“You Can Ride Him Like a Pure Dressage Horse”: Tom McEwen and JL Dublin Lead First-Phase at Pau

Tom McEwen and JL Dublin, maybe, sort of, if you can excuse the cloud of lens fog this was shot through. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Today, in stark contrast to yesterday at Pau, the sun shone sweetly: over the main arena, over the swiftly-filling grandstands, over my camera, which was so waterlogged from yesterday that my photos of the first ten tests or so look like I drew them with Blo-Pens, and over one Tom McEwen, a former winner of the French five-star in his own right, and one of our first riders in the ring today.

He didn’t just get to relish the day-at-the-beach feel of the palm-lined arena; he also swiftly took ahold of the top of the leaderboard, delivering a very smart 23.1 with Nicola Wilson’s 2021 European Champion, JL Dublin, deposing day one leaders Tim Price and Viscount Viktor and setting a standard that couldn’t be bettered for the rest of the day.

“What a perfect way to start the day! It’s very nice,” says Tom, who’ll be heading straight to Benidorm after the event finishes for his stag do, and would, no doubt, love to bring the impeccable vibes of a second five-star victory along in his carry-on.

Those impeccable vibes, for the moment, though, were ever so slightly dampened by what Tom felt to be a touch of harsh marking, particularly as the pair had put a 22.6 on the board at Kentucky this spring, where they finished second:  “I think this is probably one of our best tests we’ve done together and actually, for me personally, I was quite disappointed with the mark — I thought he was going to be a lot lower. I was delighted with him.”

He’s not a rider who’s prone to dwelling on such things, though: instead, he’s happy to focus on the progression that’s come since he made his FEI debut with the Holsteiner just over a year ago.

“I think knowing that you can nearly ride him like a pure dressage horse in there, you can ride in balance, you’ve got the cadence, and you can really show expression between   movements, and between the mediums and extended,” he says. “For me, he showed the difference between a medium trot, which was excellent, to an extended trot, which was incredible, and that’s what they’re looking for, but they weren’t really marking up. But no, I’m delighted with it, and to be honest, this is now history. He’s put himself in a great spot — and now we have to focus on tomorrow!”

Ros Canter and Izilot DHI. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Some tests are beautiful to watch, and some tests are true masterclasses – and often, the detail that differentiates them is what happens outside the ring, and what the rider has to overcome to make them happen. That was very much the story for Ros Canter‘s test today with her five-star debutant, the Blenheim CCI4*-L winner Izilot DHI. As infamous for his sharpness as he is famous for his exceptional talent, ‘Isaac’ looked flashy and expressive on his way down the chute to the main arena – but almost the instant he got inside, he clocked the cameraman, who decided to pick that moment to strip off a layer, and shied violently. Ros steadied him, attempted to settle him, and turned him back towards the ‘monster’ at the ringside – but Isaac once again darted backwards. She tried again; he shied again. Then, the bell rang, and with just 45 seconds to make a plan and get her horse back on terra firma, she gave it one more college try, felt her horse shrink away beneath her again, and then did what she had to do: she got herself to A, got into the ring, and rode like her life depended on it.

And in the end? There wasn’t a visible spook to be seen, and Ros and Isaac were awarded a final score of 24.3, good enough for overnight second place.

“I wanted to show him the camera, but I knew I needed to get a straight approach the first time — but as I was coming down on my approach, the cameraman decided to take his coat, which wasn’t very helpful!” laughs Ros. “Hence why I shouted at him [very politely, might we add! – ed.]. I don’t think he understood a word of English, but anyway, he carried on doing it. Isaac was already a bit spooky in the arena familiarisation at that, but I think the coat coming off… and Isaac doesn’t like men at the best of times, let alone one on a stand taking a coat off right in front of him!”

The work she coaxed out of him in the ring, though, left her “delighted! I always say this: there’s more to come. Certainly at the beginning, I was a little safe because he definitely had his eyes all over the place. I was really pleased with him on his eight metre circle, because I thought that’s when he might have a whip off [at the camera], but no. He’s an amazing horse, isn’t he? He’s only ten, and he’s a weak ten-year-old, so there’s definitely more to come.”

That eight metre circle left all of us holding our breath ringside, too: it was the earliest movement that took Isaac face-to-face with the cameraman, who was situated next to the judge’s hut at B.

“I was like, ‘try and breath, try and let go of the reins’ — the moment you tense with him, he goes funny,” says Ros. “He’s definitely got demons, this horse, and he’s not going to change who he is. He’s definitely a flighty animal by instinct. So to go to his flight instinct and then settle back down was a real achievement, I think.”

