Five-star debut calls for rising star of British eventing: ‘I love my horses to pieces – they are like my best friends’

  • Young British event rider Bubby Upton will cap her first season in the senior ranks by making her five-star debut aboard two home-produced horses at Pau Horse Trials.

    The 22-year-old heads to the French CCI5* on the back of two four star victories this summer. She took the under-25 national title at Bicton CCI4*-L in June and Little Downham CCI4*-S this month aboard her mother Rachel Upton’s 14-year-old Cannavaro, a former showjumper and one of Bubby’s two rides at Pau.

    Her second ride is her young rider European individual silver and team gold medal-winner Cola, a nine-year-old son of Catoki also owned by her mother, who has finished no lower than ninth on international starts this year.

    “For me it’s all about the partnership that I have with my horses,” said Bubby. “They are genuinely like my best friends. I love them to absolute pieces. To see them come up through all the highs and the lows, and go to our first five-stars together, [that partnership] is what it’s all about and why we do it.”

    Bicton Horse Trials cross-country: Bubby Upton and Cola III

    Bubby Upton and Cola at Bicton in June 2021.

    Bubby added the horses are both quite different to ride and taking them to five-star is a milestone for both in different ways.

    “I’ve had them a long time now – Cola I produced from a six-year-old and Cannavaro I’ve had since the beginning of 2017 and did his first two stars – he’s come such a long way,” she said.

    “To be honest with you, I never thought this day was going to come [for Cannavaro] as there was a long period in his career where I and many others were convinced he would never even go four-star. That’s not because of inability – he’s the most talented horse and the most incredible jumper that I’ve got – but almost because that is what restricted him. He jumped everything so big, and his energy levels would just completely drop off. It was last year when it all clicked.”

    Bubby and her team completely re-evaluated his training regime, upped his fast work and found galloping him with other horses has also given him a boost.

    “I’ve also had to change my riding style on him. I touch the rein a lot less and leave him to his own devices because the more I pull, the higher he goes, which obviously isn’t good for the energy,” said Bubby, adding he has a “heart of pure gold”.

    “He’s achieved so much for me and made dreams come true winning the under-25 championship and my first ever four-star short three weeks ago – but above that he’s also taught me how to adapt to different types of horses. He’s really been incredible and beyond exceeded all expectations.”

    As well as her major wins, Bubby cites her fifth and seventh place results at Aston-le-Walls CCI4*-S in May – an event that served as a pre-Olympic trial for several nations – with the two horses now heading to Pau were a “massive highlight”.

    While it would be easy as an outsider to be dazzled by the highs, Bubby’s season is a reminder to all of the ups and downs and risks that come with the sport.

    She was longlisted on two horses for the European Eventing Championships when her season came to an abrupt halt. Bubby contracted Covid in July, which ruled her out of contesting Burgham CCI4*-S, incorporating the British Open Championships. Chasing hopes of European squad selection, she planned to re-route to Hartpury instead. But a freak fall cross-country schooling at home resulted in eight fractured vertebrae and a broken collarbone.

    “I think it is fair to say that it has been a turbulent year,” she said. “Although [the fall] appears to be a big low in the year, I didn’t really see it like that because I guess I was just so focused on my next target. When I was lying in bed, I was never really focusing on how much I missed out on.”

    She explained her focus was on getting better and looking towards achieving her goal of taking on her first five-star, for which she is “really excited”.

    “All in all, it has been an amazing year – obviously, the fall was mentally and physically incredibly tough,” she said. “But I couldn’t sit there and dwell on that. There were things to be achieved and we’ve made it happen.”

    The final-year Edinburgh student faces another target next week – the realities of juggling university work with her ascending eventing career means one of her deadlines falls on the biggest week of her sporting career to date.

    “I can’t wait to finish and be able to give horses a crack full time,” she said, adding it is “so satisfying” to have been on the journey with both horses.

    “Having had both of them from early on, that’s what I love is building that relationship with them. I look back at videos from when I first got them – you forget how far you’ve come when you work with them every day, so I love looking back at the journey and I think it’s really important to appreciate everything that’s gone into making this happen.”

    She added: “It makes all the juggling and all the late nights studying worth it when we can reach a milestone like this. I just hope that I can do them justice at Pau, because I know how talented they are and the feeling that they give me, and I hope that I can go and show it at the highest level in the sport.”

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