Is it possible to complete all six four-star three-day events around the world on the same horse? Is it a mad idea? Well, that’s what I am trying to find out.
Before I fill you in more on my adventures around the world, I will tell you a bit more about myself.
Horses are in my blood and being a Sagittarius, I am according to the stars “half horse” something which does not surprise a lot of my non-horsey friends. The other half of my star sign the “archer” or the “hunter” might explain something about my senior MFH (Master of Foxhounds) status.
I am based at my family home in the stunning Surrey hills. I have lived here with my family for over 25 years and I could not imagine living anywhere else. Sadly my father passed away a little over two years ago, so along with my mother Sarah, my brother David and his wife Natasha we are holding the fort. We also have huge help from my boyfriend David Cullen and my amazing team behind me whom I like to refer as my backbone. We would not be able to run the farm nor would I be able to compete at the highest level without the back-up team behind me.
My mother has been my inspiration. A former international eventer and showjumper herself, I would like to say she knows her stuff. She is my trainer, my vet, my sports psychologist, my PA, the list goes on and on….
My mother has always had an amazing eye for a horse and I trust her judgment above all else. So when we were stood in an Irish yard looking at Fernhill Present, a five-year-old bay gelding, who was a prospect to buy and bring on, I knew she liked him as a type and it would just be my job to ride and produce him.
Fernhill Present arrived home a few weeks later and as he came off the lorry he was as cool as a cucumber, walked into his stable and started eating his hay. I had no idea that his ability to travel so well would play such a huge part in the years to come.
I quickly nicknamed him Hilly and we started our new friendship. The thought of any four-star competition had not even entered my head.
Hilly proved to be quite a character and is one of the toughest horses I have ever known.
His jumping and cross-country capability from the start impressed me and he quickly moved up the grades, completing his first intermediate as a six-year-old and his first advanced two years later.
He is a solid horse to sit on and you feel safe going across country. Dressage has always been our weakness. We both suffer from the terrible condition of “short leg syndrome” but we do everything we can to overcome this and over the years we have been improving and trying to gain marks by accuracy and smiling a lot at the judges!
Having completed Boekelo CCI3* when Hilly was an eight-year-old and run well in CIC3*s the following season, we decided to take him to Pau CCI4* in the autumn of 2011.
It was my first four-star too and we went with an open mind and if we thought the course was too big and technical then we would withdraw. Luckily the course looked very jumpable with optional long routes for the more technical jumps. As he was so young and I so inexperienced at this level, our aim was to complete and to give him a good confidence-boosting run. I think I must have patted him after every fence! He jumped around the cross-country clear with time-penalties and just to have four faults on the final day, I was delighted with our first performance at this level.
The next four-star we were aiming for was Burghley in the autumn of 2012. It was a lifelong and childhood dream of mine to compete here. My family and I went every year to watch and I was in absolute awe of my cousin, Tina Gifford (now Cook), jumping those huge fences. I still am really!
They say it’s the biggest four-star in the world and there is no doubt it is big! Again as at Pau, my aim was to complete this world famous event.
I was very worried about Hilly becoming tired at the end with Burghley’s testing terrain, though you’d have thought this would suit him with his name. Hilly is not a blood horse and he does have to do more fittening work than your average three-day eventer to overcome his type of build.
As we crossed Burghley’s finish line I could not quite believe I had gone clear around this epic cross-country course! With just one down in the showjumping the next day we had completed our second four-star.
The aim in the spring of 2013 was to go to Badminton but as we didn’t finish in the top 50% at Pau or Burghley to qualify and also didn’t have enough FEI points to survive the ballot, we re-routed to Luhmühlen CCI4*.
A dream is born
Packing late one night in my tackroom I came across a goody bag the sponsors had generously given to competitors at Burghley. Needless to say there was nothing left in the bag but what was written on the bag was far more important:
HSBC FEI CLASSICS CCI****
I sat and look at these names for a while and then the question came to me. Has anyone ever completed all six four-stars (including Adelaide, which is a four-star and now part of the Classics, but was not included then)? Has anyone ever completed all six on the same horse? As I continued to pack I began thinking about this new dream.
Luhmühlen was big and technical. The toughest track I had seen at this level. But with more experience behind us we went for it. Again we crossed the finish line having gone clear around our third four-star (pictured top). Unfortunately in the showjumping we had a costly 12 faults which meant we finished one place behind the top 50% so again we were not qualified for Badminton.
On the way home I told my mother about my new dream. I think she thought I wasn’t being serious, but I guess she now knows I was.
So our next aim was Kentucky in the spring of 2014. This was a whole different ball game.
For a start we had to fly! This is where Hilly’s laidback attitude to travelling came into play.
I could write another blog about Kentucky but we completed our fourth four-star! We had an annoying run out cross-country which I blame myself for. A black mark against our clear record. I am still gutted to this day. He was fantastic around the course and we went faster than ever. With only the first fence down in the showjumping, was this enough to qualify us for Badminton? The answer was no.
I had a day of misery. This time we had finished two places below the top 50%.
I have a theory which I stick by. Everything happens for a reason… I do however have to remind myself of this daily.
The next aim was Adelaide in the British winter of 2014. But with Hilly suffering from a minor injury and with a broken wrist myself this was not possible.
So this brings us to 2015! This year I have one aim. Adelaide CCI4*.
To my knowledge no northern hemisphere rider has ever attempted this challenge and a challenge it most certainly is!
I will keep you posted on my nerves, my antics and my travel during my time away.
Quarantine starts for Hilly in Britain on 24 September until we fly on 15 October. My groom Jenny McKibben will be looking after him in quarantine and I will be commuting from Surrey to exercise him. Hilly’s fitness is a huge concern for me. I am able to ride in quarantine and canter him but with no gallops or sand school.
Once in Sydney, we have two weeks of quarantine, where due to their health and safety system I am only able to lunge him.
I am taking each day as it comes and I am very realistic as I know its a huge risk whether we can pull this off or not. No one can say I haven’t tried and I will give it everything!
My next blog update we will be in UK quarantine.