Thursday, May. 23, 2024

Susie Berry’s Irish Wish

The 28-year-old rider makes her first trip to the Defender Kentucky five-star as she eyes a spot at the Paris Olympic Games.
PUBLISHED
Sponsored by

ADVERTISEMENT

If, around the time of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, you’d have suggested to Ireland’s Susie Berry that she’d have a five-horse attack on the next Games, “I’d have just laughed,” she said. 

The 28-year-old might still be settling into the architecture of life as a professional event rider, standing on her own two feet in her first solo business venture—a rented, converted dairy yard in rural Northamptonshire, England, which she moved into just before the pandemic hit—but to the wider eventing world, she’s firmly cemented herself into the foundations. Despite a crashing fall that took her off the scene for the latter part of the 2023 season, she’s entering 2024 with some of her biggest career moments already unfurling ahead of her. 

Chief among those? Her bid for selection for the Paris Olympics, which, if successful, would complete her trifecta of senior championships before she even flirts with the idea of hitting 30. 

If her senior team debut feels recent, that’s because it is: She was named to the Irish team at the 2022 FEI Eventing World Championships at Pratoni del Vivaro in Italy, where she piloted then 10-year-old Monbeg By Design to individual 27th place and team fifth—a position that allowed the Irish to qualify a team for Paris. 

Then, she was sent to last year’s European Championships, in a waterlogged Haras du Pin, France, with a horse she’d had for just over a year, the now 12-year-old Clever Trick. Despite relentless blows from the weather, which saw segments of the course removed throughout the week, the pair flourished, finishing 16th and just off the podium as a team. 

And now, with Paris looming, and Irish eventing sentiment at its most robust yet, thanks to Austin O’Connor’s Mars Maryland 5 Star victory last year—a first five-star win for the country in nearly 60 years—Berry finds herself with a very good shot indeed. Or, more accurately, five very good shots. 

Susie Berry has a string of five upper-level horses, and she’s hoping to represent Ireland at the Paris Olympic Games with one of them. Tilly Berendt Photos

“They’re very different, all of them,” said Berry, referring to those five horses who, as we chatted in the tack room (still painted in a distinctive pale green dairy coat epoxy paint, a relic of its days as a milking parlor), were hanging their heads over the doors of their capacious stalls in the airy barn conversion. 

First up to bat is Ringwood LB, or “Albie,” Helen Caton, Gwen Purce and Berry’s 15-year-old Irish Sport Horse (Iroko—Seoidin Alainn, Master Imp), with whom Berry made her Land Rover Burghley CCI5*-L (England) debut in 2022. 

“He’s sort of like an old pair of slippers now,” she said with a smile. “He’s quite a laid-back character. He’ll just stand in the start box and stay quite chilled about life, which is nice at a show. He’s not going to explode and do anything crazy, and he’s probably my most established horse.” 

Also owned by Berry and Helen Caton is Monbeg By Design, or “Arthur,” another Irish Sport Horse (Pacino—Eskerhills Lexis, Puissance), who put himself firmly on the map two seasons ago in Pratoni. 

“He’s the biggest trier, even if he wouldn’t necessarily be the most talented if you looked in from the outside while I was working at home,” Berry said. “But he gives everything 120%. He feels like, when you’re going around the cross-country, you sort of have to zoom back in [to what you’re doing], because he makes it feel so easy that you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is a big deal!’ He’s a real cool character and a firm yard favorite.” 

The horse among her batch of qualified rides that she’s had the longest is Kilcandra Capitol, an Irish Sport Horse (Orestus VDL—Beavers Bugsy Malone, Hallodri) owned by Berry and Debbie Biggin (under the name TruckEast Limited). 

“She’s been a very supportive owner. They bought him from the Monart Sale, and he was meant to be for her daughter, Nat, but he was a bit spicy as a young horse. So he actually came to Piggy [March’s, where Berry was previously based] for her to ride,” said Berry. “I ended up riding him quite a lot as a 4-year-old, and they very nicely let me keep going.” 

