There was a good deal of hugging and squealing going on in Barn 8 at the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington after the conclusion of the Virginia Three-Day Event, as friends and stablemates Skyeler Icke and Kate Samuels claimed surprising victories in the open and young rider divisions of the CCI*, respectively, May 24-27.
“Skyeler and I have matching horses, and we bought matching jackets,” said a breathless Samuels after her show jumping round. “But they’re so hot!”
The weekend’s steamy summertime weather didn’t put a damper on the pair’s performances though, as they continued their twin-like trend by earning dual blue ribbons.
Samuels and Icke won aboard two young Selle Francais horses, both imported two years ago by Beatrice and Gui Rey-Herme’s R.H. Equine, along with their coach, Stuart Black. Samuels’ Nyls Du Terroir, a 6-year-old, 17.1-hand gelding, and Icke’s 7-year-old bay Matus (co-owned by Barry Israel of Vietnam) flew over on the same plane from France.
“Both of these guys were just so goofy up until now,” Samuels said. But her mount Nyls put forth his best effort at Lexington to log a 52.8 on the CCI test, placing them in fourth.
“He tends to get pretty tense in his back and starts doing that little Shetland pony trot,” the Charlottesville, Va., teen explained, trilling her tongue and pedaling her hands in imitation. “But I watched earlier rides, and the scores were great for the super-relaxed [rides], so that’s what we went for.”
Cross-country took its toll on many in the CCIJY* top 10. First-placed Shannon Grube and Caledonia were knocked out of contention with a stop at the first water complex, and second-placed Olivia Upham retired her horse Silent Acclaim after a fall halfway through the course. Reds Ready and Katie Domino, previously in third, acquired a whopping 23 penalties on roads and tracks, vaulting Samuels into the lead with her fast, clear round.
“It was much bigger than anything I’ve ever done, but it looked a bit smaller each time I walked it,” said Samuels of her first one-star cross-country course. “It was a little bit hairy in the beginning.”
Samuels had some reservations about how her green horse might react to the complex questions and foresaw him possibly snowballing down the steep hill to the tricky Hobbit Village at 12ABC, but her fears were unfounded. By the end of the course, she said her horse was undoubtedly taking care of her; when her helmet slipped down over her eyes during a 90-degree turn from the barrels to a skinny chevron at Fence 18AB, her mount locked in on the second element and sailed over it without question.
“It was like he just said, ‘I got it, Mom!’ ” said Samuels proudly.
But show jumping in the Horse Center’s Anderson Coliseum truly tested the young horse’s mettle. Samuels had nothing in hand going into the phase, and of the 23 pairs jumping before her, only three had managed to jump clear. To compound the pressure, one of those had been second-placed Cristina Garafola and Erin’s Nighthawk, a mere 1.9 penalties behind her.
The outcome came down the to the last combination, where, after jumping around beautifully, Nyls appeared to consider a stop at the first element of the final in-and-out. The crowd’s collective intake of breath was audible as Samuels kicked on, and her horse leapt through the double with cat-like dexterity to gallop through the finish flags on his dressage score.
“I knew it wasn’t coming down,” said a happy Samuels. “I thought, ‘I feel lucky!’ ”
That said, the soon-to-be college-bound rider wasn’t quite so confident at all times during the weekend. “Emily Beshear and her husband [Jeff, a veterinarian] have been helping me through this and have been the best pit crew ever. Emily basically said, ‘This is when you breathe,’ and I would breathe,” Samuels said.
Then she added: “I never, ever dreamed I would come here and place in the top five, let alone win.”
Consistency Is Key
Fittingly, Icke’s win in the open division of the CCI* came down to a finish rivaling the excitement of Samuels’, though it came at the expense of the two competitors ahead of her.
Sitting in third going into the show jumping, the 22-year-old from Vienna, Va., was nearly 8 points off the leader, Kadi EyKamp with Double Rivers 2 Cool, who had held an easy lead since dressage. Icke and “Matty” put in a solid round with one rail down, leaving them to likely finish third overall.
But the fates were smiling on Icke as the more senior horses and riders in her division took to the course. Second-placed Mary Schwentker and Ottoman pulled a rail on each of the last two fences, dropping them below Icke in the standings.
EyKamp then entered the arena with two rails in hand, one of which she used at the second fence, but Double Rivers 2 Cool looked to be settling into a rhythm after sailing perfectly through the triple combination. No one was more surprised than Icke, then, when EyKamp pulled three more rails at the end of the course.
Combining three good phases has been a challenge for Icke up until this point, but she was pleased with the mental game the horse brought to the dressage (earning a 52.5) and the willingness he showed on cross-country.
