The first time Caroline Martin competed at the FEI WBFSH Eventing World Breeding Championships at Mondial du Lion in Le Lion D’Angers, France, in 2021, she admitted she was a bit of a deer in the headlights.
With 40,000 spectators lining the galloping lanes on cross-country and a buzzy atmosphere around the arena for dressage and show jumping, it was a big ask for her horse King’s Especiale, but the experience made the gelding better and made Martin want to come back.
Armed with a barn full of talented up-and-coming horses, Martin chose to take two youngsters to Le Lion in 2022—HSH Blake (formerly Galwaybay Blake), who finished 10th in the CCI3*-L 7-year-old championship, and HSH Connor (formerly Galwaybay Redfield HSH Connor), who led the CCI2*-L 6-year-old championship until the final day when a rail down in show jumping dropped them to second place.
Martin spent much of her year in England training with Pippa Funnell, which allowed her to pick up strong placings at the Preliminary and two-star levels with “Connor.” As a result, the Irish Sport Horse gelding (Connor 48 x Galwaybay Merstona), who's owned by Martin, Sherrie Martin and Luann McElduff, was named the 2022 USEA Preliminary 6-Year-Old of the Year.
“I think the horse has always been a special horse,” Caroline said. “It’s not anything I’m doing. He’s just so special he shines. I’m just lucky I get to ride him. Anyone could ride him, and he’ll shine. I could make a million mistakes on this horse, and he’s just so genuine; he’ll try his heart out.”
Connor was sourced in Ireland through Caroline’s business partner, Kelly Hutchison. He’d impressed Hutchison at Galway Bay Stud where he was bred, but his owners didn’t want to let the talented then-3-year-old stallion go easily.
Hutchison was able to convince them though, and she set about breaking him in. “He was always sharp and quirky, but always really fancy,” she said. “As a 4- and 5-year-old, he’d win or have a meltdown. He’s just very sensitive, very agile. In his 6-year-old year, he started cementing everything, then heading towards Le Lion, we were quietly confident he’d do well.”
Connor had built up quite the resume with Caroline before his stellar 2022. He won the 2020 Dutta Corp. USEA Young Event Horse East Coast 4-Year-Old Championship and was reserve champion in the 5-year-old division in 2021.
Caroline received a grant from the USEA Foundation’s Wilton Fair Fund, which she used to train and compete several horses overseas last year. She also received the 2022 Holekamp/Turner Young Event Horse Lion D’Angers Grant to take HSH Blake to Le Lion and brought Connor along.
“My goal was to make sure that Connor could get prepped as best as possible to do well at [Le Lion],” she said. “At the beginning of last season, I put him in a few easy horse trials to introduce him to the level, then we went and did the two-long at Ocala International [Florida] and won it. It was effortless for him. Then I got the Wilton Fair Grant, which gave me the opportunity to move over to England and train with Pippa Funnell.”
Once she touched down in England, Caroline made sure to take Connor to several events with lots of atmosphere, including the Charlbury CCI2*-S, which they won. They won two open Novice divisions (the equivalent of Preliminary in England) at Aston-Le-Walls and at Gatcombe over a notoriously tough cross-country track.
“It is the most intense cross-country I’ve ever seen,” said Caroline. “The second jump you literally jump down a cliff. It was so, so tough. Tons of spectators. Then we did a few other shows in England, like Cornbury and Osberton, where again, you had 40,000 spectators. By the time we did get to Le Lion last year, he was very much versed in atmosphere. For him, it was like any other show.”
While training with Funnell, Caroline learned new ways of conditioning her horses, and she felt Connor improved over the course of the year.
“I always grew up in programs where we did a lot of fitness work with the horses, but her fitness work went to a different level,” she said. “We would spend way more time on each horse. It wouldn’t be abnormal to be on a horse for two hours a session, but it wouldn’t be drilling them. It would be, go for a 30-minute walk, then do 30 minutes of work, then do 30 minutes of walk, then 30 minutes of work again. Or do an hour and a half trot set, with lots of walk breaks between the trot sets. Lots of long work sets, but nothing to make your horse stressed or sweating a lot. It was lots of proper work.”
Connor won a Preliminary division in their first outing of the 2023 season at Ocala Winter I, and Caroline’s hoping she’ll be able to take him back to Le Lion for the 7-year-old championship.
“I wouldn’t have had the ability to do Le Lion without [Tim Holekamp and Christine Turner’s] generosity,” she said. “Now that I’ve done it a few times, it’s such a big part of the program to produce top horses. We’re very thankful for having this grant and for pushing us to get a little bit out of our comfort zone; to make sure we’re up to the same standard as the rest of the world. And hopefully last year I proved that us Americans do have quality horses, and we can do the same as the rest of the world.”
TerraNova Equestrian Center in Myakka City, Florida, held its first CCI4*-S competition in the fall of 2021 and is now gearing up for the location’s third-ever FEI event and inaugural spring event this weekend during The Event at TerraNova which takes place March 30-April 2.
Are you following along with the action from home this weekend? Or maybe you're competing at an event and need information fast. Either way, we’ve got you covered! Check out the USEA’s Weekend Quick Links for links to information including the prize list, ride times, live scores, and more for all the events running this weekend.
Many riders across all levels have found that working with young horses has provided them with the most valuable experiences in eventing. The opportunities for young event horses have never been more exciting. The Dutta Corp. USEA Young Event Horse East Coast and West Coast Championships continue to grow in profile as the culmination of a calendar of qualifying events is expanding to more areas of the country. More American riders and their young horses are aiming for the FEI WBFSH Eventing World Breeding Championships at Mondial du Lion in Le Lion D’Angers, France, particularly thanks to programs like the Holekamp/Turner YEH Lion d’Angers Grant. That’s become one of the most attended sporting events in the entire country. It’s given young event horses from the United States a chance to represent the growth of the American eventing community’s dedication to properly developing talent in the sport.
Galway Downs International Horse Trials, held in picturesque Temecula, California, will host the West Coast’s top riders this weekend as they prepare for their spring three-days, along with horse trials divisions from Advanced through Beginner Novice. This year features record turnout, with 320 entries across all divisions.