Saturday, May. 25, 2024

Ringside Chat: Grald Wins A Wet, Educational Plantation International

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Ariel Grald had a breakout year in 2022. She and Leamore Master Plan finished 15th at her first Badminton CCI5*-L (England), and they were named to Grald’s first championship squad, finishing 11th as an individual at the FEI Eventing World Championship (Italy), also with “Simon.” They were one of just five combinations to finish on their dressage score.

This year, she’s taken a step back from upper level competition with Simon to focus on his dressage, and is continuing to bring along what she hopes will be her future five-star horses. She brought four of them to the Plantation Field International, held Sept. 21-24 in Unionville, Pennsylvania, competing in the CCI4*-S, CCI3*-S and CCI2*-S. 

Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Ophelia was barreling up the East Coast that weekend, making for a rain-soaked competition and wreaking havoc on Sunday’s CCI4*-S cross-country. Thirty-nine pairs started, but 17 of them withdrew before cross-country. Another nine started cross-country but didn’t complete it, either due to rider falls or electing to retire.

Grald, however, took the wet weather as an opportunity to give Diara, a 9-year-old Hanoverian mare (Diacontinus—Lady Revens, Colon XX) owned by Annie Eldridge, a positive run in less-than-stellar conditions. They finished atop the decimated division, turning in the fastest cross-country round (with 20.8 time penalties) of the six combinations to complete the event.

Ariel Grald and Diara won the Plantation Field International CCI4*-S in Unionville, Pa., as the fastest of just six horses to complete cross-country in the division. Amy Dragoo Photo

We caught up with Grald to see how her next generation of top horses is coming along, including the very sensitive and quirky Diara, and what her plans are for the future.

So for those who weren’t there, just how awful was the weather at Plantation?

Oh my gosh, it was just horrendous. Show jumping started right at 9 a.m. on Saturday and I had two in the three-star. It started raining Friday night, so Saturday morning right off the bat, the wind was blowing the jumps over, it was just raining sideways. We all got absolutely soaked, it just kind of never really changed for 48 hours. But the ground there is so good; it’s old, established ground so it holds up really well. The cross-country felt quite good on Saturday.

What made you decide you wanted to go ahead and run despite the conditions?

I guess there are two reasons I really wanted to run. One, I think the horses have to practice—and we as riders too have to practice running—in muddy conditions, because there’s going to be a day at a major team championship or Kentucky or Burghley or any of those big events that it’s pouring down rain and you have to run, and there’s not really a choice to be made, right? So I think it’s important that the horses have opportunities to practice, because they have to learn how to handle the footing. 

I ran Diara in the four-star short at Bromont [Quebec] in August, and while the weather was fine on the day for cross-country, they had gotten a lot of rain, so the footing was was deep and holding and she was a little bit unsure about it in the beginning. It got better as the course went along, but I kind of had that in the back of my head. I think in America typically we tend to run a lot on firmer, harder ground, but they’ve got to be able to deal with the mud too. So for her education, I really wanted her to run. 

“There’s going to be a day at a major team championship or Kentucky or Burghley or any of those big events that it’s pouring down rain and you have to run, and there’s not really a choice to be made, right? So I think it’s important that the horses have opportunities to practice, because they have to learn how to handle the footing.” 

And then also, I haven’t been to Plantation in two years because of being at Pratoni last year [for the world championships] and Aachen [Germany] the year before. But the cross-country tracks were so good [last] weekend. Derek DiGrazia designed the four-star, and I just thought it was a really amazing course with great questions. So I, selfishly as the rider, I just wanted to go out and ride the course because I thought it looked like a lot of fun and good questions.

Diara had moved up to advanced earlier this spring, so this is her first season at four-star and I just want to keep educating her for the future. The weather was not ideal by any means, but I thought that the track was really productive and educational for the horse, as far as building her for future events. She’ll go do the four-star long at Morven Park (Virginia) in a few weeks, which again is a Derek DiGrazia course. So I think the more opportunities we have to jump around and keep the horses ticking along and educating them, that’s really important.

How did the course ride, and what was it about the track that you liked so much?

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I thought that Derek got into the questions well, like he gave us some nice gallop jumps at the beginning, but then the combination started coming. I just liked that it had a bit of everything—there were some good turning questions with accuracy to the corner and skinnies and he kind of just ticked all the boxes of asking all the questions.

Diara is very brave and bold cross-country, but I would say earlier this year she was a little surprised by some of the big drops into water. She just tends to overjump a bit and sort of launch into the water. So I was actually happy to see that Derek had built some pretty big jumps into water, which is just, again, always a good practice for my mare to have a big drop in and then have to go jump a skinny or a corner and just sort of keep making sure that, even though she’s going to jump in powerfully, that she gets her eye up and gets rebalanced quickly and is ready to answer those questions.

