Representing my country, for me as a rider, is an aim I am constantly reaching for and a pinnacle moment for any horse on the yard. I have now had time to reflect on my first team experience for 2018, and as so often is the way with eventing, nothing was as expected.
I could not have been more thrilled to have been selected to go to Strzegom, on the Nations Cup team, with my amazing partner Derby (Wellshead Fare Opposition). He is such a brilliant horse — every time ride him I feel so grateful to be sat on such a wonderful eventer and we know each other so well. It is also great for my whole team at home, my owners and my sponsors to get a chance to compete at this level and it brings such a buzz to the yard.
Eventing, for many of us for much of our career, is an individual sport. We have our own support teams, a plan for our horses as well as event targets. Being on a team is a completely different story, and one perhaps we as riders do not get enough exposure to. This is why getting to these Nations Cup events is so valuable, as you gain vital team competition experience.
For the trip out to Poland, the four riders representing Team GB were Alice Dunsdon, Wills Oakden and James Sommerville. It was a great group and so nice as we all get on really well. A quick spot of rounders cemented team camaraderie even more, although the saucepan that was substituting for a bat, nearly caused the first casualty of the event. To be fair, the handle felt dodgy from the beginning, but it certainly wasn’t the plan for it to fly through the air and narrowly miss James’s head…
Cross-country course walking was another different experience. Usually this is something I do in a bit of a bubble, but it was really interesting to do this with the team and listen to different viewpoints. The course out in Strzegom is renowned for being twisty, intense and full on. This year was no different and there was a lot to think through and discuss. This is where you also need to be strong mentally. You listen to different perspectives but also remember your own horse, what suits them and create a suitable plan, that doesn’t necessarily need influencing by others. One thing for certain from the initial course walk — the time was going to be incredibly tight.
I can never quite get over how special our sport’s ‘eventing family’ is, and this was really highlighted out in Poland, with the news of #WearGreenForJonty. Fellow team mate Alice had been a major think tank behind this lovely idea and all four Team GB members wore green ribbons for the trot up and throughout the competition. Jonty, our thoughts are very much with you and your family. Eventing is a high-risk sport and this is a serious reminder to everyone involved that we should never take anything for granted.
Onto the actual event, and Derby and I were drawn last of the team members in third position. The event was trialling the new Olympic format, which sees only three team members competing in the team event with all scores counting. However, the fourth member that competes as an individual, can also be substituted in if one of the team of three cannot jump on final day. There is an additional 20 penalties awarded if this does occur.
Another new change, which I am not convinced by, is that a team member who doesn’t complete cross-country, can still showjump on the final day. Even if they fall off at the first fence, they are still eligible for the last jumping phase, albeit with an additional 200 penalties. I can see that they want to get athletes to complete events, but I don’t think this is really the point of our sport.
Back to the competition and dressage day. Anyone who knows me, can vouch for the fact that I am usually Derby’s number one fan girl. However, after his dressage test I can definitely say I was not! He was particularly cheeky in the atmospheric arena and scored a 38.40 — well, well below his best. Although Alice and Will performed good, solid low 30s tests, with all scores counting, Team GB were left slightly trailing after this phase in fifth place. Mental strength again kicks in at this point. I gave myself a moment to go through this phase and get over the disappointment of not being able to produce the score for the team that I know we were capable of, but then this very much gets set aside and focus goes to the next phase.
Saturday arrived, and all attention was on the cross-country. What a time we had — Team GB really came up trumps, everyone came home with clear rounds and we all ended the day in the top 11. Major shout out to Alice Dunsdon who was one of only two competitors all day to get inside the time. I had the most fantastic round on Derby who gave his absolute all. However, I have to say he is getting cunning in his old age. When I rode him out first thing he almost felt a bit flat, so my warm up focus was to get him really switched on for the fairly major course in hand. However, this was not needed — he was totally brilliant, definitely not flat, if anything a touch strong! But he always looked for the flags and on this helter skelter course we made it home with just 2.4 time penalties.
After day two Great Britain were in a much better place, sitting in second just 3.6 penalties behind the French heading into the final day.
Sunday was not a good day for Team Keen. Despite everyone’s heroic efforts, mine and Derby’s competition ended before the final phase. At the time, it was completely gutting. We tried everything to get him right, but the foot injury he had just needed a day or two more to come right. I totally felt like I had let the team down and there were even more emotions compared to when you are competing on your own. Luckily, the group around me were beyond awesome and made me realise what I already knew — sometimes with horses, things are just beyond your control.
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Although watching from the side-lines was not how I had imagined the final day would be, it was great to cheer on my team mates and see them do so well. All three ended up in the top 10. We also stayed second in the team standings, but were unable to catch the French with the new 20 penalty substitute rule. At the moment this new rule is only being trialled and personally I am not sure it worked. If Team GB had been able to do a straight substitute for James, it would have been a much closer affair with the French and produced a much more exciting conclusion to the final day of team competition.
Now I have processed the time we had, as with anything horse-related, you have to take the positives and put events into perspective. Team pressure can add to this process time and yes, overall it did not go to plan. But at the end of the day, I had the most amazing cross-country round on my best horse, who I thought only 18 months ago may never return to top level competition. Both Derby and I are coming home safe and sound (Derby is now feeling great and being aimed for Hartpury CIC3*) and that in itself is a huge thing to be thankful for.
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