The sun is setting on a late autumn evening, rays of light pierce their way through my window, their path shattered by the objects of my room. I am sprawled messily over my bed, eyes resting shut, limbs and head aching, but deliriously happy. This tired individual is a product of none other than Burghley Horse Trials.
Two days before it had remained to be seen whether I could successfully drive us to our desired destination, either before the event was entirely over or without us completing a lap of the English countryside en-route. Having recent passed my driving test, this was the first time I had been behind the wheel for our annual five-hour pilgrimage.
Two hours into the journey and after my mother had employed tactics of “That Land Rover has a horse sticker, follow them. It’ll get us most of the way at least”, she has realized this navigation malarkey isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I am well over due for a break from the British drivers making their bid for freedom on a Friday evening. Several stops later and we have arrived at Alwalton Travel Lodge, exhausted and hungry. After a huge dinner at a very good pub we discovered the previous year, we snuggle into our beds.
Next morning I march briskly over the dewy grass, steam bellowing from my mouth, as I make out Burghley House under the bridge in the crisp morning air. We have arrived. It’s early but the crowds have already started to build in the endless shops as everyone tries desperately to beat the hoards of cross-country day, hoping to find a bargain or two.
I can’t wait for the first competitor to start out on the intrepid course. As we set off for fence 1, butterflies flutter in my stomach and my heart and lungs filled with a satisfying feeling of excited impatience. I am like an over excited child waiting for Santa and I don’t have to wait long before the action begins.
The rope separating spectators from the track is coarse, rough and prickly as my hands clutch tightly to it. As I stand pushed tightly up against the barrier, fellow spectators gather round for a closer look. We wait as the ground begins to pound. The air is filled with an expectant silence. Then it’s broken. The sound of heavy breathing and the sensation of intense concentration is all that can be felt in the moments as the perfect team of horse and rider approach the next obstacle in their quest for the ultimate goal, to clench the title of Burghley Horse Trials 2006.
As the day progresses we’ve walked the course and have settled in our favorite spot to watch the competition unfold. I am fascinated by one simple fence, the sheer size and enormity of a brush fence positioned strategically on a slight downhill, on the landing side a ditch and an inconceivable drop. Most riders fly it and as they do I stare in amazement at the ability and strength of the horses not to buckle on landing. They really are remarkable beings.
All too soon as the competitors finish for the day, the sun casts its evening colours into the sky and over Burghley house. The riders have all performed magnificently and no doubt are sharing tales back at the lorry park. We head back to our room for the evening and await the exciting final day. Despite the anticipation, we have no trouble sleeping after such an action packed day.
The alarm is ringing, the peaceful silence shattered. I drag myself up out of bed and head out into the dark morning. I can’t wait to be sat in the arena, with the commentator blaring and everyone waiting for the sound of horse’s hooves as they strike the fences.
Once there the atmosphere is intense; my veins are brimming with adrenaline and I am merely the spectator. As competitor after competitor flows in, the atmosphere builds. Then Andrew Hoy and Moon Fleet enter the ring for their chance to win the Rolex Grand Slam. As they make their way around the arena the steady rhythm of the horse’s hooves hitting the turf is all that can be heard above our racing hearts. Surely this horse and rider can feel the pressure, the thousands of eyes bearing down on them, yet together they seem resilient, calm and collected.
Halfway round with one fence down it all gets too much for the spectators, who just will not keep quiet. I feel a sudden desperation for Hoy. He has one chance at this — he’s within touching distance of two major titles. These people have been let in on his moment and now they won’t sit still and quiet for long enough to allow them to get round.
A second fence falls and it becomes unbearable; the crowd descends into chaos. Seconds feel like hours as a third pole is hit, lingers on the end of the cup and falls. The atmosphere plummets and the competition is over. Headley Britannia and Lucinda Fredericks have clenched the title of Burghley Horse Trials 2006 title while Hoy is left to settle for second place. What an incredible day; I feel tired just watching. I can’t even begin to comprehend how Andrew Hoy and Moon Fleet were feeling.
Feeling inspired by the strength of character shown in the ring, we decide to test ours and head out for one final search of the shops before we don our coats and head back to the car and our journey home. We have had an awesome weekend, the atmosphere so special yet shattering. Farewell Burghley, see you in 2007!