John French and Babylon have a special bond. “He’s the kind of horse … we go on a lot of trails and if I’m having a bad day or whatever, I take him out on the trail and we have a lot of conversations.”
French didn’t have to worry about a bad day on Wednesday. Instead, they won the $25,000 WCHR Professional Challenge at the Capital Challenge Horse Show in Upper Marlboro, Maryland (October 4, 2023). It was the third year in a row the pair have won the class.
“He loves his job and is the happiest horse. You’ll never see him pin his ears back … He’s never had crankiness,” French said after the competition. “He’s a funny horse in that usually every morning when I take him out, he whinnies. Particularly when we go out on the trail, he’ll whinny for the first few minutes. Or when I’m riding, he’ll whinny and make a noise cantering around.”
French and Babylon competed against a field of 24 horse-and-rider combinations in the two-round event that was set at 3’6″. They were on top after the first round and maintained their lead in the second. For the second round, 12 riders were called back. French and Babylon won with a combined score of 187.66. Second-place finisher Nick Haness and Queen Celeste finished with 182.99.
This is the sixth time that French has won the challenge. In addition to winning it in 2021, 2022 and this year, he won it in 2010, 2011 and 2013.
French: Course Analysis
French said he’d been a little nervous in the warm-up ring because Ariana Marnell’s Babylon was a little fresh. “But I knew when he went in there that it’s his job. I don’t know if it’s because I started him from the beginning when he was really green, but he’s my kind of ride. I wake him up a little bit but then try to be really soft with no pressure in front of the jump and let him use his head and neck.”
The first course consisted of 10 jumps and started with an oxer. French said he didn’t want to be too bold to the first jump. “I made the quiet one come up longer and he jumped it really well,” French said. The first line away from the ingate, he said he used leg but, “You can’t clamp your leg on him. You have to be soft and he’ll move up.”
In the second round, French was also conservative to the first fence. “Maybe I could have been more bold and left out a stride to the first fence and galloped a little bit more, but I was probably a little safe there,” he said. “He slows down and fits the quiet one in there so well and makes it look like it wasn’t quiet.”
Get Them Out of the Ring
One reason for Babylon’s success is French’s belief in keeping his horses happy. “It’s important to take them out a lot and not just ride them in the ring all the time. Twice a week they go out in the field or out on the trail. You have to make them love their job and want to do it for you.”
French says he uses his voice with Babylon, something he started when the horse was younger and spookier. “Even if I go in the ring and I feel he’s nervous, if I just talk to him a little bit, you can tell he’s like, ‘Oh, John’s riding.’”
The two have been together for four years. French teared up as he spoke of Babylon. “I’m a little emotional because he will be for sale at the end of this year, so I think this could be my last class with him,” French said. “Knowing that, at least we went out on a good note.”
Haness: “Love, Love, Love Riding Her”
Haness and Queen Celeste were third in last year’s challenge. Next year, he said the goal will be to win it. But he said he knew French and Babylon would be hard to beat. “Knowing that John French is in the class with Babylon, it’s always a struggle to strategize how to win the class or be competitive against him because they’re a great team as well,” Haness said. “He won fair and square. The horse is outstanding and he rides amazing, of course. I’m very happy with the outcome of the class.”
For this competition, Haness said you need to have the right partner. “This class is a fun class and a different atmosphere with two rounds and at night,” he said. “Sometimes the nighttime element adds a little challenge and excitement to the horse show and to the horses. They can get a little jazzed up, so you really want to use a horse that you have a good relationship with, and Queen Celeste is that girl for me.
“She’s a wonderful horse,” he continued. “She’s seasoned, she’s beautiful, she’s a great jumper, and I feel like we speak the same language together. I love, love, love riding her. I knew she’d come out tonight and give her best, give her all. She always does.”
Haness initially rode Queen Celeste in Wellington, Florida, in a night class last year. “The first time that I rode her was pretty magical; it was love at first sight.”
For complete results of the WCHR Professional Challenge, click here.
WCHR Developing Pro Challenge
Halie Robinson and Leisure won the $10,000 WCHR Developing Pro Challenge on Wednesday. The Developing Challenge has the same format a the WCHR Professional Challenge. There were two rounds, and each round was the same track for both the Professional Challenge and Developing Pro Challenge. The only difference was the height. The Professional Challenge was jumped at 3’6 inches; the Developing Pro Challenge is at 3’3”. After the first round, which had 37 competitors, the top 12 moved on to the second round.
Robinson has been riding Leisure for a few months. “She’s never been anything but absolutely spectacular,” Robinson said. “I mean, this is really just our fourth or fifth show with her maybe this summer. And she just improves and impresses us every single time.”
For complete results of the WCHR Developing Pro Challenge, click here.
Thanks to Cosequin® for our coverage of the 2023 Capital Challenge Horse Show, including rider interviews, competition reports, photos, videos and more. Check back for a report on the WCHR Pro Finals, Friday, October 6.