Monday, September 12, 2011

Goodbye England

Most of the stories I’ve written throughout this English Adventure have come from an interesting place. Because of this, I’m glad I never travelled alone. Having you along for the ride is what’s made it fun.

We first got to know each other from the airport in Hong Kong, but we really hit it off when I finally made it to England. As I found my feet, found Tiger and found my way through the hedges and villages of Dorset, I was happy that you found funny what I found funny.

Bols on the doorstep of our little cottage in Dorset
We spent many hours bonding on the couch in the living room in my little cottage in Dorset, and while I slowly tapped away at my computer you waited patiently for the finished product. When we went out you came with me, and whether it was to our favourite pub in Buckhorn-Weston or shopping for trucks with Burto, you were a happy addition to our team. When Tiger and I went eventing you were right there with us, and while rails fell in those early events like leaves in autumn, you never judged or criticised.

Our trip to France was a highlight, and whether it was crossing the English Channel by ferry or making the most of French eventing, you were there with a smile on your face, always willing to hear about the last baguette or croissant that I ate. You supported me all the way into Burghley, and then patted Tiger and I on the back when his tendon finally decided that it had had enough of the international eventing scene. I’m glad that you were there with me through all of this, and I hope I’ve made it an interesting ride for you.

Many people wondered before I went away what I would do with myself for seven weeks with only one horse to ride. I wasn’t entirely sure at the time, but I knew that I would think of something. Who could have predicted that living in England would be so interesting? Every day presented a new source of amusement for me. On my first full day in England, as I drove down lanes and past farms that looked unmistakably British, I could barely contain myself when the discussion on BBC radio turned to improving your class and social standing. Surely, I thought, in 2011 they can’t be seriously having a conversation about social climbing on national radio? How wrong I was. After a lengthy discussion with a guest who had managed to change her accent, make better friends and leave her working class upbringing behind her, the recommendation was made that to successfully move up in the world it would be necessary to cut off your old friends and limit contact with your family. Ouch. I went home, dug out a copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and started studying modern British social conventions.

Of course, there is much more to England than an antiquated class system. The food is not nearly as bad as people make out, and there are now many advanced methods of cooking that don’t involve a deep fryer. English strawberries really are the best. It’s true that they like their drinks served at room temperature, and the chances are that I’ll win Badminton on a Shetland pony before you’re likely to pull a drink from a refrigerator in England that’s actually cold. The serving of warm beer is still rife in Britain, and despite all of the jokes made by Australians this is actually how they like it. Everyone really does drink tea, and it still surprises me how modern medicine has managed to take hold in a country which seriously believes that all problems can be solved with a cup of tea. There’s a school of thought that says the recent riots would have been quelled much faster if everyone had just sat down and enjoyed a thermos of Tetley.

Tweed is actually a popular choice of clothing in Britain, although visitors should remember the golden rule that any tweed bought in England can only be worn in England – this should temper any desire they may have to splash out on a tweed outfit soon before returning to their native land.

Tweed and Wellington boots - a very
English combination
Most people really do own a pair of Wellington boots, and for this reason a majority of the English population is more comfortable walking in mud than on firm ground. On this basis it’s surprising that road building has been such a popular pastime over the centuries. Just as they point out in Top Gear, there really are a lot of speed cameras in Britain, which makes it all the more surprising that most people seem to drive as fast as they like on motorways. The standard of driving is high however, which is fortunate given that most of the eventing population spends half of their lives nonchalantly riding their horses out along the middle of the roads. For people who have such an aversion to riding on hard ground this is somewhat puzzling.

England really is full of phenomenal tourist destinations, and I almost got complacent about driving past Stonehenge every time we would head down the A303. Even I was surprised when I started showing more interest in the free-range piggery on the other side of the road. The houses, manors, castles and palaces that dot the countryside are all spectacular, although with most events being held with one of these amazing structures in the background you do tend to get a little immune to their charms. With a fair percentage of the world’s best riders competing at these events it’s clear that the English eventing scene really is the gold standard, and I would encourage all eventers to put it on their bucket list.

Extreme weather at Stonehenge - sadly no picture of the pig
farm across the road
With my time in the UK just about over, it’s almost time to draw the curtains on ‘The English Adventure’. To all the people who wrote messages on Facebook or in the comments section of the blog, I’d like to say thanks. I know that I never replied but I always read and appreciated them. Checking my emails was a constant source of excitement and I always felt a little warm and fuzzy after reading the messages of support from around the world.

