Mollie Summerland and Charly van ter Heiden dance their way to a 22.5, putting them at the front of the pack by over four penalties. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Few riders have captured the public’s collective heart so wholly as 24-year-old Mollie Summerland, who became Luhmühlen’s youngest-ever winner last year with her longtime partner Charly van ter Heiden, and who has been so open about her mental health journey. But far from just being a pair that inspires deep sentiment, they’re also an enormously formidable duo — particularly in the first phase, for which they receive valuable help and training from pure dressage riders Carl Hester and Olivia Oakeley. But while it might come as little surprise to her many fans that she scored a 22.5 today to take a 4.3 point lead, Mollie actually arrived at Haras du Pin wondering if she might be in too deep with such a high-calibre field. Since settling into her surroundings, though, she’s embraced the challenge with a smile on her face, viewing the chance to compete against most of the world’s best riders as an exceptional educational opportunity.

“It definitely is the toughest field that we’ve ever competed against — probably on a par with the standard that was at Badminton, but obviously here we’ve got the Germans out in full force,” says Mollie. “So I’m trying to use it as a really good experience, just to be inspired by the way that they work their horses, and having the opportunity to compete against some of the world’s best. I’m trying to spin it on its head and look at it really positively!”

But although she’s learning from the riders around her, Mollie is determined not to change anything for her thirteen-year-old gelding, who comes here off the back of a comeback win in Barbury’s CCI4*-S last month.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to see some of the best riders in the world and how they work their horses and their ringcraft whilst they’re in the arena. I’ve seen people like Michael Jung and Julia Krajewski working their horses and lunging them, and I’ve tried not to let that dictate what I do with Charly — because at the end of the day, I know him best and what works for him, and the system I use to get the best out of him. It’s quite hard not to be tempted to try what other people are doing, but at the end of the day, everyone has their own system for their horse. The dressage is something I definitely have a lot of confidence in, and so I can trust that system.”

Mollie Summerland and Charly van ter Heiden. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Despite the soaring temperatures, which tipped into serious heatstroke territory today, Charly has been particularly fresh since his arrival on Tuesday evening — which required some serious planning for this morning’s exercise sessions.

“Yesterday, he was a very different horse — he was quite lit up in the trot-up. There were bad flies around, and he’s actually quite sensitive to things like that, so I had to make a plan so that he was definitely as rideable as he could be in the arena today. That obviously really worked, because he’s a different horse today,” says Mollie.

That meant that Mollie could use Charly’s residual spice to her advantage — particularly when she realised that Haras du Pin, unlike most other events, has riders complete their final warm-up in the main arena, with all of its considerable atmosphere.

“It’s quite a strange set-up that they’ve got here — it’s unique,” says Mollie. “You can work your horse in an arena that’s right next to the one in which you’ll do your test, and I think for some horses that’s not going to work, because they might switch off and lose that bit of sparkle that they’d normally take with them into the arena. So I was quite conscious of that, and I kept doing lots of walking in the arena next door, because I didn’t want him to lose that bit of wow factor. I was definitely not tempted to do too much in there, and I was also very conscious that the more I did in the heat, the more sweaty he’d get, and the more the flies would come after him — that was something I was really conscious of. When he foams up and starts getting irritated by the flies, that’s when things like the walk work become really difficult.”

That had been an issue that plagued the pair in their nonetheless leading Luhmühlen dressage test last year, but they had no such issues today, and never scored lower than the odd seven throughout their test.

“He felt brilliant in the test,” she says. “I’m always such a perfectionist that I’ll pull it apart and think there’s things that can be better, but apart from the left shoulder-in, which I need to learn to ride better, I couldn’t pull it apart too much. He did everything I asked of him and he was very rideable. His halts were very good, which is nice, because it’s actually quite a difficult movement for him, just to stand still and square.”

Though their test went much smoother today than at Luhmühlen, it was that experience that provided much of the intel Mollie needed to prepare her horse today. Today’s temperatures reached a balmy 33 degrees Celsius — that’s 91.4 Fahrenheit — but even they weren’t a patch on Luhmühlen’s weeklong highs of 96.8, which the gelding coped with remarkably well, despite his blood percentage of less than 25%.

“Whenever I feel myself worrying about the heat or the flies, I try and think about what situations I’ve been that have been similar, and I take confidence from that. I know he’s gone in seriously hot weather a few times before, like at the Fontainebleau Young Rider Europeans and at Luhmühlen, so I just use that to reassure myself that we’ve done this before and we can do it again,” she says. And, of course, it’s a real confidence-giver to be back abroad, where the tracks have a very different flavour to those in the UK — and it’s one that suits the German horse down to the ground.

“Foreign tracks always have plenty of places where you can run out — it’s lots of things like corners and arrowheads,” says Mollie. “I think there’ll be plenty of places where people will have 20s; it definitely won’t be a dressage competition, but every time I come abroad I feel that these tracks really suit Charly. He’s not strong and he’s easy to turn, but equally, you have to be on your game the whole way around. It’ll definitely reward the riders that have good partnerships with their horses — and hopefully that’s us!”

