Ariel Grald had a very eventful and memorable past year, as she and her horse Leamore Master Plan — known to his friends as Simon — have traveled the world competing at Badminton, the Maryland 5* at Fair Hill, and, of course, the World Championships at Pratoni, among other big events.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ariel’s favorite event of the last year was the World Championships at Pratoni: “Having the opportunity to represent the US at the World Championships was just amazing,” she says. “Obviously, I’m very proud of Simon and our individual performance. We finished on his dressage score and it was just fantastic.”
What impressed Ariel the most, however, wasn’t her individual performance – it was the team spirit and camaraderie. “More importantly, it was such a positive experience for the whole US team,” she explains. “Every rider did really well and all the horses were amazing. Every support person that was there, from grooms and owners and friends to USEF staff and coaches – it just was such a motivating and uplifting experience. Everybody was very proud of the performance.”
As it isn’t often that equestrians get to ride in a team setting, I was curious how being responsible for part of the team score impacted Ariel’s mindset. Surprisingly, though, she tells me it didn’t. “That’s never going to be as much pressure as I put on myself,” she stresses. “My goal is always to perform to the best that I can, which is to get the best dressage score possible and finish on it.”
“Yes, being on that sort of World Championship stage, on some levels, it does add more pressure. I’ve been fortunate with Simon – I think that was our fifth trip overseas – so I’ve been able to practice that with him.”
Being in the right mindset and trusting her horse was key to her success, Ariel says. “I just went in with a mindset that I’ve practiced this before and I know how to do this routine. My horse is very experienced, I know him really well, so that was critical to my success with Simon — the fact that he had been overseas and we’ve had a successful outing several times before, I was able to really draw on that experience and put our performance together.”
One of the benefits of competing in a setting like Pratoni is learning from and watching the other riders — but going overseas to learn from international eventers is a big undertaking that only a few can afford. Ariel took full advantage of the opportunity Pratoni presented to watch and learn from riders from other countries.
“Being at Pratoni, I spent a lot of time watching — and I remember a moment that really sticks out was when the five British riders were all flatting and doing some cavaletti work. Watching the quality of the horses and the quality of their riding and just, everything was nailed down to a tee. Watching their execution and their skill level was really eye-opening. That’s what we were competing against.”
Ariel left Pratoni inspired and motivated — a feeling that has carried her through the months since. “I’ve been working hard this winter on improving, not only the horses’ training and skills, but my own riding and technical ability,” she says.
She wasn’t the only USA team member who left Pratoni inspired for the future. “I think more than the success of the team winning a silver medal, it was really sort of a spark for everyone, for the future,” she muses.
United States riders have been fighting to get to the top of the sport for a long time from our isolated spot across the Atlantic. The team’s success at Pratoni, Ariel explains, marks the turning of a new leaf for US eventing.
“I feel like [Pratoni] started to shift the tide a little bit,” she says, “and you start to build momentum where the US team goes overseas and everybody has successful outings and that gives you that much more positivity and motivation for the next [event]. You start to build that confidence over time that yes, the US can go into the medals. And we’ve always been capable of that, but you just sort of grind away at it. We’ve been missing the mark a little bit, but I think that the momentum going forward after Pratoni and the confidence that the riders are starting to have is that our athletes can succeed at championships.”
As for what the future holds for Ariel, she says a lot hinges on Carolina International, which is sponsored by her homebase, Setters’ Run Farm. “I’ve got some up-and-coming Advanced and four star horses so we’re hoping Simon can share the spotlight, and we’ve got some other younger horses coming from overseas as well. We’ll see, as we’re just kicking off the season — but Carolina will be a very important event to sort of see where they’re all at and springboard the horses towards the rest of spring season.”
Good luck at Carolina International, Ariel! Team EN will be there to cheer you on.