After a night of heavy rain at the FEI European Eventing Championships in Haras du Pin, France, today’s cross-country phase proved pivotal, with difficult ground conditions and championship-standard fences adding to the intensity. The leaderboards changed throughout the day, but Britain remains in gold medal position in the team standings, while Ros Canter and Kitty King lie first and second in the individual placings.Due to the wet ground, the decision was made this morning by the organising committee and ground jury to remove the loop of designer Pierre Le Goupillt’s course between fences 11 and 17 – a total of six jumping – efforts. This would shorten the time allowed by around two minutes in order to protect equine welfare. The start time was then delayed by two hours to allow time to prepare the revised course and provide consistent conditions for all competitors.
The first rider on the course was Sarah Ennis for the Irish team, riding Grantstown Jackson, and the nerves around the showground were palpable as she set off, with teams from all nationalities waiting to see just how the ground and course would ride. Sarah used all her experience to guide her equine partner round and they made things look possible with a clear round in 8.24, just six seconds over the revised time allowed.
Kitty King and Vendredi Biats
Kitty King has taken on her pathfinder role this week with great aplomb, but today was a different proposition. Only ninth to go, she didn’t have the chance to watch or see how the ground was affecting the horses. However, with a number of championships behind her, Kitty knew it was a day for leaving your watch behind and riding with feel. She set off with her experienced partner, Vendredi Biats, owned by Diana Bown, Samantha Wilson, Sally Lloyd-Baker and the late Sally Eyre, and they looked focused. The first water was tricky – two successive drops, down to a corner/ditch into water on a distance to a narrow triple brush – and a real test of balance, bravery and straightness. Kitty and ‘Froggy’ were fluid throughout – answering the question perfectly. The gelding looked keen in places in the early stages but, by half way, it was clear he wasn’t quite travelling with his normal gusto. Kitty supported him well and rode what she had – they negotiated all the straight routes and came home safe, stopping the clock nine seconds over the optimum time, adding 3.6 penalties to their dressage to end on 30.8. This gave them the early lead and, crucially, a good score for the team.
“I’m really chuffed with my horse, he really dug deep. He hated the ground from the second we set out, which for him [was hard] as he lives for cross-country and he didn’t enjoy himself as he normally would, which is a big shame,” lamented Kitty. “The ground was hard work and he kept trying and jumping and was really straight and genuine, I couldn’t ask any more of him and I’m proud of how hard he tried for me. It’s a shame we were a little bit slow, but I rode the horse I had underneath me. He came home happy and sound, and that’s the most important thing – and we’ve got a good score on the door for the team.”
Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir
Although reigning world champion, this is Yasmin’s first championship team appearance for Great Britain – although she and The Sue Davies Fund’s Banzai du Loir were part of the quartet that took bronze at the CHIO Aachen in July. The duo, still in the early stages of their partnership at this level, haven’t experienced ground like this as yet, so today looked to be a true test of their stamina.
The French-bred gelding was keen to get going as they entered the start box and, once away, was quickly in his stride, almost gliding above the unforgiving mud. They were foot-perfect through the two tough water complexes, which had already caused a number of problems, and it looked as though the ground wasn’t giving them cause for concern. Fence 22 was a oxer of large tree branches on Mimclips – a frangible device which activates when hit – to a ditch in the shadows, followed by aan angled brush on the lip of an inclineBanzai expertly jumped the first part, but put in a big leap over the ditch, making the distance to the third element difficult and he had little choice but to run out.
Yasmin represented, they popped over and were quickly back to business. The remainder of the course was incident-free and they finished in 8.49 for 12.4 time penalties which, combined with 20 penalties for the refusal, gave them a two-phase total of 55.8. This ended any hopes of an individual medal, but was another completion score on the board for the team on a day when other nations were not so fortunate.
“Sadly, not our day today. He felt absolutely amazing, he galloped the whole way round and gave me his all, so I’m really proud of him for tackling pretty much everything. We just had one small moment where we didn’t get the right shot coming over the ditch to the log in the woods,” said a disappointed Yasmin. “I just didn’t get the stride I wanted, which was a huge shame – we’re always learning, but he jumped around the rest of the course amazingly. I’m so pleased with him all in all, just tiny error, but that’s the sport for you. It was a super track to ride around, and he gave me an amazing feel.
“The ground was certainly sapping for them after a lot of rain. The organisers made a very wise decision to take out the loop – I definitely think that was the right decision because the horses’ health is paramount. He came home absolutely fine and with his ears pricked,” she added.
Tom McEwen and JL Dublin
The first of Britain’s individual combinations was next andit was the reigning European Champion horse, JL Dublin, owned by James and Jo Lambert and Deirdre Johnston, with his relatively new jockey, Tom McEwen. Tom took over the ride at the end of 2022, following the life-changing injuries experienced by Nicola Wilson at Badminton, and he and ‘Dubs’ are still learning about one another.
