So much has happened over the past few weeks, it’s been crazy! I can’t believe we’re at that part of the season already where the first big ‘B’ has finished. It certainly made for entertaining viewing all day and kept everyone glued to the edge of their seats. It makes me really proud to look at my Armada dish for five Badminton completions, although it feels like a lifetime ago now that I was last there.
My first Badminton was in 2003 when I was 21 on a horse called All The Best. It was still the long format then, which included the steeplechase and roads and tracks. There is nothing like the feeling of completing at Badminton and riding back into the main arena at the finish, the adrenaline rush is intense. I’ve also had some years I’ve fallen or retired too, so I also know that feeling as well. I’ve certainly seen it from both sides of the fence. I think that’s one of the most nerve-wracking things, knowing that anything can happen and also trying to keep the horses in one piece to get there and throughout the duration of the competition.
My best Badminton result came in 2004 on board Mallards Treat where we finished ninth, and I think my most heart-wrenching moment has to be with If You Want II. ‘If’ gave me a great ride in the dressage as he often did being very reliable, leaving us sitting in the top 10 going forwards to cross-country. I was having a class ride and the most incredible feeling until we got to the houses three away from home — it was like somebody just turned off the light. I jumped off him straight away, knowing something was wrong. It turned out that he was a bleeder, meaning under physical stress his lungs would fill with blood. He was always fine previously at three-star level (now four-star) running over a slightly shorter distance, and hadn’t shown any problems galloping and interval training at home. It was only when he faced the real task itself of taking on Badminton that we realised he had a problem and they always say that after they bleed badly once, it’s hard to come back from that. He was an incredible horse and it took me a long time after trying everything to come to terms with the fact that he would never be 100% at that level again.
Over the years I have learnt that you never truly know if you have a proper five-star horse until they manage to complete more than one. Usually if they’re tough enough to complete a couple, they will keep going, but it’s difficult to keep fragile ones right at that level. I would love to earn my second Armada dish in the future and gain another four completions, so for now I will keep that dream alive.
When I look back at how young I was when I started, it makes me realise I’m still only 36 and hopefully will have plenty more cracks at it over time, but it all comes down to horsepower at the end of the day. I will never push a horse beyond its capabilities and I’m always one for making sure everything is properly prepared to be competitive or gain qualifications rather than going just to be there, which I’m sure can also hold you back because you have to get your eye in somewhere. But I’d rather be remembered for being a good horseman rather than just being known as a good rider. And the best horsewoman won Badminton on the day, nobody deserved it more than Piggy. She’s an unbelievable rider, works incredibly hard and remains so humble and kind throughout.
Since my last blog, which ended with us preparing for Burnham Market, it’s been pretty full on at the yard. We trekked along the wonderful A17 three days in a row there and back, to take a total of eight horses to strut their stuff at Burnham. Sunny Norfolk was not so sunny, in fact we managed to encounter most of the elements including snow, hail, wind and rain. It was bloody freezing! This didn’t seem to put any of the horses off their stride though, as all put in good dressage scores and jumped really well. Rapide GII (pictured top earlier in the year) jumped double clear around the CCI-S4* and put in a personal best dressage mark, so I’m hoping he’ll improve and gain in confidence from that. We’ve had some exciting new arrivals to the yard and some lovely young horses to produce for the future too. It’s always nice to be able to take horses progressively through the levels and sharing the journey as a partnership.
Then after a hectic weekend, we took the kids away for a few days over the Easter Bank Holiday for some much-needed family time. Although it feels odd when I spend a weekend at home, I’m so used to eventing most weekends and even if I’m not I’m usually preparing for one, so it’s nice to have a weekend when I’m just being dad. The school run in the afternoon is always the highlight of my day. The kids ask me what the horses have done and what their little sister has been up to. It seems to be a recurring theme though that whenever I ask them about school, they usually always answer with “I can’t remember.”
“What did you have for lunch?”
“Erm… don’t know.”
This is however a little person con, so don’t be fooled that they aren’t taking anything in. They can usually recite the adult conversation they overheard at school drop off with ease and present you with an in-depth debrief of how two parents reversed into each other in the car park that any insurance company would be happy with. Despite whatever happens with the horses, I can always count on my kids to put a smile back on my face again.
The next event scheduled on the calendar for us was Bradwall in Cheshire. We had two lorries at the ready to take 11 horses in total to compete between myself, Matt Heath and Pete Laidlaw on the Sunday. I have to give a huge amount of praise to my team, who on the Saturday, worked tirelessly to get all 11 horses bathed, plaited and ready to compete. At the same time they were doing the yard as usual, packing the lorry, cleaning all the tack and the list is endless. They managed to have all horses ready by 2pm so they could still finish other jobs in the afternoon. It was an incredible team effort and they pulled together brilliantly! Unfortunately due to the amount of rainfall at Bradwall, the event was sadly abandoned on the Sunday. Again a massive amount of credit has to go the organisers. As the weather had been so bad, I called on Saturday evening to ask if there was any uncertainty over the event running on the Sunday. It would have been a two-and-a-half hour trek for us, which would have meant leaving at 3.30am to be there in time for the 8am dressage. The organisers said they were 50/50 and would let me know if anything changed. At 3am on the Sunday morning I received a text telling me to hang fire setting off as they were unsure now if the event would go ahead. This was an amazing thing to do and saved the horses an hour-and-a-half worth’s travelling to have to only turn around and go back again. We will definitely be back to support the event. The only brave thing we had to do on the Sunday morning then was break it to the girls that the event was now cancelled and all 11 horses needed un-plaiting!
Two days at Richmond was next on the agenda with the young horses, so it was only a short trip for us up North. The long trip up North came the following week to Floors Castle International Horse Trials, but it was well worth the four-and-a-half hour journey. Prince Mayo took first prize in the open intermediate section, followed closely behind by Rapide GII in second and OBOS Colombus then in third place. A one-two-three was a nice way to start the day. It was also the first big track the novice horses have had to face yet and they coped brilliantly. Young Caunton First Class had her first experience on grass in the Burghley Young Event Horse class and it was pleasing to see her take everything in her stride. On the plus side this year, the lorry didn’t break down on the way to Floors, which was probably because I managed to bring mum out of retirement for the week and also persuaded her to drive a lorry load of horses up for me. The bollo*king I’d have got for letting it run low on fuel meant it wasn’t worth playing fuel roulette. All in all, it was a pretty full on few days again for the team who had horses to get ready for Aston and Floors. Without the support of them, my parents, Victoria’s parents, owners and some of our great friends, it wouldn’t be possible to make everything work having three children in tow as well. So to have a good result and a successful day is great credit to all of them too! It also is an enormous credit to our incredible sponsors who are helping to keep the horses in the best form they could possibly be in by feeding and supplementing them right and providing the best possible equipment and tools for the job!
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Eventing a tough sport mentally and physically and support is key. It’s such an emotional rollercoaster with so many ups and downs and as many of you know in February this year myself and Niall Fergusson championed for Mind’s ‘Time To Talk’ campaign. We answered questions that people had sent to us very bravely relating to their own mental health issues. So we feel that this time, it is only right that we open up honestly and discuss our own battles with them. Please watch our next video this week, which we hope will again encourage people to know that it is ok to talk.
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