Now, “Vinny” is 11, and after seven years learning and growing together, “I really know him inside and out and back to front,” said Berry. “And I think we even think the same! I quite often say that the other horses probably wouldn’t mind if someone else jumped on board on the day of a show. They would just get on with their job, whereas I think Vinny and I are quite in sync. He’s a funny little character; he’s quite unassuming, but he really performs at a big show. He’s very quick and agile and a really, really fun horse to ride cross-country.” 

And then there’s “Slinky,” better known to fans as Wellfields Lincoln, another 11-year-old, but, Berry explains, one with “fewer miles on the clock than the others.” 

Nevertheless, the horse owned by Berry with Anne Marling and Sue Wilkinson has started his season in the spotlight, adding a third-placed finish in the CCI4*-L at Kronenberg, the Netherlands, to a results list that already includes a win at the CCI4*-S level. 

“He’s really competitive but just lacks the little bit of exposure, which I’m hoping to give him this spring to really be ready for a big championship, or, if he doesn’t go to Paris, he’ll probably go to Burghley,” said Berry. “He’s a very cool character, and he’s a very good jumper, so he makes my life very easy in that phase!” 

Finally, there’s the sole mare of the bunch: Clever Trick, or “Owl,” with whom Berry blazed around last summer’s European Championships, and who was the second-fastest horse in the CCI4*-S at Kronenberg last month. While the selection team could come knocking for Berry, Marling and Wilkinson’s Irish Sport Horse (Financial Reward—Bonnie Dolly, Bonnie Prince) yet, Berry’s got another major spring goal for her: a trip to the Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event, held April 25-28 in Lexington. 

“She’s a real blood horse and a true three-day horse,” Berry said. “She was one of the only horses at the European Championships last year that finished and could have kept going. She’s got so much engine, and she’s so quick and competitive in that phase.” 

But, Berry countered, that can mean that, “I struggle a little bit more on the flat with her than the others, because she’s a bit more sensitive.” 

“She’s a real blood horse and a true three-day horse,” said Susie Berry of her Kentucky mount Clever Trick. “She was one of the only horses at the European Championships last year that finished and could have kept going. She’s got so much engine, and she’s so quick and competitive in that phase.”

A Dream Trip 

Out of all of Berry’s partnerships, this is also one of the newest. She bought Owl, then campaigned as Kilcandra Bonnie Reward, from fellow Irish rider Alex Donohoe just at the tail end of 2021, the mare’s first season at the four-star level. The following season, in their first run at the level together, they finished in the top 10 at Boekelo’s CCI4*-L (the Netherlands). 

ADVERTISEMENT

Still, said Berry, who’s competed at Badminton (England), Burghley, and Luhmühlen (Germany) since stepping up to the five-star level in 2022, getting the chance to head across the pond to Kentucky was an opportunity she never dreamed she might get. 

“When I ran her at the Europeans, she hadn’t run for a few weeks beforehand, because the ground had been so wet,” she recalled. “And I remember saying to her owner at the finish, ‘If she goes to Badminton next year, she really needs a little quiet run the week before, because she was crazy!’ And Sue turned around and said, ‘Well, I’ve done Badminton loads of times. I want to take a horse to Kentucky.’ My head girl Chrisy [Salmon] and I just looked at each other thinking, ‘Oh my God.’ We never thought we’d get this opportunity to go to America. We’re more than excited!” 

It’ll be Berry’s first-ever trip in any capacity to Kentucky, an event she knows from avidly following the livestream each year. 

“I’m so excited, but I’m also very nervous, because it’s on the other side of the world! It’ll be a lot of firsts—my first time flying a horse to a competition too. But I’m so thrilled to have the chance to go because it might never happen again.” 

Flying a horse across the Atlantic to compete for your country—and to make a bold bid for an Olympic berth—feels far removed from the early days of Berry’s riding career at home in County Down, Northern Ireland. While she was fortunate to grow up surrounded by horses—her mother, Callie Berry, breeds National Hunt horses—she certainly wasn’t on a pathway to eventing glory from childhood. 

“I actually wanted to go show jumping for a long time,” she admitted. 

