Of the 132 classes and counting that Conor Swail (IRL) has won since 2015, Sunday’s Marshall & Sterling CSI4* Grand Prix at Desert International Horse Park (DIHP) is one that will likely stick out in his memory. It’s also one that brought back memories.

Swail contested the final 4* Grand Prix of the 2023 Desert Circuit season with Vital Chance de la Roque (aka Vinnie). The expressive bay gelding is one of Swail’s most seasoned contenders but has been off-form of late.

“We’re in a bit of a confidence crisis at the moment,” said Swail.

“We jumped here a few weeks back, and we had a bit of a crash [on a oxer] under the lights, and he hasn’t got over it yet. His confidence is very low, and he’s always a tough, sort of a feisty horse. I think that’s what makes him so good. But he really is sort of boiling over on me at the minute, and I’m just struggling a little bit to try and manage that.”

Swail considered riding Theo 160 on Sunday instead. The 11-year-old gelding has been on an incredible streak this winter in California, logging a 100% top 10 average since January, according to Jumpr App.

“I thought it through, and Theo has been just incredible the whole season here, and a 4* Grand Prix is a bit of a stretch for him, so I just thought, let’s go with the better horse, Vinnie. His job to go and do this and he’s normally very good at it,” Swail explained.

The world no. 6 came up with a warm-up strategy to help set the gelding up for success.

“We jumped a few tall verticals [in the warm up]. We didn’t go overboard with the oxers because he’s very careful and I don’t want him backing up too much. And it did work very well. I felt the start of the round he was quite rideable and I was able not to put too much pressure on for the big oxers,” he continued.

“We got through the most of the round pretty well. It was just nearly that last line, the turn and down the last line, he started to get very aggressive on me. But we got there and I must say he jumped very well. [It’s] just the ride-ability [that needs work].

“It [felt a bit like] back to the older days when I didn’t have as much quality of horse and you’ve got to work hard to give them the best opportunity to jump [clear].”

Swail and “Vinnie” were one of only two combinations to find a clear path around Peter Grant’s first round course. Sophia Siegel (USA) and A-Girl were the other.

Siegel returned first in the jump-off, dropping a pair of rails to open the door for a steady clear from Swail.

“Normally the jump off is less technical and especially [on Sunday], there was a lot of single fences there really. So when Sophia had a couple of down, I thought, I’ll just try and step around handy and I was hoping I wouldn’t have any more than one down.”

That hope evaporated with Vinnie also incurred eight faults, prompting Swail to take an inside track to the last fence and stop the clock at 48.31 seconds to Siegel’s 51.13.

“I suppose it made it a bit exciting. Again, he got very aggressive on me [in the jump off]. I came down to that double again, and he made a few mistakes. And thankfully we did enough to get home in the lead.

“Obviously, I’m very happy [to have won],” continued Swail. “The manner I won in [though] isn’t the way I would want to win any Grand Prix, to be quite honest about. But like I said, I got the job done that I needed to do there. I think my horse is still not where he should be or where he’s going to be. But it was a day just to get in the trenches and fight it out. And thankfully, it’s a great result today. As far as going forward, we have a lot to improve on.

“So I’m happy for the win, but I’m not happy with that performance.”

Swail plans to jump smaller classes as he works to gradually rebuild Vinnie’s confidence.

“He’s quite difficult because you can’t jump at home much because, again, he gets very aggressive at [the jumps]. So, I try and just do small jumps and a few smaller classes and things like that just to try and build his confidence. We’re making progress, but we’re still not near back to where his level is. I mean, he’s one of the best horses in the world when he’s in top form.

“So, it’s about trying to get him back there. I think, honestly, it’s going to take another three or four shows at least. So it’s a gradual thing.”

Feature image: ©Megan Giese Photography