William Micklem: Pau 4* — It Takes a Village, Part 1, The Calm Before the Storm

William Micklem shares reflections and observations from attending the Pau CCI4* in this three part series. Look for Part 2 tomorrow!

Andrew Nicholson and Qwanza pick the right moment for a PB. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

1) It takes a team ….

It takes a team to realise the dream, and it’s not just the grooms that are indispensable. Most of the riders and horses made long journeys to Pau, including a 17-hour drive across France for the British and Irish that didn’t go to Lion D’Angers. So assistant drivers are needed, and a hardy and resourceful support group capable of making do and making meals, making up games for the pack of attached children and making the most of this end of season French equestrian celebration. In the case of Jonelle and Tim Price a team of babysitters was also required for their 10-week old baby Amos.

There can’t be many sports that provide such vital roles for husbands, wives, parents, grandparents, friends and lovers! Most are resident in the lorry park, placed around the huge schooling arena and bounded by a perfect raised grass viewing platform. It’s a vibrant village of coloured gazebos, national flags, barbeques and bottles of wine. It’s a joy.

2) It takes all types ….

I should have had a camera. Two elite riders at the first trot up side by side. Mark Todd, 6ft 3ins, and Britain’s European team gold medallist Ros Canter, 5ft 3ins. Eventing is truly a sport for all and it is something to be proud of all. It is also a sport for all sizes and sorts of horses but there is a noticeable change at the 4* level to horses with more quality.

Ros rode Allstar B in the European Champs, a 17-hand giant, but here in Pau she was riding the 16-hand Zenshera and still making him look big. Also 16 hands and catching the eye were two Australian horses, Hunter Valley bred and ridden by Sammi Birch, and the half Connemara Feldale Mouse with Isabel English. The very talented Sammi was reserve for Australia in the Rio Olympics and both riders now have WEG next year and then the Tokyo Olympics in their sights. Twenty-two-year-old Isabel will base her herself with Michael Jung for the next two years, so big progress is expected especially as Michael thinks Feldale Mouse is “super special.”

Then coming in at 15.3 was the exquisitely beautiful grey mare Faerie Dianimo, Jonelle Price’s Rio Olympics ride, who was also 4th at Pau in 2014 and 2nd at Luhmühlen the following year. They are aiming for the New Zealand team in Tryon next year and must have a very good chance. Certainly they will be one of the most photographed combinations. In contrast Alexander Bragg had brought his towering 17.2 Dutch bred Zagreb, who was 5th at Pau last year, and French hero Astier Nicholas had the 17.1 Molakai.

3) It takes patience ….

Ros Canter was 5th and best of the British on Allstar B at Badminton this year. British team trainer Chris Bartle has given her the confidence to relax and be more patient in her training and her results this year are stunning. Having finished 2nd in the dressage here at Pau she made a telling remark at the press conference that emphasised the long term training focus and patience needed by these elite riders. “He has been capable of this test for four years but this is the first time he has delivered in the arena.”

Anyone looking up the records of the horses at Pau would find the same story of long term steady progress with some short term periods of setbacks and stepbacks. Most of the horses are between 12 and 14 years old and have done approximately 50 to 60 competitions over six or seven years before arriving at their first 4*.

4) It takes courage ….

To outsiders it is the cross country that requires the most courage, but numerous riders will tell you that it is the dressage and show jumping that produce the most stress and pressure. Knowing that you are under the microscope of both judges and audience for every second, with every little mistake being spotted, creates a vicious circle that sees courage shrink and tension and mistakes increase.

What riders have to do is to focus on how wonderful it is to have the opportunity to enter the arena and keep it simple, concentrating on the precise direction, speed and flow of the test or round. In this situation less is usually more.

So many riders come out saying that they wish that they had a second chance because they only relaxed after the final salute or final fence. A technique that can help greatly here is visualization. Clearly visualizing your performance in advance has been proved to get brain and body in sync, give the right rehearsal, and put you in the competition bubble that has no room for judges and spectators. It is a technique that needs to be practised but it is worth it.

Andrew Nicholson even uses it for the cross country. “The last few minutes, I run through the course in my head. Some people might think I’m a little crazy because I’m pointing and prodding the air with my finger, counting out the jumps, talking through their approaches, and how I’m going to tackle them, counting strides. The starter is telling you — you have one minute — and people might be watching thinking you’re doing something weird, but in my mind I’m just quickly going through tactics, visualising.”

It is also worth remembering that you cannot do better than a new PB. Working in the same warm up arena as a few Olympians often leads riders astray as they seek the impossible. There is no point suddenly trying to be Michael Jung in three days when your starting point is 20% behind! However, aiming to emulate Michael in the long term and using him as a role model is a great idea and the right long-term strategy.

5) It takes you by surprise ….

The first course walk is always the most important because it is the closest a rider gets to seeing the course through the horse’s eyes. As we approached fence 11, a rolltop on the top of a hill, we did not suspect that just three strides away to the right was an angled rail over a big ditch, like the design of the Vicarage Vee at Badminton, followed four or five stride later on a turn to the left by another angled rail over a ditch.

