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Riding at four-star often means more to an eventer than championships and can be more realistic than the elusive senior team cap. Similarly, a one-horse rider may dream of moving from BE100 to novice. So when and how do we decide to step up?

After a CCI3* you often see people write on social media: “Delighted! We’ve qualified for a CCI4*!” That’s an achievement in itself, but does it mean you’re ready for four-star?

Experience is invaluable, but how do you get it if you don’t put your training to the test? Learning from mistakes is all very well, but in eventing, safety is a huge factor — what if a mistake ends up costing a life?

Growing up based near Badminton, my dream was to compete there as soon as possible on my young rider horse Malachy Stone. We never made it in three attempts — the first year I was advised I lacked the necessary experience after one CCI3*, then there was foot and mouth, then an injury.

We did make it to Burghley.  I fell off at the penultimate, but back then you could still complete and we duly did so. I loved every second and, looking back, realise how much I learnt.

Following 10 years of horse retirements, injuries, duds and sales, we eventually stumbled across that extraordinary four-star horse again. Working our way over a decade from an unbroken three-year-old up to standing in the start box on that hallowed turf at Badminton, on a horse that I had such faith in, was an incredible journey. Those years gave me experience, motivation and an appreciation of what it takes to compete at that level.

Constant evaluation

Nowadays, minimum eligibility requirements (MERs) put more of a framework around the decision to upgrade, but the clue with MERs is in the name — they are a minimum.

Safety has to be the utmost priority and the desire to move up can blind riders to the reality that becoming truly established at each level is what instills in both horses and riders some of the essentials for safety and great results — confidence, communication, reaction speeds and core fitness.

Across country the partnership required between human and equine cannot be underestimated. The hours in the school are essential, but allowing the horse to think for itself while being totally in tune with its rider takes time, good training and proper mileage in a competitive scenario.

We should not see people scraping qualifications at the last minute before major targets — this means the process has been rushed, things haven’t gone to plan and the wheels are on the verge of falling off.

Train above the level you compete at and constantly evaluate how horses are feeling. Ask a question, see how it goes, perhaps drop back down a level to make doubly sure everything is in place, then ask the question again. At the start of the season, run at a lower level, just to check everything is where you left it. If a horse or rider has time off, be mindful of that when planning. Have a plan B, and sometimes C and D!

Common sense

Ultimately, it’s about horsemanship and common sense. Lower level riders need to seek as much advice as possible, make sure all the homework and mocks have been done and passed with flying colours before sitting the big exam.

Upper level riders need to keep their heads together and think rationally, sensibly and realistically about their ability and their horse’s, to use their knowledge for gains and not cloud their better judgment just for that possible crack at a four-star.

Ref Horse & Hound; 17 November 2016