William Micklem: Pau 4*, Part 2 — Triumph and Tragedy

In this three-part series William Micklem shares reflections and observations from attending the 2017 Pau CCI4.* If you missed Part I, “The Calm Before the Storm,” read it here

Astier Nicolas and Molokai lead the Pau field after cross country. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

1) It takes disappointment ….

It all began to fall apart on cross country day for Andrew Nicholson and Mark Todd. First Andrew on Qwanza retired, having run past the arrowhead at the third part of the first water and getting confused at the first Vicarage Vee. Having placed 5th at Luhmuhlen last year and 12th at Badminton this year this was a big surprise.

Then Mark Todd went out on his 2012 Olympic Team bronze medallist NZB Campino. Having been 4th at Badminton this year and 5th at Luhmühlen in 2015 Mark was optimistic but like Andrew they refused at the first Vicarage Vee and Mark retired. On his second ride, the 17-hand Kiltubrid Rhapsody, he ran out early on at the first corner, and so was left uncompetitive. No reward for a huge effort but still a wonderful season for this icon of the eventing world. He is perpetually modest about his achievements but the eventing world should not be shy about putting him on a pedestal and benefitting from the reflected glory.

Andrew had a golden chance with his second ride, the 10-year-old Jet Set. Although in his first in his first 4* Andrew said in 2014 that he was his Rio horse and he arrived with a big reputation, having placed 2nd in the 6-year-old class at the Lion D’Angers Young Horses World Championships and then 6th in the 7-year-old class the following year. In addition he has had 30 top 10 finishes with Andrew! He also has great genes, being bred by Spanish international show jumper and eventer Luis Alverez Cevera, by his Grand Prix jumper Nordico out of a TB mare.

They flew round the course in normal Nicholson style and were up on the clock going into the final fifth of the track, but every fence has to be jumped and fence 25, a brush arrowhead with a drop, that no other horse faulted at, was Andrew’s Waterloo. Jet Set caught the back of it and Andrew was jettisoned and sent tumbling down the hill. He was on his feet immediately and running to catch Jet Set but his competition was at an end. Said Andrew, “Everything was normal on approach but he just didn’t stay in the air long enough!” But Andrew will feed off this disappointment and come back stronger as this is his nature, and nothing can take away from his extraordinary recovery from a career threatening fall and Nereo’s Badminton win this year.

2) It takes broad shoulders ….

Jonty Evans and Art (Cooley Rourkes Drift) have become world famous this year, with the wonderful crowd funding response that raise €500,000 to buy Art and keep him with Jonty. Since then nothing has gone quite right and Pau was the ideal competition to bring success and complete the fairy tale for the year. But the first water was the wicked wolf to many competitors and so it proved for Jonty with a run out at the second part, an arrowhead off a slight turn with four short strides.

Jonty retired, and then had to face up to reporting the bad news, not to just one or two owners but to the thousands of people from Ireland, Britain and North America who contributed to his purchase. But Jonty is both brave and honest and was quick to accept that things had gone wrong as he concentrated on the crowd funding rather than his preparation.

Jonty has broad shoulders and Art is a very good horse, so there is still hope and excitement. He will regroup and come back to remind us that keeping Art with Jonty was a project that shows us all in a very good light. The next page of the fairy tale has to be turned but we all still believe he will slay the dragon and marry the Princess!

3) It takes perseverance ….

I was first introduced to Sarah Bullimore when walking the cross country at Aldon Horse Trials in the UK in 2008. The next day I was watching as a horse ran away on the cross country, in the equivalent of the 1* class, before being circled several times to regain control. But instead of retiring the rider went back on the course and finished the track despite having to circle again before the finish. The rider was Sarah Bullimore! Earlier in the year she had introduced a 4-year-old to eventing called Reve Du Rouet.

In the intervening nine years she has ridden approximately 25 different horses in well over 500 competitions at all levels, and in the process she has gone from a rider on a runaway, looking for the right opportunity to progress her career, to an experienced and very competent rider at the highest level. Her perseverance has been extraordinary and cross country day at Pau was her eventing graduation and doctorate combined as she rode three superb clear rounds to finish in the top 10 on all three horses. It was a huge achievement and Reve Du Rouet finished the day in 3rd place.

