Some riders just seem to be able to figure out the crux of certain courses, to tap into their heart and synchronise it with their own, obliterating the competition and making the whole thing look farcically easy. That’s certainly been the case for Andrew Nicholson, who won a record-breaking five consecutive CCI4*-S classes at Barbury International Horse Trials. Four of those wins came with the great grey Avebury, who took the title from 2012 to 2015 and casually picked up three Burghley titles in that that period, too. The fifth came in 2016 when another of Andrew’s veritable legends, the Badminton- and Pau-winning superstar Nereo, took top honours in the Event Rider Masters section at the event. But since the staggered retirements of his stable stalwarts, Andrew has been busily trotting out what seems like an endless string of grey horses, spearheaded by one particularly special up-and-comer.
It’s fitting, really, that Swallow Springs (Chillout x Kilila, by Cult Hero xx) should step into the starring role at Andrew’s yard, which sits just a hill’s breadth away from Barbury. It’s fitting, too, that he should take his first international win at this particular event. After all, he’s named for Swallowhead Spring, the enigmatic sacred crook in the river Kennet, tucked away in the nearby village of Avebury. The area is renowned for its ancient links to Anglo-Saxon paganism, scattered with neolithic standing stones and – serendipitously – marked with thirteen colossal white horses, each carved into the chalky hills to undertake a centuries-long watch over Wiltshire. But for all this – and despite the eleven-year-old Irish Sport Horse’s undeniable talent and tenacity – Andrew has been reticent about making any comparisons to his own white horse of Wiltshire.
“Well, he’s the right colour,” he’d say with a wry smile, if pushed on the matter. But then Swallow Springs – runner up at Bramham, third at Burghley, and fifth at Badminton, all before his eleventh birthday – won Barbury.
“He felt like Avebury and Nereo and those sorts out there,” says Andrew. “He’s got a stack of speed. He’s clever, and he can work it against you – but he’s a pleasure to ride.”
Owned by Paul and Diana Ridgeon, ‘Chill’ first came to Andrew’s yard after flunking out of his previous residence for bad behaviour. When the young horse stepped off the lorry, he did so without a name – and so it was Andrew who chose his arguably prophetic moniker. After the rider’s accident and neck injury in 2015, he decided to downsize his herd, keeping only those horses he felt were truly special. Chill, now a ‘pussycat’ at home, stayed.
“He’s always been a very good horse, and he’s been very consistent at winning prizes,” Andrew says. Known for being able to get the best out of a complicated horse, he’s proven the ideal partner for the reformed troublemaker – but he still has his quirks. “He’s a horse who looks about a lot – he’s not spooky, he just likes to to look. You can be coming to quite difficult fences, like [the water in] the arena here, and his mind’s at the bar or off getting an ice cream. But he’s now learned to jump the jump when he gets there. I trust him a little bit more now, whereas before I protected him a bit too much, which encouraged him to look. Now I just pressure him a bit more.”
A score of 29.4 put Andrew and Chill in equal sixth place out of 83 competitors, and in delivering one of just thirteen clear showjumping rounds in the atmospheric main arena, they found themselves in second place heading into cross-country. Ultimately, it would all come down to time faults: the tough cross-country track, which twists and winds its way up, down, and across the expansive ‘bowl’ of the Barbury estate, brought home just 47 finishers from 70 starters, and although 33 of those would produce clear rounds, no one managed to make the optimum time of 6:34.
Andrew romped home with 4.4 time penalties, allowing him to sneak ahead of two-phase leaders Mollie Summerland and Charly van ter Heiden, who added a rail to their impressive dressage score of 23.8 and clocked up 7.2 time penalties across the country.
Their performance closes the book on a freak incident at Bramham, which saw Mollie retire on course after her saddle slipped in the middle of her CCI4*-L round.
“After that wobble, to just get round and keep my saddle on was a relief, really,” says 21-year-old Mollie, who produced the ten-year-old gelding herself and has made an indelible impression in her leap from the Young Rider rankings to senior competition. “For him to bounce back so quickly shows what a genuine, honest horse he is. He didn’t hold it against me that it happened, and he was really confident out there and gave me a great feel.”
Mollie made the most of the twisting track to set herself and her horse up for their sophomore CCI4*-L at Camphire, Ireland at the end of July.
“It was great to have so many good water schools out there,” she said of the track, which features three water combinations, each testing a different range of skills. One of the most influential questions on course turned out to be the iconic Devoucoux Woodhenge combination, comprised of three upright elements on an S-bend through the standing ‘stones’. With their view blocked by one of these unjumpable elements, many horses failed to make the turn to the C element, clocking up an expensive 20 penalties along the way. Mollie, however, had a plan of attack, which helped her produce one of the best rides of the day through the question.
