Friday, Jun. 7, 2024

Ringside Chat: With Robust Mentorship Behind Her, Pamukcu Aims For Paris

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Editor’s Note: On June 3, Caroline Pamukcu was named to the U.S. Eventing Team for the 2024 Paris Olympics with HSH Blake, along with Will Coleman (Off The Record) and Boyd Martin (Fedarman B). The three-person team will be accompanied by traveling reserve Liz Halliday (Cooley Nutcracker).

With her sights on the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, 29-year-old Caroline Pamukcu has temporarily shifted her focus from her busy horse sales business to a possible bid at the Games. She won the Tryon International CCI4*-L, held May 8-12 in Mill Spring, North Carolina, on HSH Blake, fresh off an impressive fifth-place finish at the Cosequin Lexington CCI4*-S (Kentucky) two weeks earlier. She and the 9-year-old gelding, whom she co-owns with Deniz Pamukcu, Sherrie Martin and Mollie Hoff, led Tryon from start to finish, making their case to selectors of the Paris Olympics. 

In April, Caroline was selected by the U.S. Equestrian Federation for the U.S. Eventing European Development Tour with two of her horses, She’s The One and King’s Especiale. On the heels of her Tryon victory, Caroline headed to Great Britain to join the U.S. team, under the guidance of coach Leslie Law.

Caroline Pamukcu and HSH Blake won the Tryon International CCI4*-L, held May 8-12, in Mill Spring, N.C., leading wire to wire and finishing on their dressage score of 28.6. Shannon Brinkman Photo

For Caroline, her Olympic aspirations haven’t just been about getting the best possible performance out of “Blake,” whom she began to work with as a part of her sale operation when the gelding was just 5 years old. She has also worked to develop a team of mentors and coaches who align with her own philosophy that her horses aren’t just athletes—they’re friends. 

When Caroline won the Wilton Fair grant in 2021, it allowed her to live in England for six months and work with three-time British Olympian Pippa Funnell.  

“She definitely really shaped me,” Caroline said. “The quickest way I can say what she taught me is, she taught me I can love my horses and still win. She is such a kind soul. She treats the horses amazing. She’s all about the basics and is just really, really kind.”

Watch Caroline and HSH Blake’s winning cross-country ride from the Tryon International CCI4*-L, produced by EquiReel:

When we spoke to Caroline this week, she was in England as part of the U.S. team selected to compete in the FEI Eventing Nations Cup Great Britain, to be held as part of the Chatsworth International Horse Trials. The event, scheduled for Friday through Sunday, was canceled on Thursday due to heavy rains. The team competition focus now will shift to the next competition, the FEI Eventing Nations Cup Ireland CCIO4*-NC, to be held May 30-June 2 in conjunction with the Millstreet International Horse Trials. In the meantime, as the other U.S. team riders rerouted to nearby horse trials, Caroline pivoted toward Funnell’s farm for a spontaneous visit with her mentor. 

“I’m going to get some boot camp!” she said with a chuckle. 

What are you hoping for from “boot camp” this week?

I definitely want to get back to the basics. I struggle with a couple things with these horses as we’re going up a gear looking towards the Olympics. I’m just hoping to refine some things, and she’s just great at that. She just brings everything down to the basics and looks at me as a rider. 

She’s one of those coaches that can tell, if I have not even half a pound more on my right seat, she’ll catch that right away. As soon as I get there, she’ll probably take my stirrups away.

And I have a new mentor in America; her name’s Sharon White. I’ve known Sharon my whole life, and she’s always been so kind to me. After the Pan Ams [where the two competed together as members of the silver-medal-winning U.S. team and Caroline earned individual gold with Blake], I started really seeing how she trains her horses and seeing more of her program up close. I approached her after Pan Ams to see if she would take me on, and she’s been unbelievable as well. I’m really, really, really spoiled between having Pippa and Sharon, and then Bobby Costello, the team coach; he helps me at the shows. I feel like I’ve got a really incredible string of people—and Anne Kursinski is my show jumping coach, so I feel like I have the best mentors in the world.

What about Sharon attracted you to her program and her style?