“I got him almost a year ago, and he’s been tough,” she said. “He’s grown up a lot this year, and he’s finally starting to put it all together.”
Saturday’s endurance phase, which lacked a steeplechase due to hard footing, effectively narrowed the field from 16 to nine.
“He’s very green, so it was a lot tougher to ride than I expected,” she said of the mostly right-handed, downhill course. “He doesn’t have a lot of experience at the water, so for him to gallop right up to it willingly was great.”
This is the second CCI* win for Icke within the past eight months, as she took the blue at Morven Park (Va.) in October with her other 7-year-old French import, Tika. She said last year’s decision to retire her aging advanced partner, Dillinger, in order to start two youngsters was a difficult one at the time, but she’s been more than pleased with the outcome. Both horses are aimed for a two-star this fall.
Better And Better
Darren Chiacchia essentially had his horse’s bad behavior to thank for their win in the open division of the CIC**. After Better I Do It’s run-out on cross-country at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** in April, Chiacchia decided a bit change was in order before the Pan American Games selection trial at Jersey Fresh (N.J.) at the beginning of June.
“He came home from Rolex, and he had two weeks off. He hasn’t even done a real gallop,” said Chiacchia, who is celebrating his first anniversary with the horse after taking over the ride from Adrienne Iorio last year. “He did a light canter and went to the swimming pool a couple times, and he feels great. For each horse you can only do what’s best for them. You just have to say, ‘Do I go to this final Pan Am trial feeling less than prepared?’ ”
The change from a snaffle to a simple gag on cross-country worked beautifully for Chiacchia, who said he wasn’t even sure he would complete the whole cross-country course at Virginia.
“But he felt good; he went well,” Chiacchia said, after a careful cruise around the course, which garnered 17.6 time penalties but no jumping faults. “He was very happy in the [new bridle], and he has never been that happy with any change I’ve made before.”
The pair had led the field of 19 after dressage with a score of 52.2. “I wanted to get a good school to prepare for the trials, so I wanted to try for a little bit more in the dressage,” Chiacchia said. And a clean show jumping round with 5 time penalties kept them in first place going into Saturday’s cross-country.
Extensive aerating and watering was done to improve the bone-dry track and ensure a safe fairway for horses like Chiacchia’s, who could easily have been withdrawn. But the dedicated efforts of organizers Penny and Brian Ross, in combination with the light rain that fell Friday night, made for near-perfect footing when most competitors took their final walks on Saturday morning.
“The ground was a little firm, [but] the crew there just did an amazing job,” acknowledged Chiacchia. “They were watering all night.”
In addition to his CIC** win, Chiacchia finished second in the open intermediate with Kate Luce’s Tia Lusso, and rode Ferrari GS to a win in a training horse division. His other two-star horse, Tragumna, was ninth.
Third Time’s The Charm
Young rider Kirsten Selvig was third in her first intermediate aboard Ruse de Guerre at Pine Top (Ga.) in February and claimed the red ribbon at their second event at the level at the Loudoun Hunt (Va.) in April. The 19-year-old then culminated her rise to the top with a win in the CICY** division in Lexington.
Unlike most upper-level young riders, Selvig doesn’t train regularly with any particular instructor. She said Chris Hitchcock served as her coach at Virginia, but she has moved her off-the-track Thoroughbred, her only horse, up from novice to intermediate over the past four years by mostly self-training and taking frequent clinics.
“He slipped while we were riding at home after Pine Top and was out for awhile,” explained Selvig, a Florida native who now attends the University of South Carolina.
“I thought his dressage test was great,” said Selvig, who scored 56.1. “We’ve been sort of working on the collected canter, coming back from the injury. Sometimes his canter transitions are a little insane. But he was really great, and it was a very correct test.”
“Rocket’s” performance in the next phase wasn’t quite so correct, but it was still sufficient to move the pair into first place. “The coliseum was an experience,” Selvig explained, laughing. “He sort of went in, and the jumps were the last thing on his mind. I think he maybe even trotted a few. But he’s very careful.”
In first going into cross-country, she knew her 11-year-old, 17.1-hand gelding had the win in him. Despite Selvig’s reservations about the South Beach combination at 3AB and the bounce into the second water, her horse jumped confidently. With the fastest clear round in the division, they clinched the win.
“He goes cross-country in a French link and goes into the start box on the buckle.
He’s very calm and quiet until he explodes on the cross-country course, and then he’s right back to sleeping. He has a really good mind,” she said.
Selvig and Rocket will head home to Florida to take the summer off from competition, and she plans to work for a dressage trainer in the meantime. While Selvig didn’t qualify for this year’s North American Junior and Young Riders Championships due to the spring injury, she hopes to aim for the competition next year.