When Balladeer Durban Hills arrived at 29-year-old Sarah Parkes’ yard four years ago, he was never meant to be staying.
“‘AJ’s’ owners sent him to me to be sold, but I fell in love with him and so mum and I bought him,” explains Sarah, who will be tackling her first Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials in just a little over a week (3-7 May).
The road to Badminton hasn’t been completely smooth for Sarah and the thoroughbred 12-year-old though.
“Last season AJ had treatment for kissing spines and then after our final pre-Badminton run at Belton three weeks ago, we found he had a slab fracture of one of his top molars and he had bashed a splint too. He’s remarkable as he never complains and is a massive trier,” says Sarah.
AJ is also fiercely independent according to Sarah.
“He’s really grumpy in the stable — he kicks and bites and you have to watch both the front and back ends,” she laughs. “You could give him a cuddle and then as soon as you walk away he’ll bite you!”
But all is forgiven, as across country Sarah describes him as a “real weapon”.
“I just point him between the flags and as he is pure thoroughbred he’s naturally very quick while still being snaffle mouthed — he eats up three-star tracks but we cross-country school him regularly to keep him confident, particularly with water which was a problem for him in the past,” Sarah explains while travelling back from a training stint with Chris Bartle. “We’ve been practising jumping into the ‘Badminton lake’ at Chris’ — he recreated the fence and we jumped it over and over again.”
Sarah’s hard work and AJ’s talent for the sport is evident just by looking at their British Eventing record. He has only rolled two poles in the past 12 months and they’ve had just three cross-country blips since the start of the 2014 season.
“He struggles on the flat a bit as it doesn’t come naturally for him, but he’s a great jumper,” says Sarah who will be in good company when she tackles her first four-star as her boyfriend, former H&H blogger and established event rider, Ben Way is also entered.
“We’re competitive with each other in a friendly way,” explains Sarah who has been based at Ben’s Warwickshire yard for the past four years. “But equally I didn’t want our future children to grow up thinking mummy hadn’t got round a four-star but daddy had!”
Sarah has always wanted to be an event rider and she dropped out of university five weeks into her course because of this.
“So mum and dad insisted I got some sort of professional qualification, so now as well as being a rider, I’m a fully qualified personal trainer,” she says.
Sarah explains she always visited Badminton as a child.
“I’m in shock now as to actually be competing doesn’t feel real,” she confesses. “I can’t wait to give it a go. Of course I want to complete but I am actually quite a competitive person so I want to get a good result too. Equally I don’t want to scare AJ — he’s very special and a real horse for the future, so we’ll give it our best shot.”