That dictated her competition outings until she was 14. “And then I got a Connemara pony, and I thought, I’ll give anything a bit of a go!” she said. “But I did such bad dressage that whenever I went eventing, people were having stops and still finishing ahead of me. So I went to have dressage lessons with Terry Boone, and it was basically the first time in my life that I was told, ‘This isn’t good enough, and you need to try a bit harder.’ And I thought, ‘I don’t know if I like eventing!’ but after that lesson, I went to another event and was in last place after dressage, and I thought, ‘Alright, I probably need to listen to this man.’ So I kept going back, and then I really got the bug for eventing.” 

After she finished school, she decided to let that bug take center stage for a year, deferring a university place for physiotherapy so that she could head to England. There, she trained throughout her gap year with British superstar Piggy March. 

“And then I stayed for the next five years,” she said with a laugh. “I loved it so much that I just thought, ‘You know what? I don’t want to be doing anything else.’ ” 

Susie had brought two horses with her, and in order to make her stay work out financially, she sold one. The other, Carsonstown Athena, would be her partner at FEI Junior and Young Rider European Championships, and also give her her first experiences at the now four-star level. 

“Looking back, she just was like, ‘Yep, no problem,’ ” said Susie. “Even if I didn’t necessarily know what I was doing, she just always said yes. To have a horse like that to start with—I don’t think I appreciated how lucky I was at the time.” 

In late 2019—just months before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—Susie made the decision to set up her own business, about 20 minutes away from March’s yard in the converted dairy farm she still occupies. That proximity nullified much of the uncertainty that can come with going solo. 

“All my friends are still here, all my support network, like the farrier, the physio, the vet. They all stayed the same, so it took quite a lot of the pressure off leaving the comfort blanket that was Piggy’s to set up my own,” she said. 

Another crucial bit of consistency, besides March herself, who remains a mentor to Susie, was the benefactors she’d inherited while based there. 

Susie Berry will tackle her first Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI5*-L aboard Clever Trick.

“I was really lucky to gain a few owners from Piggy being pregnant [in 2016]. They were really supportive and let me ride some incredible horses, and Pig was incredibly supportive of me, too,” she said. “It’s not many professional riders who would let their understudy have half as many rides as she did.” 

One of those rides was the chestnut gelding Morswood, who Susie competed to the now three-star level and at the 2017 Young Rider European Championships (Ireland), before he was sold to the U.S. 

“It’s so fun to see him doing the big stuff now with Allie Knowles and really cool to have been a part of that journey,” she said. 

While some of those early and influential rides came through March’s stable of horses and owners, several—including two of her Olympic prospects—came to her in a more circuitous way. 

After Irish Olympian Jonty Evans sustained a traumatic brain injury in a cross-country fall at Tattersalls (Ireland) in 2018, his long-time supporters, Helen and Nick Caton, hoped to keep their horses under his flag. Rather than reallocate them to one of his well-established teammates, they opted to back an up-and-coming horse in Susie, who was sent Ringwood LB, Monbeg By Design and John the Bull—with whom she made her Badminton debut in 2022—to compete. 

But while the Catons’ support has been a life-changer for Susie, she grappled for a long time with the reality of what it meant. 

“It was really hard, actually, at the time, because poor Jonty had had an awful accident,” she remembered. “It was quite a hard thing, emotionally, to have something so life-changing for me happen from someone else having a really awful life-changing accident. And it did take me quite a few years to feel relaxed about it; it was quite a difficult time to start with.” 

But although the three horses were transitioning from being ridden by a 6’4″ man to a slight young woman a full foot shorter, the riding was the part that couldn’t have been easier. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“They were so class,” she said. “For me to be able to ride them, it showed that he had done such a good job in schooling them. It was really easy for me and for the horses, and they were really successful in the first season. It was just an amazing opportunity for owners like Nick and Helen to think of me when I was a very inexperienced person at the time. To have those three horses made my career, to be honest.” 

While Evans focused on his long recovery and rehabilitation, his long-time head groom, Jane Felton, stepped in to help Susie get to know her new charges. 

“Jane was amazing,” said Susie. “She knew every inch of the horses, and how he rode them, and what he did with them.” 

March was a sage sounding board also: “I remember her saying when I first got them, ‘You need to teach them to go for a girl.’ I couldn’t teach myself to be as strong as Jonty, so I needed to teach them to go for a girl,” said Susie. “They were really quick in the adjustment, to be fair; they were amazing in that way.” 