I use this word a lot, but it really has been an amazing trip. It’s an Oscar speech, but it’s my blog so I’m going to do it anyway. A massive thanks to everyone who supported and helped me along the way, including my Mum and Dad Alannah and Paul, who fortunately have always had the same dreams as me; my sister Kirsty who surrendered the ride on Tiger to me all those years ago and still takes her precious holidays to fly around the world to watch me ride; and especially my partner Annabel (Bols) Armstrong, who once again had the impossible task of being girlfriend, coach, groom and sports psychologist.

Bols preparing Tiger for Burghley at the end of Haras du Pin
Thanks to my good mate Chris Burton who welcomed Tiger into England, got him back into work and then gave me loads of help as we prepared for Burghley. Thanks to Sam and Lucy Griffiths for letting me hang out at their house, ride their lovely horses, raid their liquor cabinet and become a temporary member of the Griffith’s eventing team. Thanks to my groom Kristy Wosik, who took such great care of all of the horses back home; and finally, thanks to that wonderful family in the USA who bought a horse off me last year and made my global eventing adventure possible.

See you on the next adventure.


Sunday, September 11, 2011


It has now been almost a week since my Burghley riding experience finished prematurely. While it didn’t turn out to be quite the event that I had hoped for, riding there was still a life altering experience. It’s an event that’s bigger, bolder and more beautiful than any other I’ve ever ridden at, and while the French event at Haras du Pin will go down as the most fun event of this English adventure, Burghley showed that when it comes to sheer thrills, size really does matter.

Burghley might end up being Tiger’s final international eventing competition, but you’d have to admit he went out in his own style. At the trot-up he resisted the urge to behave like a mature adult and acted instead like an unbroken brumby. As the crowd clapped the previous horse and just before they called my name to present to the Ground Jury, Tiger decided that the Burghley atmosphere really did knock the years off.  While rearing on the end of the reins was a new but manageable trick, what really upset me was the volley of snot bullets that he fired into my face and body as he did so. There I was, at one of the biggest events in the world trying desperately to wipe a wad of goopy green Tiger slime out of my eyes as I approached the Ground Jury. 

Luckily he trotted well because I could barely see the strip through the green haze. Afterwards, people were coming up to me concerned that I had raised my hands to my face because Tiger had whacked me in the head as he reared – their sympathetic approach evaporated when they realised that rather than tending to an injury I was doing a little bit of windscreen wiping instead.

Throughout our time together, Tiger and I have had a tendency to train beautifully and then leave our best work behind when we enter the arena. For this reason I have always been in favour of changing the eventing format to introduce marks for the warm-up. If only they’d made the change before Burghley. Having worked incredibly in the days before, the wheels started to fall off when we focused on the rein-back and canter strike off on the morning of the test.


Tiger, having cleverly worked out that a dressage test was imminent, decided that he would take control of the situation and his naughty streak came to the fore at the worst possible time. It popped up again in the warm-up for our test that afternoon, and once again as the crowd cheered for the rider before me Tiger dropped his bottle, hit the brakes and then cleared out sideways. Damn that English crowd for being so generous with their applause.

When I got into the ring all I could focus on was keeping him motoring. Back in 2006 when I rode Tiger in his first CCI Three Star he had a major dummy spit in the left half-pass – five years later and on the other side of the world it was not good to see it return. To make matters worse, in what was definitely a new trick he managed to get his tongue over the bit while having his moment in the half-pass.  Apparently he waved it proudly at the judges out the side of his mouth until he walked. No marks given for tongue flapping and I got a 59 for a test that would probably have been quite competitive were it not for these incidents.

In the weeks leading up to Burghley there had been a lot of talk about how big and long this course was going to be. It was a propaganda assault on the riders like we’ve never seen before, and it seemed almost as if they wanted half the field to quit on the spot and take their business to another event. Sure enough, when we first walked the course it turned out to be both enormous and enormously long, proving that sometimes you can believe everything you read in the papers.

Interestingly however, the course was far from technical and when you took away the sheer size of it all there were few fences that were going to catch riders out. There was only one arrowhead and two apexes, while every other fence that wasn’t a monstrous ditch-brush (3 on the course) or a huge square oxer inevitably had a ditch under it. Primarily, it was a test of the scope and heart of the horse and the ability of the rider to keep getting it right for 33 fences and eleven minutes and forty seconds. People weren’t going to have run-outs and stops at complicated fences, but they were going to fall off. It had seemed an odd decision to take a step back in time but this really was old school eventing at its finest.