The same surprise element was there for the first water and the three angled and very wide cottages at 29. However, riders have to remember that their horses don’t ever walk the course, so they get used to being surprised all the time and they get used to trusting their rider and responding to new situations, sometimes with only seconds to work things out. This is an important difference to understand. We may not like surprises but event horses get totally used to surprises and being able to cope.

6) It takes scope ….

Fence 10 on the cross country course was a maximum height and width brush oxer, 1.45m (4ft 9ins) high with a spread of 2.00m (6ft 6ins). (The maximum height for a solid oxer is 1.20m but with brush you are allowed an additional 25cm). To put this in context, in a 5* Nations Cup show jumping competition the oxers would be at a maximum of 1.50m, just 5cm bigger, with the same maximum spread of 2.00m.

Of course it jumped very easily, but this was also a reflection of the ability of the modern event horse and the good ground. In particular if the ground conditions deteriorate the difficulty of fences can significantly increase, as at WEG in France in 2014 and to a lesser extent at the European Championships at Blair the following year. It is an area that needs further discussion within the sport’s stakeholders.

7) It takes an open mind ….

It does not pay to jump to conclusions when cross country course walking. Course walking requires an open mind because searching for options is important. Yes the route to the first fence in a combination may be obvious, but would the second and third parts be easier if we took a different line and made the first fence more difficult? What if we ran out here, how do we proceed with the minimum of wasted time and effort? What if my horse gets tired? How do the fences relate to each other? Do we need to jump an early fence in a particular way because of the demands of a different fence later on in the course?

In addition timing is usually an issue so we need to know how the fences are distributed through each section of the course. For example if there are eight jumping efforts and a water combination in the last minute and a half we need the last three minute markers to be further on round the track. And always the questions, is there a different way and is there a better way?’

8) It takes saying ‘why not?’ ….

The vast majority of competitors at 4* level are full time professional riders. They have strings of horses, usually at least two or three at 4* level, and riding and competing is their life. The days of the amateur with one horse are gone … unless you have one good horse and you are prepared to say ‘why not?’

Aidan Keogh, CEO of Tredstep Ireland, was entering his third 4* at Pau on his 15-year-old Traditional Irish horse Master Tredstep. He has never been easy in the dressage, but they have formed a great partnership over 11 years of competition together. In particular Aidan has been confident enough in his strengths to aim high, while simultaneously being humble enough to keep training and working at his weaknesses. All the time finding creative ways to do this knowing it can only be a part-time activity. Many more could achieve extraordinary things with this attitude.

Chris Collins, the British eventing team member in the ’70s and owner of the Goya perfume business, used to say that it took any two out of three things to be a success at the highest level in eventing … hard work, great talent and pots of money. He suggested he had the hard work and pots of money elements and this allowed him to be a success.

However, standards have risen so significantly that this theory is now probably untrue. The current primary drivers of elite success in eventing, as in most sports, are hard work and talent. Aidan shows that this is true and encourages other talented riders to persevere and make use of the fact that in horse riding success is possible even in your fifties and sixties.

9) It takes a match between two of the true greats of the sport ….

Two of the greatest examples of the longevity that is possible in equestrian sport, New Zealanders Andrew Nicholson, now 56, and Mark Todd, now 61, were both at Pau with two horses each. There was an added reason for their participation – the world ratings.

Going into Pau Michael Jung was leading the world ratings. His late decision to compete at Pau with his wonderful partner La Biosthetique Sam was undoubtedly due to his wish to protect this lead from Andree and Mark who were snapping at his heels. Then his withdrawal before the dressage opened the door to two of the best event riders of all time going head to head, with the real possibility that one could become World No 1.

Both men have backstories that have already interested film producers. Andrew’s fall and near paralysis two years ago, before clawing his way back to fitness and winning Badminton this year, and Mark’s retirement and return to high-level competition, are both the stuff of legend. For either to be the new World No 1 was a major story and major bonus for the Pau organisers. They are two of the best riders our sport has ever seen in a match against each other with high stakes – what more could anyone want?

Sadly as things stand Andrew Nicholson will not be seen at WEG next year or the Tokyo Olympics. The continuing standoff between the New Zealand authorities and Andrew harms not only the New Zealand team but also the sport, as championships need all the major players for credibility and marketing. As one senior FEI official said to me, “the New Zealand high performance people are small minded, selfish and short sighted. They have lost sight of their priorities and we all lose out as a result.”

10) It takes your breath away ….

Sometimes it is a whole dressage test that takes your breath away, like Charlotte Dujardin in a freestyle with Valegro, or sometimes it is just a brief moment of brilliance. On the Wednesday morning Andrew Nicholson was riding in the large warm up area on his little mare Qwanza, the three-quarter sister of Rolex winner Quimbo. Nothing spectacular in walk but then a little nudge and they were in canter. A glorious canter, with such a beautiful balance and period of suspension. So light on his feet, so soft, so easy … it takes your breath away.

Next Time: Pau 4* Part 2 – Triumph and Tragedy

Read more: Part 1 “The Calm Before the Storm,” Part 2 “Triumph and Tragedy,” Part 3A “Love and Luck.”