After all of our exciting plans to take the national circuit by storm I’ve had a very quiet couple of months recovering from our tip up at Keysoe.

At least Alfie was OK and our back specialist was amazed when he checked him over that nothing had been pulled. My backstepper and I weren’t so fortunate and are still nursing our injuries.

Although I’m still meant to be on crutches I have been determined to get back into driving and took Alfie to my second British Young Drivers (BYD) training session with Boyd Exell at the end of May. As this is subsidised as part of the Advanced Young Drivers squad, I really couldn’t afford to lose my place.

We worked on dressage, obstacles and cones at the equestrian centre at Onley and I managed to join in for the majority of it. Obviously the biggest thing for me was to regain my confidence driving the obstacles and Boyd was definitely pushing me on from the start urging me to go for it at full gallop!

2 Working hard schooling for dressage emily ham

Dressage schooling

After a steady drive through we were soon cantering forward confidently and really covering the ground. Boyd urged me to keep the power on through the turns and allow Alfie to keep on moving forwards and not keep checking him back. Alfie was, as ever, smooth and responsive and I was very proud of him.

I hadn’t been able to drive Alfie at any trials type competitions since Keysoe and it felt great to be working properly together again, even though I suffered for it big time afterwards as bracing in the carriage requires a lot of pressure through the legs — especially with the manoeuvres at speed we practised with Boyd. In fact on the second day I had to sit out the obstacle driving and just drove the cones. I have the same problem at home as our hills are so steep there is a lot of strain on my injured leg when driving so a friend has kindly taken Alfie for ridden fitness sessions and he has enjoyed being under saddle again.

This time last year a university friend rode him in some British Dressage (BD) competitions and qualified for the Welsh Championships. This time around he has been doing interval training and enjoying hacking out up and down our hills where he is seeing the mountainous scenery from a new blinkerless perspective!

Schooling at Onley

Schooling at Onley

A worthwhile trip

The season was well underway without having driven in any outdoor HDT competitions, let alone qualifiers, so I entered Sandringham, as this was where we were scheduled to have further training from Boyd actually at the event. It is also one of the flatter marathons which would help me and of course Alfie, who had been working under saddle rather than pulling the carriage.

Schooling at Sandringham with Boyd Exell

Schooling at Sandringham with Boyd Exell

The day before the dressage Boyd worked us hard practising our test and was very complimentary. What a fantastic boost that gave us! There were a few hiccups on the day. The lamp brackets were nowhere to be found thus throwing away precious marks for presentation and due to a timing blip Boyd was still coaching other BYDs when he was due to be going through the warm-up with Alfie and I. But I tried to focus on calm preparation and building on what we had discussed the day before. In fact, Boyd arrived in time to watch my test so I benefitted from a debrief instead. When the scores were announced I was thrilled to find I was in second place, less than a penalty behind the leader.

Dressage at Sandringham

Dressage at Sandringham

Dad has been a lifesaver and got hold of a small quadbike for me to take to events so I can get about more easily, and my doctor has sent in a request that I be allowed to drive the obstacles rather than physically hobble around.

We had a course walk with Boyd which provided good insights into possible routes. I was prepared to take Alfie very steadily, aware that he might find the distance and eight obstacles hard going. I 6hoped to take him around all three phases but was resigned to adjusting to what I could cope with too and if this meant pulling out of the marathon part way through then so be it!

It was wonderful to have experienced backstepper Vicky Irwin on board who had volunteered to partner us at Sandringham. It was one of the rare occasions when I had someone at a national who could confirm routes in the obstacles, which took a lot of pressure off as Alfie wasn’t hanging around!

I was so pleased with his attitude as he really listened while being very keen. I like to choose a flowing smooth option and in hindsight should have kept to my original route in some obstacles where the route Boyd recommended was tight — more suitable for the shorter coupled ponies than my long lad. Otherwise Alfie’s times were very good with second place in four of the obstacles.

The open pony was a big, strong class with eight experienced entries and it was beyond my wildest hopes to be going into the final phase just one ball away from second place.

Winning the cones phase at Sandringham

Winning the cones phase at Sandringham

Going in reverse order it was apparent that people were struggling to make the time on the technical course and nobody had gone clear. It was all to play for and Alfie flew round the course for me, easily making the time but sadly we tapped one ball. Would this be enough to go up to second overall? Yes! Although we each had three penalties for a knocked ball, time penalties were incurred and in fact we won the cones phase!

What a great outcome, as we also secured our qualifier to take part in the National HDT Championships at Cirencester in September. Happy days!

Emily