Volcanoes, Unpredictable Distances, and One Heck of a Slide: Catch Up with Pratoni Course Designer Giuseppe della Chiesa

Being able to balance the gallop, and moderate energy use, down hills is crucial for an economic round at Pratoni. Emiliano Portale heads down to fence 8 with Aracne della’Esercita Italiano. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

We’re just a week away from cross-country eve at the 2022 FEI World Championships for Eventing at Italy’s Pratoni del Vivaro, and we know we’re not alone in wondering what on earth might be in store for the 90 competitors making the trip out there. Following a successful trip to Rome in May for the World Championships test event, we caught up with course designer and show director Giuseppe della Chiesa to find out more about his grand plans — and what he hopes to see next week.

The test event, which also served as the opening leg of the 2022 Nations Cup series, allowed Guiseppe to experiment with the lay of the land and many of the routes he planned to use for next week’s event — and, fortunately for him, it all turned out rather as he’d thought it might.

“It all went, I think, a bit as expected — there wasn’t anything that shocked me completely,” says Giuseppe. “Sometimes it does — but this time, it was quite expected, and I was very happy.”

Many of the difficulties came at the first combination at 7ABC, a double of brushes under the trees at the top of the first hill on course, which didn’t quite surprise Giuseppe — nor has it changed his plans for the ‘real deal’ next week.

“There are two things [that happened there]: first of all, light,” he says. “Light is an element of cross-country. And you must appreciate, there were two routes there that were very clear, but one was definitely more difficult than the other in many aspects, one of which was light. The other one was all in the sunshine, so there’s no shadows. I think with the direct route, some riders were a bit quick to it and didn’t give their horses enough time to adjust. The other thing, of course, is that we need to put a combination in early, because these horses are so good that later on in the course, you’ll see them find similar combinations a lot easier.”

The one thing that did surprise Giuseppe was riders’ commitment to the direct route at the first combination, even after it had proved difficult for several top riders. Giuseppe, who made a commitment to building flowing long routes for both his test event and for next week’s Championship track, had expected to see more riders — particularly those on greener horses, or who are inexperienced themselves — opting to go long there.

“It was a bit longer, but it wasn’t that long — but then they kept going straight, so I just said, ‘okay, fine!’ They didn’t change their plan,” he muses.

Spain’s Eduardo via Dufresne and Maribera Pomes 15.6 cross the country late on course at Pratoni. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though Giuseppe has some of the best hills in the sport at his disposal for next week’s World Championships, he’s firm in his conviction that a truly horse-friendly course must relinquish its terrain element in the final couple of minutes, instead relying on technical questions to keep competitors busy. This, he hopes, will mean that penalties accrued by tired horses will be harmless ones — run-outs at angled brushes, for example — rather than dangerous ones, such as falls at wide tables.

“This venue is a fantastic venue, but you must use it with care because — and this will be very similar at the Championship — you must never finish on a hill,” he says. “A tired horse on a hill will not finish; he just stops. He says, ‘I’ve had enough’. But a tired horse on flat ground, if the rider has a bit of a brain, has the chance of a softer route to bring him home. I didn’t use that so much in the short-format competition, but in the long-format, I will. I’ve always been a big believe that you must do hills early on and finish flat.”

By placing technical combinations in the final two minutes, too, he hopes to minimise the chances of a blind gallop to the finish, which can drain a hard-working horse’s final supply of energy and potentially lead to accidents.

“I want to give them a chance to come home, and I’m quite happy with that, because when you finish on the flat there’s a real risk that the riders will just look at the clock and run. So I have this idea of always trying to keep them a bit busy — in a soft way, but busy on the flat. I think it worked quite well [at the test event], because to the last minute, they needed to have something left. I wanted to challenge the riders without punishing the horses, and I think it worked.”

May’s test event was run as a CCI4*-S, while next week’s competition will be run at ‘Championship level’, which is effectively sandwiched in the middle of CCI4*-L and CCI5*-L technicality and dimensions but over a modified ten-minute track of between 5600-5800m and 38-42 jumping efforts. That’s shorter than we generally see at CCI4*-L (and certainly shorter than CCI5* — Badminton this spring, for example, was an 11:45 track!), but just a couple of efforts less than the roughly 45 we’d expect to see at the top level, which means that there’s a higher number of jumps per 100m and, as such, a much higher level of intensity. The jumps will come up thick and fast, incorporating the terrain as they go — and in order to add in the extra time and distance, Giuseppe has earmarked two crucial pieces of land to add on to his test event course.

The first will come very near the start of the course, and is an iconic feature in the Pratoni landscape: the Pratoni slide is a steep decline with a plateau splitting it in two, which means that shortly after they start, competitors will have an extra hill to climb en route to the top of it, and then a challenging accuracy question as they come back down on fresh horses. The Pratoni slide has been used in every major competition in recent years, and tends to be influential — as you can see in this footage from the 2007 European Championships, which Giuseppe also designed:

“There was never any doubt in my mind that I would use the Pratoni slide,” says Giuseppe with a smile. “The idea is that you start off more or less in the same way [as at the test event]: you go up the hill, you do some things up there, and then you come down the slide and join more or less the same track. Then you do the other big hill, and then you come back down and play a bit on the flat.”

It’s once the competitors reach the lowest part of the course again that they’ll meet their second new addition to the course, a flat loop of land that stretches out back behind the existing water complex and wasn’t touched during May’s test event.

In several places on the course this May, Giuseppe was able to play with shorter, sharper bits of terrain in a way that was appropriate for the CCI4*-S level: there was a coffin on undulating ground, with generous variable distances, and a steep downhill approach to the second water, with an uphill stride or two out of it. These questions, and the manner in which he asks them, will be present on next week’s course — but in order to make the challenge more appropriate for this higher level, he plans to shorten some of the distances, which will remove much of the margin for error if competitors opt for the direct route.

