New Zealand’s James Avery and One Of A Kind show off the unique camber in the four-star arena in front of Houghton Hall. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

England’s Houghton International, with its reasonable tracks and comfortable late-spring slot in the calendar, serves a number of purposes: it can be a great early four-star run for inexperienced horses of riders, can be used as a useful, confidence-giving run before Bramham’s CCI4*-L or Luhmühlen’s CCI5* — and, of course, it’s a formative leg in the FEI Nations Cup series.

It’s always interesting to see how different countries use the Nations Cup series, particularly when we get two legs that are very nearly back to back, as Pratoni and Houghton have been. There are the dominant countries who use them as a way to nurture young talent, like the Brits do; on the flip side, there are the countries who are still in the building process at the very top levels and bring out their best to consolidate and learn at this four-star series, as consistent Sweden does.

The Swiss, who won the first leg of the series at Pratoni and, as such, are overall leaders at this early stage, are conspicuous here only by their absence, as are second-placed France – a sad symptom of Brexit, which has made travelling across the English Channel with horses so complicated and expensive that it simply doesn’t pay to do so for a short-format four-star anymore. But the Swedes, who sit third after their good finish at Pratoni, have enough UK-based riders to field a team, as do the Italians and the Kiwis. They’re coming up against an exciting British front, featuring two talented team debutants and two experienced team campaigners on second-string horses, while the US once again opts to use Houghton as a crucial building block in their team system and has a forward-thinking team of three debutants and an experienced anchor here.

As the first phase pulls itself to a neat conclusion, the home nation is – rather unsurprisingly, given recent form – holding down the lead spot, led by pathfinders Tom McEwen and Bob Chaplin, who also sit second individually on their 25.4. All four of their riders, including team debutants in Heidi Coy and Phoebe Locke, sit sub-30 after the first phase, putting the team on an aggregate score of 79.2 — a clear leap ahead of second-placed New Zealand, on 91.5. The US team, which has a clear history of success at this venue, currently sits on the podium in third place on a score of 99.3, though Sweden is close behind them in fourth on 100. Italy, who field a team of just three, sit in fifth place going into showjumping.

We caught up with the US riders, some of whom are basing in the UK in the longer term.

Allie Knowles and Ms. Poppins are best of the Americans after the first phase. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Allie Knowles stands as best of the US contingent with the British-sourced Ms. Poppins, who delivered a tidy 29.6 to sit fifteenth provisionally out of 94. Though she’s just eleven, the petite Westphalian mare has become something of a pillar of consistency in Allie’s string, consistently delivering results that sit on or just under the 30 barrier at this level.

“She’s a wonderful mare — I’ve had her since she was four, and it’s been a really fun journey. She’s unbelievably reliable, and if a mistake is made, which is rare, you know it was genuine,” says Allie, who makes her Nations Cup debut this week — though not, notably, her European competition debut. Allie has previously ventured across the pond twice for runs at the top level with Sound Prospect, who contested Luhmühlen and Pau prior to the pandemic. Now, though, her focus remains in the UK and, like the rest of her teammates here, on Bramham’s big, tough CCI4*-L, which returns to the calendar next month.

For Ms. Poppins, the chance to perform on Houghton’s uniquely undulating arena was as much of a training exercise as anything, but the workmanlike little mare never faltered.

“We don’t do dressage on grass often, and while she’s correct, she’s not an overly big mover, so I know if I push too hard she’ll just get faster, not bigger,” says Allie. “So knowing that the medium was coming down the hill in the end of the test, I was really holding her like, ‘come on, stay uphill, don’t trip!’ But she just put in the test that she almost always does — she never disappoints me.”

Caroline Martin returns to Houghton with Islandwood Captain Jack. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Acting as team anchor, and the only rider on the team with previous call-ups, is Caroline Martin, who posted a 30.4 to sit 19th overnight with the stalwart Islandwood Captain Jack.

“‘James ‘is like fine wine — he just gets better with age,” she laughs. “He’s not the most talented horse, and he’s not fancy, but you’re not going to find a horse that has more heart. He first came over here when he was nine, so he was young, and I was young when I got him, so he has a lot of bruises in his training — I scratch my head sometimes and wonder what I was thinking! But these are the horses you’re going to look back on and be so grateful for. It’s like having my best friend over here with me. For a long time, he physically couldn’t do the movements — he’s bred to pull a plough, but he’s getting more and more correct.”

Caroline, who last competed here in 2018 and then returned to Europe the following year to contest Aachen, brings a sense of well-earned pragmatism to the table as she makes her return to Houghton’s Nations Cup: “I had been planning to go to Luhmühlen, but any time I get the opportunity to ride on a team, I’ll take it — I don’t care if it’s four-star, two-star, whatever! Getting to practice the team atmosphere is so important to me, so I’m so grateful for them to put me on this grant. I haven’t performed well in the past, so hopefully it’s James’s and my time to shine. There’s a lot that feels the same — Leslie Law has been at the helm of the development squad for years — so in a way, it feels kind of second-nature to come back and have all these cylinders firing.”

