The diary of the home-made livery yard: learning a big lesson

  • So — Cricklands Dressage Championships of Great Britain…

    The team South Woolley convoy was all set to roll. We were packed up, loaded up and perfectly on schedule for our planned 11am departure time. Chunky and Spice were travelling in the lorry, with me at the wheel, while May and Bea were happily aboard a trailer with their owners and liveries, Kate and Lauren, in the towing vehicle. Off we set — lorry in the lead, followed by the trailer and finally my husband, Jerome, at the rear in our car.

    I had tried my best to psychologically and emotionally prepare my non-horsey muggle husband for the torturously slow speed at which this three-hour journey would be made. We discussed stress relief techniques and the incentive that there would probably be gin at the other end of the agonising crawl that was about to begin.

    The first half an hour of driving from my yard is along a very windy, single carriageway A-road. As it stands, I have a reputation for being an overly cautious horse transporter. Okay, a ‘Granny’. They call me ‘Granny’. I was additionally wary that day as Chunky had never travelled for longer than one hour before and certainly not on a motorway. Spice, being my daughter’s beloved, ancient little pony, was just of much of a concern with his age. So, I was rather pleased with myself when I got 20 minutes down the A39 to our first stop to fuel up and I looked behind me to see that I had lost the rest of our convoy. ‘Hah! Who’s the granny, now?’ I thought to myself, smugly.

    Ellie and Spice

    As the realisation dawned that there had actually been a pretty healthy looking tail-back behind me when I turned off into the fuel station (none of it containing our other South Woolley vehicles) and I considered the fact that no one had turned up to join us in the last 10 minutes, I started to wonder if, perhaps, I wasn’t Lewis Hamilton after all and possibly there had, indeed, been a problem. A quick glance at my phone revealed that liveries, Kate and Lauren, and horses, May and Bea, had got no further than the layby at the top of our lane before disaster struck — less than a mile from the yard!

    I am not qualified to convey the mechanical diagnosis for you, but essentially a part had fallen off somewhere inside the trailer and locked one of the wheels in position, so it could not turn round. Blissfully unaware of the problem behind her, Kate had driven the horses up the lane with this locked wheel, smoke emitting from the trailer, while Jerome madly flashed his lights to indicate to them to stop. With the trailer looking very sad indeed, our horsey neighbour and heroine of the story, Sarah, popped out of her house and offered her own trailer for them to borrow for the weekend. I was delighted to hear that the horses had been successfully transferred to a new wagon and each part of the (now disbanded) convoy were once again on the move and heading to Wales.

    Chunky doing some arena familiarisation

    Much to Granny’s (my) relief, Chunky and Spice travelled beautifully and calmly, finding the smooth motorway much more forgiving than our horrid, windy lanes at home. Jerome caught up with us and the whole Malone family arrived safely at the David Broome Event Centre in the early afternoon.

    Ellie and I managed a sneaky arena familiarisation, then tucked Chunky and Spice up in bed. I was feeling very smug about how the two animals had handled the atmosphere and was confident that flower pots, banners and the likes were not going to be an issue when competition started the next day (can you sense the irony brewing, here?).

    Upon making our entries, back in the summer, the whole of team South Woolley had conferred that camping would be the most economic way to approach the subject of accomodation for the weekend. As October loomed however, horses were clipped, warm jackets were pulled off of coat hangers, rainstorms ensued and we all lost our nerve. For some inexplicable reason, Jerome had decided to accompany us to those three long days of dressage and evenings of incessant dressage conversation. Every non-horsey husband’s dream, I am sure. Seeing as it is frowned upon to leave small children unattended, this meant our two young boys would be coming to Wales, too. The final nail in the coffin for any camping plans, for me, was the image of trying to keep show whites clean admist a tent filled with tiny muddy wellies, sticky finger prints and spilt milk. As a result, we booked last-minute with Airbnb and spent the weekend sheltering from the elements in the warmth of a three-bedroom house.