“Coffins like that are seen as quite an old-fashioned eventing question,” he says. “There’s a lot of discussion about this, because some people say they land on the camber and all this — but the problem is actually that a lot of horses here aren’t accustomed to real cross-country. Some of them don’t know how to pat the ground, so they just throw themselves over, but there are some that do a better job of it. For me, a little bit of that should be on cross-country.”

Also crucial to cross-country, Giuseppe says, is cultivating the ability to ride adaptively — and so his distances in combinations such as these can be interpreted a variety of ways, accounting for the fact that some horses might land downhill and bound down to the next question in one stride, while others might put in several tentative shuffling steps.

“I like to have some unpredictability in the course so you learn to ride by the seat of your pants. It’s something we used to do a lot, but sometimes riders have lost it a bit, because they can be a bit stride obsessed. But a horse’s stride can be a meter; it can be several meters. You see different patterns through the day, and that can confuse the riders a bit. There’s so much to play with here that you must be careful not to go too far, but for sure, coming out of the coffin becomes more difficult if you change the stride from a three-to-four distance to a two-to-three.”

For Giuseppe, taking those quiet risks with distances is a safe enough gamble, because he doesn’t just know horses — he also knows these hills as well as he knows himself after a long history among them.

“I have a long history with Pratoni, because I began by riding here,” recalls Giuseppe. “I’ve always lived in Rome, and I started in racing before I moved to eventing. As an eventer living in Rome, Pratoni is your home. You’re training here, you’re competing here — and this famous slide is so interesting, because we always did it with young horses. Our five-year-olds were going down it, walking to start with, and then trotting down, and then you’d add in a little log, and then you jump down and the horses know how to do it. For the horses who’ve never seen it, though, it can be a lot.”

“I first competed here when I was in my twenties — so I know the hills well,” he laughs. His career as a designer here has been similarly long and fruitful.

“The Europeans in 2007 was a major Championship, but I did design here before and after that, including Nations Cups and national competitions,” he says. He received particular support — and insight — from the late Albino Garbari, who designed courses for the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the 1995 European Championships and 1998 World Equestrian Games in Pratoni, and was the first director of the Federal Equestrian Centre here.

“He has been a teacher of mine; I did a lot with him, and he really knew these hills well,” Giuseppe says.

While the hills are a real playground for a course designer to enjoy, Pratoni’s most unique feature is arguably its ground, which is made of a mix of volcanic ash and sand and won’t, on a molecular level, clump into mud, regardless of the conditions.

“There is no other place in the world like this. It’s volcanic sand, and you can see that the dust is unique — there’s a special tan that you get at Pratoni,” he laughs, pointing to our — sadly, temporarily — bronzed ankles. “But this powdery sand is incredible for the horses, because whether it’s dry or wet, it’s always the same. The horses love it; they run well on it and they don’t slip, and it’s forgiving. It allows you to do things other places couldn’t do — you couldn’t have the slide anywhere else, because if it rained, they would be really sliding!”

Sweden’s Aminda Ingulfsson and Joystick power through the final water question with its small, intense slope. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Giuseppe has incorporated elements that date back to the 1960 Olympics, including a capacious open ditch that featured in the test event, but interspersed them with modern portable fences, equipped with safety features and demanding considerably more technicality than the courses of old. And, just as his course will mark a meeting of new and old eventing, the type of horse he expects to see excel is a modern competitor with some of the best elements of its forefathers handed down — namely, those ineffable Thoroughbred qualities.

“Clearly, Pratoni is not flat, so you need a horse that has enough blood and ability to gallop without getting too tired. You need the type of horse that, when he gets tired, he doesn’t give up. All horses get tired, but there are horses that get tired and give up, and there are horses that keep pushing and digging. You need that horse, because there will be hills, and it can be hot, and you want to make the time in order to move up.”

Much of the experience and knowledge that Giuseppe brings to his World Championships track comes from the results of a challenging 2007 European Championships effort.

“I was a younger designer then, and it was a bit hot,” he remembers. “There were lots of experts that said, ‘oh, this is too easy, it’s not a championship’ — and then they all went out on Saturday and were like, ‘oh!’ There’s a bit of a hidden difficulty here that you don’t find until you’re out there on your horse, moving up and down. You could count 33 jumping efforts while you’re walking, but there are many more efforts hidden in the ground.”

Sophie Leube and Jadore Moi demonstrate one of the many stride patterns available into the second water. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

As show director for the FEI World Championships for Eventing, Giuseppe was also at the heart of the decision to put the final phase on grass, recruiting legendary pure showjumping designer Uliano Vezzani, himself a major advocate for jumping on grass, to make his eventing designing debut. This decision came down to two factors: using the undulating grass arena adds a level of difficulty to the final phase, and it also commemorates Pratoni’s beginnings as an Olympic venue.

“This venue is an iconic venue for the fact that it was from the 1960 Olympics and it’s still doing the same job,” he says. “There are very few Olympic equestrian venues that are still used for the purpose for which they were made. And that arena is the arena they jumped in at the Olympics. The ground is good, the footing is good, and so we thought — it’s not perfect, but who cares? It’s nice, so why not? At the end of the day, horses are born on grass, they live on grass, and the more we can keep them on grass, the better it is.”

Here, here, Giuseppe. We look forward to seeing the final track in action.

Want more Pratoni news? Head over to our Ultimate Guide to FEI World Championships for Eventing, and be sure to sign up for the #Pratoni2022 Daily Digest email, which will begin delivering to your inbox daily on Tuesday, September 13.