Finally! Express Eventing has come around again. After the misfortunes of Cardiff everyone — riders, other organisers and spectators — was interested to see how the competition would go at the Royal Festival of the Horse. I am happy to say that the organisers pulled off a great competition.

The course was very different to the one that was built for Cardiff. Everything was made of brush and in general, it was far softer with fences that the horses wouldn’t misread.

My first reaction was slight disappointment, but at a second glance, I realised that the designer had been very subtly clever. The arena at Stonleigh is all-weather but smaller than the Millennium Stadium’s grass arena so the course would ride very intensely with sharp turns and tight lines. So by making the course marginally easier, it dared us riders to gallop faster and make a mistake by compromising on the accuracy some of the questions demanded.

Golden children lift Maggie

First of all, however, we had to get through the dressage to music. Maggie (Magenta) felt surprisingly spritely in the familiarisation in the morning. Stabled next to the main arena and having a late draw meant I could watch and listen to the pumping tunes chosen by my fellow competitors! Having competed in the last Express Eventing I can definitely say that the under-25s chose far better music.

Maggie warmed up really well and we were feeling really confident five minutes before we had to enter the main arena. That is, until a troop of 20 ponies with children dressed in bright gold lycra suits started warming up next to us in the collecting ring. Thank God I wasn’t on Jeans who would have had me upside down in the fence in a matter of seconds.

Actually, the “little golden children” must have given Maggie that little lift she needed. She went in and performed to the best of her ability and pulled off a lovely test mistake free. Having been third after the dressage in 2008, we at Team China believe in consistency and once again I was third after Duarte Seabra and Flora Harris.

Fastest of the day

After a little break and another course walk just to make sure, the cross-country test started with Phoebe Buckley kicking things off on her amazing little mare Little Tiger. The organisers had told us that the course had been wheeled at 425mpm, a speed that none of us had ever competed at, it being faster than showjumping but slower than cross-country. So we were all crowded around the entrance to see how Phoebe fared with the time. Phoebe rode a perfectly judged round within the time without looking rushed or harassed.

I knew, however, that Maggie was not a nippy little 15hh pony so I decided not to go flat out but to ride all of the tight lines. Maggie was fantastic! Watching the video back, she made the course look like absolutely nothing. She unhesitatingly took all of the angles and tight lines jumped the double of angled hedges even when I cut the corner inside the flowers. In the end, we were the fastest of the day (something Maggie and I are unused to) but both Duarte and Flora also rode well judged rounds to leave the leader board unchanged going into the showjumping.

This time, unlike Cardiff where we had the pitstop, we had a separate showjumping round with a twist! At the end of the stiff track, we had the option of a horrible, very tall, gappy upright or a decent but jumpable oxer. The upright was called the eraser and if we jumped it clear we knocked four penalties off our total score. However, if we knocked it down, we would add the normal four penalties.

I knew to put the pressure on those ahead of me I had to jump the eraser clear. Maggie jumped a beautiful and careful showjumping round, but just tipped the eraser out at the end. Flora went on to jump a stunning clear including the eraser to put serious pressure on Duarte. Unfortunately, Duarte had three down leaving Flora as the deserving winner.

Even though it was disappointing not to have won myself, a great consolation is to see a very good friend deservingly winning in your place and really appreciate the result.

Rodney’s first intermediate

A quick turnaround saw us at a rainy Tweseldown the following day. It was Rodney’s (Willows Accent) first intermediate and a successful day it turned out to be. A 28-penalty dressage test followed by an unfortunate one down showjumping and a steady but clear cross-country left us into eighth place. I was in two minds whether to run across the country or not after the trouble the course seemed to be causing. Seeing a few horses bandaged up to their elbows doesn’t give you the most confidence in the world.

Most of the major issues appeared to be caused by the water jump which I felt might have a hole where all of the horses were landing. However, I knew that Rodney has always been over-bold jumping into water so that added to angling the fence to the right meant that we must have missed the black hole that others seemed to disappear into. Rodney’s campaign for the international seven-year-old championships at Le Lion is very much on track!

Alex

Full report of Express Eventing in H&H out now, 15 July issue. Report of Tweseldown in next week’s issue, 22 July.