Apr 17, 2023

Catching Up With The Land Rover Kentucky Five-Star First-Timers

By Lindsay Berreth - USEA Staff

This year’s Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event will feature several five-star horse and rider veterans like Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg TSF and Phillip Dutton and Z, but three of the entries will be making their dreams come true in their five-star debuts.

We caught up with Sydney Solomon, Andrew McConnon, and Alina Dibowski to learn more about their journeys to Kentucky.

Sydney Solomon and Early Review CBF. USEA/Lindsay Berreth Photo

Sydney Solomon | Age: 26 | Horse: Early Review CBF, a 14-year-old Hanoverian mare (Earl x Lois Lane CBF) bred and owned by Laurie Cameron.

Solomon grew up in Maryland and was inspired to pick up eventing when her childhood trainer Ashley Beheler took her and a group of friends to Fair Hill (Elkton, Maryland) to watch the CCI4*-L.

While her first few events ended in eliminations when her horse decided he didn’t like the sport, Solomon eventually found her first upper-level partner, Lillian Pink CBF, from the mare’s breeder Laurie Cameron, which started a friendship and partnership that continues today. Solomon and the mare competed at the FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships at the Kentucky Horse Park in 2014 and made it to the Intermediate level with guidance from Lillian Heard Wood.

After Lillian Pink CBF died unexpectedly in a stall accident, Solomon reconnected with Cameron, who reached out to her about taking the ride on Early Review CBF, or “Coco.” Wood had started the mare at the lower levels and competed her through the CCI2*-S level.

Solomon and Coco have since moved through the levels together. They finished sixth at the Morven Park CCI4*-L (Leesburg, Virginia) last fall and were 13th in their final prep run at the Stable View CCI4*-S (Aiken, South Carolina) in early April.

USEA: Tell me about your partnership with Coco.

Sydney Solomon: I've been riding her now for almost eight years, so we know each other very well. Just in general, the horse is very brave. She's very brave and willing, and that's helped a lot, and it's given me a lot of confidence. We've had our ups and downs, but I'd say for the most part, it’s been a very positive experience for me. She's quirky; she has a lot of opinions. I always joke that she doesn't keep any secrets because she's always telling you exactly how she feels. I just feel like we know each other so well now that I can pretty much feel what she's going to do, and hopefully she knows what I'm going to do, and we trust each other. So hopefully that comes in handy at Kentucky.

I actually can't really jump school her at home very often because she gets so wild that it's pretty hard! I can cross-country school, but I don't end up show jumping her very much, and she doesn't really like the indoor arena for flat work. So recently I've kind of realized with her that if I just do a little less flat work she's actually happier to do it at the events. So that's been that's been something I probably I wish that I'd learned sooner.

That's been a key in the last six months—just been keeping her fit and happy and doing enough, but not just sticking in the dressage arena every day and trying to sort it out, because it seems like it's just frustrating for both of us. It seems to have helped our scores a little bit, actually. So fingers crossed for that as we move forward.

Has a five-star always been a goal for you?

For sure. I went to Kentucky for the first time to watch in 2008 with my friends. We went to watch Teddy O'Connor [with Karen O’Connor] because we thought that was just so amazing that Karen rode basically a pony. Phillip Dutton ended up winning that year, and that was kind of what put him on my radar. Then I ended up working for him less than 10 years later. Going to Kentucky for the first time was definitely what inspired me to actually want to get there. Even just going to Fair Hill probably 15 years ago. Just seeing horses at that top level, I just realized that that was just a whole other realm that I had never even seen before, and I wanted to be a part of it.

Tell me about your mentors in the sport.

[Lillian Heard Wood] definitely opened my eyes, and she really helped me step up my game. I worked for her during the summers a bit, and I still ride with Lillian quite a lot. She's definitely been a huge mentor to me, and I still walk the courses with her all the time and go over for lessons all the time and turn to her all the time.

Right between high school and what was supposed to be college, I was going to take a gap year. I was enrolled in college, and then I was like, ‘Well, I'm gonna defer a year.’ So I had gone to work for Phillip [Dutton], and that was really amazing. I did that for a year, almost two years. And then after his stepdaughter's accident, he sent a few of us out on our own, but we were able to rent stalls at his farm. I've kind of been lucky to have both Lillian and Phillip’s guidance throughout this whole period. I went out on my own in 2017. I had a second job riding foxhunters in the afternoon. It was good because I felt like I had to learn how to be really independent, and I had some good opportunities riding a couple horses for Lori.

How are you feeling heading into your first five-star?

I am nervous, but I feel like our preparation has gone very smoothly, and I'm almost nervous that it’s going too smoothly because I'm so used to the wheels falling off at some point on the way to a three-day, so I'm just hoping that maybe we've just gotten all of the troubles out of our way. We've definitely had just about everything go wrong in the past that you can possibly think of, as almost any horse and rider combination does by the time they've been together for eight years. She feels really good, and she's happy, but I don't want to jinx myself because I am very nervous. I desperately want to go clear on cross-country.

