“It’s a Super Unique Venue”: Catching up with Lauren Nicholson and Kim Severson at Pratoni

Sweden’s Sofia Sjoborg and Bryjamolga van het Marienshof Z make full use of the mare’s impressive stride in the early part of the course. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

As the team announcements start to come thick and fast (including that US team one, which we simply have not stopped discussing on our EN group chat since it dropped!), May’s test event for the Pratoni World Championships is starting to feel further and further away. Were we ever those bright-eyed Pratoni fledglings, making our first tentative steps onto the rolling hills of the Roman venue? How little we knew! How much we — sort of! — know now!

Though many riders made the journey to compete in the test event, which was held at the CCIO4*-S level and also served as the opening leg of the FEI Nations Cup series, a number of riders, selectors, and chef d’equipes came sans horses to get a feel for what’s to come. That included the likes of British performance manager Dickie Waygood, Chinese Olympian Alex Hua Tian, Canada’s Rebecca Howard, Australia’s Kevin McNab, and a number of Japanese riders, including Kazuma Tomoto, who finished fourth at last year’s Olympics.

We caught up with Lauren Nicholson and Kim Severson, who made the trip together to learn all they could about Pratoni’s unique venue, bringing their individual insights and perspectives to the table to help bring the fullest possible picture back to the team. Lauren, who had originally entered to ride in the test event on Landmark’s Monte Carlo, who ultimately didn’t make the trip due to logistics, has since been named onto the US team with her diminutive superstar Vermiculus, while Kim continues to act in the capacity of selector, a role she took on after last year’s Tokyo Olympics.

After several days of Italian sunshine, multiple course walks, and — we hope — lots of trips to the venue’s gelato bar, we sat down with Kim and Lauren as we watched the showjumping unfold to discuss what their major takeaways of the trip were.

Beat Sax navigates one of Giuseppe’s clever bits of terrain as he enters the final water. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

On the overall impression of Pratoni del Vivaro:

Lauren: “I’m very glad we came, because it’s a super unique venue, and I think we’ve gotten a lot of useful information that’ll hopefully help us to prepare. I think there’s a lot of things we could have missed out on by not coming here, and the funny thing is, both Kim and I have commented on and seen very different things in a lot of places.”

Kim: “Like, I see one thing, and I’m like, ‘oh, this is blah blah blah‘ — and then Lauren’s like, ‘oh, I was thinking a totally different thing!’ We disagree on some things — she’ll be like, ‘this looks really skinny’, and I don’t think it’s that skinny at all. Or we have disagreements about roping, and how close is too close. So I definitely agree with Lauren that we’ve got some really good information out of it. It’s a very different venue for us to see for eventing these days, too — it’s very rustic, in a lot of ways. The thing I really like about it, though, is that everything’s really close. The grooms are close to the stables, and they’re not very far away from the food, and you don’t need a bike; you can just travel easily around here on foot. It’s all just easy.”

L: “It’s very like Pau in how compact it is, but with more room to go ride. That’s the nice thing — you can go for a super-long hack.”

On the hilly course, designed by Giuseppe della Chiesa: 

K: “I thought it was really slick that he put a little vertical at number six, coming halfway up the hill. You had to be good about that, because if you jumped it too vertically you lost all your canter, and no matter what, you were still going to land slower than you were taking off, coming up that hill. That, to me, showed more than anything a bit what he’s thinking.

L: “You saw people not respect that rail and then have a super awkward jump at it, which was then influential at the first combination. I felt that Giuseppe did a really good job as a designer in the places where he used the terrain, and then you couldn’t predict how the horses would travel through, so you had to ride off instinct. He didn’t give a big scope question that might create an ugly picture on the way out — like, it’d be a big vertical or something, but he didn’t create a question that the horses would scrape or belly over. That made for good pictures on cross-country, because when he did use scope questions, he’d do it on a flat area, and if the horses were going to test their footwork, he didn’t punish them by using those scope questions. The coffin, for example — you never saw two horses do it the same way twice, but they never made an ugly picture, either, and that’s important when we talk about putting our sport on the world stage.”

On the perfect Pratoni horse:

K: “You want it to move, but obviously it needs to be able to jump and have a history of being really good on cross-country and a good galloper. You want a fast, Thoroughbred-y type horse; there’s a lot of hills here, and a lot of sneaky hills, and that’s definitely going to be influential. You wouldn’t want a Cooley Cross Border — even though he has the dressage and the showjumping, you probably wouldn’t want him here!”

L: “You wouldn’t want a horse that seems to lag a bit in the last couple of minutes, because I think fitness is going to play a big part. And I think Giuseppe is probably going to set up a few things to catch out the horses that do get a bit tired at the end and check out. If you have a horse that’s a real puller, you could lose a tonne of time just because of the way he’s set up the jumps going downhill — you can’t just let them run down the hill.”

On the unique Pratoni ground, which is made up of volcanic ash: 

L: “I think the American horses will be well off, because they’re used to the heat, and this ground could be quite firm to a lot of the European countries. But for us, we’d be thrilled to have this ground at August in Great Meadows! But this is one thing Kim and I did disagree on: I thought the ground was quite good, and she was a little worried about the inconsistency with the mole hills.”

K: “There were definitely some soft spots, but the interesting thing with those soft spots is that they don’t necessarily go anywhere. Walking the course after the horses ran, there were very few places where I felt like it went down. I think it’s interesting; it’s quite a spongy feeling out on cross-country, whereas in the showjumping, it actually felt much more firm.”

On the undulating grass showjumping arena:

L: “I think it’s very valuable to take away that we need to practice that, because it’s very rare that we work on grass anymore in the US. Over here, they do it all the time. But none of the riders are complaining about jumping on this grass, and it’s different to England, for example, because it holds up really well. It doesn’t change from beginning to end, and it’s not going to get muddy or tricky.”