What does it take to get to the Mars Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill as a competitor? Think about it. It takes months of honing the skills, building the fitness required and putting together all the little pieces, with no guarantee of success. It takes faith in your partner and yourself to put it all out there and make the years of work worthwhile.
But what else does it take? Confidence, obviously. It’s OK that your confidence gets shaken at times, but it’s imperative that while you’re performing there is no doubt. It’s a big challenge.
The planning mind that can easily put together a program to achieve a five-star goal is sometimes the one that struggles to be clear in the moment of action. The sport requires both aspects at different times. It’s a great skill to get to work on, and there are few better exercises than sport for revealing who you are and identifying the things you need to improve. For those who are successful, the memories will carry them through the next years of work.
It’s the year before the Paris Olympics, and many are coming to Maryland to put themselves in selectors’ minds going into next spring. This is an opportunity to get the much-needed qualifier and test their partnership at the highest level—and it is likely to be a test.
The property at Maryland is unique. It features open country and green, rolling hills for miles, harkening back to what cross-country looked like when Northeast North America was the place for eventing.
Many of the venues we now compete at are modeled after what we as humans think sport complexes should be, often at the expense of what makes horses happy. They’re often designed in boardrooms. Golf cart paths are not for the horses, neither are grand pavilions. Those things are designed to make a show more enjoyable for humans. Horses just want green grass and cool weather, and horse-friendly Fair Hill, Maryland, offers both.
Big things are afoot with Ian Stark’s cross-country design this year, for many reasons. He announced that he will be relinquishing his duties as course designer at upper-level competitions at the end of 2024. He’ll leave behind a big pair of shoes to fill, but at the same time it gives him two more years to leave his stamp on this site, where he was the inaugural five-star course designer.
It takes many years to really get familiar with how a property’s terrain and features will influence placement of jumps, and where the permanent fixtures should be located. Too many modern sites rely on portables that simply are moved around to ask questions. This is not the hallmark of top courses. Maryland has natural and unnatural elements, both of which are used to great effect.
The other important thing Ian will be considering this year is how to make the optimum time more influential than it has been in the past couple of events. Getting that last piece of the puzzle right will be a significant challenge; after all, we have been blessed with the best weather and footing the last two years. In Maryland’s history as the country’s pre-eminent four-star, the rain seemed to bucket down many years, so there’s no guarantee the good weather will continue.
I have heard rumors of some changes being planned, and if they hold true it will definitely be a challenge to make the time, regardless of the weather. It’s such a challenge for a designer to check all those boxes, but I’d guess that Ian will make it happen and once again create a competition that is worthy of those making the trip, if they’re amply prepared.
It is worth discussing the small field of entries this year, but first we should look at the high quality of the international horses and riders who are making the trip to the U.S., including Oliver Townend (ranked first in the world), Tim Price (ranked fourth), and five-star winners William Fox-Pitt, Piggy March and Caroline Powell. Watching these riders will be educational, and rarely do we get this opportunity on home turf.
There is some speculation that the overall low entry numbers are due to the break from competing during COVID. It takes so long to get a horse to this level, and those years meant we lost valuable runs, which would have severely impacted the production of horses to this level. Another consideration is that because the Olympics and world championships now run at the four-star level on cross- county, riders might be calculating whether it’s necessary to run a horse at the five-star level to prepare. It will be interesting to see how this impacts the future of five-star competitions.
The number of U.S. representatives is also low, but some of this is undoubtedly because the country is sending riders
around the world to give both aspiring and established riders more experience. Also, some combinations are already on a path to Paris and focusing on improving their skills without the pressure of another five-star.
With the three-star national championship and the 4- and 5-year-old championships going on, there will still be lots to see for those of us spectating. I hope to see you all out there on cross-country, though there’s also a livestream available. As usual, remember to pat your horses. They do so much for us.
An Olympic veteran for Canada, Kyle Carter also earned team silver at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Kentucky) and the 2007 Pan American Games (Brazil), as well as placing second in the 1999 Rolex Kentucky CCI4*-L. Carter holds the record for coaching the most gold medalists at the FEI North American Youth Championships, and he served as the coach for the Guatemalan and Venezuelan eventing teams. He is a co-founder and coach for Ride iQ, and he and his wife, Jennifer Carter, run Five Ring Stable in Citra, Florida.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 16 & 23, 2023, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.