Apr 15, 2024

Bec Braitling is Back at the Five-Star Level After 21 Years

By Meagan DeLisle - USEA Staff
Bec Braitling and Caravaggio II at the Nations Cup in Jardy, France. Libby Law photo

Bec Braitling was 23 when she tackled her first five-star level competition at Adelaide in East Park Lands, Australia.

“I sort of thought then that riding at that level was pretty normal,” Braitling said with a laugh. “Then I got into a career as a professional rider and realized that getting there was actually pretty hard to come by.”

The year was 2003, and Braitling was aboard Just a Lady, a 15.3-hand Australian Stock Horse/Thoroughbred cross mare that Braitling’s mother had purchased as a 3-year-old for her then 9-year-old daughter.

“It was a terrible idea,” said Braitling with a laugh, “but I produced her all the way through. I think I did 16 long formats on her and went to New Zealand to compete twice on the young rider team and then took her to Adelaide. I had her throughout her whole life, and she took me all the way through the levels. I retired her at 17 or 18.”

And here she is 21 years later still representing Australia but now based full-time in the U.S. and about to make her return to the five-star level at the Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event with Arnell Sporthorses’s Caravaggio II (Vagnelis-S x Courtesan).

“I wasn’t sure I’d ever do it again,” she reflected. “It’s my favorite thing to tell the EA21 [USEA Emerging Athletes Under-21 program] kids when you look back at what I did around that age, I would never say it was easy, but I sure rode at that level a lot, and it felt like quite a normal thing. And then you go through the lull of having a horse barely be able to go past Preliminary and thinking, ‘Well, this is where I am at.’ ”

While many riders might find themselves disheartened by that feeling, Braitling found the silver lining in it.

“Ultimately, I started to enjoy the process," she said. "Instead of it always being about trying to get back to the top, it was more about enjoying producing nice horses to whatever level.”

Bec Braitling and Caravaggio II at the 2023 Galway Downs CCI4*-L. USEA/Lindsay Berreth photo

It was that realization early on in her career that led her to relocate to the West Coast to Paso Robles, California, and put her in touch with the family behind Arnell Sporthorses, who are some of Braitling’s biggest supporters and the owners of Caravaggio II, or “Ernie.”

“I do think it’s not always about going out and seeking your next five-star horse when you are just trying to build relationships with people and enjoy the sport," she said.

And Braitling wasn’t necessarily looking for that next five-star horse when she first met Ernie while horse shopping overseas for her client Lauren Burnell of Arnell Sporthorses. Connections Mike and Emma Winter, who help Braitling source many of the prospects she brings over to the States, told her about the 7-year-old British Sport Horse who was bred for show jumping but had stumbled a bit into an eventing career. Initially, Braitling and Burnell went to visit him with the thought that he might be a nice mount for Burnell.

“I remember he was the first horse we tried, and it was pouring rain, and as I was riding him around I just thought to myself, ‘I am going to take this horse to Kentucky,’ ” shared Braitling. “I thought it was weird to say that because I really hadn't had anything that was ready to go to Kentucky in over 20 years, but I did think that straight away.”

Burnell hopped on Ernie, but it wasn’t love at first ride the way that it was for Braitling.

“I do this a lot,” said Braitling of trying horses. “It’s not often you sit on something and jump it right away and think, ‘That’s my horse, I love him!’ ”

Thankfully, with the support of Arnell Sporthorses, Ernie was on his way to the U.S. in 2017. Because of Ernie’s big stature and later start to the sport, Braitling has taken her time with the now 13-year-old gelding, really allowing him to mature and come into his own—a decision that paid off in their 2023 season.

“Last year was a bit of a dream come true,” she reflected.

After starting up their season on the West Coast with nothing but top finishes at the Advanced level, Braitling and Ernie made their first trip to Kentucky together to compete in the highly competitive CCI4*-S which runs concurrently with the five-star competition. The opportunity to introduce Ernie to that level of atmosphere was unlike any other and gave Braitling the confidence to take a chance on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“After Tryon [CC4*-S in May], the Australian team was looking for applications for Aachen [Germany], and I joked about it with Tamie Smith who was there with me and, of course, Tamie was like, ‘Why is that funny? You should apply.’"

Braitling and Ernie competing in Aachen last year. Libby Law photo.

So Braitling took Smith’s advice and found herself and Ernie on a plane to Germany to represent her home country.

“I remember walking into the stadium and having a slight panic attack that I was a little out of my league,” she joked.

While her experience at Aachen didn’t go according to plan when Braitling parted ways with Ernie on cross-country (don’t worry, Ernie continued to jump the jump without his jockey), she took it in stride and allowed the experience to open up new doors for her.

“I think for me that was one of those situations where you either want to run home and not deal with it or run on with it a bit and gain more experience," she said. "It wasn’t obviously ideal, and I felt a little in over my head at first, but I decided to take it as a second chance to redeem myself and push on from that.”

With the support of her owners, Braitling went back to the Winter’s yard for two months and competed in the Nation’s Cup at Jardy in France, then later at Hartpury and Blenheim in England before coming home in the fall.

“It was actually kind of lucky how it turned out,” said Braitling. The duo added two more top-3 finishes at the four-star level to their FEI record back home, and that's when Braitling knew Ernie was ready to give the five-star at Kentucky a go.

“When I ran the four-long at Galway [Temecula, California] in November, I remember he came out a completely different horse," she said. "I joked that we had to ride all around Europe to learn how to ride at Galway Downs, which ended up being a really tough track last year. Clayton [Fredericks] designed a mega-track, and he was amazing. I just found myself thinking, ‘Wait a minute,’ but I never really had going five-star in my mind last year. It wasn’t truly until this winter when I realized how fit he was getting that it crossed my mind.”

Bec Braitling and Caravaggio II at the Kentucky CCI4*-S in 2023. USEA/Lindsay Berreth photo

Ernie and Braitling have successfully navigated four CCI4*-L competitions together, so with the fitness and experience he had gained while in Europe, Kentucky felt like the next step for the horse’s career.

The pair have been preparing for the trip back to the bluegrass with the help of Smith, whom Braitling credits as an invaluable resource.

“She’s the most giving rider that you will ever meet,” said Braitling. “I am lucky enough that I get to live on the same coast as her and spend a lot around her. She is the type of person that when you start having a negative thought about something, she is immediately like, 'No!' and helps redirect you.”

Ernie will be hitching a trailer ride with Smith’s 2023 Kentucky champion mount Mai Baum, who is contesting the four-star this year, and Braitling is hoping “Lexus” will be giving Ernie a good pep talk on the ride. Mostly, she is looking forward to getting back to where her career was 21 years ago, but with this time a whole new mindset.

“I experienced really early success, and while that was definitely important, it didn’t define me,” she stated. “You have to still have the desire to do the sport because you love doing it and not because of the success that you have at the upper levels.

“Perseverance is really important, but you have to always be cultivating relationships and doing it because you love spending time with the horses and the people involved in the sport," she continued. "It’s all about enjoying the days at home when you are training and understanding that those big events can’t define you. You have to make sure the highs aren’t too high, and then the lows won’t feel too low when all of a sudden you aren’t back there for 20 years.”

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