Though Isaac’s faith in Ros no doubt contributed to the pair’s ability to claw back a great result, Ros explains that it’s not as simple as that when you’ve got a horse with as suspicious a mind as this one.

“There are times when Isaac doesn’t believe me, despite us trying to tell him it’s all okay,” she laughs. “But it is getting better and better, and I’ve learned so, so much from this horse. It’s been a real learning process for me, and I think in the last six months, I’ve learned a huge amount about how to deal with those episodes: to actually drop the reins. He’s almost got to be allowed to spook — if you try and block the spook from happening, it makes it worse for Isaac, so it’s trying to relax with it. I think I try and channel my inner Tim Price, because every time I watch him on a sharp horse, he just looks like he’s flopping around, and I think that’s what I’ve got to try and keep doing too, so that I can keep putting my trust in him as much as he has to put his trust in me.”

Now, she says, she’s got something of an unknown quantity ahead of her tomorrow, and although she knows her horse can be competitive on his day, he also has a long career ahead of him — so if the net positive takeaway is simply an education, then that, too, is a victory.

“It very much depends on the day with Isaac a little bit, how much that [spookiness] comes out in him or doesn’t. I have 100% faith in him jumping a 5* track in terms of the scope, the carefulness, the bravery — he’s got all of that, it’s about trying to give him a good experience. Will I be going for gold? I’m not sure yet; I’m very much going to let him tell me what he’s thinking. Equally, there’s not a huge amount of Thoroughbred in him, and I don’t want to knock him in that sense, either. So I’ll very much go out there trying to be competitive, but with his confidence in mind at the same time.”

Pippa Funnell and MCS Maverick. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Pippa Funnell has had two very different dressage days: after the frustration of yesterday, when she was sent up to the ring too early and then had to deal with spookiness from the experienced Billy Walk On, who now sits equal tenth on a 29.6, she returned today with her Bramham CCI4*-L winner and five-star first-timer, MCS Maverick, who merrily delivered the best test of his entire career to earn himself a 26.4 and overnight third place.

“I’m very, very pleased,” beams Pippa, who took the ride on the British-bred gelding just this year, and is still figuring out how to tap into his best work on every outing they undertake. That’s a process that’s complicated, slightly, by the fact that he’s a hot, sharp, sensitive little horse – so much so that he nearly turned tail right back into the ring after wandering out into the chute after his test and spotting a flapping flag.

The key, she’s discovering, is fighting the urge to work him on the flat and instead, giving him plenty to do that requires little mental exertion.

“I jumped him this morning, and  then he’s just done loads of quiet trotting on the lunge,” she explains. “He’s been out for three lots of 20 minutes, so not long, because A, I don’t want to make him sore and B, for the longevity of a nice horse, you don’t want to have to work them so hard to get the brain. So I’m thrilled I got the brain without drilling him today. I only got on him 15 minutes before, which makes you think, ‘oh my god, is that the right thing for one that’s a bit hot?!’ But I knew that if you pick him up, he’s still at a stage where he doesn’t find it difficult but he tries, and then it gets a bit tight, and once he gets tight it’s difficult to relax him. So ten to fifteen minutes of warm-up is brave, but that’s the thing that works for him!”

Jesse Campbell and Diachello. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

New Zealand Olympian Jesse Campbell and his Tokyo mount Diachello delivered one of the most pleasing tests of the day to be the best-place non-Brits, and will go into cross-country tomorrow in fourth place on their score of 26.9. It’s a remarkable upswing in performance for the gelding, who’s always been capable of very good scores but has, almost as frequently, boiled over in tests – but this, Jesse explains, is a milestone that comes after a serious effort to unpack what had been setting ‘Danny’ off.

“To be honest with you, I’m quite emotional about it, because when we first bought him and we took him and produced him all the way up to 4*, he was so generous and he was quiet and easy and everything like that,” he says. “Then we took him to Kentucky and he was okay — it was first 5*star, and then I sort of put the pressure on him to go to the Olympics, and he just didn’t feel very good. Then the next year, he came out, he didn’t feel very good — and he’s not the type of horse to show your typical ulcers, but we got him scoped then because we had sort of exhausted everything else: bone scans, the whole thing. He was riddled with ulcers, and so we went back to basics with him. I really thought I’d ruined him. But he’s just so generous, he’s let me train him back up. Every day he feels better and this week, he’s been feeling awesome, and really happy, and I’m pretty chuffed, actually! It was cool.”

The highlight for Jesse, other than feeling his horse back at his happy best, was the flying changes, he explains: “Where I think he probably would have been in pain in the past, they’d be quite conservative. Now he’s really throwing them and letting go. It’s just lovely that he’s happy, and that’s the main thing, right?”

