Ariel Grald and Leamore Master Plan will start their first Badminton Horse Trials with a real chance of a good placing when they travel to the event, presented by Mars Equestrian, next month (4-8 May).
The US pair were 12th at the Kentucky Three-Day Event and 10th at Burghley Horse Trials in 2019 and followed that up with a podium finish, third, at five-star at Luhmühlen Horse Trials in Germany last year.
“I’ve wanted to go to Badminton for the past two years, but the world had other plans,” says Ariel, referring to the event’s cancellation due to Covid-19. “It’s been on my bucket list and I think the track would really suit my horse. I’m fortunate to have him, he likes to travel and I’m lucky to have the support of his owner, Anne Eldridge, so – while it’s hard to pass up going to Kentucky because it’s such an amazing event – I thought I might as well go for it.”
Ariel stayed with Gloucestershire-based Canadian rider Mike Winter and his British wife, Emma, between Millstreet and Burghley in 2019 and will return there for a few days before Badminton.
“My horse is very happy there and they’re lovely people,” she says.
Ariel Grald chose Leamore Master Plan – known as Simon – as “a very gangly, awkward five-year-old” in Ireland.
“He’s always been special. When I tried him he was all over the place – he’s a big horse at 17hh and was very weak – but he’s always been a spectacular jumper. He eats up the tracks and the bigger and harder they are, the better he goes. I have to manage his enthusiasm in all phases, but I have so much faith in his jumping ability and when I’m sitting on him in the start box, I know he’s very capable at that level.”
The 33-year-old rider says Simon is “the sweetest horse in the whole world” to work with on the ground, but he’s always had a quirk under saddle, which is typical of horses by his sire, Master Imp.
“There’s a lot of squealing and he can be cheeky, but never in a malicious way,” she says. “He’s become more professional over the years and he likes the one on one time I’ve been able to spend with him travelling together. He likes being the centre of it all and is always a happy dude.
“He’s one of those horses that has endless energy and you can’t work him down – if he’s having an excited day, he’s not going to tire. If he’s doing something wrong, you have to keep his confidence up, tell him he’s not bad, work with his brain and give him time to settle because in the dressage he can get quite excited, leap around and buck. In the jumping he just gets very game.
“It’s a case of keeping his brain focused and trying to achieve greater relaxation so you can actually train him, which is getting better as he gets older. As a young horse I used to feel I was just keeping him from exploding, but now I can go in and ride him and ride the test.”
Ariel Grald has also had to build up the now 13-year-old physically.
“He moved up the levels quickly and while he was capable in the jumping, the dressage strength wasn’t there. I have to remind him he’s got four legs and to put them all in the right place. In the jumping too, it’s keeping the canter in the right shape and stride length. He’s a long horse, a lot to gather together, but I’m 5ft 11in tall so we fit together well.”
The rider took a different approach in building up to Luhmühlen last year to her previous big events.
“I did a lot with him in the second half of 2020 when events opened back up and he got so fit I was run off with in the cross-country at his four-star long that autumn and he was wild in the showjumping,” she remembers.
“At the beginning of 2021, I really wanted to go overseas again so with Badminton off, I decided to do Luhmühlen. I took it slow and quiet with him. We only ran at one advanced and spent a lot of time on the flat and did some showjumping. I took him to events with my other horses and just did dressage or didn’t compete at all.
“It was a bit terrifying for me to go to Luhmühlen having only had one run as he’s my only horse at this level – and my first four- and five-star horse – and I need the practice, but I wanted to try something different and I think it paid off. I was able to put together three good phases. It was a learning experiment and I know now that he doesn’t need to run much or start galloping months out. We have a formula for how to get prepared so he’s not too fit, as then rideability starts to go out the window.
“He will have one more run before Badminton than he had before Luhmühlen because while Luhmühlen is definitely five-star, Badminton is on another level.”
Ariel Grald always studies videos of a new venue before she rides there so she can get as much of a feel for the layout as possible, as well as talking to riders who have been there.
“The eventing World Championships is in the back of my head, but I’m not planning much beyond the spring – we’ve worked hard since Kentucky and Burghley on improving the dressage so we can be more competitive at Badminton and we’ll see where that takes us,” she concludes.
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