Originally it was not the plan to step Kristalic, owned by Morning Star Sporthorses, into the FEI ranks for the final week of Desert Circuit. But with the way the schedule worked out, the horse preferred the sand ring, so CSI4* action it was. And with Gregory Wathelet (BEL) aboard, the horse walked away with a second victory of the week in Sunday’s $32,000 Heavy Metal Equipment CSI4* 1.45m Classic, proving he’s a top contender for the higher levels.

“It was not the plan at the beginning to do the FEI,” Wathelet said of Kristalic’s schedule. “When we saw it was on sand, we thought better to do the 1.45m on sand than to try to do the 1.40m National on grass. We tried three weeks ago to jump on the grass and it was not feeling so good. I must say he has improved a lot. He’s really confident on the height because he’s very careful. Sometimes he needs to trust himself that he can jump this height.”

Wathelet took the ride aboard Kristalic and several other Morning Star Sporthorses-owned mounts while Karrie Rufer takes a sideline position awaiting her first child. With each of Rufer’s rides, Wathelet has produced excellent results.

Gregory Wathelet (BEL) and Kristalic. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

“I rode him last year and I liked him because he has a big heart he wants to do well even if sometimes you have to fight for him,” Wathelet explained of the 9-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion (Arezzo VDL x Baltic VDL). “He’s a super nice horse. I don’t know what he’s going to do in the end but for sure this level, and Karrie will have fun when she takes the reins of him.”

Wathelet has enjoyed his time in California not just competing in and watching top-level show jumping, but also getting out and experiencing other top sports in the area, including an NBA game and the tennis tournament nearby.

“In general I like many sports,” he explained. “I don’t really follow basketball but while we’re here it’s always good to see good sports. I went to the tennis [tournament] two days ago. It’s just amazing to see these amazing players.”

Wathelet has his eyes on a big prize this year, and it’s the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, but before then he has several other major events, like the upcoming FEI Longines League of Nations and FEI World Cup Finals, to help him be considered as a Belgian team member.

“I’ve always been a team rider for Belgium and I like the big championships and events,” he shared. “For sure the team events are a bit different. For sure the [Olympic] Games it’s something we want to do. We really do everything we can to be ready for going there to be part of the team.”

Gregory Wathelet (BEL) and Kristalic in their winning presentation. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

The strategy for making an Olympic team begins far in advance, as many top riders think about Olympic prospects before they even acquire them for their string.

“I’m lucky now I have two amazing horses,” he said of his top two, Bond Jamesbond de Hay and Ace Of Hearts, a horse that jumped in Thermal in 2023. “I think we have a big chance to get on. I have planned a program since December for my main horse, Jamesbond. He has proven already big things, but I still has to do good things at the next show he’s going to do and I have to feel like he’s fit ready good to go, otherwise I don’t want to go [to the Olympics] just to go.”

The Belgian squad has been one to watch for several years, and they’re in a bit of a building phase according to Wathelet, but they still shouldn’t be counted out, especially as their current horses continue to get older.

“I think Belgium has been quite good the last seven or eight years,” he expressed. “We are at a point where some horses are a little bit older, like mine, Nevados S, Jerome [Guery]’s Quel Homme de Hus, and a few others that have retired. We have a new set of horses. For me it’s not as strong as it was the previous year but I think we can have a good team. In Belgium there are maybe not enough horses for championships but very strong riders. If it’s not this year it will be very soon they’re going to get horses for that level.”

In second in the $32,000 Heavy Metal Equipment CSI4* 1.45m Classic was Kaitlin Campbell aboard Conova, owned by Sweet Oak Farm, while Vani Khosla secured third with Incitatus.

Overall, it’s been a successful season for Wathelet, peaking with several horses at the final week and taking home valuable miles and prize money.

James Chawke Snags One Last Victory in $30,000 Marshall & Sterling 1.40m Open Classic

It was a lucky day on St. Patrick’s Day for Irishman James Chawke, who wasn’t going to leave the desert without one more win. He jumped clear in the $30,000 Marshall & Sterling 1.40m Open Classic with two mounts, and ended up finishing in first and second places. Catinka 25, owned by Vanessa Mannix, took the win, while Isa, owned by Elise Haas, placed second, with Sophia Siegel and Immer Fortuna rounding out the podium.

With the wins and various top placings secured throughout the Circuit, Chawke secured the 2024 Desert Circuit Leading Open Jumper Rider award, earning a total of $48,665 in the qualifying classes.

“Catinka is one we’ve had for a long time,” Chawke said of the 15-year-old Oldenburg mare (Catoki x Luxano). “We bought her as a 7-year-old for Vanessa. She had a foal last year and a little injury, so we’ve been bringing her back. The plan here was that I’d jump her a bit and see what she’s happy to do and then she’ll go back to Vanessa. This should be my last class on her.”

James Chawke and Catinka 25 in their winning presentation. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Knowing Catinka is ready for her owner again, Chawke can pass off the reins and continue to develop his other mounts, who are either newer to him or stepping up into a newer height.

“I think it’s a good class because it’s technical and it’s big enough,” he said of the weekly 1.40m Classic. “When they leave here, if they’re jumping this well they should be able to do a ranking class most places they go. For the younger ones, it’s a good step up from a normal 1.40m. For [Catinka], it tells me where she’s at for the next show she goes.”

In the weekly class, over 10 pairs typically jump clear. This week it was exactly 10, and it was an extremely competitive 10.