Now, Susie’s string is full of different backstories: There are horses she’s trained from the ground up, horses she’s picked up in the middle or at the peak of their careers, and, of course, those three original Caton horses, still the stars of the stable. Wherever in their story Susie joins paths with a horse though, her training philosophy remains the same. 

“I think some riders are very good at making their horses go in a certain way, whereas I try not to interfere too much with them and let them be themselves, and let them be what they want,” she said. “I want to let them use their little quirks or their little bits of personality and let that shine through a little bit. I find that sometimes, when they’re not naturally talented, that helps them believe in themselves a little bit more, if I let them be what they are.” 

Susie’s empathetic training style has helped her out, in turn: After a forced period on the sidelines following a fall at the Defender Blair Castle Horse Trials last August, each horse in her string returned to the yard keen and eager to meet their rider in the middle. And for Susie, who’d never had such a significant setback to deal with before, it’s been a particular joy to be able to hit the ground running with her best friends. 

“It was the worst injury I’ve had,” she said. “I’ve unfortunately done a lot of breaking in my time, so I’m quite used to having little setbacks; I’ve broken both my ankles, my arm, my hand. I’ve done lots of little things, but this was the first time that it was a serious fall.”

Susie spent time first at a hospital in Dundee, Scotland, before being transferred to the specialist thoracic department in Edinburgh, where they determined that she’d concussed herself, broken all her ribs on one side, two on the other, punctured both of her lungs and lacerated her liver—but, extraordinarily fortunately, hadn’t damaged her spine. 

“My recovery was actually straightforward though,” she said. “I don’t remember the fall, so I don’t feel that it’s affected me mentally, and physically, I was up on my feet within a week. But it took me a long time to sit on a horse again, and I really tried to ease myself into it, especially because, with this being such a big year, I knew I wanted to come straight out all guns blazing.” 

“I loved it so much that I just thought, ‘You know what? I don’t want to be doing anything else.’ ”

Susie Berry

Though she found the lack of riding frustrating, and she had to pick up a full calendar of teaching to make ends meet, Susie also tried her best to find the positives in the situation. 

“I supported my other half, Max [Warburton], at all the events, and to be honest, it was quite interesting being on the floor. I feel like I picked up as much, if not more, from standing and watching,” she said. “So I really tried to enjoy that. Sometimes, when you’re on the hamster wheel of an eventing season, you don’t take time to breathe and look up from what you’re doing and take it all in, and I think it really helped to refocus what I want.” 

That helped her make the decision to cut back on the number of horses in her yard, giving her time to focus more on each one and create a brick-by-brick approach to reaching her goals. 

And what goals they are. A few months from now, hopefully, a ticket to Paris will be secured—and much sooner, there’s the little jaunt across the pond for a crack at Kentucky. She’s been preparing in all the ways you might expect. 

“I ring Austin O’Connor to ask him what I need to do. I’ve planned for my mum to come. We’ve done our prep run at Kronenberg, and she’ll have a few more canters and a few more dressage lessons in the meantime,” said Susie. 

But when Clever Trick and Susie reunite in Lexington on the Monday of the event, it’ll be without the on-the-ground support of Irish team trainer Dag Albert, nor former five-star eventer turned dressage dynamo Ruth Edge, with whom she’s begun training on the flat recently. This one, she’ll tackle solo—or, rather, by leaning on the community and camaraderie that eventing creates around its competitors, and by using the years of accumulated wisdom and training as a foundation for, she hopes, even bigger things to come. 

“As long as you have your homework done before you get there, sometimes, in a way, it’s nice to get there and try to just ease off them a bit,” she said. “I think it’ll work to her advantage probably not to have too much stress. You’re not going to change anything in that short time, so I’ll just let it happen, ride the wave, and aim to get the job done. 

“But at the same time, while it’s nice to say we want to go and enjoy it, it does sort of act as a trial for that horse for the Olympics, so there’s quite a lot of pressure to try to have a result at the same time,” she added. 


This article originally appeared in the April 2024, 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

EXPLORE MORE

Follow us on

Sections

Copyright © 2024 The Chronicle of the Horse