I am 51 and have ridden all my life — hunting, point-to-pointing and hunter trials — all mainly on young horses and I thought I was a reasonable jockey until I started eventing.
The sad discovery that I had wasted 50 years sitting on horses without ever actually riding one crept up on me as trainer after trainer despaired of my lamentable attempts to understand how my horse was really working on the flat. It had never really occurred to me to consider which leg was on the ground and what it was doing. Success had always only ever been measured by the extent of forward movement, especially over a jump.
I live in Norfolk and have four children, an amazing wife who will ride three horses a day in all weathers, and a full time job with often takes me away allowing only an hour or two of riding during the week.
Against this unpromising backdrop, my first year of eventing with BE progressed quite well. My inexperienced chestnut Thoroughbred, Ready Steady, and I graduated from a cricket score at Poplar Park to a consistent sub-40 by the end of the season at Little Downham. Thanks to our single undeniable talent to do the fastest time of the day across country, we even won a few rosettes when flood, mud or tempest sabotaged the 20-something dressage stars.
We were pleased with our results and 2007 beckoned. Every judge had commented favourably on Red’s ‘wonderful natural paces’. All very well but I was still not quite sure what to do with them. Anyhow, I felt improvement was certain.
We booked onto one of the EHOA’s courses at Little Downham in February. Ken Clawson and JP Sheffield were brilliant – although neither could quite remove my habit of riding every fence as if it was Bechers Brook. Red and I were not disgraced and I felt well prepared for the start of my second season.
Oasby and Poplar Park went without incident, although dressage was still a problem. My working in was fantastic, but invariably the moment I entered the arena I was left with two washing lines and as much impulsion as a bike with a flat tyre!
Clearly if I ever was going to be the oldest competitor to get around Badminton, a different strategy was required. As it happens I have a keen 20-something daughter who was finishing university. She wanted to come home for a ‘post uni’ gap year and pick up her riding again. As a caring father I knew that she obviously needed a safe jumper, so Red would be perfect. She might even be able to improve his dressage (she has) but I would of course need something else.
We set out to find a star of the future that Oli and Pippa had overlooked. Horse & Hound and thousands of miles later we found the perfect candidate down in Canterbury. Peanut is seven, German, had been eventing and even had a 28.5 dressage on his record – his connections told of his character and potential. He had had a few setbacks but they weren’t his fault.
We loved Peanut and believed them. We paid more than we had ever paid for a horse before and Peanut came home.
Peanut was indeed a character. He had fantastic looks, paces and stable manners. There were only two problems – we couldn’t get him out of the yard and when ridden in the same field as solid, ominous looking cross-country jumps he would run a mile. Clearly he had some bad memories.
We obviously remonstrated with the previous owners, but in truth, and despite the problems, there was something we really liked in the horse, so we didn’t try as hard as justice might have allowed. I am so pleased we didn’t, but we were to be in for some fun and games.
In some initial unaffiliated outings I astonished myself with dressage marks in the early 30’s but the jumping was less fun. By the time of Chilham we had actually managed the odd satisfactory school so we took him along. I hadn’t fallen off a horse in anger for quite a while — that day I fell off twice; once when he ran away from the water and a second time when the helpful jump judge who gave me a leg-up waved his clipboard in Peanut’s eye.
It was on the hottest day of the year and twice trudging around Chilham’s beautiful but very hilly parkland in the pursuit of a loose horse seriously challenged my commitment.
More schooling and more improvement followed. Aston-le-Walls was next. A good 30 in the dressage but he napped in the show jumping and I went over his head again cross country. By this time the wags on the commentary (encouraged by the incorrigible Mr Symington) were actually suggesting that I might like to consider walking the course before I got on my horse.
But it was not a joke. I was so intent on achieving results, had a new horse that despite these antics I really knew could do the job, yet I was going backwards. Meanwhile my beloved daughter and the faithful Red were doing well – I was so pleased for them.
It was coming up to our 25th wedding anniversary. For a present our children, whose antennae had clearly diagnosed my problem, booked my wife Lucie and I up for a couple of days of intensive training with Nigel and Anne Taylor, back at Aston. It was to change everything. Nigel gave me confidence. More importantly he gave Peanut and I confidence. The work ethic at Nigel and Anne’s yard has to be seen to be believed. Everyone is quiet, calm but so determined. The whole approach is about allowing horses to realise their potential and enjoy their work. It certainly worked its magic on us.
The dressage remained consistent and at Milton Keynes, Burnham and Brooksby we had double clears. It was an amazing feeling to be well placed on every outing. In hindsight Peanut’s previous connections were right, he was a good horse – he just needed time to get his confidence back. At the first Oasby the impossible happened. We won an intro section. This was my first (and thus far only) BE win.
I watched them writing up the result with a tear in my eye. I wasn’t as much elated as desperately relieved, after so much work and so much trying, to have some recognition for the efforts we had put in. I felt my faith in Peanut was fully justified. Better still Lucie only missed winning her PN section because she was a second further away from the optimum time than the person she tied with. Here we were, twice the age of most of our fellow competitors and only in our second season, and we very nearly walked away with a section apiece. Definitelya good day.
The following week we were back at Oasby for a re-directed Holdenby. We were second. Our consistency seemed to be established. Time to move from intro to pre-novice.
Little Downham signalled the end of the season. We walked the course with frost underfoot amongst an eerie mist but the sun blossomed into a beautiful warm autumn day. The dressage was fantastic, 32.5. None of Roger Howe’s show jumps hit the ground. Many others in our section were not so lucky. Could we really win our first pre-novice? It only needed a clear round and the jumping was now so reliable.
The run to the first at Little Downham was very short this year, no more than 25 yards. I took too much for granted, something from the past flashed into Peanut’s mind and we napped when only a few lengths out of the box, but close enough to the fence to matter. I was much too slow to react and in that flash my day was shattered. We got going but despite the first fence warning I still managed to surprise him at some of the combinations by going in too hard and I was finally dumped between fence 15 and 16. I didn’t bother to get back on.
It was a bleak day – especially as the winning score for my section was, you guessed it, 32.5.
The real blow was that there was not a next week. I couldn’t simply lick my wounds, have a school and put the damage right next time. I only have one ride and the season was over. I felt I had let Peanut down after such an improvement, but in truth we probably share the blame.
So my second season has produced great highs — I am so proud of the improvements Peanut and I have demonstrated, but if he could talk I am sure he is as equally devastated as me by the final day.
But that is this wonderful sport of eventing and perhaps that’s exactly why it exerts such a strong grip on us. It all starts again next March . . . and I can’t wait.