If you want to compete with - and beat - the best, you have to push yourself. Hard. Ariel Grald’s third place at Luhmühlen on Leamore Master Plan is proof of that. Simply riding at the German CCI5* in 2021 involved a great deal of effort and determination, so to pull off the USA’s best result at a foreign five-star since Boyd Martin’s third on Shamwari 4, also at Luhmühlen, back in 2014, was a triumph for the 32-year-old.
Grald said: “I really believe in the horse, and I’ve always believed that he’s capable of being a top-placing five-star horse. But it’s been a long road; he’s big, and so the dressage, in particular, has taken a while to start to put together, and he still needs to shave off a few more points – but he’s always been a jumping machine, and he lives for the cross-country. He absolutely loves it; he loves to gallop, and he’s super-brave and genuine. So I’m just thrilled with how he performed in all three phases.”
The obvious and far less stressful option this year would have been to head to Kentucky. However, with a 12th place there and 10th at Burghley in 2019 already under their belts, Grald and her very supportive owner, Annie Eldridge, decided that getting to another European CCI5* should be their target with the Master Imp 12-year-old. Badminton was cancelled, so Luhmühlen it was.
“For me to keep developing as a rider – this is my first five-star horse, and my first four-star horse – part of getting better is to keep putting myself and the horse in new and challenging situations, to keep putting ourselves out there and get out of our comfort zones so that we can keep improving because I want to be competitive on the world stage,” explained Grald. “Building towards the future, he’s got to keep travelling, and we’ve got to keep attacking new courses, so that was always kind of the plan for him, to figure out how to get over to Europe.
“It looked like Luhmühlen was committed to running, and we’ve had a lot of support from the U.S. The USEF did a great job to get everything organised for us so we could come over.”
She continued: “COVID has changed so much about our sport, and it’s been a real challenge for everyone, from organisers to riders and everyone in between. Last year, I ended up doing quite a bit with Leamore Master Plan because we’d missed the spring season, and once things were running again, I felt like I just went full-on with him. Due to some cancellations, our season actually went quite long last year – and while my horse went fairly well at a CCI4*-L at Tryon in November, he ended up way too fit. He was really, really strong on the cross-country and solid show jumping – I had almost done a bit too much with him and kept him going for too long. So I really let him down over the winter and took my time to figure out what would be the next best step for him. I knew that I really wanted to go abroad with him again, but that was pretty up in the air.
“At this point, though, he really knows his job, so he doesn’t have to jump very much, and he doesn’t need a whole lot of gallops to be five-star fit – he holds that really well. I did the CCI5* test ride at Kentucky in April – it was cold, and the weather was wild, but I felt like, ‘he’s ready, and I think we should go to Luhmühlen.’ Erik Duvander, the U.S. Team Coach, really supported me and gave me the confidence not to overprepare, but at the same time, to go for it.”
Grald had never visited Luhmühlen, although she had watched videos of previous events to get a feel for the venue, which is situated rurally about an hour south of Hamburg. It is a compact site with a big, all-weather main arena and a cross-country on sandy soil that twists through woodland.
She said: “It’s an interesting cross-country course because you’re in the open, but you’re also galloping through the woods a bit, too, so it’s a very different feel to the likes of Kentucky and Burghley, where you’re blasting down galloping lanes. It really is an incredible venue; it’s beautiful, and the footing was amazing.”
Her dressage mark of 33.1 was her best at the level: “I truly believe he is a high-twenties horse when he gets a little stronger. I need to allow him a little bit more forward and show a little bit more expression. He’s not ever going to get a 22, but I think he’s capable of knocking off a few more points. But he’s getting more rideable, and he tries really hard, but in that effort, he gets a little anxious and a little worried and a little frustrated sometimes in the dressage because it is hard for him. He’s such a big horse. But his brain was in such a good space that I can’t be displeased with him in any way in the dressage – it’s just that competitive side of me that wants more. But it’s in there, for sure.”
Their cross-country record is excellent, and they zoomed around the Mike Etherington-Smith-designed track impressively, with just 3.6 time-faults.
Grald said: “It was my fault that I was that nine seconds slow; I gathered him a little bit soon a couple of times because I was opening up his gallop, and in the past, I’ve had to work quite a bit to compress him for the technical combinations. He really came back to me well throughout the course, so I could have done less, and I definitely could have been a bit quicker.”
The course caused plenty of issues, including for the likes of both Tim and Jonelle Price, Jennie Brannigan and the double Olympic gold medallist Michael Jung.
“Tim [Price] is always the one I watch – I admire him so much, and watching his horses go is always a good gauge for me to watch how a course is riding,” said Grald. “I know what my plan is, but at Burghley, I watched him jump around early on in the day, and once I’d watched him, I was like, 'okay, I’m good!'
