Will Coleman will be first out of the box aboard Dondante at the Land Rover Kentucky CCI5*-L later this week, where he also will be riding Off The Record in the five-star and Chin Tonic HS in the CCI4*-S division. Here, we talk to him about his method for buying and bringing along young horses, including his Kentucky entries, to the upper levels.
When Will Coleman saw Dondante as a 4-year-old at Cooley Farm in Ireland, he thought that the rangy gelding had all the right qualities to be a five-star competitor.
But then he grew. And kept growing to nearly 18 hands—more than Coleman had hoped or expected. That size came with challenges, and making the time on cross-country wasn’t always possible as they moved up the levels.
The pair found their stride by the Cloud 11-Gavilan North LLC Carolina International, held March 24-27 in Raeford, North Carolina. Coleman knew the time would be hard to make over Ian Stark’s CCI4*-S cross-country course—over the years only a handful of riders had made the time, and Coleman was one of them when he won the division last year on Off The Record.
He set out at the pace he knew and didn’t check his watch until the penultimate fence, finishing 12 seconds under the optimum time to earn the win.
“Al,” a 12-year-old Irish Sport Horse (Pacino—Muckno Clover, Euro Clover) owned by Team Rebecca LLC, completed his first CCI5*-L at the Maryland 5 Star last fall. Coleman’s hoping for a top-10 finish this year at Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI5*-L after the pair parted ways on the cross-country course last year.
“It’s required some patience to develop him and let him grow into his body and mature. This year everything feels more established, and he’s in a stronger place, and I think that makes it a little easier,” said Coleman, 38, Gordonsville, Virginia.
A week after winning at Carolina, Coleman also topped the Stable View CCI4*-S (South Carolina) on Hyperion Stud LLC’s Chin Tonic HS, a 10-year-old Holsteiner gelding (Chin Champ—Wildera, Quinar Z) he’s produced from the novice level who’s aimed at a CCI4*-L this spring after receiving the 2022 USET Foundation Connaught Grant.
We caught up with Coleman to learn more about the journey to the advanced level, and how he produces his horses to the pinnacle of the sport.
What kind of horse do you need to be successful at the five-star level these days compared to long format days?
I think you can, to a degree, get away with a horse with less blood than before. In the old format days, not having a preponderance of Thoroughbred blood in the pedigree, it was a pretty rare horse that could handle five-star and make time and be competitive. But now with the short format, there is some degree of the cross-bred horse that’s able to cope with the sport with the right program and the right conditioning. Some of the best horses in the world are a warmblood cross of some kind.
That’s probably the biggest change, but you still need blood, and you still need a horse that gallops easily and can do 600 meters a minute for 12 minutes. That can be developed to a degree, but I think some of it has to be in the horse’s body and his mind as well. He has to want to go.
I’m not sure that the nature of the horse has changed as much, but I think there’s a wider pool of horses that’s able to do five-star level. And each five-star is different. There are still horses that harken back to the older five-star horses, but in general it’s just a larger pool of horses that can call themselves five-star horses.
Now the top five or six horses at a championship could almost pass for pure dressage horses, and you could argue the same thing in the show jumping. The best five or six horses in the world would not look out of place jumping around a 1.40-meter at a jumper show. But those are real rarities, and those are the jewels of the sport. There are a lot of horses that are very successful with maybe less talent than them too.
Looking at your string now, you have full Thoroughbreds (Tight Lines) to more jumper-bred types (Chin Tonic HS). Is that a purposeful choice on your part to have a range of different types of horses?
I think there was maybe a conscious effort to have horses that can suit some of the different events and tests of the sport. Even now, the horses that are going to be geared more towards championships may actually not be, in some cases, five-star horses in the sense of doing the Burghleys and the Badmintons. I really still value the five-star events probably the most of anything we do on a yearly basis. I still think the five-star level is what our sport is all about.
For a long time, I was looking for horses with the ability to do five-star; a horse like Tight Lines obviously has the bloodlines to do that. Through training and development, we tried to make him better in the dressage and jumping phases, which he may not have been naturally as talented at. Even Dondante you could make a similar argument, although he’s nowhere near as blood as “Phish.”
