What an unbelievable end to a rather unremarkable season! I left off last week as we were driving up to the stunning Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials. At that point I could only have dreamed of results like these.
Both Maggie (Magenta) and Jeans had had brilliant runs at Highclere Castle two weeks earlier and I was feeling confident that both horses were more than capable of being in the top 20. Elodie had come and helped me pack on the Tuesday and by nine on Wednesday we were well on our way.
As all eventers will know, Wednesday is trot-up day when the horses are presented to the ground jury to ensure that they are sound and fit to compete. With the horses beautifully plaited up and me all suited up, they both passed without a second glance from the ground jury.
The following day was Maggie’s dressage. In the past I’ve struggled constantly with getting her to keep going forwards in the test itself. However, at Highclere I seemed to have cracked it with a new strategy: ride her at home and also in the warm-up without whip or spurs (just a sharp Pony Club kick if she doesn’t go straight off my leg) then five minutes before I start my test, spurs on, then off I go.
This time, it worked again like a dream; in fact, almost too well! We made a couple of mistakes from her being too sensitive off the leg; she jogged in her medium walk and cantered in her left half-pass. Apart from that the whole test was far smoother and more accomplished than at Hartpury and so we got a 10-penalty improvement, 47.7pen.
That evening, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough very generously invite all of the riders and owners into the Palace to have a glass of champagne in the famous Painted Hall. We, as a sport, are so lucky to have such breathtaking venues to compete in, and Blenheim Palace is truly one of the special ones.
Friday was Jeans’ turn. Jeans is about as different from Maggie as you can imagine. He is very sensitive and can get quite tense and upset if you bully him or pressure him too quickly. This year with Jane Gregory we’ve built him a warm-up routine which I do every time I school him. This means that when I come to warm him up for his test even when the atmosphere is electric, he can concentrate and relax into that same routine.
Jeans did the best test I’ve experienced with him (apart from me going wrong…) and we got 47.3pen, really quite consistent! We finished the dressage phase with Jeans in joint 10th place and Maggie just behind him in 12th.
Cross-country as it should be
Over the two days, I had walked the course three times and wheeled it once (to find my minute markers). My first impressions were that it was a lovely galloping course with some tough questions, but with plenty of fair but time-consuming alternatives.
Also there were three strong and steep hills on the course, which I felt would certainly take the edge off my two horses to say the least, especially Maggie. Being half Irish draught, she has always struggled with the length of CCI***. At Saumur CCI*** last year, which is flat as a pancake, she struggled desperately over the last minute and I had to really nurse her home.
So on Saturday morning, after giving both a half an hour walk, trot, canter and pipe opener, Flora Harris very kindly lent me her electric bike to go and have a quick look at how a couple of fences were jumping — the dew pond and the double of angled hedges.
Then, happy with my lines, I hopped onto Maggie and at 11.17am we were counted down and galloped off. I let her settle into a nice galloping rhythm at the beginning, knowing in the back of my head that we would need to save some petrol for the end. As always, she was awesome and I was simply a passenger as she ate up the first half of the course.
However, in the seventh minute of the course come the two last hills. At the top of the second, I could really start to feel her flagging and so I let her go along at her own pace for the eighth minute. Then as we left the main arena, she smelt home and brightened up, dragging me over the last few fences, galloping strongly through the finish with only 12 time-penalties.
With Maggie, I didn’t have the prettiest jumps over the two fences I had been worried about — the dew pond and the double of hedges. Obviously I was very tempted to go for a fast competitive round with Jeans. However, with Chico injured, he could possibly be my number one for the World Equestrian Games (WEG) next year, and so a qualifying result was the more important. I decided that I would definitely take the long route at the double of hedges and then see how he felt for the dew pond.
Last year Jeans was always the one that was a bit too careful and a bit hesitant, but this year he seems to have grown up and really enjoys his cross-country. He unquestionably enjoyed his round here! Unfortunately this meant that he was galloping on his front end and had locked his left jaw, which made my life a little exciting to say the least.
However, in spite of that, I can now safely say that I have truly experienced cross-country as it should be. Jeans was absolutely unreal. At the end of the course, there were a couple of very tall and tight corners on five strides, which were catching out a lot of tired horses and out of control riders. Jeans fired in and fired out on four strides — apparently the only horse to do it over the two days!
Even though we took one long route, we were 10 seconds faster than Maggie and so after the cross-country, Jeans rose to ninth and Maggie dropped slightly to 15th.
Both horses pulled up tired but sound and both recovered remarkably quickly. They were soon munching happily on their hay back in their stables being checked over by my physio, Ellie Tisch. Sunday morning heralded a seven thirty trot up, early even for us! So Elodie, Ellie and I staggered out of the lorry at 5:50am to give the two a quick trot to see what we had. Thankfully they were both fine, a little stiff but very sound, so we were happy enough and I whipped up a quick cooked breakfast.
Again, Maggie passed with flying colours and Jeans seemed to trot well but the ground jury thought differently. We were sent to the holding box where the vet asked whether the jury had indicated what the problem was, as he had thought Jeans was absolutely fine. We gave him a quick jog in the holding box, but could find nothing wrong. When I trotted him again I was thankfully accepted….phew (about to go into cardiac arrest)!
I wasn’t show jumping until the afternoon session and so we took advantage of the rest of the morning off to pack as much as we could and have a little sit down and relax. After the morning session, I popped up to the main arena and Lucinda Fredericks very kindly walked the course with me. I thought that the course was quite twisty and technical but it certainly wasn’t the biggest or squarest three-star track I’d come across.
A great finish
As I had two in the 25 I was the first to jump in the afternoon session (Maggie jumped out of order). As always, Maggie tried her guts out, and although we rattled a couple of fences, we came home clear! Jeans had a little more pressure on him, not only because he was lying ninth but because I have always struggled to ride him after I’ve ridden the others.
However, with Lucinda warming me up and with her words in my head, we jumped the best round we’ve had as a partnership and also came home clear!
So, finally I ended up seventh with Jeans and 12th with Maggie — well inside my aim for the week. I also won the prize for the top under-25 rider. Maggie is now fully qualified for WEG next year which has caused quite a furore in China!
All in all, I had such a lovely week with the stunning weather. It’s at moments like these that you remember why on earth you are up every morning mucking out. In fact, I just can’t believe that my season is over and that university starts in 10 days time. Another year, another chapter of my life!
Don’t forget to buy this week’s H&H (24 September issue) for a full report on Blenheim Horse Trials