“That water [the Meßmerteich], I was a little worried about how horses were going to read that skinny. Watching Tim have trouble there was a little bit unnerving, so I kind of just stopped watching – I just wanted to focus on my ride.
“Once I’d gotten through the first and second water complexes, I thought, ‘oh, we’re golden.’ He was really, really good – reading all the questions, paying attention, being rideable, and I actually had a lot of fun. It isn’t always like that – but I enjoyed all the galloping, and he felt really good; he had plenty of energy and gallop at the end. They did the best they could with the ground, but it definitely was a little bit firm – he doesn’t mind running in mud, he’s a typical Irish horse. Still, it was on the firmer side, and it was hot, and it was the least amount of preparation I’ve ever done, in the sense that he’d only had one run, and I’d made sure I hadn’t over-conditioned him. But I felt confident in my plan. It was a little different preparation than I’d done in the past, and it’s hard for me because he’s my only five-star horse – I’ve got some good young Intermediate and three-star horses, so there’s a bit of a gap there. He doesn’t need the practice, but I do! But that’s our partnership coming through. I trust that horse: he’s such a good jumper, and he’s an honest, honest boy. So that made for a really fun round.”
The show jumping at Luhmühlen is notoriously tough, and Grald was aware of that from talking to other riders beforehand.
She said: “I definitely had to ride every jump on that showjumping course, for sure. That was one of the disappointments for me at Tryon last year; I actually had two down in the showjumping in the CCI4*-L, and I’d never had that happen with him before. He was still running off with me in the showjumping, just like he had run off with me in cross-country the day before. Obviously, I really wanted to jump clear at Luhmühlen because the horse is careful and he’s capable of doing that. He jumped well – I had one lucky rub, but that never hurts as long as the rail stays in the cups! I think even more than him jumping well, his rideability was there. I could make him wait, and he could move up – he just never got away from me. That was really exciting.”
The only downside to their German adventure is that Annie Eldridge couldn’t be there with them.
“She was very sad to miss it, because she travelled with him to Millstreet and Burghley, and she goes to all his big events, but it just wasn’t possible this time. She’s putting faith in the horse, and we have a lot of people standing behind us, and it means a lot to me on a personal level to be able to produce that performance and have that validation that people are standing behind us and we’ve earned it.”
Grald’s journey to the top of the sport is inextricably linked with this horse and his owner, as she explained: “I started working and riding a little bit for Annie in 2012. It’s funny – we were introduced by a mutual friend that I had done some riding for, and I’d moved to North Carolina because I’d decided I wanted to ride full-time and make a go of it. I was introduced to Annie, and she just had a small private farm and needed help exercising one horse and needed some help with errands and some other things.
“It started very simply, just a few hours here and there in 2012, and now, over nine years later, we have a huge string of horses. She has a large breeding farm in North Carolina, and I train out of that facility. It’s been a journey that neither of us could have even imagined. I had a couple of horses that I owned when I started working with her, and she had a few, but we realised that we wanted to develop horses to the top of the sport. I went over to Ireland in 2014 – it was my first horse-shopping trip ever, so ‘Simon’ is literally the first horse I’ve ever picked up. I got pretty lucky, I’d say! He was very awkward, a very gangly five-year-old, and I don’t know if I would buy him again if I saw him now – but there was just something about him, and so we bought him and brought him over as a five-year-old.
“He’s a very expressive, very smart horse. He’s always been a bit cheeky, not in a malicious way – I think exuberant is the best word I can come up with for him. He still bucks and squeals; that’s actually one of his favourite things – he squeals quite high-pitched like a pony in his flying changes. Some days, you’ve just got to let him buck and get it out of his system. He’s a big, rangy horse, so he’s always had a tonne of energy, but he tries so hard and is just the most genuine creature. Now, on the ground, you can do anything with him – he ground ties, so if you're bathing him at a horse show, you can drop the lead, and he’ll stand there. He’s so, so easy to handle. He’s finally starting to behave himself at the jogs, too. At this point, handling him on the ground, he’s so perfect – but under saddle, he’s cheeky. He’s by Master Imp, so he’s not a very straightforward horse to ride – but it’s never been a malicious, naughty, ‘I want to be bad’ sort of attitude; he can’t help himself. The energy starts bubbling up, and he can’t contain it! He’s 17hh – he’s tall, he’s fairly long, but I’m almost 6ft, so he suits me well."
Her future aims certainly include representing the U.S. at a championship level.
“I would love to be considered for WEG next year,” she admitted, “so I guess we’ll kind of look at how to prepare him best and fill in the gaps to have him ready for that. Hopefully, Badminton runs next year. He would love that – that track would really suit him.”
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