But over the years as you sort of look at your career and maybe want to take on some different goals. That’s where a horse like Chin Tonic becomes really interesting as a horse maybe geared toward championships. Not to say he may not do a five-star one day as well, but he certainly would not have the blood of a Tight Lines. But he’s certainly far more talented in the other phases than that.
You do need some diversity in your string, and across the board in my program, we’re looking to have an even deeper string of quality horses in all three phases. I think we’re done a great job with the horses we’ve had, and I love those horses dearly, but I think there’s room to improve a lot in my string from a talent standpoint.
What qualities do you look for in a young horse as a five-star prospect?
I’ve probably become a little pickier about certain things, particularly with the flatwork, and the way they’re put together and the presentation you’re going to be able to create with the horse. I look for certain things in the walk and canter now that I’m a lot less willing to compromise on. I want a good trot.
A horse like Dondante is not a very good mover, but he’s become above average, but it took a really long time. He’s never going to get on the level of some of these top guys in Europe on the first day. If you want to be hanging with those guys, you need a horse with three really good gaits and maybe one or two gaits that are really exceptional.
Their jumping instincts, I’m trying to educate myself more about what to look for in a horse and how to read their instincts, because I don’t care how good a trainer you are, there’s only so much you can do to change that over the course of their careers.
On the cross-country, a big part of it is looking at horses that are going to really be built well enough to hold up and be sound, and that you can take care of and develop, because it’s very hard to tell with younger horses if they’re going to have the gallop or the heart to do five-star. You can develop some of that to a degree, but you need them to be tough and well-conformed, so they put as little strain on their body as possible as they go through the process.
I’m still learning. I wouldn’t call myself a great horse picker by any stretch of the imagination, but I have people around me that I rely upon, and they help me read some of those things. It’s a very difficult horse to pick—the event horse, of all the Olympic disciplines, would be the hardest horse to pick.
Al grew a lot after I got him, but he was a nice type and had a good neck and good feet. He had pretty decent conformation on the whole. He was a very rangy type, and he covered the ground very easily. He did not have a very good trot, but he had a great walk and canter, and I thought he had a very scopey feel over a fence.
He can still be a little rambunctious. He’s bucked most of us off at least once, but by and large he was a very sweet, pretty genuine young horse and always enjoyed the cross-country and was always a nice jumper. It just took a long time for him to grow into himself and his great, big frame and getting the requisite strength for the upper levels of eventing
When you’re buying 4-year-olds, if they’re 80 percent of what you want, and you’re happy with the price, you just go for it. If you have a good program, hopefully you can make them something of worth, whether they go five-star or not, and that’s the philosophy we had at that time. We were buying two or three 4-year-olds at a time. We were picky but not overly picky. I’ve become a little pickier now.
Al’s turned out to be a wonderful horse, but he took a long time to develop, and to me he still has to prove himself with some five-star results, and we have to help him get there. We went to our first one [at Kentucky in 2021], and he fell in the water, and we went to Maryland [in 2021], and he got a little bit tired, so my aim is not to just finish in the top 15—I’d like to become more competitive, so we need to get better.
When do you start competing the young horses? When do you start to put a little more pressure on them in competition?
I focus those first couple of years on their education—dressage and jumping shows and events.
I might do a little bit with them at 5. I take them on the road a lot to places, and I don’t compete them [when they’re 4 and 5]. I acclimate them at the events and get them used to the competition environment but without the pressure of competition.
I spend a lot of their 5-year-old year just doing that, then maybe as a 6-year-old I campaign them a little more at [training and then prelim] with the idea of having them ready for a two-star at the end of that year. That’s usually because I’ve put a lot of work in and know that training level will be no problem.
I want to feel like every time I got to a competition with a horse that I’ve really prepared it for what it’s going to do, even at a lower level. I don’t think they need to compete at training 10 times to be ready for preliminary. We do more work to prepare them for fewer events. I do less now [than I used to].