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Sharon is so similar to Pippa. She’s kind to the horses, she’s a big fan of riding all the horses in snaffles and really riding them properly—no shortcuts. She looks at everything as a whole; I remember my first lesson with Sharon. She came out to the arena and, first thing, she looks over my tack and she’s like, “You need to put a looser snaffle in, your [noseband] is too tight on the horse’s nose, you need to fix your saddle, your stirrups are too short.” She wouldn’t let me get off the 20-meter circle for like an hour because I didn’t do a good enough trot-canter transition.

I enjoyed that. There are no tricks—you’re not being hard on the horses and no pressure. Just wanting to be kind and happy with the horses and do good work. Both Pippa and Sharon believe in trot sets, which I’m a huge fan of. I don’t think people would be surprised with the lack of—again, it’s the word “tricks.” We just do lots of hacking and making our horses happy. That’s the whole premise of my whole program: What makes our horses happy?

How do you end up striking that balance? What do you end up doing with them to make the horses happy?

Each horse is different, but I make sure my horses have their best friends for turnout when they’re on vacation. I do big, proper vacations. After their three-days, I take off their shoes and put them out in the field together. I probably go through about 100 pounds of carrots a week. I do lots and lots of trot sets and long walks. And we don’t go in the dressage arena and drill them. We try not to do anything tricky. We keep everything small and happy. I don’t want the horses to be lathered in sweat and nervous; I want them happy. They’re my best friends at the end of the day, and I literally trust my life in their hands, and vice versa. 

From both Sharon and Pippa I’ve learned that they can be your best friends and they can be your pets. You can’t treat them like machines. I always trained with male coaches my whole life, and so it’s just great to see [from Sharon and Pippa] that you can be emotional. You can be that emotional and still win.

It sounds like you’ve gathered a team of people who really see the sport the same way that you do.

My business partner, Kelly Hutchinson feels the same way, and her family follows the same philosophy. She breeds a lot of horses that I ride or has them as yearlings and they live in her backyard. I’m really proud of the group of people that I’ve brought into my team.

I know you’ve had Blake since he was just 5 and you’ve developed him into such a phenomenal competitor. I’m wondering what you’ve been working on with him that came through this year at Kentucky and Tryon that you were happy with? 

The biggest thing I kept telling everyone is, last year Blake was 8 and now he’s 9. Everyone’s like, “How are you going to shave off the dressage points? How are you going to do this and that?” I said, “You know, we’re not shaving off points; he just needs a year to get stronger.” 

He’s only coming 9, and he just needs to do some trot sets and build some top line and just be patient. I feel like we came out this season and that’s all we did. I can count the number of times we did flatwork for show jumping practice. We’ve only had four shows this season: I did a quiet intermediate, I did the four-short [at the Setter’s Run Carolina International (North Carolina)], the Kentucky four-short and Tryon, so he’s only had four runs this season. He doesn’t need more than that. I only took him off property one other time to do some show jumping. 

We just kept everything really simple and light and got him strong. We stayed in Pennsylvania until Jan. 5, and got him walking on hills before we moved to Florida. A whole lot of no pressure, a whole lot of trot sets. 

For Caroline Pamukcu, pictured on HSH Blake, riding with female coaches helped her see that she could ride with emotion and still win. Kimberly Loushin Photo

You said you used more pressure in the dressage at Kentucky, and at Tryon you tried to ride a more relaxed test. What prompted that change in the approach? How did Blake respond to that? 

At Kentucky, I was like, “’I’m going to go in there and show everyone. We’re going to go extended trot everywhere, and with our shoulder-ins and our half-passes I just wanted to go in there and wow the judges.” I want to be selected for the Olympics, so I think we need to show off. Obviously, he still scored pretty good—he was in second. He was trending winning the whole time until I messed up my changes. 

Between Kentucky and Tryon, I just went on long walks and trot sets. We didn’t once put a dressage saddle on him, and we never jumped him that week. We just kept everything light and happy. 

When we got to Tryon, Bobby and I were talking about my Kentucky test and I was like, “What do you want me to do differently, Bobby?” And he was like, “I want you just to breathe more. Breathe when he takes a step and just let it flow more. Don’t feel like you need to show everyone.” I said, “Sure, you’re the team coach. What can I do?” So I did that and it felt so great to just breathe a little bit.

