Houghton International Horse Trials: a spectator’s view

  • How to keep a non-horsey husband and 15-year old stepson happy: Don’t take them to watch a horse trials! So why are they trailing around after me on the cross-country course at Houghton International Horse Trials you may well ask?

    It seems that one was stricken with guilt as a result of his recent poor work/life balance record. Once my spouse heard that my friend couldn’t come after all, he activated self-sacrificing mode, and then there was no way I could convince him that I could have a perfectly wonderful time on my own. And the other, I suspect, would rather have chewed off his own arm than spend the afternoon revising for GCSEs. ANY excuse for getting out of it would do. ANY!

    So here we are. Two blokes who don’t know a fetlock from a forelock, an over-enthusiastic mut (securely anchored on her lead at heel) and me. The entire domestic zoo. For two able-bodied sports enthusiasts – one even has a shelf full of medals and trophies – forward motion is painfully slow. And they seem more interested in the trees, mounds and buildings in Houghton’s graceful park than the action.

    When we do manage to arrive at a jump in time to catch some action, I am denied the post-fence in-depth expert analysis of each rider’s performance normally indulged in with horsey companions. Instead I am required to answer bewildered questions such as “Why was that one snoring so much?” and “Since she seems to find it so difficult to keep her feet in the pedals, why doesn’t she have them fastened in like I do on my bike?”

    After crawling round merely a quarter of the course in this fashion I am beginning to get desperate. I just can’t enjoy myself. My beloved sport is under direct attack and I am being forced to defend it rather than have a lovely afternoon doing what every Riding Club eventer enjoys most; inspecting every single towering advanced fence with slack-jowled awe, then mentally riding it better than Jeanette Brakewell, Pippa Funnell and Mary King put together and agreeing with companions that the rider ‘dropped the horse at the last minute’, ‘asked too much going for a big no-hoper’ or ‘got her line completely wrong’.

    In moments when I get carried away and forget who my party consists of, I blurt out a phrase or two like these. They are met with a perplexed silence or a nervous smile. The sort of response one might give if unlucky enough to have Jasper Carrott’s ‘nutter on the bus’ come and sit next to you.

    We struggle on for a few more fences. I try to feel some of the usual excitement as my heroes thunder past. I even try to pass on some of my passion and great knowledge. “Look, that’s William Fox-Pitt. He’s represented Britain in the Olympics.” Short silence. “Should he be riding that horse? He looks much too tall for it,” comes the reply.

    It’s no good. I don’t have the mental strength to see this through. I admit defeat. “Shall we go to the beach?” The dog’s ears go up at the mention of beach, and there is a metaphorical pricking of ears and wagging of tails from the rest of the party. As the dog hurtles joyfully across the expansive sands at Hunstanton, and we laugh ourselves silly playing boules and frisbee while attempting to defend our sandcastle from the incoming tide, I can feel the afternoon’s frustrations ebb away.

    Dining on the freshest battered haddock and chips that evening watching the sun sinking beyond The Wash, I think I must be hearing things: “What a great afternoon. When’s Burghley? Shall we go together this year?” Barely quelling the rising panic, my mumbled reply is lost in layers of newspaper chip wrapping, but if it was audible, you would have heard the words ‘years .. not … million .. in a..”, but maybe not in that order.

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