Lexington Lead-Up: Get to Know Chris Talley and Unmarked Bills

Find out more about eventer Chris Talley and his off-the-track Thoroughbred Unmarked Bills as they gear up for their CCI5* debut at Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event.

Chris Talley and competes Hannah Salazar’s stallion Sandro’s Star at the upper levels. Photo: Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Over the past few years, Chris Talley has proven himself to be one of the rising stars in the sport of eventing. It’s not just his keen fashion sense that catches one’s eye, but his effortless, born-in-the-saddle riding style is impressive. With a talented string of upper-level horses, many of whom are owned by his close friend and business partner Hannah Salazar, he’s had notable success climbing the ranks. Last year, he was one of 15 talented riders named to the USEF Emerging Athlete Eventing 25 program and has his sights set on Kentucky at the end of the month. 

Two of his most well-known horses include Sandro’s Star and Unmarked Bills. Sandro’s Star, an 11-year-old Oldenburg stallion owned by Hannah, won the $50,000 Devon Arena Eventing Competition with Chris last May and the pair are currently competing at the CCI4*-L level. Chris is getting ready to make his debut at the CCI5* level with the 10-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred Unmarked Bills (“Billy”), owned by the Unmarked Bills Syndicate. 

Chris and his crew made the trip down from their homebase in northern Virginia to the Carolina International Horse Trials a few weeks ago and was part of the first ever USEF/USET Foundation North American Futures Team Challenge. I caught up with him between rides and we sat down for a little chat about his background, his training work with Billy and his thoughts on The Event That Shall Not Be Named

Chris and Unmarked Bills are preparing for their CCI5* debut at Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event in April. Photo: Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

How did you first get started in eventing? What drew you to the sport? Who were some of your early mentors and inspirations?

I grew up in Chester County [Pennsylvania] and we lived pretty close to Unionville, which has Plantation Field, a huge event, and I always remember driving down [highway] 82 and watching out the window as horses galloped by. I think I had an early fixation on the cross country and I always wanted to be out there competing. I think that was actually my first event. When I was 13 or 14 I did some unrecognized events there and at Fair Hill.

I always had horses at my parents’ house and they were so supportive. They weren’t horse people, but they built a little barn and had like an acre fenced in. 

I was a student in high school when I actually saw a working student position open for Ryan Wood, and I took it. Growing up in that area you have so many top eventers, like Phillip Dutton and Ryan and Boyd Martin. I think they were always huge inspirations and I always wanted to be like them when I grew up. I always wanted to ride horses, that was always my goal. Even in school when I filled out the little questionnaires that said, “What do you want to be when you’re older?”… it was always an upper-level event rider. 

So I worked for Ryan for two and a half years, coming out of high school and I kind of put off going to college…which has still been put off, but I think it’s okay at this point. Ryan brought me along from the Training level and I did my first Intermediate with him. I ended up doing multiple Intermediates while I was with him and got to ride and compete a lot of different horses. It was hugely beneficial and gave me a great foundation. I always keep that in the back of my mind. 

Chris describes Billy as a keen cross-country horse who has an incredible bravery about him. Photo: Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Tell me about Unmarked Bills (“Billy”). What’s his story? What’s he like to ride? What’s his personality like? Does he have any funny habits or quirks?

So, Billy is ten this year and I got him off the track as a coming 6-year-old. [Eventer] Kate Samuels contacted me and said there’s this horse and his owners want to find him a second career after racing and they’d like to put him a sales program. I went and looked at him in a round pen and he was quite high-spirited and I think tried to kick me three times, but there was something about him that I really liked. He couldn’t hold a canter for more than two strides, but I took him on a sales prospect and had him in our program for about a year. Through multiple different kinds of vetting issues, he never got sold. So, we formed a syndicate and through that I was able to buy him from his owners, who are still part of his syndicate, which has been great. 

He was always a cross-country horse. I think he did two or three Trainings and then moved up to Prelim. And then 18 months after coming off the track, he did his first Intermediate and then 6 months after that he did his first CCI2*. He was the reserve champion Young Event Horse at Fair Hill [in 2016].

He’s always had this bravery about him that nobody can really understand. Because if you jump a cross-rail, he jumps it like it’s four feet tall and if you try and trot through trot poles, he just can’t. But when you get out there on cross country, he has this fire about him. He’s taken me to my first CCI2*, and Advanced and three-star and now going on with the new levels. I always say he’s the Young Rider horse I never had and he’s taught me everything that I know coming up through the levels. He’s given me a great deal of confidence and he’s been very special. 

He’s quite quirky, but he’s also quite uncomplicated. At home, he’s kind of like a pony–you have to kind of kick and use a dressage whip to get him to move. But you get him in the dressage ring at an event and he lights up and he knows cross country’s coming up. So, it’s always quite a challenge to keep him together. 

On the ground, he’s very friendly, but he’s not overly affectionate, which is kind of frustrating at times. You kind of want to give him all the love in the world and he’d rather just be left alone. He kind of knows he’s the king and he could do no wrong in anybody’s eyes. Everybody hates doing his stall because he’s kind of a pig and he doesn’t like anybody looking at him when he eats, but then you can’t help but wrapping your arms around him and giving him a big hug. 