Bols and I in front of Winners Avenue at fence 22
Even though the Burghley course was massive, if you’re ever going to be confident about jumping around a course as imposing as that one it’s going to be when you are sitting on an eventing schoolmaster like Tiger. I expected to be far more nervous as I headed out to ride my cross-country, but to tell you the truth I was fairly relaxed about the course and confident that Tiger and I would go out there and rip it. We had a great start over the first three fences, and although I didn’t notice at the time Blyth Tait told me later that I had buzzed him Top Gun style as I flew past the warm-up after jumping the enormous table at fence three. That doesn’t happen every day.

More than any other fence on the course The Leaf Pit at fence four was always going to be the test for us. A big hanging log followed by a steep descent on a right hand curve to a big triple brush-arrowhead sitting down in the hollow, it was a carbon copy of the fence that caused me problems at Rolex. Run-outs at triple brush-arrowheads have been a constant source of tension between Tiger and I over the years, but after schooling them every week since I arrived in the UK I was confident that I could nail this one.

They say that practice makes perfect, but apparently Tiger and I are the exception to the rule. After a great jump in over the log at 4(a), we racked up our usual 20 penalties after clearing the red flag out on the (b) element. My initial reaction was that Tiger’s head had stayed on the inside of the red flag, but my attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the jump judge was completely ineffective. Disappointed by this, I had to accept that the triple brush-arrowhead defeated me again. We had better luck the second time around and off we went with 20 annoying penalties to our name and 29 of the world’s biggest fences still to jump.

To tell you the truth, I was actually enjoying my ride around the Burghley course. When you’re out there you’re not aware of the crowds or the atmosphere, but you can enjoy the sensation of riding a nice horse over big jumps and beautiful ground. Because of this I was having a lot of fun. I had to make a bit of a loop to the (b) element of the Land Rover water fence after having a bit of a crap jump in but other than that things were going well. Apparently my muscles aren’t what they once were though as my medical armband started to slip down my arm early in the course, and when it was flapping around my wrist like an oversized watch after the Land Rover water I flung it off into the crowd at the side of the galloping track. Knowing England, I expect that my fine for littering will arrive in the mail any day now.

I was pretty stoked to get such a good jump up the big bounce steps at the Dairy Farm at fence 18 and 19, and apart from still having to jump the enormous ditch-brush at the Cottesmore Leap at fence 21, we were almost on the run for home. From the Dairy Farm to the Keepers Cottages at fence 20 there was a gallop of perhaps 400 metres. Tiger was chewing up the ground and travelling beautifully but about a hundred metres from the Cottages as I was starting to look for my line to the fence, Tiger’s gallop changed dramatically. It was an odd sort of bump-bump feeling like a flat tyre through a pot-hole, and instead of gliding across the ground his stride tightened and hit the ground hard. I’d experienced a similar feeling on him almost three years before riding around Four Star at Adelaide. This time around I knew there was no need to check anything, and I pulled him up and almost vaulted off him before he’d even come back to walk.

After a minute or so it was clear that Tiger was sore enough to warrant a trip back to the stables in a horse ambulance. Fortunately, I’ve only ever used a horse ambulance once or twice over my career, but there’s always a moment when you’re loading your injured horse when you just hope that they’ll actually walk on. It seemed that Tiger was in a generous mood and we were soon on our way to the vet box, bumping across the rolling hills of the Burghley estate in a rattling old Land Rover.

Back at the stables, Tiger was cooled and then quickly tended to by both the event treating vet and Australian team vet Graeme Potts. It was obvious that he had reinjured the tendon that had kept him out of eventing during 2009. While deep down I had known as soon as he went lame on course that at 15 this would signal the end of his international eventing career, it was still upsetting to have it confirmed by the vets. After cooling the leg Tiger became the proud owner of a Robert Jones bandage, a mass of cotton wool and bandages that ends up closely resembling one of the bearskin hats that adorn the heads of the statuesque guards at Buckingham Palace. You almost had to laugh as he cheerily limped back to his stable with this enormous white growth on his leg.

