The busiest three weeks have finally come to an end! Where to start?

Burghley is synonymous with a few words and phrases, bloody massive is the first that comes to mind. However, it isn’t until you actually walk the course for the first time you realise quite how intimidating and relentlessly enormous it is.

ESB Irish Fiddle is a very good cross-country horse and I have had some great rides on him this season, but it was his first four-star course with four-star crowds and atmosphere. Those who have followed his progress this year will know that he is somewhat mentally delicate (putting it politely) so we had no idea what to expect from him.

On the other hand, in the dressage, we knew exactly what we expected from him and he delivered exactly that. He started well, halted square but then spooked in the first corner, which put off our first movement. We managed to pull it back together in the trot work and walked well, but as soon as I put my leg on to ask for canter I knew everything was going to go downhill. With his ears back, head up and backside crooked to the inside Fiddle pushed himself grumpily into canter.

With a good few mistakes, I was relieved to canter down the centre line for the final time and finish. A penalty score of 63 was roughly what we expected, however it was just that, expected rather than pleased or happy!

With my dressage on Thursday, I thought I’d be able to have a bit of an easier day on Friday. Unfortunately, with Maggie (Magenta) at Blenheim the week afterwards I had decided to bring her up to work. So with her to work, plus riding Graffenstoltz in the stallion parade, plus walking the Rolex Combination with the BBC (which took 20 attempts) it ended up being manic.

A prophetic course-walk

Walking the course with Clayton and Lucinda Fredericks later on that evening, I asked Clayton which fence he introduced for the BBC, assuming he would have done one also. Prophetically his answer was that whenever he’d done something like that he’d fallen off at that fence. My only response was “oh”!

It was Saturday, cross-country day, and I was feeling confident. Although the course was big and very hilly I felt that it would suit Fiddle and that we couldn’t have got him any fitter. My normal routine for cross-country day is to give him a little gallop and a jump, take him back to the stables to have a little wash and 20min to himself then to jump back on for the final warm-up.

Fiddle came out of the start box feeling more confident and forward than he ever has. He jumped the bogey fence, the Leaf Pit, without hesitation. Then galloping out of the wood, under the Land Rover display into the Land Rover Discovery Valley he totally changed. For the first time on the course, we suddenly came across the crowds. Presenting him to the first element of the fence the large treasure chest I had to give him a kick and some vocal encouragement to get him to concentrate on where he was going.

From then on I was kicking him every stride. He was so shell shocked and over-awed by the atmosphere, he didn’t have his mind on the task at hand. He was so sticky going into the first part of the Land Rover Trout Hatchery that I made an executive decision to go long at the second part. Finally by the HSBC Maltings, Fiddle started to get back into his stride and take me.

The Rolex Combination, however, wasn’t quite so stylish! Coming up the hill Fiddle dropped off my leg again and so I ended up not getting the distance we needed. We popped over the big ditch and rail. I kicked for the two strides. Fiddle didn’t quite make the back rail of the open corner and so broke the pin. This popped me straight out of the saddle and I ended up clinging on like a monkey around a tree under Fiddle’s neck with him gently trotting off down the track! Luckily, he ducked left into one of the crossing points where he stopped and I managed to manoeuvre myself back into the plate! My first instinct was to kick on and continue, but I knew that Fiddle didn’t have his ‘game face’ on and that there was a lot more to jump so I decided to call it a day and retired.

Fiddle had a minuscule nick on his knee, but was otherwise unscathed by his experience. A mounted policeman very kindly escorted me back to the stables. It was a rather long walk, but it gave me time to think about plans for the weeks to follow. As we are not going to the World Equestrian Games (WEG) for reasons explained before, Maggie was entered for Blenheim. However, walking back on Fiddle, I realised that she doesn’t need the experience of another three-star run. She certainly doesn’t need to prove herself, and she could do without the mileage. In fact, I was running her for the hell of it. Nothing this year counts towards Olympic qualifications so actually what was the point of running her at Blenheim?

Fiddle on the other hand needed a three-star run for confidence. He’s at peak fitness right now having only run to five minutes. So the decision was made before I even made it back to the stables — Maggie was to have an early holiday and Fiddle was going to Blenheim!

Off to Blenheim

Quick turn around and two nights at home, we found ourselves on the beautiful parkland at Blenheim Palace. After four weeks out of five away from home with my time totally concentrated on him, Fiddle finally did a respectable test! Only the second time ever he’s been in the 50s (57pen) and definitely the only time he allowed me to ride him in the test without throwing his toys out of the pram.

After Burghley, everything looks comparatively small! Eric Winter designed a lovely course but it did seem rather long. 10min 56sec! A longer course than Burghley, just! Fiddle was great. He got a sharp reminder over the famous Blenheim Townfields Flyer when he tried to back off the ditch but apart from that he felt confident and happy to have a second chance. We were up on the clock until the last hill at the ninth minute when we were 8sec down. We finished with four time-penalties, just 10sec over! We went from 49th after dressage to twentieth after the cross-country.

Fiddle was pretty tired after the cross-country, so on Sunday afternoon, I loosened him off, popped a couple of fences in the warm-up and we made our way into the showjumping. We had the first fence down so I gave myself a mental slap and Fiddle a little kick and from then on jumped clear. To qualify for Badminton next year I had to be in the top 25%. I finished 21st, however there seemed to be conflicting reports on how many starters there were, 83 or 84! Thankfully there were 84 and so Fiddle has qualified for Badminton 2011.

I’ve just been talking to riders who’ve just had their last cross-country run before the WEG. I hope everyone has a good time — I only wish Maggie and I were there too!

Alex