory Stiver; and the sponsor of the division, Camilla Vance of Dark Waterspoon LLC.

The introduction of the CCI1* in 2019 created a bit of an uproar. What was the point, asked eventers. How would it change the sport? Are we “dumbing down” our beloved cross country? What were the risks involved with making the FEI levels more accessible to greeners horses and riders? Now in its fourth year, Mallory and Olivia gave the Dark Waterspoon LLC CCI1*-S at the SRF Carolina International rave reviews.

Mallory and Olivia both wound up in the one-star division for the same reason: to build confidence. According to Mallory, “I was apprehensive. I waited until the closing date to enter because I wasn’t sure if I should do the CCI2*-S or the CCI1*-S. My horse, Hennessey Venom, has done four or five preliminary events, all of which were pretty good,” said Mallory. “But my mindset was that if we do the CCI1*-S and he’s backed off because of the crowds and everything, at least the jumps are small enough that he can confidently get over them, even if everything else is distracting him. It’s not a jump issue with him, it’s an environment issue.”

Olivia Coolidge and Bold Impression. Photo by Brant Gamma Photography.

Last year, Olivia rode in the one-star division at the 2022 Carolina International and it completely transformed her outlook and set her career on a new path. After her horse, Bold Impression, was injured and rehabbed in the winter of 2021, the pair had had a rough start to the 2022 show season. After two falls at the preliminary level, both had a setback to contend with. According to Olivia, “I lost all my confidence. I was wondering, should I even do this anymore? Is this the right path? So it was really discouraging.”

As a last ditch effort, Olivia and “Benny” dropped down to the one-star level in an attempt to get their confidence back. “It was also my first FEI, so it was really nice to be able to experience the jogs and the vet box and all this stuff, and you get to learn the rules and regulations of it in a less stressful environment and with less pressure,” said Olivia.

Her plan worked out well, as she and Benny went on to win the CCI1* division and had a successful move up to the CCI2*-S this year. Olivia still has her giant check from 2022 proudly hanging over a door in her home, a daily reminder of her most affirming win.

Mallory used the Dark Waterspoon LLC CCI1*-S at SRF Carolina International to build her and Hennessy Venom (“Vinny”)’s confidence in an FEI environment. “Seeing himself on the Jumbotron, and all the vendors, and the trade fair, and especially with how windy it was, and the whistles blowing. That’s a lot of stuff that normally blows his mind,” said Mallory. “So I didn’t want to blow his mind with new hard questions at the level and the environment.”

When Mallory first made the move up to the FEI level, her only option was to ride in today’s CCI2*, as the CCI1* didn’t exist. It didn’t go smoothly, to put it lightly. “It was me and my horses’ first time at the FEI level and I was, for lack of a better word, terrified. It was so big and I was so intimidated by everything. All of a sudden I went from five or six Midwestern preliminary events to what essentially felt like an intermediate course.”

Olivia and Mallory are the perfect example of one reason why the CCI1* is so important; it allows riders to move up and experience an FEI environment in a safe way. An unconfident and overfaced horse and rider are more likely to wind up in trouble. It’s long been known that it’s a big leap from training level to preliminary. Even moving up from preliminary at the National level to preliminary at the FEI level can lead to significant challenges. The CCI1* allows riders to more safely make the leap to FEI, as fences are set to modified height.

Lainey Phillips and Global Excellencia Z. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Building rider confidence in order to prioritize horse/rider safety is one reason Camilla Vance chose to sponsor the one-star division. “I think that the opportunity to take on the CCI1*-S is really important. Sometimes you need that extra time to reaffirm or to confirm that you and your horse are at the right place at the right level,” said Camilla. “And I would rather be able to offer that as a CCI1* where you can do that without hurting yourself or your horse and have the time to do it right.”

Camilla’s statement was echoed in Olivia’s sentiments. “I feel like a lot of people tend to over-face themselves and their horses, not meaning to, but usually preliminary is the next step. Whereas I think the CCI1* is a really good safe zone, even for adult amateurs. Then they can go and do an FEI and have that experience but not be literally killing themselves or their horses,” Olivia said. “The thing is this sport is so dangerous that you want to have every sort of safety precaution imaginable. And I think that the modified level is this incredible safety feature for a lot of people and horses.”

Sponsoring the CCI1*-S at Carolina International was part of a personal mission to improve the safety of eventing for Camilla. “I want to have a safe sport and that’s a great concern to me. I do not want to be involved with a sport where you accept injury and death as a cost. Ever. I’m also a trauma nurse and so that’s not my instinct to accept those high stakes. That’s not my interest, and it’s never been my position,” said Camilla. “My interest is in providing a CCI1*-S at such a top quality competition and to establish that the CCI1* is just as important, if not more important than the two, three, and four-star divisions, because you want everybody to succeed.”

Riders often feel peer pressure to move up to the bigger levels as fast as possible, which puts horse and rider safety at risk. Mallory admits that when the new division was first developed, she had her doubts. “When they first came out with the modified level, I thought it was unnecessary. Like I thought, there’s no point because I was already going prelim at that point. And then when I finally did the modified level I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. We needed this.’”

As a lifelong volunteer and owner for many professional eventers, Camilla has seen what happens firsthand when riders move up the levels too quickly. “You don’t want people going into the CCI2* and finding out that all hell is breaking loose on the course, people are falling off, or horses are doing the wrong thing. Then you just have mayhem,” said Camilla. “To me, those are the people that should be given the opportunity to enjoy the CCI1* where they can get through those issues, and resolve them and be happy about them. And when you face the next level, you shouldn’t be going into that saying ‘God, I hope I can do it.’ You want to say to yourself, ‘We got it!’”

According to Olivia and Mallory, preparing riders to level up is one thing that Carolina International does very well. Olivia experienced this firsthand. “Carolina is great. They prepare you for the next level very well. On the CCI2* you’ll see questions that are very similar to the CCI3*, only just a little bit easier than the next level up. You’ll have the same combinations, but it’ll be just a little bit lower and maybe a little bit spread apart. But it’s still the same question, and it’s just a matter of slowly closing in and making it a little bit more difficult as you go up the levels.”

Olivia and Mallory are the poster children for why the one-star division is so important. As a result of riding in the 2022 Carolina International CCI1*-S, Olivia successfully made the move up to the CCI2*-S at the 2023 Setters’ Run Farm Carolina International, putting in a fantastic round and coming in 13th in a highly competitive class. She credits her 2022 win in the one-star division as setting her career back on track. “Before the CCI1*, I was probably in the darkest place I’ve ever been. It was nice to come out and be like, ‘You know what, I took a step back, and I went out and just crushed it.’ That was so empowering because then you start to think, ‘Okay, if it doesn’t go well, it’s fine. It will eventually.’”

As for Mallory and Vinny, on top of having their best dressage score ever at this level, Vinny really benefited from the confidence boost the one-star division gave him. “After this weekend, I was like, wow, this horse feels like he’s the real deal for the future,” said Mallory. “He just really stepped up the harder the things got, the bigger the environment got. Whereas two years ago, the Setters’ Run Farm Carolina International would have blown his mind.”

Thanks to the hard work and collaboration between sponsors, like Camilla Vance of Dark Waterspoon LLC, and venues, like Carolina International, you can expect to see the CC1* becoming more and more popular as riders, like Mallory, try it out for themselves. With benefits for horse and rider safety, confidence, and education, the one-star division could be the key to a bright future for the sport of eventing.

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