    Me, Lauren, Gemma and Kate celebrating

    Such luxury was hugely warranted when poor Kate and Lauren (who had experienced trailer problems at the start of the journey), arrived in a very sorry state, in the dark, having taken 11 hours to get from Cornwall to Wales! In a deluge of bad luck, Kate’s truck had also broken down some 35 miles on from the layby at the top of our lane. Again, mechanics has never been my calling, but I believe the engine kept overheating and they had to agonisingly nurse the car and trailer to the showground with an excruciatingly painful number of stops along the way. I really felt for them both and I worried we didn’t have enough gin and prosecco to rectify the situation. I needn’t have worried. After a few bottles of prosecco and a bottle of Bombay Sapphire, spirits were uplifted and we looked merrily ahead to competing in the morning.

    Keeping in mind none of our steeds are seasoned championship competitors, the South Woolley horses did us all proud. There were, understandably, some, er… ‘adjustment periods’ for most of the horses.

    Chunky doing some arena familiarisation

    I was so focused on flower pots and banners that I had neglected to consider the effect of having such huge numbers of riders and horses out at one time. On day one, Chunky resembled a horse who had gone from a stable to an indoor arena all his life and had suddenly been dropped out on the hunting field. The poor lad was quivering with adrenaline and quite spooky and sharp, which is simply not his nature at all. Having clawed back some sort of a domesticated animal in the busy warm-up arena, every ounce of training over the past few years was pretty much thrown out the window as we rode down the centre line. Chunky stubbornly stuck his head in the air, losing all balance to the point that I felt as if I was driving a lorry with a tyre blow out. The test was not pretty, but at least we made the judge at C laugh. Our score reflected the dismal performance we put on, but I wasn’t too concerned. It was only day one — I’d pretty much blown the poor horse’s brain and things could only improve from there.

    I felt I had no choice, but to call in the big guns. Chunky’s mother, Jo Bunker, was summoned from Cornwall to Wales to give him ‘the look’ and a good talking to. By the next morning, Chunky had taken his mother’s words to be a good lad and do his best, on board. He had quickly processed the whole experience in his head and I had my boy back! Chunky went on to really try for me over the next few days, battling fatigue at times, and we ended up in the top 10 placings, with prize money! A huge achievement for him at a level he is not established at, yet.

    Jo giving Chunky a pep-talk

    Ellie’s, Spice, was a saint. Apart from on the second day, where he made it very clear that two tests in one day really was a bit much and napped out of the arena a couple of times. I trust that pony wholly to look after nine-year-old Ellie in such a big atmosphere and she hacked him around the showground on the buckle end of her reins and manouvered through the sea of snorting, prancing warmbloods in the collecting rings in total serenity. It made my heart swell with love and pride to watch them both out there in the big arenas.

    Ellie and Spice

    Kate and May had a fabulous show, overcoming initial spookiness to improve their scores steadily throughout the weekend and bringing home some rosettes. Lauren and Bea made a valuable training exercise of the trip. Bea was clearing struggling with the atmosphere and Lauren had a pretty hairy first test. We took the kind judge’s helpful advice to, “Go and ride the s*** out of it and come back in the afternoon,” and I rode the wall of death on Bea in the warm-up for nearly an hour (the curse of having a very fit pony) until she was calm enough to contemplate going back in the test arena with Lauren. From that point onwards, Lauren and Bea improved massively and rebuilt their trust in each other for some great schooling rounds.

    Ellie and Spice

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    Team South Woolley had a much less eventful return journey and we all arrived safely home, having had a brilliant adventure with our furry best friends at a hugely friendly championship. None of us had gone out with competitive ambitions, so the show had been totally no pressure and loads of fun, with some surprise pleasing results thrown in for good measure. Best of all, we had a really fun social weekend. Kate, Lauren and I discovered that dressage tests for the following day were best learnt at midnight the preceding evening and, if you can still remember them after that fourth double, then you know you’ve nailed it.

    What was the biggest lesson we all learnt at Cricklands? Never, under any circumstances, let Lauren pour you a nightcap! Not unless you want to be seeing three judges at C when you wobble your way down the centre line the next day.

    Katy x

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