Galloping across a field in underwear — top riders’ most mortifying moments *H&H Plus*

  • Have you ever been left red-faced by a horsey misdemeanour? Eleanor Jones finds out riders’ most embarrassing moments – it happens to the best of us...

    As Fiona Lockhart galloped across her field in her underwear and one gumboot, with neither tack nor an ounce of control, she could have been forgiven for thinking in rather X-rated language.

    There can be few riders who have not had those “why?” moments; “why here?”, you might wonder, as your horse bounces merrily on his hindlegs past a construction site bristling with guffawing builders. Or “why now?” as he takes exception to the white boards he’s seen thousands of times before, as you try to start your championship test. Such incidents usually come out of nowhere, as was the case for Fiona.

    She was on her verandah drinking her tea one morning, in her underwear as was her wont on hot mornings at her home in rural Australia, when she noticed her retired gelding Robbie was modelling that staple of every discerning horse’s wardrobe, the former rug, in many pieces.

    “You know what it’s like; you think, ‘God, they’re going to hurt themselves,’ so you just go straight over,” Fiona says. “There was no one around so I put my gumboots on and went.”

    Having secured the remains of the rug, she decided to pile it on top of Robbie and lead him back, across the 10-acre field, by his neck cover. Then she had a better, or possibly worse idea.

    “I thought, ‘Why walk?’” she says. “I was actually pretty pleased with myself for being able to get on him.”

    It was all going well until Fiona’s heavy gumboot fell off. Robbie, remembering the legendary spooks of his youth, shot off, almost leaving Fiona airborne.

    “You think, ‘He’s old, he won’t do that any more,’” she says. “But he went absolutely berserk, and when my other gumboot came off, it made him worse.”

    Things deteriorated further as Robbie, never known for his jumping skill, launched himself hopefully into a brimming ditch, and Fiona’s ride came to an abrupt and watery end, compounded by the fact that when she, minus gumboots and plus a nasty gravel rash, arrived home, there was Robbie waiting hopefully by the feed bin.

    “I think all riders have some stories to tell,” she says.

    And they do, from grassroots to championships. One example of the latter was Piggy March’s first senior team appearance, at the 2011 European Eventing Championships. Piggy had done her own shopping for the rst trot-up, for which she had to wear a skirt.

    “They’re definitely not part of my wardrobe; I don’t show my legs as they don’t see the sunlight so they’re blinding white,” she says. “So I thought I’d better buy some tights to make the whole thing look more pleasant. I thought it couldn’t be that difficult. Little did I know.”

    When Piggy opened her “tights”, she found she had bought stockings instead, but with not much time before she was due to take to the runway, she put them on and hoped for the best.

    “But it was about 30°C and you start to get a bit of a sweat on,” she says. “It was fine until just before my turn, I could feel the grip wasn’t really there on one. I gave it a big pull but as I went in front of the ground jury, it slipped right down to my ankle in front of everyone.”

    Thinking on her feet, or foot, Piggy whipped off the stocking and passed it to a bemused Yogi Breisner, the chef d’equipe.

    “I asked if he thought I should take the other one off and he said, ‘I don’t know, just get on with it!’” she says. “I think he was as embarrassed as I was.”

    Piggy and her one brown and one pale leg got through the trot-up, and the first two phases, in one piece, and she borrowed a pair for the second horse inspection. The ground jury was laughing before she started this time, but her tights stayed put.

    “But halfway back, my shoe fell off,” Piggy says. “I was so embarrassed, I carried on; pretending it hadn’t happened. The German crowd loved it but I think Yogi was just thinking, ‘Oh God, I can’t take her anywhere!’ And I think a bit harder about buying tights now.”

    On Joe Stockdale’s team debut in 2017, his first junior Nations Cup, he was determined to impress in one of the preliminary classes.

    “I’d put lots of pressure on myself; I was really ready to jump a good round, and hopefully get on the team,” says Joe, who still remembers how far away the first fence was from the arena entrance – for good reason.

    “I still don’t have a clue what happened, but we got there, me and my little grey stallion Romeo, and he just didn’t take off. He sort of crumpled into the fence; I did a roly-poly down his neck and ended up sitting on my bottom in the middle of the oxer while my horse trotted back to the entrance. I had a massively long walk of shame back.”

    Other riders will know what Joe means when he describes the look Romeo gave him if he ever fell off; the “what are you doing down there?” innocence. “My very first Nations Cup and I ended up sitting in the middle of an oxer,” he concludes.

    A popular aying goes along the lines of “everyone else is winning, while I punch myself in the face when I do up the girth”, but the truth is every rider has those face-punching moments.

    “There’s more to life than doing everything perfectly,” as Tom McEwen puts it, remembering his 2013 Burghley cross-country round on Dry Old Party. “I got a distance completely wrong, and Burghley isn’t the most forgiving,” he says.

    “I came off the back, and he disappeared off and jumped up out of the Leaf Pit on his own, and was waiting for me at the top. I think I’d come off behind the saddle and went round his shoulder and under his neck; I looked like I should have been in an action film.

    “Everyone has those moments; I’m just sad I can’t find the video of it; it made it on to the BBC bloopers reel.”

    Spencer Wilton is of the opinion these moments make riders who they are. His most memorable incident was another example of the rider’s first Nations Cup appearance; his senior debut some 15 years ago at Hickstead on Dolendo.

    “I cantered up the centre line in the grand prix – it was all very exciting to have my new, grown-up Union flag on my jacket – halted at X, trotted off, and went right instead of left,” he says. “It was highly embarrassing to have an error of course on day one.

    “On day two, I cantered up the centre line in the special, halt, salute – and trotted left instead of right. I thought, ‘Oh no, not again.’ Each day I’d gone a different way, and both were wrong. I thought, ‘They’ll never ask me on a team again!’”

    Spencer admits this had been progress for Dolendo, who in the early days had shown him up at the winter championships – twice.

    “The first time, I was doing novice or elementary; I did my halt and salute, went to trot off, and he just refused to move,” he says. “I can’t remember what the time limit was but I got eliminated because I couldn’t trot up the centre line.

    “Then the little toad did exactly the same thing 12 months later, same championships, just a couple of levels higher up. I’d had a successful season and probably would have had a good chance if I’d managed to do the test. I never went to Solihull again.”

    Dolendo was “quite a character”, Spencer says, showing off some impressive moves hacking and in the school.

    “But by the time we made it to grand prix, we had an understanding,” he says. “Thankfully, we came to an agreement that he’d go where I asked him to – even if that was sometimes in the wrong direction.”

    Ref: 18 February 2021

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