Sarah has always described Reve Du Rouet as quirky and many riders would not have persevered with him. In 2014 he made a very promising 4* debut at Rolex, placing 13th, but in the following three and a half years and seven 4* starts he failed to live up to his promise. Last year he even found fame by bolting down the centre line at Badminton, and then getting so tense in the show jumping at Burghley that he hit seven fences. However, in Pau he looked the complete package and a huge credit to Sarah’s strength of mind.

4) It takes a good position ….

It is of great concern to me that many younger riders fail to keep a good balance and harmony when jumping. For both safety and efficient performance a good position is vital, and when riding across country its effects are magnified. There were several examples of weak positions at Pau, with riders sitting on the back of the saddle on the approach, then throwing the body and lying on the neck over the fence and being slow to recover on landing. You frequently see the same thing in Pony Club.

There are many great role models if riders and coaches want to study their subject. In eventing William Fox-Pitt’s immaculate balance and harmony can be seen in thousands of photographs and films and Leslie Law is another example of a rider and coach who is excellent in this area. Andrew Nicholson’s minimum movement and stickability should also be closely analysed.

I believe that his success and that of so many other New Zealand and Australian riders has much to do with their jumping balance and harmony. To watch him, or younger riders like Kevin McNabb, Tim Price, Jonelle Price and Dan Jocelyn come down to a fence is to see simplicity in action and horses that are unhindered.

What is also very clear is that there are elite show jumpers jumping much bigger fences and winning against the clock who have a better balance and harmony than many event riders. Riders such as Beezie Madden, Lauren Hough, Peder Fredricson, Kent Farrington, Harry Smolders, Eric Lamaze, Ben Maher and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum show what is possible on a daily basis.

5) It takes a willingness to change ….

The question is are riders and coaches prepared to change? Change is always difficult, particularly if something has been done for a long period of time and egos get in the way of accepting that a good idea has to give way to a better idea.

The Irish international event rider Captain Brian Cournane, who is now living in the USA and concentrating on show jumping, is a very good example of a rider who has been brave enough to make a change despite already riding at a high level. To anyone who has seen him ride recently the change and improvement in his riding is obvious and therefore his story is beneficial to others.

“I started training with George Morris in March of this year after having been introduced by our mutual friend Mark Todd. When I was in the army equitation school, the riding style was very upright, dramatic, and old fashioned European. Since riding with George he has really helped me ride in a more light and forward seat. He has an excellent system that has been tried and tested for a very long time in so many places and with so many different riders … the army was a great experience and afforded me a lot of opportunity, but I love the American style of riding and the system that he’s teaching me.”

The key point from Brian is that not only does he feel that he is a better rider as a result of working with George but it would also make him a better event rider. “The light forward seat makes it easier to be fast and it’s easier for the horse to jump out of that balance. Therefore George’s system would definitely help cross country as it’s very much about teaching the horse to balance itself and to watch where it’s going.”

6) It takes the right dressage training …

A depressing day for me a few years ago was seeing a promotional film for the Irish Army Equitation School. It had a section showing a group of horses all heading off into the Phoenix Park, all with draw reins and all with fixed head and neck positions. There is not a big jump from this to rollkur and our continuing ability to turn spectators and sponsors off equestrian sport because of the perception that we abuse horses. Of course in general we probably now treat horses better than ever before in eventing but the sins of the wider sport horse world diminish us all.

However, George Morris is a beacon of hope in this respect. As Brian Cournane says, “The flat work is all to do with getting the horse to engage its hind leg by doing transitions, shoulder in, half pass, travers, turn on the haunches. All very classical. The neck looks after itself then and the horse carries it where it suits his balance, usually just in front of the vertical. George always emphasises leg to hand … and never uses draw reins.”

Brian goes on to explain that “the goal of show jumping flatwork is to have the horse in self-carriage that’s able to turn and jump quickly and deal with changes of pace without losing its balance.” This sounds an excellent basis for good dressage as well, especially as for good cross-country work self-carriage has to be a golden key for efficiency and safety.

7) It takes tragedy and a sense of perspective ….

