As our ferry cruised into the French port of Caen, my groom Guy and I were standing in the foyer waiting to be invited back to our vehicle and horse. It was a slightly surreal moment because the foyer was swarming with a swathe of the eventing elite. Pippa Funnell, Jonelle Price, Izzy Taylor, Gemma Tattersall, Kitty King, Jesse Campbell, the list goes on, all accompanied by their support teams. It was a moment that hit home to me that the Mondial du Lion World Young Horse Eventing Championships in Le Lion D’Angers is a serious competition and it was pretty special to be rubbing shoulders with the world’s best.
I was lucky enough to be taking Jo Rutter’s The Rutman (aka Vinnie) to his first foray into overseas competition. Vinnie is a quirky soul, but his quirks are outweighed by his talent making it a very exciting venture.
We drove off the ferry and into the early morning darkness and it was only four hour’s drive before we were at the event and I was trying out my French vocabulary. I love the French, I find them so welcoming, particularly when you try to communicate in their own tongue and not simply expect them to speak English.
There’s a chap who is part of the Pau (France’s CCI4* competition) stable management team and ever since my first visit there in 2011. He always welcomes me like a long lost friend even though he doesn’t speak a word of English — it’s truly charming.
Back at Le Lion d’Angers and Vinnie was quite wild and so I put a fair amount of work into him before our Friday dressage. Pippa Funnell reminded me why I love the camaraderie of our sport when she was watching her colleague while I was working Vinnie. She lent over and said: “Simon, I know I shouldn’t interfere, but…” and proceeded to give me some inspiring gold nuggets of advice which I very happily put into practice. She really was a true ambassador for British Eventing throughout the week.
The atmosphere in the Lion main arena is palpable and I thought Vinnie did a super job despite this and the fact that his preparation had been sparse owing to my injury. He scored a very respectable 54 which we were all very pleased with.
The cross-country was tough, but jumpable and again I luckily happened to be walking it at the same time as Pippa who happily gave me some very useful advice at each fence (me pictured top at one of the beautiful cross-country fences). The crowds at Lion are huge and also close as it is tightly strung so it is a very intimidating situation for a young horse. Not only that, but I wondered how I would be mentally following my fall at my last international outing.
I needn’t have worried about it though — Vinnie jumped out of the start box and settled into the most lovely rhythm jumping fence after fence with ease and not taking any notice of the crowd and I was riding with huge confidence from the outset.
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As we approached fence 11 a trakhener, followed by three strides on a curving line to a skinny fence, he was feeling incredibly classy and jumped the first part beautifully. I pre-warned him of the turn to the skinny in mid-air and he locked onto the skinny happily. As he turned, on the second stride his back end slipped from under him, nearly falling and he simply couldn’t push off to jump the second part. It was such a shame and he simply didn’t deserve it to happen to him. I turned and jumped it the second time to encouraging French cheers, but the damage was done, we were out of the running. However, we continued and he felt incredible, jumping all the straight routes and feeling exceptional the whole way. He completed with a few time-faults and that frustrating 20 penalties to add, but we still celebrated with some bubbly as he is a hugely exciting prospect for the future. It wasn’t his fault, mine or that of our equipment, just good old fashioned bad luck.
The following day he trotted up well and jumped nicely to complete the world championships; how exciting. Some may think I shouldn’t have gone to such a high profile competition so soon after my accident, but I’m thrilled I went — it was incredibly inspiring and on the drive home I found myself making exciting plans for next season with all my horses off the back of it. So here’s to a fantastic 2017.