Nicola Wilson’s excellent results with James and Jo Lambert’s Bulana are well known, from winning at Boekelo and Barbury to their individual bronze and team gold at the European Eventing Championships in 2017.
But the pair’s initial partnership did not look so promising and it took time to work out the key to this feisty mare.
Nicola started riding Bulana – known as “Berry” – in 2014, when they were second in the CIC2* (now CCI3*-S) at Pau Horse Trials, their first international event together.
“She’s always been such a trier and very positive and always ready to go go go,” says Nicola, speaking in an interview on episode 40 of The Horse & Hound Podcast, currently supported by NAF.
“At Pau she did a lovely test, but I do remember on the cross-country I was verging on being slightly out of control and I thought, ‘Mmmm, we’ve got quite a bit of work to do on our partnership here so that we’re both on the same page’. But it struck me from the beginning that she was a horse with a lovely, lovely attitude – she always wanted to please and give her all and try for you. She was very brave and honest on a line.”
But Nicola’s braking problems escalated the following year in their first long format competition together, at Bramham Horse Trials. The start was at the top of a hill and the warm-up was “whizzy”, with a galloping, downhill aspect to the first three fences.
Nicola says: “I remember going over the first fence and, as soon as her feet landed she just set off. I just thought, ‘Oh my goodness, we are getting faster and faster and faster’. The first three fences were straightforward fences and that was ok, but I knew I couldn’t go anywhere near fence four, a double of corners, if I hadn’t got into a proper secure rhythm and my brakes weren’t working.
“I tried like fury to get back on track, but I was losing that battle. I went whistling past the fence judge saying, ‘I’m retiring’. I circled round fence four a further four times and every time I went past the poor fence judge, I was saying, ‘I’m still retiring!’
“It was clear we needed to address this bitting problem – well, braking problem, not bitting problem. I do still say and think that it is just in her mind and she is just wanting to please. We just needed to sort out a system that works to keep her under control and in a rhythm. I suppose the Sunday after that cross-country was the first day of that system and finding out how it was going to work for us.”
Nicola admits she “didn’t know where to go” after that, but she turned to her long-term trainer Chris Bartle. The organisers at Bramham allowed them to use the old steeplechase field the next day.
“We just played around in there and allowed her to canter on and built in some surprise transitions,” says Nicola. “Chris had a few techniques that may well help – I think that was a turning point in our cross-country.”
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At Boekelo that year, the pair proved their partnership was well back on track with a win at CCI3* (now CCI4*-L) level. This event was the first time Nicola tested a new idea on cross-country day.
“I warm her up earlier on in the day, so I’ve done my initial warm-up and got her muscles working, and then take her back to the stables to let her relax and switch off,” she says. “She has a walk round the stables in hand and then I literally go over to the start with my feet out of the stirrups, straight from the stables to the start box and go.
“I had a few little butterflies in my stomach at Boekelo, thinking, ‘I hope this works’, but it worked really well for her. She went over and she was very relaxed. It wasn’t until they started to count her down that that front leg started to paw and I thought, ‘Oh my god, here comes her adrenaline’ and with that we went and I had lovely ride.”
Nicola says the win was “exhilarating – but it was also fantastic to think we’d maybe found a technique to try to get the best out of her, because she certainly wants to give it”.
Hear all about Nicola and Bulana’s week at the 2017 European Championships, plus more on Nicola’s rising stars, by listening to episode 40 of The Horse & Hound Podcast here, or search “The Horse & Hound Podcast” in your favourite podcast app.
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