In 2016, Chris and Billy placed 15th in the CCI2* and were awarded the USEF National Young Horse Eventing Reserve Championship. Photo: Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

What are some of the main things you’ve worked with Billy this season? What are his strengths and weaknesses, and what types of exercises have you been doing to help him prepare for Kentucky? What do you think will be the most challenging part of the event for him?

Definitely his weaknesses are the dressage and show jumping. He struggles with tension quite a bit. He’s quite a good mover for a Thoroughbred and a good jumper, but when he feels the pressure he starts to unravel. 

In the dressage, he’s kind of one of those horses where you put your leg on and he tries to overcompensate and shoot forward, and then you take your leg off and he thinks he should trot. So, it’s a little bit of just trying to get inside his brain. 

It’s a bit of the same in the show jumping. He doesn’t like to touch rails and, at times, because we’re both green he does, so he might have a couple down after that because he gets a bit frazzled. So we just try and keep him relaxed. Even though this spring, his scores haven’t necessarily reflected it, we’ve been trying to school and get to him when he gets tense and take a breath and relax. 

I think his strengths are obviously on the cross country. He’s been a cross-country machine since the day he looked at a cross-country fence. Up until now, knock on wood, he’s only had one 20 [jumping penalties] on his record. 

I think the atmosphere at Kentucky, if I have to guess, will get the best of him. But I’m hoping he’ll kind of show me around my first five-star. There’s not a horse I’d rather jump around Kentucky with. 

Keeping Billy calm and relaxed in the dressage and show jumping phases has been a key focus during the preparation period leading up to Kentucky. Photo: Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Do you work with different coaches for different phases? 

Pretty much I solely work with Hannah Salazar, who is my business partner and a dressage rider. Again, she focuses on trying to get him relaxed on the flat and she rides him quite a bit because she has an easier time trying to get him relaxed than I do. She’ll get on him and then I’ll get on him the day after and it’s quite a nice feeling. 

She’s also always there when I jump, because again, we feel like the flatwork translates to the jumping and if we can keep him relaxed and through his body in between the jumps, then the jumping overall is better. 

And then for cross country, we’ve worked with Jan Byyny. So when there’s an issue, I take him to her and get her input. But for the most part, he’s pretty through the flags and right on there. 

You were part of last year’s USEF’s Emerging Athlete Eventing 25 program, and you got to enjoy some amazing opportunities to work with top team coaches. What were some of the key training and horsemanship philosophies you took away from that experience? How did that inspire your own training and riding and goals for the future?

 I think the U25 program is exceptional and I think it’s something that this country really needs in order to focus on the younger generation coming up. It was incredible to be on the team with people my age and such talented riders to get the experience down there at the training sessions and it being a little bit like a team event. Especially this year what they’re doing with the USEF Future Teams Program, I think it’s hugely beneficial. Just kind of riding here at Carolina under the pressure a little bit. Even though it’s not a team, it’s still a team atmosphere. Working together and picking up your teammates and trying to come out on top. So, I think it’s a really great program that everybody coming through [the levels] should try to do at some point. 

Last season it was a bit early on in January and when we went down to Florida, the horses were a bit fresh. I took Sandro down and he was quite fresh and he hadn’t cross-country schooled up until then, but it was really great to work through some of that stuff early on in the season and build upon it throughout the year. And then, like I said, just working with your team and supporting each other throughout the year. 

“He’s been a cross-country machine since the day he looked at a cross-country fence,” says Chris of the athletic Thoroughbred. Photo: Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

With this being your first CCI5*-L, how are you preparing physically and mentally? Is there anything special you’re doing? How do you plan to stay focused during the event and in your preparation? What are you looking forward to the most while competing in Kentucky? 

I think physically and mentally I don’t feel like I’m preparing very well, because I’m quite stressed [he says laughing nervously]. It’s a lot of stress. I’ve wanted to do this for so long and I’m finally there and it’s so close, but at the same time I don’t want to lose sight of it all. 

I think with Billy not having the strength in the dressage and the show jumping makes it a very non-pressured weekend–I’m hoping. I’m looking for he and I to just complete. I hope to jump clean on cross country. We have such a good partnership and he’s such a special horse for me to take to Kentucky for my first time. I really trust him and I hope it goes as well as it can, but at the same time I’m trying to keep the expectation low and if it gets better, then it gets better. 

I watch a lot of old Rolex videos on Youtube every night for about three or four hours. Just watching multiple people jump through the combinations I kind of have a feel of what’s going to come. I’ve only actually ever been once (five years ago) and I was a groom, so I walked the course and I thought there’s no way horses can jump this. But I feel more experienced now having multiple four-star runs. I feel relatively prepared, so I think just trying to keep my nerves under control. It’s a huge weekend for everybody and everyone at our farm has put in so much to get here and into me and the horse and I think it’s just a matter of keeping the pressure under wraps and try to do the best we can. 

[Editor’s note: After our interview, Chris casually mentioned that he’s very superstitious and he doesn’t dare write down The Event in his competition calendar. Instead, he draws a few “…” in pencil, so he doesn’t jinx himself. Fingers crossed that after April 28, he can finally write out the event’s full name in permanent marker on his list of accomplishments and check it off his bucket list!]

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