Oliver Townend and Tregilder. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Oliver Townend piloted Tregilder to the gelding’s best-ever five-star score of 27.2 in his fifth effort at the level — an effort that sees them sit fifth overnight, which feels, actually, like quite a lot of ‘fives’ for this sentence, so sorry about that.

“He doesn’t find dressage easy; he’s 18hh, and a big, weak, blood horse, and he’s always found it very difficult — and he also finds it quite stressful,” says Oliver. “So he worries, and then he does silly things a lot of the time, but he’s done very well today.”

The key to getting a tune out of Tregilder without pushing him into a more fragile picture, Oliver says, is doing rather less than you might otherwise be inclined to.

“I feel like I’m going nowhere at times in there with him, just to try and give him time to breathe and relax into it, but he can’t work for too long — that was 25 minutes of work before he went in and most of that, or a lot of that, was walk,” he explains. “But as I said, he’s very sensitive, so it’s easy to have a spook or change where you don’t want when he’s not quite relaxed enough, so it’s a fine balance. But he knows me well, and I know him well, and he’s done as nearly as well as he could do today.”


Sam Lissington and Ricker Ridge Sooty GNZ. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Kiwi Sam Lissington made a great start to twelve-year-old Ricker Ridge Sooty GNZ‘s five-star debut, putting a 28.8 — a score better than most of his four-star efforts — on the board to sit ninth after the first phase, falling in step behind yesterday’s test-producers Tim Price and Viscount Viktor, Piggy March and Coolparks Sarco, and Ros Canter and Pencos Crown Jewel, who sit sixth, seventh, and eighth, respectively, after the second day.

“He was pretty cool,” says Sam of the diminutive gelding. “Sometimes the judges can think he’s a bit like a pony, so I try to show off a bit ’round the outside, to show that he’s a proper horse. He was very accurate, the changes were lovely, and he had a nice disposition about him — you can’t ask for much more than that!”

Lea Siegl and DSP Fighting Line. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Austria’s Lea Siegl joins Pippa in equal tenth place on a score of 29.6 with her Olympic ride, DSP Fighting Line: “I’m super pleased with my horse; he stayed very calm,” she says. “I was a bit afraid that he’s too excited with this atmosphere, because I did Luhmuhlen 5* this year and he got crazy in the dressage — he was so excited for the cross country, I think! But today, he really tried  to stay cool and it worked good. I’m very happy with him.”

Phillip Dutton and Z. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though Phillip Dutton‘s Tokyo Olympic partner is one of the most experienced horses in this year’s field, with six five-stars (and five top ten finishes) and two Championships under his belt already, he’s actually only ever previously come under the 30 barrier once in a test at this level. That was at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon in 2018, where he posted a 27.6; today, though, he repeated the feat, putting a 29.9 on the board to take twelfth place going into tomorrow’s cross-country.

“Actually, that’s the fun thing about it — the more you do, the more you realise you don’t know as much as you thought,” says Phillip with a laugh, reflecting on the the fifteen-year-old gelding’s ongoing improvement even at this latter stage of his career.

But, he continues, even on a good day in the office, there’s always something that can be improved upon.

“I let him down a little at the end — I was a bit quick to bring him up, and then he switched leads and I left the marker a little early to get the last change. But apart from that, it was good as he could go,” he says.

Boyd Martin and Fedarman B. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Just one rather spectacularly fluffed flying change – it scored a 1 from the judge at C — precluded a top-ten test from Boyd Martin and the Goodwin family’s Fedarman B, but such was the quality of the rest of their work that the pair find themselves well in the hunt on a 31.7. That puts them in a three-way tie for overnight sixteenth, and just 1.1 penalties away from the top ten, thanks to those extraordinarily slim margins after two days of competition.

“He’s been working well all week,” says Boyd. “He was pretty fresh when I arrived here in France — in the first two days he was jumping out of his skin. So I had to spend a fair bit of time getting him back to how he was going in America. By yesterday, I thought we had our horse back, and then I probably overdid it a bit, actually — he was brilliant this morning, but he was a tiny little bit empty when I went into the ring, and I screwed up one change, which I’m thinking was really, really expensive! It’s a shame, because that hadn’t happened all week.”

Boyd, like several of his fellow competitors, comes to Pau straight off the back of a run at Maryland, and he credits the team around him – and further afield, too, in the case of wife Silva, who’s stayed home with new baby Koa, as well as slightly older, slightly more feral Nox and Leo – with helping make it all happen in spite of the lightning-fast turnaround.

“Poor old Silva isn’t getting much sleep, so I’m getting phone calls here in the morning, which is midnight, one o’clock, while she’s feeding the baby,” grins Boyd. “Shout out to Silva — I wish she was here! Bettina [Hoy] has stepped in as my German coach, and hopefully next time, we’ll be able to leave the baby with the babysitter and get the bride Silva back here.”

