H&H’s eventing editor explains what she misses now she no longer competes — and ponders on why dressage will never be as much fun as eventing
The start of the eventing season this weekend (7-8 March) and my colleague Alice Collins’ blog about the new competition structure for British Dressage (BD) have got me thinking about competing — why we do it and what we get out of it.
I won’t be eventing this season. I retired my intermediate horse six years ago and decided to take a bit of a time out, to give myself — and my long-suffering mother — the hours in the day and the money to do some other things. I still ride and I go to lots of horse trials for Horse & Hound, but I haven’t worn a pair of beige breeches for quite some time.
Do I miss it? Oh god yes. I miss so many things about it. I miss the constant quest for improvement, the journey, the unbroken thread of a season of competition — plans and lessons and tactics.
I miss the buzz of coming out of the start box at the first event of the season. The thrill of cross-country schooling. The feeling you get when you fly over a really big fence.
I rode a little horse and between my less-than-brilliant eye for a stride, my fears and his personality and physical build, we weren’t incredibly brave. He might stop if things weren’t quite right, but in 10 seasons competing from BE100 to intermediate level he never, ever ran out. Jumping skinnies was my favourite thing in the world. Sometimes I dream about popping over arrowheads. That wonderful moment when you hit the exact take-off point, just the right distance away, bang in the middle of a narrow fence.
I miss the partnership, the joy of looking at a really fit horse in the peak of his shiny-coated health, the high of a great jumping lesson and the all-consuming feeling of satisfaction when a competition goes to plan.
There are lots of things I don’t miss — mainly having my mood for a whole week dependent on how a horse behaved on the weekend — but I do sometimes feel like I’m only half alive now. The highs and lows of life never seem quite so sharply drawn as when I was eventing.
How eventing and dressage differ
And that leads me on to Alice’s blog and the new BD structure. Coming from a sport where everyone competes against everyone else, with more experienced riders excluded only at the very bottom levels and a few events — the Mitsubishi Motors Grassroots Championships and the new restricted novice championship at the Festival of British Eventing as the main examples — it all seems like a lot of palava.
Of course I understand that BD wants to create a structure which offers competition — and success — opportunities to as many of its burgeoning membership as possible. They are aiming to improve the sport by going through a fair and consultative process, and I applaud them for that.
But I always wonder why so much effort goes into rider categories and the like in other sports, while in eventing people generally seem happy to compete on an equal playing field. Yes, you get murmurs of discontent — and it’s nice when amateurs and the less experienced are recognised, whether with special prizes or devoted championships — but it isn’t widespread.
I particularly wondered at this part of Alice’s blog: “…as it stands, there will be no reason for any bronze competitors to go to shows in the last couple of months of the year, as those sheets won’t count towards anything. That needs a re-think.”
Would you honestly not go to a competition if there was no chance to qualify for anything? Is competing for its own sake not enough?
I suppose there are a couple of fundamental differences between dressage and eventing here.
Firstly, you can train up the levels for dressage at home. If your horse accepts the competition atmosphere and you don’t tense up in the arena, you could learn the movements at home and come out at any grade you like.
In eventing, there will always be a necessity to compete because you cannot practise for the variety of cross-country questions you will meet — or showjumping to some extent, though standalone showjumping competitions do allow that — in your own environment.
Secondly — and this is where I’m opening myself up to assassination from the flatwork fans — dressage just isn’t as much fun as eventing.
Assuming your horse is relatively sane, there isn’t the same thrill from just getting round a test as there is from coming through the finish flags of the cross-country. And so you need goals related to results, to qualifying for something, to make the day meaningful. Eventing offers more satisfaction in itself, without the need to be winning or qualifying to have a fabulous day.
My best result in a decade eventing was second and I can count my top 10 results — from more than 90 runs — on one hand. And yet, I was willing to pour many thousands of hours and pounds into eventing, without ever questioning what I was doing. I don’t think I am alone in that experience — and we must have a pretty fantastic sport for it to have that hold over people.
Good luck to everyone starting eventing for the season this weekend or over the next few weeks — I’ll be skinny hopping in my dreams and watching you with a pen and notebook in hand.