They negotiated the first few questions well, with Tom expertly picking the best ground to help keep Dubs fresh, and they looked confident. At fence 22, the downhill log combination, they didn’t get a great shot at the first oxer in and Dubs hit it with some force, which activated the MIMclip, but he was clever with his legs and popped the ditch and log elements without further trouble. They continued well until the water at fence 25, which had been causing difficulties all day, with not many combinations having a smooth trip through the three elements. Dubs jumped in well over an imposing fence and down the ramp into the water, with a choice to go left or right up a step, over a rail to a skinny. Tom elected to go right, but missed up the step, making an awkward jump at the rail and he just couldn’t stay in the saddle. Tom was quickly on his feet, none the worse, but a fall of rider means elimination. While it wasn’t to be for them today, this combination will come back stronger for the experience of learning more about one another.
Laura Collett and London 52
Laura Collett and Keith Scott, Karen Bartlett and her own London 52 are one of the combinations everyone wants to watch. With three CCI5* wins to their credit, they’ve already achieved more than most but, so far, an individual championship medal has alluded them and they arrived in Haras du Pin in a bid to rectify that. Laura admitted to being a bit disappointed by their dressage performance, but the conditions today opened the field up and a good round would boost her chances.
‘Dan’ is a rangy, galloping horse who normally eats up the ground, but it was clear early on that the Holstein gelding really wasn’t relishing the ground and that Laura would have to ride him with all her skill if she were to produce something for the team and her own aspirations. They were a bit tentative through the first water but stayed clear and looked better at the second. Fence 20 was a Napoleon-themed tented battlefield with a upright ‘tent’ to jump on a bending line to a corner. Laura put Dan on a good line to the second element, but he just didn’t quite get the distance. While the gelding did everything he could to jump the obstacle, he ended up taking the flag with him and leaving it for the ground jury to decide whether they’d passed between the flags In moments like this, a rider has to continue as if they’re clear and so Laura pushed for home. The pair tackled the combination at 22 with great accuracy, but Dan’s energy was dwindling, and Laura kept him together for one final effort. They stopped the time at 8.41, which gave 9.2 time penalties, but the wait was on for a decision on fence 20.
“It was tough right from the very beginning,” Laura told the media. “The ground is seriously testing, and the jumps felt very, very big. He’s a big, scopey horse and even he felt like he was having to make extra effort over everything.”. “The combinations [fences] come up thick and fast, and there was just nowhere to give them a breather, which is why so many are finding it tough out there. I couldn’t be prouder of him, he’s never had to dig as deep as that before and he kept trying and jumping – he’s just so honest. On good ground, that course would have felt fantastic on a horse like him. I one hundred percent support the decision [to remove the loop] and I’m glad the organisers were brave enough to do it,” she finished.
Following a review of video evidence, the conclusion of the Ground Jury was that Dan’s shoulder didn’t pass inside the flag on fence 20, so it was 15 further penalties to add – a total of 46.6, but another one in the club house for the team.
Tom Jackson and Capels Hollow Drift
The debutant duo of Tom Jackson and Capels Hollow Drift, owned by Patricia Davenport, Milly Simmie and Sarah Webb, were next up. They had dealt well with the similar ground conditions experienced at Badminton in May but today, at the biggest competition of their careers, it was a different proposition.
The pair didn’t get off to the best start with an uneasy jump at fence two, a boxy house where a number of previous combinations had also had a bit of a wakeup call. However, they settled in, with Tom working hard on top to find the best ground for ‘Walshy’ to gallop on. They were quick through the first water and took a lovely line through a combination of triple bar to a corner, that might as well have been a schooling exercise at home. Similarly, they took a great line through the second water without issue, but it was clear that the grey gelding was beginning to tire and Tom would need to ride sympathetically if they were to get home. Walshy picked up into the final water at 25 and jumped well in, up the step and over the rail, but just ran out of impetus to the skinny out – he tried his best to pick up but just couldn’t, so it was 20 penalties. Tom circled to jump the alternative and they pressed on to the finish, where the watch stopped at 9.18, giving them two-phase score of 69.7.
“It was pretty gruelling,” admitted Tom. “I’m absolutely delighted with the horse; he literally gave me everything. Obviously, I’m bitterly disappointed that we didn’t come home with a clear, he gave me his all and then some more. It’s really tough out there and he just did everything he could. It’s tougher going than at Badminton, I’d say that’s the deepest going I’ve ever ridden in. Today, the ground jury did a good job in taking the two-minute loop out – even the good experienced horses still found it tiring. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t quite our day but hopefully he’ll learn from it. He’s pulled up really well and recovered quickly – as far as he knows, he’s not actually done anything wrong, so he’s looking pretty pleased with himself!” he mused.
Ros Canter and Lordships Graffalo
It was then on to the final rotation of team riders, where the fate of the 10 nations would be decided going into the final jumping phase. Key for the British hopes was the round of Michael Jung and fischerChipmunk FRH for Germany – the favourites for individual honours going into the competition. They were looking untouchable until the final water, where ‘Chip’ jumped in and Michi couldn’t stay in the saddle – it was elimination for the duo and a shock for all.
