We had a bit of a stressful time running up to the European para dressage championships.
Reece started to feel less happy in his training. His body didn’t really want to play. He was sound, however I knew he wasn’t quite right somewhere. We gave him a few easy days with lots of physio, but we couldn’t put our finger on what was wrong with him. So bloods were taken thinking maybe he had a bit of a virus that was affecting him.
We then had to wait for a decision from Team GBR as to whether Jorge would step into Reece’s place. There was no way I wanted Reece to go when he wasn’t 100% happy. When I got the decision the week before we were due to leave that Jorge would be going, we stepped up preparations.
I had been preparing him as if he was going anyway, listed as direct reserve, however psychologically things change when once I knew he was actually going. I was already booked into compete at Vale View the week before that. With Reece not so good, I decided to swap from the two advanced mediums I had originally entered, to do one advanced medium and the para team test (which is the one we struggle more with, despite it being an easier test) with Jorge. Chris Porterfield (a retired FEI five-star judge) was judging so it was perfect to get her feedback.
I was so pleased for Jorge’s owner, Charlotte Hogg, when I told her that he was going to his first major championship. I had been teaching her for a few years before she offered to buy me a young horse to aim towards Rio. She put her faith in me and I was so pleased that our hard work paid off and he was getting the opportunity.
The weather forecast wasn’t great before leaving; heavy rain and storms for that week wasn’t going to be ideal, particularly as we were competing outside!
Apart from the first training day, which was a little wet, the organising committee did a good job of making sure the arenas were as good as they could be.
Jorge is a true championship horse, he likes a couple of days to settle into his surroundings as far as the competition arenas are concerned. But as far as his bedroom is concerned he is very settled in the first five minutes!
Because we were the last to be added to the team with the substitution, I didn’t expect to be on the four-man team that competed in the team competition. What a surprise it was when the manager told me we were!
Team GBR went out with inexperienced horses; a seven-year-old and two eight-year-olds, which is quite rare. So on the one hand the expectation was less, however when you are on the British team that in itself brings a certain level of expectation. My aim was to get in the top seven to qualify us for the freestyle — a realistic goal I thought.
The team test was tricky. The second warm-up was next to the competition arena, so I wanted to spend time in there to allow him to relax.
I didn’t expect one of the trees, planted in pots, to fall down just as I was going towards it. Jorge just could not get his head around it, and was genuinely concerned for the dead tree! We were not allowed to stand it back up, so for the rest of the warm-up he didn’t want to go near the tree! This was posing a problem for when we went into the arena as it was the same distance from the warm-up as it was to the arena; just a few metres. I knew I had my work cut out to keep his confidence and concentration.
We got through the test, but with tension, and it didn’t fully show off what he was capable of. To my surprise we came second with 72% which was a positive score for the team and stood us in good stead for the individual competition.
The next day Jorge felt more relaxed. The dead tree was no longer dead (hallelujah!) and I told him during the arena walk that he was to go into that arena today as confident as a lion, and not like a mouse as he did yesterday!
And that he did! It was his best test to date. Of course there is room for improvement as he gets stronger, however he relaxed, grew in confidence and showed some really good work. With a completely different set of judges to the day before, unfortunately we came out with a worse score of 71%. The most important part was that I was proud — proud as punch that he was confident and had a good experience in that arena. I’m not normally an emotional person, however it was such an achievement that he went into arena and was so different from the day before, and did everything I asked.
This all resulted in an individual silver medal. A medal I wasn’t expecting, not that I ever expect a medal. I am happy for Frank Hosmar, from the Netherlands, who won his first gold medal of his career, one that he has waited a long time for, and who has pushed me for many years!
That evening we won team gold. We were under pressure as Team GBR have never lost the team gold since the sport began. Other nations are getting closer all the time and I was very grateful to Anne Dunham and Sophie Christiansen who pulled out some cracking scores that secured us the team told, although I was also pleased baby Jorge was a counting score.
So the focus then went onto the freestyle. I have worked all year with Tom Hunt to devise a good programme. I choreographed it and sent the video to Tom to start looking at music. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew what I didn’t want. So it’s fair to say Tom was very patient with me and kept providing ideas until we found what suited. Initially the programme was designed for next year. It was a more technical programme, including half canter pirouettes and an opportunity for a line of tempi changes. I ran though it at squad training where we changed a few things and Tom sent through the final copy.
That was a couple of weeks before the Europeans. I never expected to debut it in competition so soon and at the Europeans, but I couldn’t bring out my old horse Rodney’s 10-year-old crazy frog music again!
We were riding at 10am and being so close to the coast, the fog was quite thick. So as my music started it was quite eerie. Jorge was listening, I kept the music a little quieter than I usually would with Reece as I just didn’t know how he would react. But it was still atmospheric and I loved, loved, loved riding to it. It’s fair to say I could do with riding to it in competition a few more times before it’s perfect, however I could not ask for anything more from him. His pirouettes came off, he did a single flying-change instead of a line just to keep it safe, but everything fitted, and it was so nice to salute to the judge at C to see her smiling having enjoyed the test!
It was fair to say that I was so proud of him. I had done my job by giving him a good ride in the arena, his confidence grew each day, and I am excited to see what will come with more strength in him and when he is more established. We won an individual silver again but it was so close. We scored 79% which is Jorge’s new personal best for the freestyle, and only 0.9% away from gold. It really finished the championship on a high.
The organisers put the video on Facebook of our freestyle, and at the time of writing this, a couple of days later, it has been viewed more than 40,000 times! Wow!
A big thank you to my team. Angela for her expertise in bringing these young horses on and my groom Sophie, who travelled with us, for loving him as her own. Mark for getting him there and back safely, and the World Class support staff for their support and keeping us both in good shape. I am so pleased that I could win these medals for Jorge and Charlotte.
Back down to earth
Judging must be one of the most difficult jobs at this level. It is always a controversial talking point, and something that a lot of people moan about. It did make me think though, how often do you hear riders thank the judges for their wins or medals? And how often do you hear complaints about judges losing the medals?
It’s easy for spectators to sit on the sidelines and watch five combinations and decide at the end who was the best for them, subjective and down to personal taste sometimes. However judges have to make a split second decision on a mark.
If every mark is 0.5 different, that is 5% difference at the end of the test. And tests are often won or lost on a lot less. It’s easy to blame the judge, and of course sometimes it feels personal, but judges are human, not machines, just like riders and horses and with that comes a difference in opinion.
In this sport you have to try and understand that is why there are often five judges at this level, and they all sit in a different place, and will see different things.
They day after we got home I had my UKCC Level 3 coaching assessment. The course has been fairly challenging, and there have been times when I thought I shouldn’t be doing it. However I was thrilled to hear I had passed, which makes all those difficult days worth it! So now I will be picking up more teaching over the winter; I love helping people enjoy their horses as much as I do.
A massive thank you to my entire support team at home and sponsors and supporters for being so loyal and continuing to help me live my dream.