Georgie Spence recalls her first Badminton: ‘I was young and naive and thought, What have I got to lose? It’s free entry’

  • Georgie Spence was only 19 when she rode at her first Badminton Horse Trials.

    “At the time I didn’t feel young, but I appreciate now I was very young. I had actually only been eventing four years,” she says, speaking in an interview on episode 41 of The Horse & Hound Podcast, currently supported by NAF.

    “I think at the time I didn’t appreciate how inexperienced and naive I was, whereas looking back I think it was mad that I was going round at that age. It was just a complete whirlwind experience.”

    Georgie started out competing seriously in pony showjumping and switched to eventing when she was in her mid-teens.

    “I had been asking my parents if I could leave school and have home tutoring from the age of 12 because that was very much the done thing in showjumping – a lot of my friends were home tutored so they could jump full time,” she says.

    “But my parents were not keen and thought I would have no social life if I didn’t have some form of education. So I left at 16, we set it up as a business straight away, but I was still heavily funded by my parents until I was about 20.”

    Georgie’s partner at her first Badminton was Running Brook II, a horse her family purchased in 2006. He had been ridden by Nick Gauntlett, who had produced him to advanced level, but he didn’t look like a star in the making.

    “We just saw him advertised – I think in Horse & Hound,” says Georgie. “As a family, we were on a bit more of a budget so the horses we bought tended to have a weak area or two.

    “He was affordable and I was 16 or 17 – we thought he’d give me a bit of experience at intermediate level and maybe I’d get round an advanced on him. So I went to try him and I didn’t think he was that amazing because he wasn’t that amazing. But we jumped a few skinnies in the trial and he was very, very straight at everything. I thought he’d be a fun horse for a couple of years but obviously he turned into much more than that for me.”

    Flatwork was never Running Brook’s strong point.

    Georgie remembers: “To say it politely, he was a bit of a camel – he was terrible on the flat. He was nearly full TB, he never really went on the bit, he couldn’t do a change, he very rarely did much lateral work so actually getting through a dressage test was quite a challenge with him. But he had a heart of gold, he would never fight you or be against you, he just genuinely struggled doing the movements.”

    The year before her first Badminton, Georgie finished second in the under-25s at Bramham Horse Trials – “purely because no one got round the cross-country” – and then had a fall at Blenheim Horse Trials. Georgie admits it wasn’t the ideal run-up or probably the greatest example for today’s up-and-coming riders.

    “I remember ringing Paul [Graham, who worked in the international office at British Eventing] and saying I’d like to do Luhmühlen the following year because I thought we’d give it a go and he said, ‘Oh go to Badminton, it’s free’ – it was the first year they’d brought in free entry – and we thought, ‘Oh well, there’s nothing to lose, we’ll go there.’

    “So I rang Yogi [Breisner] and asked if I’d be ready and he said, ‘Absolutely not, there’s no way, you’ve done one three-star [as they were at the time, now four-star long] and you’ve fallen off at the other one, you’re absolutely not ready’.

    “I just thought, ‘I’ll go, what have I got to lose? It’s free’. I was one of only 30 clears that year cross-country at Badminton and I think we slightly went on a wing and a prayer – that naive streak of you just lean back and kick actually sometimes does get you round.”

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    Georgie had been a Pony Club score collector for the dressage just the year before her first Badminton, emphasising just how young she was on this debut. She walked the cross-country with William Fox-Pitt and Rosie Thomas and remembers walking up to the warm-up with Paul Tapner.

    “You see all the crowds and the people and the nerves really start to kick in – you think this actually massive and everyone is here and this is going to be really embarrassing if I make an error. Paul saw me doing breathing exercises as we walked over to the warm-up and he smiled and he said, ‘Everyone says it gets better every year but it doesn’t’. And I just remember thinking, ‘Oh great, I’m going to feel like this most years for the rest of my life’.

    “You always think once you’ve been a few times it must get easier, but to be honest I don’t think it does, because the more you learn the more it means to you and the better you expect to do. When you’re young you don’t have any expectations – you just want to complete – whereas as you get older, you think, ‘I should complete because I’ve been round so many times’ and, ‘I should go well because I’ve been round so many times’.”

    Georgie and Running Brook finished the event in 30th place.

    “It definitely makes you think, ‘I’ve done one and now every year I go I want to better that, I want to better my score, I want to better my time’ – it does give you the hunger.”

    The pair finished 17th at Burghley Horse Trials that autumn and went on to complete another Badminton and four more Burghleys together. Running Brook is now 25 and Georgie still owns him – he is out on loan to a lady who hacks him.

    “He was a true gentleman he gave absolutely everything,” says Georgie. “If you’d seen him when I bought him you’d have said you’d be lucky to get round a novice, but I think he’s one of those horses who just kept giving.

    “I think we were lucky, because I was so naive and so young with him it did wonders for both of us. I didn’t know what I was doing, he didn’t know what he was doing, we just learnt together and grew together. I trusted him implicitly and he trusted me.”

    Hear more about Georgie’s first Badminton, plus listen to her talk about her experiences at the Tokyo Olympic test event, by tuning in to episode 41 of The Horse & Hound Podcast here, or search “The Horse & Hound Podcast” in your favourite podcast app.

    Horse & Hound magazine, out every Thursday, is packed with all the latest news and reports, as well as interviews, specials, nostalgia, vet and training advice. Find out more about getting the magazine delivered to your door every week.

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