Caroline’s arrival at Houghton marks the two-week point since her arrival in England, where she’s planning to spend the next six months — at least — based with Kiwi eventing legend Andrew Nicholson. With three horses already in situ at his Wiltshire base, and another four on their way, she’s settling in quickly — and the move marks a priority shift that she explains has been an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

“When I got the Wilton Fair Grant at the end of last year, it kind of threw me into a bit of a spin because I’m so set up in America — I have my farm, I have my business program, and I thought I had everything all set up,” she says. “But then they said, ‘do you want this opportunity to step away from the sales and focus on your career again?’ and I said, absolutely! Andrew has always been my idol — anytime I wake up in the morning and I’m nervous for cross-country, I pop on a video of him, and I’ve read his book like, a hundred times. So when they told me I’d got the grant I knew exactly where I wanted to go.”

Caroline, who produces sales horses for Emile Spadone and Paul Hendrix, is enjoying the chance to focus on producing upper-level results with a tangible end goal in mind: to represent the US on the world stage.

“Since day one, I’ve always wanted to be a top rider, and the sales thing came along when I needed to figure out how to support myself, but it has taken over — I need to get back to my career,” says Caroline, who continues to work with Spadone and Hendrix and is considering creating a remote sales operation out of Andrew’s yard alongside her competitive pursuits. “I’m so grateful to have been put on this Nations Cup team, because it feels like the perfect introduction to my new life. I’ve got a little bit of home with me, in a way, and then I get to start afresh. I’m excited to be a student again — that’s my biggest excitement — and not be spread so thin. That’s the hard thing about being home; I take on too much. I don’t know how to say no, and I like to take on a challenge.”

Caroline’s support team at home has been a fundamental part of her international ventures this year: “I’m so grateful to them, and the biggest shout-out has to go to Casey McKissock — I was like, ‘I’m leaving!’ and she was like, ‘okay, bye, I’ve got this!’”

Isabelle Bosley and Night Quality. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Also basing at Andrew Nicholson’s, though just temporarily in this case, is team debutant Isabelle Bosley, who ventures across the pond for the first time with her eleven-year-old Night Quality. This is an exciting early juncture in the 24-year-old’s career: she and Night Quality have made their journey up the levels together, stepping up to four-star in the latter half of last season. Their Houghton start — and team debut — comes as just their twelfth FEI start as a partnership.

They begin their week in 74th place, picking up a score of 39.3 after a test of two halves that included some lovely moments and, frustratingly, one uncharacteristic blow-up in the first flying change that saw the horse rear dramatically and then continue on quite sweetly.

“He pulled it back together after that,” says Isabelle with a laugh. “He’s a bit spicy — I describe him as a bit of a naughty pony. He’s lazy and then hot, all at the same time, and he gets in the ring and definitely bubbles up. He can have moments like that, unfortunately, and I need to make sure I use a lot of leg but stay calm at the same time and just keep on pushing forward. He’s something else!”

For Isabelle, though, this week isn’t about winning in the first phase — it’s all about consolidating the bigger picture and preparing for their second CCI4*-L, which will be at Bramham next month and follows a top-ten finish in their debut at Morven Park last year.

“The jumping bit we like a little bit more,” she says, smiling.

Isabelle cites her experience with Andrew so far as a significant learning opportunity on her trip abroad: “He’s been great — he’s pretty laid back, but also really helpful, and he’s been able to give us the inside scoop on the shows. He knows the deal over here, so that’s been really nice — we can pick his head about everything.”

Though this is Isabelle’s first competitive trip abroad, it’s far from the first time she’s come to the UK on an eventing recce: she’s worked for US five-star stalwart Lillian Heard for seven years, and has travelled over with her for all three Burghleys and her Badminton run.

“It’s been really helpful to groom for her over here and take it all in — I’ve been able to see what it’s all about,” she says. “I knew what I was walking into and how it would all work, which definitely makes it less stressful. The first time we did a Burghley trip, I was way more stressed than I am now!”

Cornelia Dorr and Daytona Beach 8. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Cornelia Dorr takes the team pathfinder role in her Nations Cup debut, which she’s contesting with the smart Daytona Beach 8. Daytona is one of several horses she’s brought with her to the UK base of Australian Olympian Kevin McNab, with whom she’s been training since the tail end of last year. At 12, the Oldenburg mare — who was sourced from Sandra Auffarth’s yard for Cornelia by Dirk Schrade in late 2018 — rounds out a relatively young team of up-and-coming horses, which makes Houghton a largely educational experience. Her first-phase performance, which has historically been fairly spicy, looked to bubble over a bit in the ring, and the pair walked away with a score of 42.7 to sit in 91st place going into showjumping.

“I was actually really happy with her trot work, but it all kind of caught up to us in the canter,” says Cornelia. “But she tried really hard for me. She just has some stuff we’re working through, and so I’m really happy with how she tried to stay with me in the trot.”

While Daytona Beach can struggle in this phase, she makes up for it across the country with her enormously consistent performances: barring one activated MIMclip, she’s never had a jumping penalty at four-star level, which means that her, and Cornelia’s, team debut can be all about the building blocks.