Bols feeding Tiger carrots back at the Griffith's
yard in Dorset - check out the Robert Jones bandage 

Honestly, even if you’ve had some misfortune at Burghley, you’ve had a great deal of good fortune just to be there in the first place. It would be unsporting to stay miserable for long at such an amazing event, and with Tiger happily plowing through a mound of hay and carrots it was only right to experience everything that the event has to offer. On the Friday afternoon we had located the gourmet food village among the trade stands, and with any remaining nerves dissolving alongside Tiger’s soundness it was time to eat. A sandwich, burger and brownie later I was flat on my back watching the remainder of the class go cross-country on the big screen. It seems terrible to say but once you remove the stress of a Sunday trot-up from the equation eventing can actually be a lot of fun, and for a few hours on that Saturday afternoon I actually enjoyed being a spectator.

The Burghley scoreboard. It's pretty cool to see your name there
The Burghley experience really is an amazing one. Somehow, despite its size, it remains a friendly event with a welcoming feel. Even the security guards are friendly, and being England many of them insisted upon calling you sir or madam throughout the week. The crowds are enormous, the shops are phenomenal and the house provides a magnificent backdrop to every photograph. Not many people and even fewer Australians will ever get the chance to ride at this event, and even though I might have only ridden around half of it I still consider myself extremely lucky to have gotten this far.

Tiger is now back resting at the Griffith’s yard in Dorset and he’s happy as a pig in mud. The vets have checked up on him since Burghley and he’s fine to travel immediately but he will stay there until we can organise for him to go into quarantine to begin his journey back to Australia, where he’ll enjoy a few months holiday before embarking on a new life as a dressage horse or low level eventer. Hopefully, he’ll be out of England before winter strikes.

In the meantime, this English adventure has almost run its course.

I’ll be sure to say goodbye before I go.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Countdown to Burghley

It’s Monday night and we’re sitting on the couch watching Will Smith save the world in Independence Day. It’s our last night in our little house in Dorset and to celebrate the occasion I’ve decorated the living room in a colourful array of damp laundry. Hanging out my washing the night before an event is a little ritual of mine and the fact that we’re off to one of the biggest three day events in the world tomorrow doesn’t seem like enough of a reason to change a habit developed over many years.

While Will Smith fights aliens, I’m trying to work out how I feel about Burghley. Excited, nervous, confident or a little scared? To tell you the truth, I’m really not that sure. What I do know is that there’s been a lot of talk about how enormous the cross-country is going to be, how it’s a ‘retro’ course with bigger jumps than anyone has ever seen in their life. There’s a ditch you can drive a car through, tables you could happily raise a family under and more skinny timber than has been seen on course since 1979. Apparently, anorexic logs are the ‘it’ look for 2011. Flares, sideburns and fondue are also making a comeback.

So am I nervous? Absolutely. Every time someone talks about what a mammoth course it is I get a little pang of nerves running from my left shoulder across to my right hip. I can’t explain why the nerves take this route but they seem to enjoy the journey. It only tends to strike once or twice before I shake myself and remember that courses always look bigger to the people who aren’t jumping them. And really, what is it with everyone going on about how big it is anyway? The British equestrian media seems to have mounted an intense propaganda campaign based on the size and length of this cross-country track. Frankly, I think this is stupid and immature. Everyone knows that size and length mean nothing – it’s what you do with it that counts. All eyes are on the Captain to see what he produces.

Other than that, there’s really not too much to worry about and I’m feeling very confident. Burghley might be a big event but it really is just another event. You pack a saddle and a bridle, put your horse on the truck, do a dressage test, go for a gallop and then hope like hell that you go clear in the show jumping. If you’ve got a minute you can take the opportunity to look around and enjoy the experience. Someone will inevitably win the class and while there’ll be another eighty or so who won’t hopefully if you ride well, get a little lucky and dress nicely at the trot-up you might just sneak away with a ribbon.

In the meantime, Will Smith has managed to save the world from an alien invasion. He hasn’t ridden around Burghley though so comparatively his task seems relatively straightforward. Mind you, I haven’t ridden around Burghley yet either so he is one up at the moment.

See you at the event.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Eventing - French style

I started writing about the event at Haras du Pin a few days ago but never quite made it into the details. This was kindly picked up on by a friend on Facebook and since then it has weighed heavily on my mind. Surprisingly, they wanted to know more about what happened with the horses than with the sun-tanning and eating side of things. Shocked by this, I have spent the past two days trying to remember who won all the ribbons. Fortunately, my memory was jogged this week when I spotted Burto getting around the yard with wads of cash falling out of his back pocket.