I'm looking forward to the cross-country, and I'm looking forward to just actually competing in a five-star. I know that sounds silly, but the difference between a four-star and a five-star—there's probably 100 spectators, but obviously there's thousands of spectators [at a five-star], so it'd be really cool to actually be in front of all of those spectators.

Andrew McConnon and Ferrie's Cello.
Andrew McConnon and Ferrie's Cello. USEA/Lindsay Berreth photo

Andrew McConnon | Age: 37 | Horse: Ferrie’s Cello, an 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Chello III VDL x Karelza), bred by J. Sneller and owned by Jeanne Shigo.

Andrew McConnon grew up riding at his mother’s riding school in Massachusetts before meeting trainer Marc Donovan and starting to take eventing seriously.

He moved to Southern Pines, North Carolina, after high school to work for Donovan, then moved on to Bobby Costello’s Tanglewood Farm nearby to go out on his own and benefit from more coaching.

McConnon contested his first Advanced horse trials on Rachel Jurgens’ former five-star horse Ziggy, then he decided it was time for a change and moved to England in 2016 to work for William Fox-Pitt.

McConnon returned at the end of 2017 armed with much more experience and started his business over again from scratch in Southern Pines with just two horses, his dog, and a truck (he’d sold his horse trailer). He met Jeanne Shigo through a mutual friend and got the ride on Ferrie’s Cello, or “Eddy,” after Caroline Martin had taken him through Preliminary and the CCI2*-S level.

After a strong finish at the Virginia Horse Trials CCI3*-L in 2021, McConnon and the gelding were put on the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Development Athlete Program list, and they’ve benefitted from the extra training and team experiences like the FEI Nations Cup at Bromont (Quebeca, Canada) in 2022, ever since. Last fall, they were fourth in the Morven Park CCI4*-L, and they completed the Stable View CCI4*-S as their final prep before Kentucky.

Tell me about your partnership with Ferrie’s Cello.

He doesn't lack personality! He's got a big personality. He's changed a lot, but when I first met him, he used to be terrified of a blanket being put on him. You couldn't go anywhere near him.

He's very funny; he sticks his tongue out on the cross ties. Fortunately, he doesn't do that under tack! He does this weird thing in the paddock where he'll chase his tail. He’ll spin around in a circle chasing his tail and then kind of kick out, and then look up, and then he'll spin the other way.

But his personality is such that he lacks a little bit of confidence—more within himself. Just self-confidence. We've really worked on trying to develop a partnership and that confidence, because he's a very able horse. He's tall, leggy, he has nice movement, and a great jump. He has got a wonderful gallop, but it's just getting him comfortable and relaxed in his mind in order to get the best out of him.

What was it like working for William Fox-Pitt?

It was incredible. It was pretty soon after his injury to his head, and he was gearing back up, and the [2016] Rio Olympics seemed to be a pretty far reaching goal for him. But he was able to very quickly bounce back, and so it was really, really fun to be there getting the horses going again. Because of that, I think I had a little bit more opportunity actually to ride some of the younger horses since he was more focusing on the top horses to try and make his way back to the Olympic Games. Over that time I competed 10 different horses at over 50 competitions through the Intermediate level.

How are you feeling going into your first five-star?

I definitely take it event by event and try not to look too far in the future because I think it's important to just keep checking off the boxes. But I've had a really, really good help between Leslie Law and Bobby Costello. Leslie's been really helpful with myself and the horse. He’s been at both four-longs and was helping us up at the Nation's Cup as well. He really understands the horse, mentally and physically. He's been really helpful. After Morven he watched him go around and really thought that Kentucky would be a nice next step for him. But I kind of take one thing at a time.

It's been a goal since I was a kid. I can't even think of how many times I've gone to Kentucky to watch. It’s just a dream to be able to compete there.

When I came back to America after working for William, a couple of the horses that I had worked with and watched William develop, were doing their first Badminton [in 2018]. I chose to go back and watch them go around there. William said to me, and it was really impactful: He said, ‘I'm really glad you came to watch,’ and he said that it was nice that I was there, and he said, ‘but the next time I see you at a five-star I want you to be riding.’ That motivated me, more than I think he realized. I love to go and watch these, but I told myself I wasn't going to go to another five-star to just spectate; that the next one I was going to go to I was going to be competing.

What are you most looking forward to at Kentucky?

I’m obviously going to have a good go. As a kid, I remember watching the trot up and just thinking that the horses looked amazing, and riders, I was just in awe of the riders and wanted to be there. So I think everything from trot up to imagining what those riders feel on the final day finishing over the last show jump fence and the accomplishment of a whole career worth of work and months’ worth of work—so really, everything from start to finish. Might be a bit cheesy, but it's true!