Tell me a little more about Diara and how she’s been coming along.

I’ve had her for five years. Annie Eldridge, who I ride for, purchased her as a 4-year-old from Kelli Temple. Kelli had imported her from Germany. Poor Diara … she’s an absolutely wonderful mare; she’s super sweet and super smart, but she’s unbelievably sensitive. You could barely get on her when we bought her. I don’t know if she’d had some traumatic experiences in Germany or quite what happened, but I spent the first six months I had her just working in a round pen, getting off and on and off and on, and longeing or riding around in there, because she’d just panic if you went to get on or off. 

She’s always been very sensitive to the left leg. I can’t tell you how many times, in the first couple of years I had her, I fell off. You’d be riding around, you would have been on for 15 or 20 minutes, and then you’d put your left leg on and she would just drop and spin away from it. I’ve been spun off that horse so many times!

And she’s still very weird. She’s really, really sensitive to put the saddle and girth on—not girthy, but she’s very sensitive on her left side so you have to put the saddle and the girth on very slowly. I’m the only one that does it. Nobody else touches her with the saddle and girth. I’ve had the horse for five years; I know her inside and out. She is very trusting of me and we have a good partnership. So I just have this routine that I do with her, every day I do the same things as far as tacking her up and getting on, and as long as you do that, you’re good. 

I got kicked January of 2022 by my other five-star horse, so I was out of the barn for a week and my girls went to put a surcingle on her because I told them just to longe her, and she panicked and reared up and ended up slipping and falling over and breaking her withers. She’s very sensitive about girthing and saddling and mounting so … it just is what it is.

I took things quite slow with her in the beginning. I didn’t event her [until we’d had her a year]. I think it was summer of her 5-year-old year by the time she was kind of ready to get out there. So she maybe got a little bit of a slow start; I just really took my time because she’s so sensitive. She’s the sweetest, most genuine horse in the world. There’s not a malicious bone in her body, but she overthinks everything and she feels any little change, good or bad. She notices in her body, and just is very, very sensitive to all those things. So I just have always been really dialed into that and just keep focusing on where she’s at mentally and what she needs. But although she maybe got a little bit of a slow start, she still went to two-star as a 6-year-old and three-star as a 7-year-old. She missed half of last year because of breaking her withers, but she did the three-star long at Tryon [North Carolina] and then was ready to move up this spring. 

She’s a really good girl; she tries really hard. You know, she was very competitive on the flat through three-star but we’ve had a little bit of trouble this year. The added difficulty of advanced and the four-star tests was making her a little anxious, and she’s found some more power and engagement this year in her trot and canter work, so she gets a little nervous. She gets trying too hard and then sort of gets herself worked up. So we’ve had some good tests and some bad tests, and unfortunately, at Bromont in August and then at the [American Eventing Championships (Kentucky)] she had pretty big meltdowns, just kind of getting a little overwhelmed. But we made some training changes and I totally changed my warm-up routine, and she was brilliant at Plantation, so hopefully I can reproduce that again in a few weeks [at Morven].

What did you change about your dressage warm-up?

She’s funny; I tend to warm her up for quite a while because she has so much energy. She’s not hot, but you don’t really get to the bottom of her. When I get on, she’s just a very balanced, pretty supple horse. So you get on her, and she feels ready, like her body feels ready to work, but you know that she just needs to sort of expend some energy.

[At Plantation] I did my pre-ride in the morning and then I got on her to warm her up for her test. I worked her for about 25 minutes and then the last 15 minutes before I went in the ring, I just stood there with her or walked around; like I totally just dropped the reins and she could either stand or slowly walk and I just totally let her down. Then I picked her up two minutes before I went in the ring and off we went!

Her brain gets switched on and she gets really focused and trying, but then it kind of gets to this point that it just bubbles over. So I was trying to just keep the body warmed up but sort of switch her brain off; that was my goal. So, I don’t know, it worked this time! I’m good friends with Jennie Saville and I was talking to her about her FE Lifestyle horse, and she actually gets off of him in the dressage—like, warms him up and then hops off, which I thought was interesting. I can’t quite do that with Diara because I might not be able to get back on!

How did things go with your other horses at Plantation?

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Well, the three-star didn’t quite go to plan for me. I had Forrest Gump, [a 12-year-old Hanoverian gelding owned by Eldridge], who is actually a four-star horse, but I stepped him down to the three-star. He also did the four-star short in August at Bromont and he was spectacular, but he ended up colicking two hours after the cross-country. I’ve never seen anything like it; it was really bad. He avoided surgery but he was in the vet hospital up in Montreal for a week, and it was really, really hard on him obviously. So he ended up with like three weeks off through all of that, and came home just emaciated; he didn’t eat for days and the refeeding process is very slow. So he had lost a lot of body condition. But I am so grateful to the vets there because they were able to treat him and keep him out of surgery and he’s back out [competing]. 