Do we need tragedy in the sport? No, but sometimes it takes tragedy to reassess what we are doing with horses and reassess our priorities. The tragic loss of Crackerjack, almost at the end of the cross country, was horrible and heart breaking. After a fast and fluent cross country Boyd should have been sitting in 5th place before the show jumping, but instead he faced a barrage of negative comment on social media and the loss of a horse that had become his teammate. Anyone who knows about horses will have seen the very close relationship these two had built up. It is simply not possible to do what they did together with such ease and class unless they had this closeness.

As I write this on Armistice Sunday it is worth remembering the over 70 million men and women, and approximately 11 million horses, that lost their lives in the two world wars. The days when they still charged barbed wire and machine guns on horseback in the First World War, and the dark days of the Second World War when horses were still the main carriers and pullers of munitions and supplies. This is when both humans and horses really suffered.

It was not surprising that the attitudes of this period leached into the early days of eventing, that of course was then called the Military and was just a sport for the military. Things have changed enormously, although as recently as the Jack Le Goff days many feel we asked horses too much. Jimmy Wofford, that most honest and reflective horseman days about this period, said, “I am sad that we had to abuse so many horses for so many years, before we started to improve our care of them. For this reason I have bittersweet memories of my competition days.”

However, the important point is that we have improved their care significantly and we have created a wonderful sport that gives happy lives to so many thousands of horses, and is both a life enhancing and healthy sport to millions of riders. This should not be forgotten as we grieve over a horse fatality.

8) It takes just one eye….

Tony Kennedy lay flat out on the sand like a huge heaving starfish. It was in the main arena just 30 seconds after finishing clear, with just 2.8 time penalties, in his first 4* cross country on Westeria Lane, the horse he started competing as a 4-year-old and had taken him three times on the Irish Young Rider team in the European Championships.

Was he injured? Exhausted? No, simply ecstatic, and putting all his brain power into savouring the moment and replaying his fantastic round. A satisfied smile stretched across his face as he praised his extraordinary partner. “He just gave and gave. Whatever I asked he just gave!”

What few would have known as they watched these Irish rookies make little of Pierre Michelet’s track is that Westeria Lane has only one eye, having lost an eye in a field accident as a 3-year-old. However, at Pau the Gods were on his side as every one of the combinations except one involved turns to the right. Not good course designing possibly but a gift to a horse with just a right eye!

An uncharacteristic four down in the show jumping moved them down to 17th, but Tony and his veterinary surgeon father Con were still smiling and probably dreaming of Badminton next year.

9) It takes a French commentator ….

Almost last on the cross country was France’s number one equestrian pin-up, Astier Nicholas, winner of Pau two years ago, individual silver medallist in Rio, and fresh from winning the 2* in the world young horse championships in Lion d’Angers the previous weekend. He was 14th after the dressage on Molokai but knew that a fast clear round would leave him at the top of the leader board, and so did the French commentator!

He had an English co-commentator but the possibility of Astier’s high placing and his own excitement left no room for anything but his fence-by- fence crescendo of compliments and exclamations that had the spectators cheering and Astier throwing caution to the wind. Molakai will never be the fastest of horses and has only come in within the time twice since Astier started riding him in 2015, but he is careful and Astier is brave and that was a winning combination. With a standing ovation and the commentator at maximum volume they crossed the line six seconds under the time, one of only two to have no time penalties. It was not pretty but it left Astier at the top of the leader board and guaranteed a full house for Sunday’s show jumping.

10) It takes your breath away ….

There were a number of young horses being offered for sale during Pau, including some 3-year-old horses that were loose jumped. This was not a very pretty sight, but one afternoon Australian team rider Kevin McNabb tried a chestnut event horse for a client. The horse’s immediate positive response and physical improvement was startling, and Kevin’s beautiful balance when jumping simply takes your breath away. He credit’s his technique to the Italian coach Tony Manca who influenced him as a young man. “I was very lucky to meet Tony,” he says. “Many people have tried to change me but I refused. He was ahead of his time. Tim (Price) does the same and he is an artist across country.” As I often say ‘good coaches make all the difference.’

Next Time: Pau 4*, Part 3 – Love and Luck

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