All in a day’s work: Former five-star eventer turned stunt rider Anna Warnecke *H&H Plus*

  • Former five-star eventer Anna Warnecke on why Burghley’s Leaf Pit is like riding through fire, and the thrill of an 8,000-strong standing ovation

    When my top horse, Twinkle Bee, retired from eventing, I was approached to train the horses at Kynren, in Bishop Auckland, for their evening show, An Epic Tale of England, depicting 2,000 years of British history. We had been living in the area for years and it felt like the right time – my whole family are involved, from my daughter and partner to my long-term groom, Laurie Robinson.

    I got my first pony, Winchy, when I was 10, and we moved from Berlin to the countryside. It felt like all my dreams had come true. My friends were the donkeys, the geese and the rooster, and it’s funny how now I can see that my young life was going to prove useful later on – I look after all the animals here at Kynren. I’ve always loved that partnership – Winchy was everything to me, my companion.

    We bought Twinkle Bee as a gangly four-year-old and he’s really why I started eventing – he was brilliant across country. “Trusty” is now 25 and no one else rides him. He rules the roost here, everyone has to wait for him to have his food first. He still looks amazing, but I rarely ride him – I don’t have time, and he’s actually pretty naughty still! My aim was never to compete him at a high level, but we ended up doing 19 four-stars (now five-star) and went to the European Championships.

    I take a similar approach to eventing as performing stunts in a show. As an event rider you train your horses to jump off Burghley’s Leaf Pit, for example, and they’ll only do it if there’s a huge amount of trust. I might be chariot racing or jousting now, but I adopt the same principles when it comes to the horses we perform on here – but there’s a lot more fire involved! You can say it’s OK, and they’ll do it because they trust you. It’s a beautiful feeling.

    I was so nervous putting on the first show. I had to let go of control. I wanted to sit on every horse myself, and there were 8,000 paying visitors. The roller coaster of emotions is very like being at Badminton. There’s all the anticipation, and then a bit of a hole afterwards when the adrenaline drops.

    The hard part for me is that I can’t be everywhere at once. When I was eventing I was so driven and obsessive. No one else could ride Trusty, everything revolved around him and I did everything myself. In this project, we have 1,000 volunteers and you’re enabling a huge group to achieve a common aim – you train them, but then you have to let go.

    We have 15 horses on stage at one time, 18 preparing backstage and 150 other animals, but it’s fun. Nothing compares to standing in the cross-country start box, but it’s a different sort of adrenaline – and a standing ovation of 8,000 people isn’t bad! I’m still an adrenaline junkie.

    Our riding horses are Lusitanos. They work how Laurie and I are used to working sport horses – and they are unbelievably rewarding. They can be spooky, but once the music starts, it’s like that countdown in the start box, they prick their ears and are ready to go. They are very intelligent; they know their music and their cues. For instance, if we play medieval music in the yard, all the jousting horses put their heads out of their boxes and look ready to go.

    The fireworks go off as close as 50m from the horses. Most of them just watch now, because they are so used to it. If the training is right for each individual horse, they can be very brave. You introduce the hazard far away, for example a small fire in the corner of the outdoor school, and you’d ride far away from it and gradually come closer. And finally you’re picking up the torch or jumping through fire.

    It’s a big public show, but there are some wonderful times behind the scenes. The first year we stabled the horses at our own yard as the Kynren stables weren’t ready. After the shows, at midnight, we’d ride all the horses back through the fields along the river in the pitch darkness. The horses were happy, we were happy. It was a special moment.

    I’ll always remember one horse, who was only five, who was still very dark dapple grey and you could never see him coming through the darkness at all.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 2 July 2020

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