Sensing that the weather would be good for a week and that people would be in no hurry to return to murky England, the French dragged the event out over six days. This meant there was a lot of time to watch the other classes, and while I’d like to say that this was done separately from the eating and the tanning Bols and I devised an ingenious plan that allowed us to do them all at once. Obviously, the CIC Three Star World Cup was the feature class of the event, and since I was in the Two Star (on account of the fact that it was a World Cup and Burghley was so close) we managed to keep a close eye on proceedings.

While the Kiwis had their time in the sun at Gatcombe two weeks earlier, this week in France was an Australian affair. Clayton F, Paul Tapner, Burto and Sam G had all made the trip across the Channel, and with a World Cup invasion fleet of seven horses between them they were a definite force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, the World Cup series winners’ prize money was already tied up in the hands of our Kiwi mate Clarke Johnstone but with Burto in the running to claim second prize there was plenty left to fight over.

Clarke On Orient Express
I’d really like to show the professionalism of my blog and be able to give an in-depth analysis of all of the dressage tests in the World Cup class. A proper equestrian journalist might even question the judging or seek out a controversy to fill up their pages. Unfortunately, the reality is that while dressage is fairly boring to watch, it’s even more boring to read about. All I’ll say is that the Australian boys dominated the dressage arena and the judges loved them, and at the end of the day Sam, Clayton, Burto and Paul were filling up the top five places. Overwhelmed by this display of force the French competitors ate a snail and cried themselves to sleep sucking red wine from the bottle.

Burto on Newsprint
Over in the Two Star I was quietly going about my business while all the other Australians stole the limelight in the big ring. Tiger and I did a 54 in the dressage, and while the test was far from perfect or spectacular it gave us a glimmer of hope that we’d be able to find that perfect balance between control and flamboyance at Burghley. With over 80 starters in the Two Star it was an easy class to get lost in, and with my 54 sliding me into 40th place after dressage my name was almost impossible to find on the scoreboard.

Two Star showjumping kicked off early on Saturday morning and I was out there with the sparrows, ready to jump before the sun came up and my shirt stuck to my back. After chopping my way through a swathe of English wood in the two events I’d competed at during my time in England, it was relieving that a trip to France could be the catalyst for a clear round. Burto and Bols are a dream coaching team and with only four time penalties to add on a course that was run at jump-off speed I started the weekend on an absolute high.

It was an upside down and topsy-turvy event, so while I was patting myself on the back for my clear jumping round the World Cup boys were preparing themselves for battle out on the cross-country. The beautifully built and designed courses at Haras du Pin were all run over picturesque countryside, and even though they were still building and dressing some parts of the course on the morning of the Three Star everything looked to be in perfect order by the time the huge crowd flocked in to watch the Aussie riders tear it up.

The French have always had their own style on the cross-country, and while this style – which combines aspects of horse-racing, downhill skiing and base-jumping – might cause the heart of the average person to get lodged firmly in their mouth, French riders and spectators appear to be fairly immune to the potential dangers of this cavalier approach. It is exciting to watch however, and while the Australians might have been the winners on the day with their clear rounds and precise riding, it was the French who caught the imagination.

Despite having some genuinely big fences and tough complexes the World Cup course didn’t seem to cause too much trouble. Sam G, who was leading after dressage on his Gatcombe Express Eventing winner Real Dancer had a few time penalties which slid him down the order, with his place at the top filled by Clayton on his second ride Be My Guest, a horse that possesses a real face for radio. After racking up a few time penalties on his first ride Dunges Laurent Rose, Clayton chewed on some frog’s legs and smashed a croissant to put a bit of French magic into his clear and fast round. Burto slipped into second on Newsprint, Paul Tapner into third on Kilfinnie, Clayton held fourth while the whiz kid from New Zealand Clark Johnstone was in fifth. Burto was there again on Holstein Park Leilani and the poor French were left wondering who invited these antipodeans in the first place.

Smooth dudes - no comment on the sunglasses
On Sunday the mixed up nature of the event meant the World Cup horses were trotting up while I was riding cross-country. It was a great hit-out for Tiger and while the jumps were probably half the size that they’ll be at Burghley the course was tough enough. Clear, under time and with no dramas to report, after raising a bit of a sweat Tiger and I declared ourselves ready to head back to England to tackle the monster that is meant to be Burghley.