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I think Blake and I are the same person—we both want to win and make everyone happy so badly. But then it worked better at Tryon to have more of a Zen dressage test.

Blake isn’t a five-star horse yet, but he’s won the individual gold with you at Pan Ams and he’s had an exceptional go this spring as well. How you think of his chances for Olympic selection?

We’re keeping our fingers and toes crossed. I think we did everything we possibly could—we have done everything we possibly could. I don’t think there’s anything left on the table. This is where it’s up to selectors. I keep telling everyone that the USEF and the USEA program developed me to this point, and I look to them to see what’s next. I’m fortunate I’m over here right now doing a developmental tour. I think this is so important for my career that they keep mentoring me and I always look to them and see what the next steps are. I trust them 100%; they’ve done they’ve done so much and I’m only in the position I am in because of them. And same with the USEA young horse program; Blake and I are just 100% products of the program. So it’s whatever they think—we’re there.”

Can you tell us about the horses over there with you right now, She’s The One and King’s Especiale?

I’ve got two other 9-year-olds: She’s The One was on the team for Chatsworth, which got canceled, and then King’s Especiale is on the team for Millstreet Nations Cup.

[She’s The One] is a lovely, lovely 80% Thoroughbred mare. I caught the ride on her a year and a half ago. She’s just been an awesome partner. She was third in [the Morven Park International CCI4*-L (Virginia)] and ”Especiale” was second. It was Boyd [Martin] on Commando, then me and my two horses, so they’re in very good company. 

Caroline Pamukcu and She’s The One tackle the course at Carolina Horse Park this spring. The duo is now overseas after being selected by the U.S. Equestrian Federation for a European development tour. Kimberly Loushin Photo

They’re just two genuine creatures—they’re unbelievable. She’s The One I can hack bareback all the time. She’s just such a sweet, kind soul. Then Especiale is 18 hands and he wants to live in your pocket; he’s just a gentle giant. But he’s so dainty. Like you can literally take his foot and put his front leg on your knee and just hold it there while you finish clipping him up or painting his feet. He’s so dainty and sweet even though he’s massive. He’s 18 hands and goes cross country in a loose ring snaffle. Unbelievable. 

How about HSH Connor, who won the CCI3*-L national championship last fall? What’s going on with him?

He’s so special. He’s just 8 this year, and last year he won six three stars. So I have him and my Redfield Dexter horse planning on doing the spring/summer shows. … We’ve been playing around. I just kind of have to see what goes on with the Olympics. 

I tried to be careful this season not to run too many horses, and to be careful with him. He’s not quite ready to go four-star because he’s a little bit sharp, so we’re just saving him for the summer.

You’ve had this large horse business for years. Is your business model changing as you’re stepping into the spotlight and becoming more of a full-time competitor?

Yes and no. I work with my business partners, Kelly Hutchinson, Paul Hendrix and Emil Spadone. They all back me so much. I’m really, really lucky; they put me first. So at the beginning of the year I said, we’ll play it by ear, but if the Olympics is seeming to be an option, let’s sell through April. Then in April, let’s not import more horses. We sold 35 or 36 horses since Jan. 1. We only have two sale horses currently and haven’t imported any more until we know more about the Olympics. 

Caroline Pamukcu pilots King’s Especiale through the Kentucky CCI4*-S. The pair are currently gearing up for the FEI Eventing Nations Cup Ireland as a part of the U.S. Eventing European Development Tour. Kimberly Loushin Photo

I know that right now, a ton of your focus and the focus of your team is on the next few months. But in the bigger picture, where do you see yourself and your business three years from now?

I just keep hoping to grow. My husband and I hopefully want a family at some point. I guess really, the biggest thing is trying to figure out how to do this and have a family. Everyone keeps saying I’m so young but I’m going to be 30 this year. Time is flying, so I just want to make sure that I can balance family and my horses. I do believe there’s a way because I’ve got a great team around me and the most incredible owners. I think we can figure it out.

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