Tears, innovative prize-givings and a winner named Corona: H&H’s dressage editor reflects on a heartwarming championship


  • H&H’s dressage editor Polly Bryan emerges blinking from lockdown to find the rescheduled NAF Five Star Winter Championships at Hartpury are as wonderful as ever

    On my way from London to Hartpury for the Winter Dressage Championships, the only strange thing was how un-strange it seemed. In some sort of bizarre, parallel universe, it felt as though it was suddenly April again, that the past five pandemic-themed months just hadn’t happened. Except for the fact that all the trees were bright green.

    This was the first time I had been out reporting since I returned from the CHI5* in Doha at the end of February. And of course, the past five months have happened — and nothing about the world is quite how it was at the start of March. But all the same, I couldn’t help but grin as I stood on the famous Hartpury bank in blazing sunshine, coffee and notebook in hand, watching REAL-LIFE dressage. Rather than feeling strange to be out of my flat, it actually felt a little bit like coming home.

    It was wonderful to see familiar faces and catch up with riders and other members of the media, who I would usually see every couple of weeks in one press office or another on the summer show circuit. The thing that every single person said to me? “How amazing that this could go ahead.”

    Indeed, huge thanks and kudos must go to the teams at British Dressage, Show Direct and Hartpury for making this championship happen, and on such a tight timescale.

    Same, same — but different

    Yes, it was different. With no spectators and minimal support teams there were far fewer people milling about, the press office had relocated so we were spread out in almost comical fashion, riders had to keep to a strict warm-up timetable, arena walks were out and food options on-site were depressingly limited (shout out to Peter in the coffee truck for keeping me well plied with essential flat whites).

    The socially distanced unmounted prize-givings with allocated “podium” places marked on the floor were certainly strange, but soon took on a spirit of their own. Riders found innovative ways to take group podium photos while maintaining a 2m distance, mere handfuls of people managed to create applause levels you’d expect from a small stadium, and some winners — Alice Oppenheimer, I’m looking at you! — decided that not having horses present was no reason not to perform a lap of honour while wearing a winner’s rug.

    But no one minded the precautions. No one moaned about the necessary measures in place — bar a few yelps of frustration at not being able to hug emotional champions, or old friends. Every person on site took it all in their stride and simply appreciated the magic of being out at a championship, and it made for a wonderful atmosphere.

    And for a journalist, some things never change about reporting a national championship: frantic scribbling of notes while counting tempi-changes, writing stories late into the night fuelled by excess coffee consumption and the goosebumps from watching a standout test, or interviewing an emotional winner.

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    There were just as many amazing moments from this year’s winter championships as ever – such as Jayne Turney dissolving into tears as the magnitude of achieving the PSG title aboard her 14.1hh pony Cruz III hit her, a glimpse of the future watching Jezz Palmer’s stunning novice champion King IV and Alice Oppenheimer’s spine-tingling advanced medium freestyle test with Headmore Bella Ruby.

    But probably the highlight for me had to be news reaching the press office that the medium gold freestyle had been won by none other than Claire Knowles and the lovely grey mare Corona S. It was very well-deserved and so hilariously appropriate.

    Just like everything else in 2020, you couldn’t have written it.

    You can follow all the action from the Winter Dressage Championships via the H&H Plus service, with reports from every class, as well as full reports in the 27 August issue of Horse & Hound

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