It was pretty awesome scheduling that allowed us to have Tiger iced, put away and chewing on a baguette before the World Cup showjumping even looked like starting. The French filled the gap between Two Star cross-country and the World Cup jumping by trying to sell us some horses, and while it was a was a good idea to have a young horse parade I’d be surprised if they were the best France has to offer.

With the sun beating down the sweat from stressed rider’s was the only thing keeping the dust down in the jumping warm-up. The first few riders all knocked a few rails, and when Burto went way out of order on Leilani and had two down we had no idea of how eight penalties would leave him at the end. As the class progressed the kids picking up the rails worked up more of a sweat than the riders, and it took about 30 horses to jump before a Frenchman called Karim Florent Laghouag finally produced a clear round. The rail kids breathed a sigh of relief, sat in their chairs and wondered why more riders couldn’t just do the same.

Once we were inside the top ten you might have thought that the rails would stop falling. Not so. Mark Todd had a couple down to finish eighth, and Clarke, who was fifth into the showjumping had three down to drop into sixth. Not that he was too upset – he could have sat in the stands eating ice cream and still won the big money for the World Cup series. By this stage the two rails that Burto had on Leilani a few hours ago were suddenly looking pretty awesome and he was silently pulling himself up the rankings. Clayton had also gone early on Dunges Laurent Rose, and despite breaking a stirrup midway through the course he only knocked one fence down. Paul Tapner didn’t have a lot of fun on Kilfinnie, and four rails really ruined his afternoon as he fell from third to tenth.

Burto had a couple down on Newsprint, but eight penalties was a good round on this scorching hot Normandy afternoon. Only Clayton could beat him now, but when his stirrup failed to break midway around the course the rails started falling. Four rails down and he suffered that awful tumble down the ladder from first to fourth. Ouch, ouch, ouch.

Surprisingly, Clayton had won on Dunges Laurent Rose. Burto was second on Newsprint and then third on Leilani. Good times for the Aussie boys.

I’d finished 19th in the Two Star, and while I didn’t get a ribbon I did get a prize money cheque for 173 euros. Keep the ribbon, I’ll have the cheque. How good is French eventing?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The French Adventure - Part I

It’s been a week since I last tended to these pages. It’s been an enormous week, a week in which ‘the English adventure’ crossed the Channel, caught a tan and morphed into ‘the French adventure’. It’s been a week where we saw yet another side of eventing – the laid-back, happy side where the sun seems to shine down on everything and people seem to genuinely enjoy the sport they’re a part of. On the back of this one week in Normandy I’m putting French eventing up there as the poster child of the sport worldwide.

It has been an amazing week, but the fact that we’ve been away from Dorset for a full seven days to compete in a one-day event makes no sense at all. The two star class had five days of competition including the trot-up, making it as long as the longest three day events. Surely, if a three-day event goes for five days, and a one-day event also goes for five days, then it’s no surprise that the average punter struggles to understand our sport. Why doesn’t anyone just say what they mean?

If you’re going to have to spend a week anywhere, the Normandy region of France is probably not the place to go complaining about. It’s postcard French farming country, with beautiful rolling green hills dotted with hay stacks and barns with shutters on the windows. The villages and towns are as French as French gets, and even though the word ‘rustic’ is horribly overused by celebrity chefs and travel show hosts you’re probably legally obliged to use it to describe this part of the world.

Sam G, Burto, Bols and me
Haras du Pin is just over an hour from the port city of Caen, and if you’re looking for it on a map it’s about 14 kilometres from the medium sized town of Argentan. The venue for the eventing at the 2014 World Equestrian Games, the event is held on the grounds of the French national stud, and the chateau, stables and parade grounds are as stunning as you’ll see anywhere. It’s all open to the public, but when Lucy and I went for a poke around on horseback and virtually turned up at the door of the equine museum surrounded by tourists wearing mismatched outfits, backpacks and joggers and jeans we realised we had definitely taken a wrong turn somewhere during our ride.