“I’m grateful to [the selectors] for that — they know the flatwork is a work in progress, so I’m really grateful for the opportunity,” says Cornelia, who has previously competed in England with former top horse Sir Patico MH. This time around, she’s in it for the longer haul and already, she’s made the most of learning opportunities that will shape the rest of her professional career.

“I’m getting married in June, so I was really excited to be able to sneak away and do this before I get tied down,” she laughs. “Kevin has been amazing — he’s a magician. He’s just fabulous, and has been so good for me as a rider — and I’m so glad I’ve got five more months here to keep working on everything!”

One of the major steps that Kevin has helped Cornelia make is finding an extra gait for her fizzy mare: “She never used to walk in a dressage test, so that’s a big deal that Kevin’s got back for us! But beyond that, the scientific level of his training is fascinating to me, and I really enjoy that.”

The team standings at the end of the first phase.

Tim Price and Vitali take the lead. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though we’ve seen two full days of dressage, with over 90 competitors in this class, the first-phase lead wasn’t pinned down until the very last rotation of team riders in the final session. New Zealand’s Tim Price, who had already laid down a 29.9 for provisional 17th place with day one ride Spartaco, piloted his Tokyo mount Vitali to a 21.2 in a performance that made the whole thing look frankly easy.

“He’s so much fun to ride when he’s like that,” he said to his support team as he dismounted with a broad smile. ‘That’ is relaxed, focused, and with him – which isn’t always a given for the relatively inexperienced horse, who has an impressive resume behind him with Tim so far but has actually only been a part of the rider’s string for 18 months.

“Mentally, he’s quite immature – he’s a late developer, but when he’s relaxed, he can focus, and when he’s focused, he’s so easy to get on side,” explains Tim. “Then I’m able to be relaxed myself, and I don’t have to be thinking one step ahead. I can just enjoy it.”

Their expressive, fluid test allowed them to overtake British team pathfinder Tom McEwen, who now sits second overnight with the exciting Bob Chaplin. Previously produced to the Young Horse World Championships by Australia’s Paul Tapner, Bob Chaplin has always had an enormous amount of natural scope within his movement, but building the strength required to marry that with accuracy and correctness has been a slower process. So far, though, the time and patience looks to have paid off, and Bob Chaplin’s work around the side of the arena ensured that those gathered were paying very close attention indeed to the test that followed.

Tom McEwen and Bob Chaplin. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“He’s so much stronger, and he’s getting better and better. We used to get away with things because he’s pretty, and now it’s all about trying to finalise the details,” says Tom, who plans to debut the gelding — and currently 21st-placed Braveheart B — at Luhmühlen CCI5* next month. “He’s really flashy on the flat — the trot is unbelievable, and now I just need to make the test as correct as possible so we can keep the marks as high as we can. The medium trot is incredible, sure, but right now we can do that in other parts of other movements!”

Oliver Townend and Cooley Rosalent. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Third place overnight is held by World Number One Oliver Townend, who brings his young mare Cooley Rosalent forward for her second CCI4*-S after an abortive debut at Burnham Market in April. The smart mare, who’s a full sister to Irish team horse Jewelent, has had considerable success on the world stage in young horse classes, and looks to be one of Britain’s most compelling up-and-comers — as long as those errors at Burnham Market, which was arguably designed tougher than usual, prove educational. They begin their week with a 25.7, followed closely by fourth-placed Heidi Coy on 26.3, who makes her Nations Cup debut for the British team with the ten-year-old Russal Z, just weeks after breaking her collarbone in a fall.

“This is only actually my second or third event back since then, so I’m still getting back into it, but the mare’s really good even though she’s a young horse. I had three weeks off, and a lot of painkillers, and then I got back on because I was determined to get to Chatsworth with her. She was amazing, to her credit — she pulled off a 29 and a clear cross-country there.”

Heidi Coy and Russal Z. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“She’s only ten, and she’s only little, but she tries really hard,” continues Heidi, who has already picked up a number of four-star top tens with the mare, including second place in the under-25 CCI4*-L at Bicton last year. “The dressage has been a work in progress, but she’s always tried so hard and she really got the result she deserved today — so hopefully we can pull it off for the rest!”

Kitty King enjoys a weekend away with ‘fun ride’ Ceylor LAN. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Kitty King rounds out the top five — and breaks up that sea of greys — with her Rio Olympics mount Ceylor LAN who, at fifteen, is now her ‘fun ride’ for four-star shorts.

“He doesn’t enjoy the fitness work to get ready for the longs,” she explains, “and so he gets to come out and do these and have a nice time, as do his owners.”

For Kitty, too, it’s a refreshing break from the pressure of producing a championship mount in Vendredi Biats, and both she and ‘Sprout’ looked to be having a spectacularly jolly time as they worked their way to a 27.3.

The competition heads into its showjumping phase this afternoon, followed by a cross-country finale on Sunday. We’ll be bringing you a full report from each day, plus a preview of the cross-country track to come, right here on EN – so stay tuned for all the updates from Houghton and, in the meantime, Go Eventing.

The individual top ten at the end of the first phase.

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