Britain’s anchor duo had the hopes of a nation on them – not to mention individual honours at stake – but Ros Canter and Michele Saul’s Lordships Graffalo were the ideal pairing to take on the challenge. At just 11 years old, ‘Walter’ is relatively inexperienced at this level, but such is his temperament and skill, it’s as though he was born to event on the world stage – his Badminton performance in tricky conditions proved that much.
They also didn’t have an auspicious start, nearly coming unstuck at fence two, but that got their focus, and the pair were quickly back on their game and looking foot-perfect. At the final water, Ros elected to go right, and they were spot on, taking each fence in their stride. They flew through the final test at fence 27 and a quick check of the watch revealed that they might just make the time – something no one had achieved. Ros skilfully piloted ‘Walter’ over the final two fences, mindful how easy it is to lose attention, and kicked for home. The timer froze at 8.09 – an astonishing nine seconds inside the time. It was without doubt the round of the day. Ros and Walter took over the lead from compatriot Kitty King, who had sat atop the standings almost all day, and gave Britain a commanding lead overall.
“It was tough going, don’t get me wrong,” exclaimed Ros after everyone said how effortless their round appeared. “We had a near whoopsie at fence two and that sharpened us both up! The ground out there was hard work, but Walter is just unbelievable in his stamina and desire to travel through ground like that. He was so rideable, he keeps travelling, lets me balance, and when you balance, he’s got energy – he is, I think, the best horse in the world when it comes to something like this. I’m just so lucky. I’m relieved I was able to still give him a nice ride. Sometimes, going fourth is a hard place to be but I had to stick to my plan. I’ve watched quite a bit, supported the others but at the end of the day, there is just one Walter and I had to stick to everything that I knew he could do,” she said.
For the leader, thoughts will inevitably turn to the final day. “Tomorrow’s another day, so I think I might enjoy today for a little bit before I start thinking about tomorrow. You never know what something like today will have taken out of them, so we’ll be in the slight unknown tomorrow when it comes to how they’re going respond and jump. We’ll enjoy tonight, see how he is and the make a plan,” Ros explained.
Walter has captivated everyone in France and is already a firm crowd favourite. But just what makes the unassuming brown gelding so remarkable? “He’s efficient – careful, but never balloons. He’s efficient and he’s very polite, which is unusual for a horse that travels at his speed, which is amazing. I’ve never sat on a horse like him – so ridable and brave, he measures and reads every jump beautifully and seems to know just what he needs to give. He really does make my job so easy – he helps me to believe in my system and what I do. I broke him in at three and I’ve loved him from day one, straight away I knew this was the horse for me. He’s had his quirks and challenges, but there’s no doubt he’s always loved being an event horse,” Ros said with huge pride.
Richard Waygood, Chef d’Equipe
In the press conference, British Chef d’Equipe and Eventing Performance Manager for British Equestrian’ World Class Programme reflected on the day’s proceedings; “Pierre built a fantastic championship track. It was really how a championship should be. The weather obviously caught him out, but I admire the way that he took all of that into consideration, adjusted the course this morning and left it as he could, but he built a true championship track and adjusted it to the weather – thank you, Pierre, for sticking to true eventing. [Taking out the loop] was a good decision. We saw horses today that had to work extremely hard and the ground was very, very energy-sapping. All the riders have fed back that when they saw the distance and moved the horses, they actually didn’t always move towards the fences on the stride that they saw. To bring that down to eight minutes – yes, it was still a tough track, yes, the ground was sapping, but in general the horses will recover from that quite quickly. It was the right decision.“
With his team holding a 27.3 penalty lead going into tomorrow’s final showjumping, what are Richard’s thoughts? “It’s sport and we never know what’s going to happen in sport. Hopefully we can maintain our lead, but this is sport, and anything can happen – that’s why we love it!” he said with a wry smile.
Standings after cross country
1. Great Britain (98.7)
2. Germany (126.0)
3. France (126.2)
4. Ireland (136.4)
5. Switzerland (147.9)
1. Ros Canter and Lordships Graffalo (21.3)
2. Kitty King and Vendredi Biats (30.8)
14. Laura Collett and London 52 (46.6)
25. Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir (55.8)
32. Tom Jackson and Capels Hollow Drift (69.7)
The final horse inspection is at 09:00 (08:00 BST) on Sunday morning and the first showjumping session starts at 11:30 (10:30 BST), with the final rounds taking place just before 15:00 (14:00 BST) when the medals will be decided.
Running orders and results – WST | FEI Eventing European Championship (worldsporttiming.com)
The funding that the British Equestrian World Class Programme receives from the National Lottery and UK Sport is pivotal in preparing our teams for senior championships and supporting them on the ground.
British Equestrian is also extremely grateful for the support we enjoy from our partners – Bates Saddles, Dodson & Horrell, Fairfax & Favor, Haygain, NAF, SEIB and Toggi – and team suppliers – Equi-Trek, Horseware, Lotus Romeo, Marksway Horsehage and Point Two. We’re indebted for the year-round support they provide to the World Class Programme and British teams.
Image courtesy of Peter Nixon