“I jumped it on five and four [strides] there, when it walks on four and three – but I didn’t want to be silly and go flat-out,” she explains. “They’re upright enough, and my main focus – position aside – was to make sure that he was confident here. I didn’t want to take a chance there; I didn’t feel like he deserved that. I wanted to take a couple more seconds and play it safe – all that’s important to me is that I’ve come home with a sound horse. He’s got his confidence back, which we both needed, actually.”
For Mollie, whose inexorable rise into the spotlight has been something of a whirlwind lesson in pressure management, Barbury has been a crucial lesson in the enormous influence of tiny margins. But watching the talented up-and-comer in the irons, it’s hard to imagine that she’ll remain the bridesmaid for long.
“If I’d been on my way here and someone had said to me ‘you’re going to finish second’, I’d have told them to stop being silly,” laughs Mollie. “Obviously my initial reaction is to feel a bit gutted, but I’m keeping it in perspective – he’s been phenomenal all week, and I’m so happy with him.”
As she builds her fledgling business, too, Mollie is teaming up with new sponsors, supporters and, she hopes, new owners. One sponsor in particular has made an enormous impact in rebuilding her confidence after Bramham: “I’ve just signed with CWD, and they’ve been so supportive – I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go out and buy shedloads of tack, like I needed to, so to have their support and be able to come in here in all new tack and feel so secure has been amazing. I’m very grateful to them.”
Alex Bragg enjoyed rather a successful day in the office, finishing in the top ten with both Hester (third) and King of the Mill (seventh). Even more impressively, both horses are young and inexperienced: the former Jonelle Price ride Hester is just an eight-year-old, and this is her second competition at this level and second international with Alex in the irons. While King of the Mill has been part of the Team Bragg string longer, the nine-year-old contested just his fifth international competition here.
Third-placed Hester produced a first-phase score of 29.4, an enormous improvement on her performance at Tattersalls CCI4*-S, which saw tension win out and resulted in a 41, though an FOD meant that she still finished fifth overall. Here, she didn’t quite manage a second FOD, but a single rail and 10 time penalties allowed her to climb to third place. The rangy King of the Mill, who measures a formidable 17.2hh and possesses a naturally feline, ground-covering gallop, put a 30.5 on the board, adding two rails in the second phase and just 8.4 time penalties in the cross-country to finish seventh.
“Hester was the first in the dressage arena, which is always a tough spot to be,” says Alex. “She’s had a history of being a little bit fiery in there, but she was really on side and really working with me. It’s a test I was really pleased with, and a test that I can build from to get even better in the future. She’s a funny mare, but I’ve got three daughters and I’m married, so I live in a house full of women – and I think that gives me an advantage in working with her. It’s all a negotiation – I need to find the angle to get the best results from. I’ve been learning how much pressure I can put on, and how to apply it, and when I need to withdraw it and get the compromise. She’s a very sensitive mare, and when she feels like she’s pleasing you, she’s very happy. I’ve realised that I need to put those challenges together bit by bit, because she’s putting 120% in and if it gets a bit stuck, or it’s not quite right, she can get frustrated. I’ve realised with her that she’s so talented that I don’t need to ask for everything. It would be so easy to get greedy and ride her like she’s eleven or twelve, but she’s not, and so I won’t ride her for the best all the time. I want to make it breezy and easy, like it’s a training ride in the main arena. Her talent then gets her the score.”
Alex was full of praise for the two jumping phases at the event, both of which, he explained, allowed him to ride his horses with their education in mind.
“The showjumping in the main arena here always has a real buzz about it – you’ll see more experienced horses go around happily, but for a young horse, it’s a lot to take in. But both these horses will go into another international arena now and be so much better for it,” he says. “I though the cross-country was great, too – many of the fences were as wide as they were tall, which is something you don’t see a lot of on national-level tracks, and it’s something we need to be able to run our horses over. I knew I was never going to kick for the time here, but to still feature in the top ten with them both, knowing they weren’t bottomed out, is really exciting.”
The influence of the cross-country course allowed Zara Tindall to climb into the top ten with Watkins, finishing fourth after knocking a rail but producing the fastest cross-country time of the day to add just two further penalties to their 39.5 dressage. Pippa Funnell and MGH Grafton Street rounded out the top five, adding a rail and 14 time penalties but giving a showcase of the tricky gelding’s undeniable jumping ability.
“I’m really pleased with him – it’s annoying to have the one rail, but I never came here to run him very fast. To me, it was all about just giving him a good round. He can be a bit difficult in his balance on cross-country, and can run on his head a bit going down the hills, so as much as anything, it was about working on his rideability,” says Pippa, who is considering a Burghley run with Jonathan and Jane Clarke’s gelding.
That’s all for us from another sun-soaked iteration of beautiful Barbury – next, we’ll be heading to Aachen, where a formidable US team will take on the rest of the world in the German showcase’s hotly-contested battle of the nations.
Until then, Go Eventing!