But long story short, he lost some time and he’s very quirky, and a little bit of a chicken. I’ve had him for two years, he was produced in England. And I’ve just learned that when he has some time off or any sort of schedule changes and he’s been out of it for a little bit, you have to start over. So I dropped him down to the three-star, but unfortunately we didn’t get the cross-country school ahead of Plantation that I needed. We went up to Pennsylvania a few days early; we were based at Boyd Martin’s. But “Shrimp” had gotten kicked in the trailer and had a fat leg, so I missed the cross-country school, and I paid the price for that.

He was very good in the dressage and he was fine in the show jumping, but he was just not on form in the cross-country. [They had two stops and finished 26th.] He’s just the type of horse that when you’re preparing for the events, you have to tick all the boxes, and I wasn’t able to get that cross-country school in. And while on paper, he’s done a bunch of four-stars and you would think he’d be just fine, I know him well enough: He’s a little bit quirky mentally and you just have to tick all those boxes, otherwise it’s not gonna go well. So I learned that lesson again!

And then my other horse in the three-star was Adagio’s Nobility, [a Holsteiner gelding also owned by Eldridge]. I’m thrilled with him. He is just a 7-year-old, and it was his first three-star. I haven’t even taken him intermediate; I just sort of threw him off the deep end since I was going to Plantation anyway, and all they had was the FEI [divisions].

He’s ready to move up and I have a lot of confidence in the horse, so I said we’re just gonna go do it, and he was great. He was brilliant in dressage, he jumped clear in the show jumping and he just had a little bit of a green moment … There was a bending line of double corners on the cross-country and he was feeling a little bit mentally and physically fatigued. He noticed that things were harder and he just jumped the first corner and just kind of ran down the hill after it, and we needed to be turning to another corner! Just a green moment; he had no idea that there was going to be a second one, and that’s just a little bit his greenness, but I thought that he still gained a lot from the run. The course was a proper three-star cross-country course, which was a big ask for him. He doesn’t know he did anything wrong, and he definitely learned from it. He will also go to Morven in the three-star short, and Forrest Gump goes to Morven for the four-star short. 

I also had a two-star horse at Plantation, [Cullintra End Game, an Irish Sport Horse gelding owned by Eldridge, who finished fourth in the CCI2*-S]. This was his first two-star; he is just a 6-year-old and he was super. He’s a really, really good cross-country horse. So he had a solid weekend and he’ll also go to Morven for the two-star short. 

And what has Simon been up to lately?

Simon, much to his dismay, is in dressage bootcamp. He will be ready to be out next year.

He just has done a lot in the last few years; he’s 14, and I just keep putting him on airplanes, and he keeps ticking all the boxes. He just sort of mentally and physically needed a little bit of a lighter year this year. I decided it wasn’t the year to push him; I want him to last for a while, for many years still. And we had some shoeing changes and some other stuff that needed to be done. So I’m just giving him an easier year and going back to focusing on the flat work, because that’s what needs to get a little bit better.

At the FEI World Eventing Championship (Italy) Leamore Master Plan and Ariel Grald finished 11th individually. Kimberly Loushin Photo

His dressage is still not where it needs to be, but a big turning point for Simon was actually COVID. When we were all stuck at home for several months, not competing, I spent more time on his flat work without the galloping and jumping and all that. He’s a horse that is very enthusiastic about running and jumping. He gets fit very easily and that makes the dressage training harder. To be able to spend a few months working on the flat without him galloping and jumping is really the best, most productive way to sort of change his flat work and to develop it more.

So with this being a quieter year, I decided that it was a good time to focus on that for a bit. So he’ll do some dressage shows and he’s doing a little show jumping. But he’ll be out next year. 

Who else do you have that you’re bringing along?

I’ve got another three-star horse [Isla De Coco] who unfortunately had a tendon injury, so she’s rehabbing, but she’s about to come back out. She’s very exciting for the future; she should be a five-star horse. And then I’ve got a bunch of 4- and 5-year-olds to get cracking with.

The upper level horses kind of get the focus in the busy parts of the competition season, but we’ve got some really, really special young horses to back up the ones that are out there and going. So I’m excited to to get them a little more trained and have them out competing this winter in Florida.

I want to thank Annie Eldridge—I’m based at her farm [in Vass, North Carolina]; she has all my horses. She is just a fantastic lady and unfortunately was not able to be at Plantation, but none of this would be possible without her and the whole team that we have at Setters’ Run Farm. I just am very grateful to everybody who supports us and keeps the horses in good form.

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