Oct 17, 2023

Catching Up With the MARS Maryland 5 Star First Timers

By Lindsay Berreth - USEA Staff
USEA/Lindsay Berreth photos

This years' MARS Maryland 5 Star features 26 entries from four countries, and five of those pairs will be making their five-star debuts.

We caught up with all five riders to learn more about how they're feeling heading into the event and to meet their special partners.

Andrew McConnon and Ferrie's Cello.

Andrew McConnon and Ferrie’s Cello

Andrew McConnon’s had a stellar year with Ferrie’s Cello, an 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Chello III VDL x Karelza) owned by Jeanne Shigo.

While they had been ready to compete at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event in April, McConnon got the call up to compete on the Nations Cup team at Strzegom in Poland in June, so he opted to take “Eddy” overseas and give him a bit more time and experience before his five-star debut.

Now they’re ready for Maryland with strong prep runs at the USEA American Eventing Championships presented by Nutrena Feeds (Lexington, Kentucky) and at Stable View Oktoberfest CCI4*-S (Aiken, South Carolina).

“The trip to Europe was my first trip over, and it was a really valuable experience,” said McConnon, Vass, North Carolina. “I learned a lot about what to pack, what we need, just the logistics of it. I had had the opportunity to compete in England for a couple of years, so that aspect of it wasn't as different to me. But it was really good to compete at a new place, and I think that was part of the goal of the developing tour—to get some of the Americans a chance to go to a venue that they've never been before. It was really good for the horse to grow and to travel and have to compete as well.

“He feels really well, honestly. He is a really talented, really capable horse, and it's just getting his brain to work well with his body, which he’s really coming into his own,” he said.

McConnon rode two horses in the CCI3*-L at Maryland last year, so he’s familiar with the terrain at Fair Hill, and he’s happy to just have Eddy to focus on this weekend.

“This year has been a little unique to us in that I've traveled a whole lot this year, and we've been to a lot of competitions,” he said. “I’ve really tried to put not only myself but the horses a little bit out of their usual routine or their comfort zone. So, I'm treating it very much as just another competition, which I know it's a lot more than that. I think we're just kind of rolling along, and I’m looking forward to it for sure. He’s a super galloper—the track should suit him, you’ve just got to cross your fingers and hope everything goes in the right way.”

McConnon is especially excited that William Fox-Pitt, who he spent time working for in England, will be competing at Maryland, so he plans to walk the cross-country course with him.

“It will be really fun to connect with him,” he said. “From a kid watching him around Kentucky, to be entered in a five-star with him is something that's a bit surreal.”

Jacob Fletcher and Fabian.

Jacob Fletcher and Fabian

Jacob Fletcher’s had a string of good results this year with Fabian, Fletcher Farms’ 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Up To Date x Inneke), including a second place finish at the Tryon International CCI4*-L (Mill Spring, North Carolina) in May.

The pair were named as alternates for the Pan American Games in Chile and are heading to Maryland as their backup plan. Fletcher’s never been to the new five-star site or the old Fair Hill CCI4*-L site.

“He had a break after the four-long at Tryon, and he’s just been building up some competitions on the lead up this fall,” said Fletcher. “He finished with another good result in the Tryon CCI4*-S a few weeks ago, and he's going well, so we will see.”

Fletcher, who’s competing this weekend alongside his wife, Cornelia Fletcher (née Dorr), has been partnered with Fabian since 2020. The gelding had a pasture injury during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Jacob spent that time rehabbing and getting to know him.

“[Our] partnership’s continued to get better. We know each other better,” he said. “He’s done two four-star longs and finished really well at the one this spring, so there's no reason not to take a swing at the five star.”

Jacob, North Little Rock, Arkansas, describes Fabian as lazy and spooky in his everyday demeanor. “On cross-country he wakes up, and he has a really good gallop, has a good motor, gives a really good feel, but is still spooky but very, very honest.”

Arielle Aharoni and Dutch Times.

Arielle Aharoni and Dutch Times

Not many upper-level riders can say they’ve known their horse since they were a weanling, but Arielle Aharoni is heading to her first five-star on Dutch Times, a gelding her mother Christina Aharoni picked out herself and broke to saddle.