By the time they get to two-star level, it depends on where the horse is mentally or physically, but I think if I enter an FEI event, I go to make the time and be competitive. It’s like that for each level. The sport is about three phases and coming away with as few penalties as possible in each phase. At each level you should feel like you’re able to do dressage to whatever your benchmark should be, and you should be able to finish on that theoretically, so I have that as a goal for each level before I go on to the next.
Why is the intermediate level so important? What about moving up to advanced?
For sure, the three-star level [is where] they spend the most time. It’s usually 18 months. That’s the minimum for most horses. It’s a critical point in their physical development, to get strong enough to then handle it. There’s a big difference in the physical demands from intermediate to advanced. Even if they’re ready from a training standpoint to do advanced, physically they sometimes need that little bit longer to be strong enough and have that base of fitness to a point where the advanced level isn’t such a big jump and physical toll.
Al did intermediate and three-star [short] stuff as a 7-year-old, then he did two three-longs as an 8-year-old. That’s pretty typical for me.
When they’re at four-star, it depends on the horse and how they cope with 10 minutes. Once they get there, then I’m usually career-mapping a little bit. It depends on how much blood they have and how easily they handle the long tracks. There’s where I become pretty individualized in how I look at [how many long formats to do before a five-star] depending on the horse.
Al was great [moving up to advanced]. He did his first four[-star] long at Fair Hill [Maryland]. He would have been winning the event had he not been given a flag penalty [on cross-country], which I will firmly disagree with ‘till my grave. He went double-clear and jumped a double-clear show jumping the next day.
You’ve said Al needed time and patience to allow him to grow into his body. Did he move a little slower on the timeline than your other horses? He was 11 when he did his first five-star.
Some of that was COVID related. All we had was [the MARS Equestrian Tryon International CCI4*-L (North Carolina)] that fall , otherwise I think he would have gone to Kentucky that spring.
In a weird way, the extra year not doing that allowed him to become a little more established on the flat, and we’ve built on that foundation for the last couple of years. It coincided with some coaches [Ian Woodhead and Brian Murphy] who have become very important to me in my program at the moment, so I think my whole program really took a leap forward right as he reached that four-star level, and we’ve been trying to build on that ever since. We have a ways to go, but it’s getting better, and I’m just going to keep working at it.
He needed patience in the sense that he was just really big, and his foundation of core strength had to be so high for him to do quality four- and five-star level dressage. He’s only really this year started to come out feeling like he could do that.
After hanging a leg at the Head Of The Lake and giving you a dunking in his five-star debut at Kentucky in 2021, you and Al went on to complete the Maryland 5 Star in 15th place. How did that feel?
[At Kentucky] it was a bit of inexperience. Even without the crowds, in a weird way that was still a leery water to jump into, and I think he lost his focus. I could feel it a stride or two before—oh, is he really paying attention here? We got wet. Thankfully he hasn’t done that since!
[At Maryland] he went on the cross-country, and, like a lot of horses, fatigued at that last hill. He felt like he was kind of spent, but to that point he felt like he’d run really well. Those short, taxing hills at the end just flattened him out. He finished, but I nursed him home.
That was coming off a year where he hadn’t made it around Kentucky, but I hope now coming into the spring that he’s got a better base of fitness, and I hope that small tweaks to his conditioning [like more sprinting] means I’ll have a better horse at the end of Kentucky this year.
How do you prepare for the big competitions with Al? You seem to run him at a level below a big event. Is that for confidence?
I’ve done that in the past to mixed results. I don’t think it helped me last year at Kentucky. He was a bit keen after running around at intermediate. I thought he came out a little overconfident and not listening in the beginning. I don’t know if that had something to do with us falling. This year I’m not going to do that. He’ll run an advanced track at The Fork (North Carolina). I may not go as hard for the time, but I want him to be respectful and a thinking horse out there. He’s now at a point where a bigger fence is helpful making his brain work the right way.
This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our April 2022 issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive 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.