VHC Eventing: An Inside Look at Rider Preparations

The Virginia Horse Center Horse Trials, presented by Capital Square, is gearing up for its annual May Horse Trials (May 23-26 – Lexington, VA). This year’s roster features top eventers representing multiple federations around the world.

Among this weekend’s participants are Brazilian Olympian André Parro, experienced groom-turned-rider Rachael Livermore, and CCI3* level eventer Michael Willham, each of whom bring unique insights and aspirations to the competition.

Olympian André Parro’s Strategic Approach

André Parro and Carin L. Photo by Xpress Foto.

Brazilian Olympic rider André Parro’s move to the U.S. from the UK and his new base in Aiken have allowed him to focus on long-term goals, including the LA Olympics. While he wasn’t able to qualify for the Paris Olympics this summer, his hopes are pinned onto his string of up-and-coming horses as he prepares them for the top levels of the sport. He’s entered this weekend with three horses: Carin L, Watusi, and Monbeg Downton in the CCI3*-S division.

“I did have a little hope for Paris, but I know I was late in the process,” Parro said. “I do have two horses that are four-star horses that I was expecting to qualify for Paris. But on the other hand, my main goal coming to the U.S. was thinking of the LA Olympics. So Paris did come up, but I knew it was not going to be easy, especially because one horse is a very new ride for me and we’re still getting to know each other.”

“Virginia is very special because of the terrain, the hills and everything,” Parro continued, speaking to why he had selected this event as the next stop for his horses. He appreciates the challenging cross-country courses at the Virginia Horse Center, which help in preparing his horses for higher levels of competition. “I think they do a very good job on the cross country; the ground is always good and the facilities are really nice for the horses. When you do a 3* on that kind of terrain, they just grow so much and you do have that feeling if they’re going to go 4* or not. It’s not just about the fences. It’s fences and going uphill and going downhill.”

Parro plans to use this event to set his horses up for competing next at the CCI4*-S level, and is also potentially eyeing the USEF National CCI3*-L Championship at the MARS Maryland 5 Star at the end of the season.

A Special Debut for Rachael Livermore

Rachael Livermore and Cooley On Show. Photo courtesy of Rachael Livermore.

Rachael Livermore, who groomed for CCI5* rider and Pan American Games medalist Sharon White for over decade, is making a special debut this weekend, while also balancing a new career in real estate. She brings two horses to the trials: Abigail Akre’s Accuraat Z and Sharon White’s former CCI5* horse, Cooley On Show. This weekend marks her first competition with the 17-year-old Irish Sport Horse Cooley On Show, whom she cared for throughout his entire career with White.

Livermore’s connection with Cooley On Show adds a sentimental touch to her participation. “I literally started crying,” she recalls when discussing how the opportunity to ride Cooley On Show came up. “Louie” had recently stepped down from competing at the upper levels and now resides with Rachael on lease from White. “We had always sort of joked about it here and there, like one day maybe I would take him out. Sharon called me and we discussed it, and I knew it would be a lot different taking over all the daily riding, but I also know him so well from spending so much time with him. I was there the day he arrived at Sharon’s barn, so it’s safe to say we have a special relationship. I’m just so appreciative to Sharon for teaching me all she did and for thinking of me when it was time to find Louie a new job.”

Rachael Livermore and Accuraat Z. Photo courtesy of Rachael Livermore.

In addition to competing Cooley On Show in the Training division, Livermore is also riding a younger horse, Accuraat Z, for owner Abigail Akre. “”The event at VHC is one of the only ones Abigail can make it to watch, so we try to make sure that he gets out there,” Livemore shared.
She values the Virginia Horse Center’s facilities and the sense of community it fosters. “I’ve always appreciated the venue…permanent stabling and real bathrooms are a really big value to me, especially spending so many years as a groom!” she noted.

Michael Willham’s Journey to VHC

Michael Willham with Extra Point and Fernhill Cayenne. Photo courtesy of Michael Willham.

Michael Willham, a CCI3* eventer based in Ohio, has been competing with his long-time partner, Fernhill Cayenne, for nearly a decade. “He’s the horse that brought me up the levels, I was a novice rider when I got him,” Willham shared.

This season marks a shift in their journey as Michael has decided to step down and focus on competing at the Preliminary level. He noted that the increased speed as he moved up the levels presented a challenge for both him and “Cay”. To increase his competitive experience, he opted to compete at Preliminary to practice the speed while not having the increased technicality of the Intermediate and CCI3*-level questions. “At least so far this year, I’m thinking this will probably be his last season at the upper levels,” Willham shared. “I considered running him Intermediate for the additional challenge of technicality, or doing Prelim where I could challenge us both on speed. He got frazzled a few years ago trying to go for time, and basically these past few years I’ve been running him for the experience of it. I thought let’s bump down to Prelim and let’s go for some time, and he seemed to enjoy that more.”

Willham is also excited about his new horse, Extra Point, a six-year-old he brought over from Ireland last winter. “I liked his movement and how he went. I liked his brain watching him go,” he says, telling the tale of a whirlwind trip to Ireland, and how this horse was the last one he tried before heading back to the airport. Turns out, this would be the horse he would bring home. Extra Point’s development is a priority, and Michael is taking a careful approach to their training and competition schedule.

Returning to the Virginia Horse Center after a couple of years away, Willham is looking forward to experiencing the updated facilities and courses. As a rider based outside of what are considered “hubs” for the sport, it’s a requirement that he spends time planning his schedule and travel intentionally.

“It will be fun to be back there and to see the courses,” he says. “The terrain and infrastructure make the Virginia Horse Center a standout venue for me, and it’s a very easy drive that’s almost all highway from my home. That makes a huge difference, and makes the fact that it takes several hours more than my local events very appealing.”

Promoting Horsemanship and Fitness

All riders emphasized their own focus on horsemanship and proper training as they get ready for this weekend’s competition. “For me, I would always choose horsemanship over competitive success,” Rachael Livemore states, reflecting on lessons learned from Sharon White. André Parro adds, “There is a balance that I think is very important to keep [the horses] as sound as possible.” It’s clear that competing at Virginia Horse Center ticks these boxes, presenting a challenge for the horses that also sets them up well for their respective season goals.

As the Virginia Horse Center Horse Trials approach, riders like André Parro, Rachael Livermore, and Michael Willham and the hundreds of others joining them this weekend exemplify the dedication and passion that drive the sport of eventing. Stay tuned for more insights from other participants as they prepare for this highly anticipated event.

This article was created in partnership with VHC Eventing and its stable of sponsors. For more information about VHC Eventing, click here.

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