Sophie Leube and Jadore Moi make a great start to their final bid for Pratoni selection. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The German entry at this year’s event is arguably the most formidable national front, and so it comes as little surprise to see their team lead the Nations Cup by a healthy 7.4 points — but the competition within the German rankings, of course, remains formidable, as they each fight for their chance to go to next month’s World Championships. One of the ‘new’ faces looking to join the ranks of Michi and Julia is Sophie Leube, a former apprentice rider for Ingrid Klimke who made headlines when winning Boekelo last season with Jadore Moi — in just a second-ever CCI4*-L run for both horse and rider. Those in the know, though, are achingly aware of the rider’s exceptional talent, which has seen her pilot the hot, clever mare to the dressage lead at Aachen in 2021 and follow it up with a fifth place finish there this summer. Arguably, she’d have been the one rider to go head to head with Mollie today – but such was the accuracy and expression in our overnight leader’s test that even a very smart bit of work and a 26.8 wouldn’t see them top the board on day one. Sophie and Jadore Moi will head out of the start box on Saturday in second position for the German team — but with their eyes firmly on a prize that could come to fruition in five weeks’ time.

Malin Hansen-Hotopp’s expressive Carlitos Quidditch K impresses a tough ground jury for overnight third. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

German team pathfinder Malin Hansen-Hotopp got the team’s day off to a super start, posting the first of just nine sub-30 scores with her expressive ten-year-old, Carlitos Quidditch K. Though the day felt, by and large, like a tough-scoring one, their test was a significant international personal best of 26.9, proving that the rangy gelding is really coming into his own this season as he gains in strength.

Tim Price ends the day with two in the top ten — including last year’s Pau winner and Pratoni pick of choice Falco. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It was a good day in the office for Tim Price who, along with wife Jonelle, brings a packed lorry of contenders to this event. He’s finished the day with two in the top ten, taking overnight eighth with last year’s Pau winner Falco and fourth with the ten-year-old Selle Français Coup de Coeur Dudevin, a former Chris Burton ride who did two internationals with Jonelle last season before joining Tim’s string. They earned a 27.1 today, easily besting their only previous international score — a 31.7 earned at Millstreet CCI4*-L in June, where they finished second.

Gaspard Maksud and Zaragosa. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

UK-based Frenchman Gaspard Maksud has been floating around at this level for a couple of seasons now, accruing mileage with his first four-star mount Cado Louvo, but it’s since debuting the excellent Zaragoza at the level that he’s really stepped into the spotlight. Though she’s just nine years old, she’s picked up some seriously exciting results since making her debut at Bicton’s tough CCI4*-S last year: she finished twentieth there in an enormous field, wherein the final Tokyo selection trial was taking place, and followed it up with tenth in Blenheim’s eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S. This year has seen her take fourth place in Burnham Market’s CCI4*-S and Saumur’s CCI4*-L, and she was Gaspard’s partner for his French team debut at Aachen last month, where the pair were on excellent form until they had an unlucky stumble in the final water. It’s hard to hold that against her, though, particularly when you consider that the mare had not only never faulted previously in an FEI event — she’d also made the time in eight of her ten international runs.

Today, aware that the eyes of the selectors would be upon them, they upped their ante even more, delivering a 27.4 that puts them in equal fifth and represents their best-ever international score.

Alina Dibowski delivers another competitive test with the excellent Barbados 26. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

They’re joined in fifth place by Germany’s Alina Dibowski, the supremely talented 21-year-old daughter of Olympian Andreas Dibowski. She partnered Barbados 26, her former Junior and Young Rider Europeans mount, to a characteristically smart test that very nearly rivalled the 26.8 they earned when finishing sixth in Luhmühlen’s hot CCI4*-S in June.

Jesse Campbell and Diachello overcome a near disaster to earn a 28.1. Photo by Bruce Haskell.

New Zealand’s Jesse Campbell has an undeniable talent in his Olympic ride Diachello, who particularly impressed at Kentucky in 2021, where he finished 11th — but the first phase hasn’t always been smooth sailing. The 12-year-old Holsteiner can fluctuate between excellent scores in the 20s and tenser efforts in the mid-30s, even nipping up into the 40s at the test event at Pratoni — but it’s evident that his rider has been putting in the hours behind the scenes to settle him into his work. That effort was put to the test today when, early on in the pair’s test, an enormous parasol from the neighbouring bar took flight, soaring ten metres and taking out a group of spectators (and one startled German Shepherd). Though no one was hurt, it would have been enough to send most horses running for the hills — but Diachello didn’t so much as flick an ear in its direction, instead continuing his smooth course to a 28.1 and overnight seventh, just ahead of fellow Kiwi teammates Tim Price and Pau winner Falco, who were typically excellent for a 28.6 and eighth.

The top ten is rounded out by a German two-hander, and it’s one that represents either end of the experience spectrum: former World Champion Sandra Auffarth and her 2022 Aachen winner Viamant du Matz sit in equal ninth place on a 29.8 with 24-year-old Jerôme Robiné, who’s part of the German federation’s Warendorf training system, and Brave Heart 10.

Germany leads the way in the team competition, followed by the Kiwi contingent in second place, and Great Britain third out of the twelve nations contesting this Nations Cup, which concluded its first phase today.

Tomorrow sees another whopping line-up of individual horses and riders come forward to battle for the Haras crown — and, of course, coveted spots at next month’s World Championships. You can watch along via the live feed, and tune back in for more updates from Normany right here on EN.

The individual top ten at the halfway point of Haras du Pin’s enormous CCIO4*-S dressage.

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