Bred by Lauren Efford in Pennsylvania, the now 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood (Good Times x Alino Queen), started his international career with Tik Maynard before Arielle got the ride, though she and Christina often rode him at home.

“He's my mom's favorite child,” said Arielle with a laugh. “So, he’s been the horse that's been around my life the longest. We’ve formed a partnership, and I’ll probably never have a partnership like I have with him. He’s part of the family, and he knows me inside out, and I know him inside out. Watching him start with Tik, how nicely he was brought up through the levels, it kind of gave me a little bit of confidence that this horse knows his job already.”

Arielle had thought about doing the CCI4*-L at Morven Park this fall, but decided it was a good time to try for a five-star.

“I was like, you know, we're qualified, this is the best this horse has ever felt,” she said. “Might as well. I've had a lot of people telling me to strike while the iron is hot. So here we are.”

Arielle, Bedminster, New Jersey, describes “Dutch” as a bit wild in the cross-country warm up, so she’s hoping to conserve his energy as much as possible and come home clear and safe.

“Once I'm out on course, this horse adjusts on the dime, and he finds the flags,” she said. “At this point, I think we could set a kid on him and he could take her around Prelim. I trust him with my whole heart.”

Mia Farley and Phelps.

Mia Farley and Phelps

Mia Farley will make her five-star debut with David O’Connor’s Phelps, a 10-year-old unraced off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding (Tiznow x Boom Town Gal).

O’Connor bought the gelding for $1 through Joanie Morris, and Farley, who’s originally from California, started riding Phelps when he was 4.

“We went Novice for a year, and he kind of jumped just high enough for every level,” she said. “We never thought that he'd go Intermediate, and then we never thought he'd go Advanced, and now we're here.”

Farley is based in The Plains, Virginia, with her partner Woods Baughman. She worked for O’Connor for several years and still gets advice from him and his wife Karen O’Connor, when she needs it.

Farley’s been around the CCI3*-L track at Maryland, so she understands the terrain and is happy to be riding a Thoroughbred on cross-country day.

“I think as a pair, Maryland will be a good test to see kind of where we are, and then we’ll have our eyes on Kentucky next year,” she said. “He’s just a really special cross-country horse. My partnership with Phelps now is all about trust; I think that’s our biggest asset. He's not a horse that I think anyone could get on; we really trust each other, and we've been with each other our whole careers.”

Sarah Kuhn and Mr. Cash van de Start.

Sarah Kuhn and Mr. Cash van de Start

“I've had the horse for almost seven years, so I know him really well, and I feel really excited to have them at this level,” said Sarah Kuhn of her horse Mr. Cash van de Start. “I’ve produced him from the beginning, and it's just a really big moment for me and the entire team.”

Kuhn, Aiken, South Carolina, had hoped to run the five-star at Kentucky in the spring, but “Mr. Cash” had a bout of Lyme Disease last fall, and while he ran well at the 2022 Tryon CCI4*-L, he was a few seconds too slow on cross-country and missed his five-star qualification, so the pair completed the Tryon CCI4*-L this spring.

“Honestly, I think that's fine, she said. “He has been a really quirky horse throughout his development—he's very, very spooky, but he’s been a really good horse. It's taken some time for me to be able to produce him to a point where he can jump really well and go out at speed, and I'm finally at that place. He's really developed a lot in the past year, and he's much less spooky, he gallops better; he also has been a horse that's always been very strong in the bridle, but he's a lot better now. I think everything happens for a reason, and I think I feel really good heading to a five-star now with his training and everything.”

Kuhn describes her mother Deborah Kuhn’s 11-year-old Belgian Warmblood gelding (Deauville de la Vie x Ishtar van de Start) as a character who thinks very highly of himself.

“He is a very confident horse, like he kind of knows he's top dog here,” she said with a laugh. “I would describe him as a bit conceited, and he is a bit quirky. Me and my groom [Alexa Duncan] are mostly the ones who ride him; you couldn't just put anyone on him for a hack or something. He's just kind of a funny horse, but he really is a workhorse, and he tries incredibly hard. He comes to work every day; even if he's tired, he'll push through. I'm really lucky to have him, and honestly, I wouldn't want to be doing my first five-star on any other horse.”

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