Allie Knowles and Morswood. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though Allie Knowles and the former Susie Berry ride Morswood trended in the 20s for much of the early part of their test, they had to settle for a still very respectable 33.3 and overnight 28th after losing some marks in the canter work – but Allie was still delighted with how her 15-year-old Irish-bred gelding went in his fifth-ever five-star test, particularly with some tricky external factors to contend with.

“He was a good boy,” she says with a smile. “He was getting quite nervous; he hates a big screen, so I was like, ‘look away, look away!’ It felt like the storm was definitely just coming — all of a sudden it  got very windy, but he did a good job.”

Allie’s decision to take risks in her test today paid off in some respects, such as that trot work, which looked up there with his very best, but in other instances, it proved expensive: “I went for it — I tried to be a bit braver about the mediums. That cost me, because he swapped his lead in the medium canter, but you don’t know if you don’t try,” she says. “The mistakes we had were big mistakes. But he did exactly what I told him to do — quite literally. I kicked too hard, he answered by kicking out at my leg. But his halts are probably our weakest movement, and I felt like our final halt was good. It felt less on the forehand. He did a good rein back — at least for him that’s a good rein back! So I’m not disappointed, even if you always want it better.”

This is Morswood’s first trip to Pau, but not Allie’s — she came here in 2017 with her former top horse, the ex-racehorse Sound Prospect, with whom she finished 21st. That course form and experience is something she’ll take into tomorrow’s cross-country challenge.

“He’s a similar type of horse as Sounder was, and he’s little; compact,” she says. “And he’s deadly honest — so touch wood, I haven’t had a refusal at 5* with him. I’ve had a fall at 5*,  but not a refusal! So I’m just banking on if I point him at the flags, he’ll sort it out — he generally adds a stride when there’s a question of add it or leave it out. I’m going try to let him do his job and just try to stay out of his way; give him a smooth ride and do the best we can!”

Cosby Green and Copper Beach. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Five-star first-timer Cosby Green sits 35th going into cross-country after putting a 35.1 on the board with the former Buck Davidson ride Copper Beach, who competed here in 2017 with Buck. This is his first five-star since Kentucky in 2019, and the seventeen-year-old Irish-bred gelding delivered a test pretty much on a par with where he and Cosby have been scoring at four-star — a great start to their weekend.

“He’s tricky in the ring — he thinks he’s an old professional,” laughs Cosby. “So sometimes he doesn’t think he needs to listen to me and he knows what’s coming. But it was nice to do a test he hasn’t done in a while, so it kept him a little on its toes. It’s a good reflection of where he’s at, and he feels good in his body. With his age we just try to change the little things that we can.”

Cosby has been logging a busy — but rewarding — end to her 2023 season, which she’s spent based with Tim and Jonelle Price. She comes to Pau off the back of her Boekelo debut, where she finished as the best-placed first time with Jos Ufo de Quidam. That experience, plus the help she’s been getting from eventing’s most dynamic of power couples, should stand her in great stead going into arguably the biggest moment of her career thus far: her first five-star cross-country start.

“Just having good faith and riding smartly in the moment and sticking to the plan as best you can is kind of how I’m going into it,” says Cosby. “I’ve been relying on the training that I’ve done this past year to really be a good foundation, and so I’m just going to use that when I go out there. I find comfort in that.”

And what advice will tough taskmaster Jonelle, who’s been such an influence on Cosby this year, deliver as she heads out of the start box?

“Just go clear in time,” says the Kiwi with a grin. “I don’t think we’re going to see many in the time tomorrow, so I think there’s an opportunity — and you’re sitting  in a hunting spot on a 35. So go out and do some hunting!”

Easy, right? They’re certainly emboldening words to take out on course – and Cosby’s got determination on her side, too.

“I feel good. Nervous! But there’s no better horse to be sitting on. He gives me a lot of confidence,” she says.

Tomorrow’s cross-country, which will run over a technical track designed by Pierre Michelet, will kick off at the very sociable hour of 11.30 a.m. local time/10.30 a.m. BST/5.30 a.m. EST (yeah, sorry, that one’s less sociable). The first horse and rider out of the box will be five-star debutant Cooley Lafitte, ridden by New Zealand’s Jesse Campbell. You can check out the times in full here, and, as always, tune in to the live stream via Horse&Country TV. We’ll be bringing you both live updates and a full report right here on EN tomorrow – and before then, stay tuned for some in-depth course analysis and previews. Until then: Go Eventing!

The top ten at the conclusion of dressage at Pau.

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