“There’s always lots of good riders in this class so it’s always very competitive,” Chawke continued. “There are always more clear and I think when you walk you think there won’t be that many and there ends up being 10 which is a good number for the start list. They’re all very competitive. Obviously it’s nice to win.”

James Chawke and Catinka 25. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Earning the 2024 Leading Open Jumper Rider award wasn’t an outright goal of Chawke’s, because he knew if it was meant to happen it would happen. But it’s certainly a thrilling award to take home and it provides even more belief for him in his string of horses and how they’re progressing.

“It’s obviously great for all my horses and owners; it just shows how consistent the horses have been,” he said of earning the title. “Obviously leaving here it’s still early in the year so all of our horses it’s just trying to have them all improve and get ready for the rest of the year and show them what some of them are ready to do and not do. They’ve all been great and they’ve all done something good since they’ve been here.”

The year is just getting started for many, so they’ll scatter across the country and the world and show off the progression they made through their time at DIHP.

“I’m really pleased, because moving forward it shows you which direction to push each horse,” Chawke continued. “Enough of them have moved up levels, a few of them I’m just getting to know. Leaving here I know where I am with them and which way to push them, which shows to aim them at, and what I can do with them.”

Chawke heads to Florida next before he gears up for the Oaks and a trip to Riyadh to coach Vanessa Mannix at the FEI World Cup Finals.

Coco Stenzler and Alvaro Secure 2’6”-2’9” Great American Insurance Group Child/Adult Hunter Derby

Coco Stenzler and Alvaro. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Coco Stenzler started her day, and ended her circuit, with a big win in the 2’6”-2’9” Great American Insurance Group Child/Adult Hunter Derby. Aboard Alvaro, a partner of hers for nearly five years, she took a pair of 82 scores in the two rounds for the victory, topping a field of 36 entries in the final derby of the season.

“He’s an absolute unicorn,” Stenzler said of Alvaro, who is 17 this year. He does everything to be quite honest and he’s really great. I had him when I was doing the 2’ and he was my first actual Children’s Hunter. He really taught me how to ride, how to get lead changes, how to do turns, and how to get straight. He honestly taught me everything I know about riding.”

Alvaro was there for her every step of the way in the ring Sunday, and he is outside of the ring as well.

“The ribbons are very nice, but I’m always just happy when we have a nice round,” she reflected on their relationship and past accomplishments. “I don’t really think about it. As long as we make it around and he feels happy I am super happy with it.”

Coco Stenzler and Alvaro, pictured with Heather Roades and Kylee Arbuckle. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

After a successful two-week stint in the desert, Stenzler is headed home with a happy heart, knowing they finished up their hunter career together (for the moment) with a bang.

“He’s been great and I’m really lucky to have him,” she continued. “I’m going off to college at Notre Dame in a few months so it was a nice little goodbye for us. I think I’m going to shift away from riding for a little bit. It’s been such a big part of my life so I don’t know what I’m going to do without it, but I think it’s going to be nice to branch out a little. But definitely when I’m older I’ll get back to it.”

The young rider plans to study political science at Notre Dame with the possibility of exploring business studies as well.

In second in the 2’6”-2’9” Great American Insurance Group Child/Adult Hunter Derby was Shabnam Behzadpour who piloted Escher, while Tyler Wilson secured third place with En Plus Du Givre, owned by TA Wilson Family Farm, LLC.

Berkeley Barnholden and Galan Grab 2’-2’3” EquiFit Essentials Child/Adult Hunter Derby Victory

Berkeley Barnholden and Galan. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Berkeley Barnholden got the ride aboard Galan just about a year ago, and the pieces are really starting to fall into place for her with the 13-year-old gelding. On Sunday morning of Desert Circuit 10, the 14-year-old topped the 2’-2’3” EquiFit Essentials Child/Adult Hunter Derby.

“He’s very sweet but sometimes he’s got a lot of energy,” Barnholden explained of Galan, who helped her achieve dual scores of 83 in the hunt-and-go rounds. “Today he was really good. He was pretty forward which was nice and he always will go forward for me if I ask him which is good.”

Coming off ponies recently, it’s been somewhat of a learning curve for Barnholden to get accustomed to Galan, but it’s one that she’s enjoyed every step of the ride with. “He’s my first horse so I didn’t really have a lot of experience, but I knew that he’s super sweet and he always takes care of me,” she explained of the confidence he gives her. “It feels super great to know that we finally clicked and did something good together.”

They’ve climbed the ranks since showing together for the first time during Desert Circuit 2023, so securing this win felt extra special, seeing all their effort pay off. Part of the confidence she gets from Galan comes from his past experience.

“He was a derby horse and he did big derbies; he’s done the derbies in the Grand Prix ring,” she explained. “So he knows how to do inside turns, and I practice those a lot at home. So I knew that I was going to try to do my inside turns as well as I could. I was also going to try to make my tracks as straight as possible because he’s a little wiggly sometimes.”

As far as goals, Barnholden is focusing on finessing the little things before she thinks about bigger-picture goals, which will take care of themselves if she can nail the details. “I really want to get consistent with my distances because I’m still learning how to do those properly so I wanna try to be able to find more consistent distances,” she said.
Coming to Thermal from Vancouver, Barnholden was thrilled to escape the cold for a few weeks at a time, coming to sharpen her skills and have some fun in the sun.

“It’s super nice to have warmer weather even though it was pretty rainy at times, and it’s been super nice to ride in these rings because they’re so big,” she said of what she enjoyed most about DIHP. “This park is so much bigger than all the facilities in Canada, and it’s really nice to have some bigger competitions to watch. And there are so many activities to do here so you’re never bored.”