Dressage rider to jockey in 60 days: can you be disqualified in a horse race for going too slowly?

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  • Over the past six weeks, I’ve learned the true meaning of the phrase “a rollercoaster of emotion”. This race (the Champions Willberry Charity Race at Cheltenham on 20 April 2017 — www.championswillberry.org.uk) has already pushed me well out of my comfort zone, and we’re still a couple of weeks away.

    Pure joy pulses through me when I’m sat on board my favourite little racehorse, Fanstasy Queen (or Fannie Annie to her friends!), and we’re making our way across the rolling hills of the Berkshire Downs to the gallops. Even on a miserable day, I can’t describe the high I get from cantering over the ancient turf on Eve Johnson-Houghton’s estate, upside another fit, keen racehorse. Feeling the horse pick up the bridle, listening to the rhythm of their breathing, the views, the power, the speed; there’s something about this combination that makes my soul soar. During my drive back from Eve’s yard, the early start, wobbly arms and aching hips are all forgotten. For the duration of that 20 minute journey, I don’t have a care in the world. Who needs alcohol or drugs when you can ride a racehorse?

    But then there are the low points. These are born of anxiety and a deep-rooted fear of failure that I’m sure most competitive sportspeople experience. My worries wake me at 2am, taunting me and depriving me of much needed sleep. Most of these worries, I realise in the morning, are totally irrational but for some reason, in the wee hours, they seem like perfectly plausible scenarios. Luckily, the people around me are rather good at putting my fears into context, soothing my nerves and basically telling me to put my big girl pants back on.

    Cheltenham Festival

    But I still seem to have roughly the same emotional stability as a pre-pubescent teenager. My highs are so ludicrously wonderful. I come back from riding out brimming with enthusiasm. One seriously good day, I actually found myself Googling: “how to get your amateur jockey licence” (I also Googled: “can you be disqualified in a horse race for going too slowly?” two hours later, but that’s another story…). My lows, however, are so full of self-doubt that it sometimes takes me a whole day to pull myself out of the pit of doom I’ve sunk myself into. I’m not used to experiencing this many feelings; I’m usually so sensible, driven, level-headed and logical. Being this way is positively exhausting, not just for me but also, I think, for my poor boyfriend.

    Continued below…

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    Every year, I attend Cheltenham Festival with a group of friends. This year, I helped Candy Morris (who runs Woodlands Enterprises and is supplying all my racing gear) carry jockeys’ equipment to the weighing room. As I followed Candy up the stairs to meet the valet, she casually pointed out that the next time I’d be in there, I’d be preparing for the race. She must have seen the colour drain from my face because she said that thing that everyone says to me when I tell them that I’m nervous: “You’ll be fine! Just think of all those huge fences you’ve jumped on cross-country courses!”. It is true, of course, that eventing is statistically more dangerous than Flat racing, but as I said, my fears are generally completely irrational and not based on any form of logic.

    Continued below…

    Anyway, I’m not actually scared of riding in the race, as such. For example, one of the recurring anxiety dreams I have is that I’m just about to be legged up onto my horse in the paddock on the big day, I get into position, offer my leg and the trainer heaves me up, but suddenly I lose all control over my limbs. I flop over my poor little horse’s back like a giant squid, and slip straight off the other side. All I can see, as I lay in a heap, is disapproving faces staring down at me from all angles.

    Me with Phil Tufnell at Cheltenham, who gave me a little pep talk about performing under pressure!

    Then I wake up in a sweat and worry for the next three hours that this very situation is likely to come to fruition on the day. I get legged up daily, and thus far I have a 100% strike rate, without any squid-like tendencies. I’ve been getting legged up since I was five-years-old. There is no logical reason that I should lose control over my limbs.

    See? Totally irrational.

    I hope…


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