Alina Dibowski and Barbados 26. Shannon Brinkman Photography photo

Alina Dibowski | Age: 22 | Horse: Barbados 26, a 14-year-old Polish Sport Horse gelding (Moravia x Babilonia xx), bred by Roman Drabinski, owned by Susanna Dibowski.

As the youngest rider in the field, German young rider Alina Dibowski will be making her first trip to a five-star, and her first trip to the United States with her longtime partner Barbados 26, or “Baba.”

The daughter of German Olympian Andreas Dibowski, Alina is making a name for herself at the top of the sport—she was the youngest rider at the 2022 FEI World Eventing Championship in Pratoni.

She and Baba have been partnered since Alina was 13 years old. They’ve competed at the FEI European Championships at the junior and young rider level. They won their final Kentucky prep run at the Strzegom CCI4*-S in Poland at the end of March.

Tell me about your partnership with Baba.

We met nine years ago. He came to our stable when he was 4 years old. My dad found him in Poland when he was escaping the trot up [at an event] because he was competing there with another rider. The picture of the horse escaping the trot up stayed in the mind of my dad, so he brought him home.

I was riding ponies at the time, so I was not searching for a grown-up horse, but one of my ponies was injured. My mom was the one trying to convince me to try out a horse, and then there were just two options, and Baba was one of them. I must say it was not love at first sight, because at this time, his body was not even finished. He was growing up. The body parts were not matching to the kind of horse, but what was very unique about him was his gentle eye and his way of working. He had natural talent to be a kid’s horse, I guess. We both didn't know what we were doing, but it worked. He was very mature, even in his youngest age.

He even came with me when I was finishing school. I immediately started working at a stable to make my education with horses here in Germany. It takes two years to get an education about horse riding. I took him with me to my exam lesson [in Warendorf,] so even at this stage of my life, he was there, and he was at my side

What was it like competing at the World Championship last year?

I was not expecting it. It was not the plan when we started the year last year. We had in mind to compete at another four-long again. But then with the [German selection trials] at Luhmühlen, and then the big event at Haras du Pin [France], something came in order, and the results and the feeling that he was giving me was getting better and better and better.

All of a sudden, my name was on the long list for Pratoni. So it was kind of unexpected. I think it also took a while too for me to really realize that I'm going to the World Championships. Even when I was there, I was not like, ‘Oh my God, these are the World Championships, and we're there.’ It was later on, like, ‘Oh, my God, see what we did together or what we achieved.’ But it took awhile because everything came very fast last year, and it was something new. When we were sitting at lunch, and I saw the big names taking lunch around me, like the Price family and Andrew Hoy as well. But also being on the team, even if I was an individual rider, being in the team of the German squad, it was an amazing experience. It’s not always happening at a young age.

And your dad was your groom?

Yes, on paper he was my groom, but my mom was with me, and she was preparing the horses for me too. My dad is always my head coach. For me he’s the most trusted one when it's about events, when it's about cross-country, so he knows me very, very well. He knows the horse very, very well because he also rode him up to four-star long competition. So, when he gives me some advice, or when he says like, this is working, or you can keep the time or you can ride the direct route, I always trust his advice.

What’s the most important piece of advice he’s given you?

I think now with me getting more experience myself, it's that I need to trust my feeling, my intuition. He always says I have a very good instinct in cross-country, and he makes me believe in it. I think this is the most important thing he taught me over the years.

Why did you decide to come to Kentucky?

Last year in the process, like after Luhmühlen, it was coming up to my mind that the next step will be definitely a five-star start. And for me growing up as a rider in general, it's a very good experience to have in my backpack that I rode over such a huge competition.

My dad was in Kentucky in 2010 at the World Games, so I know Kentucky just out of his memory. It was always something I had in mind when I would go to America. This will also be my first America experience. It would be great to match it with a competition, and Kentucky is one of the biggest events, so I think this will be a unique experience I will never get so easily again, and then with my partner in crime at my side. I think this will be something for a lifetime.

The cross-country is like the high of eventing, so I'm very excited about the track, and I'm very excited about everything around—getting this feeling I'm in Kentucky, and people loving the sport, and having the support of so many people just cheering for us during the course—I think this will be an unbelievable feeling. [I was told] that all [American] people just want to help you. They want to care for you and give you everything to get the best possible out of this experience. I'm very looking forward to this kind of American culture thing.

I kind of have an idea, especially about the huge main arena. I'm excited about if it's really that big. Hopefully I'm not scared about the size of it! I watched the cross-country ride from Yas Ingham [in 2022]. She posted on Instagram. I think this is a very good preparation or mental preparation for me because she's also a bit close to my age. She's the World Champion, so I think watching her riding I can learn a lot from and get a feeling about the track.

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