Looking down over the jumping arena
From what I’ve seen during my time in England, summertime does not necessarily guarantee you sunshine and heat but merely offers you better odds. Not so in southern France, where summer is a genuine season characterised by high temperatures and sun that will still burn you at nine in the evening. Eventing in shorts and t-shirts is eventing at its best, and with sunburn a clear and present danger many riders reveled in the opportunity to get their gear off for most of the week. This desire to strip off is clearly a cultural thing, and combined with the relaxed attitude of the Frenchman to public urination it’s something you’ve got to quickly adapt to. If the farmer’s arm – where a distinct line develops separating the virgin white skin of the upper arm from the burnt or browned skin below – is the bane of a male eventers life then singlet and bra strap stenciling is the female equivalent, particularly for the English woman I saw who was crisping herself and showing her allegiance to the Queen by rocking around in a Union Jack bikini top.  

You can’t write about France without writing about the food. Anyone who has visited the country knows that the food experiences here are likely to be among some of the most memorable of your life, for both the right and wrong reasons. Somehow the French have developed a food culture that is exquisite at one end and – perhaps as guerilla tactics against invading armies – horrendous at the other. Sit down in the wrong restaurant in France and it’s highly possible that the only thing you’ll find on the menu to eat is the wheat in your beer. Daytime dining, with it croissants and pain au chocolat and awesome baguettes is always safe and extremely enjoyable. When the sun goes down however the risks skyrocket, and the chances of you finding a plate of anchovies staring you in the face is real and alarming. Bad pizza, bad salads, bad steak and bad service are all hallmarks of a bad French dining experience.

At the other end of the spectrum there is magic to be found and you’ll remember why the French are so famous for their food. We had one mind blowing dinner that was so good I took  a punt and ate a snail, and while I’d like to dispel the myth that they taste like chicken I would probably just be lying to you. 

Disappointingly, I was too old for this sort of fun
Eventing in France is not like eventing in England, Australia or the US. Relaxed to the point of falling over backwards, it has a refreshing, positive vibe that has developed from their disregard for strict rules and officials. Trusting that mature adults can manage to get through a week without the need for a telephone book list of instructions and 96 officials watching their every step, the French have pioneered a new and better way of eventing. Of course, this laissez-faire attitude has its flipside, and many preparations – such as jump building – seemed to happen at the last minute. The photo below is of the two star fence 16 on the evening before we were set to jump it. The course builders worked long and hard however and at midnight as they approached their third day of cross-country you could still see a conga line of tractors out on course working the ground and building gardens around many of the jumps that had sat naked and stark for much of the week.

Course building, French style
It was an awesome week in France and there is much more to write about. At the moment we are recovering from a few celebratory drinks on the ferry home so writing this has been a slow, hard slog. I’m putting on my brave face however and promise to cover the rest of the event soon.

Au revoir.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Crossing the Channel

Oddly, this comes to you from the ferry terminal at Portsmouth. I’m sitting in the car waiting to board a ferry to France, surrounded by middle-aged bikers and retirees in their caravans. We’re all extremely early, but since sitting in stationary cars is a way of life for the average English road user we’re all taking it well. It’s a very English crowd around me, and while I’m staring out the window searching eagerly for a premature sign of the continent in the form of a car load of croissant eating, beret wearing Frenchmen, it’s hard to look past the English family in the car next door who are eagerly stuffing their face with crisps and debating whether the Jaffa cakes they’re moving onto for dessert are in fact biscuits or cakes. At the moment the most French thing on this wharf seems to be the car I’m sitting in – the little blue Peugeot is stoked to be returning to its place of birth.

Queues at the ferry terminal in Portsmouth
I’m at the ferry terminal heading to France because we’re off eventing in Normandy at an event called Haras du Pin. I’m flying solo at the moment because while I do the work of a real man and single-handedly wrestle a hatchback onto a ship, Lucy and Bols (that’s my adorable girlfriend and real partner in crime Annabel Armstrong) are hanging out with the truckers at the other end of the docks – no doubt downing a few cans, smoking cigars and spitting all over the place while they wait. They’ve got Tiger and Lucy’s one star horse on the truck, and so the horses can breathe during their Channel crossing when they park on the ferry Bols has to leap out of the cab, stop traffic with one of her meanest looks and drop the tail-gate before some Polish truck-driver sticks his nose deep into Tiger’s personal space.

Hold on, the computer gets thrown aside as men in high-vis coats wave at me frantically. I haven’t been focusing on the high-vis hard enough and because of me some poor retiree is going to see a few seconds less of France. In my panic I ride the clutch like it’s cross-country day at the Olympics and as I lurch through the gates the blue hatchback wonders what he did to deserve a life as a hire car. Through to the security inspection and I’m asked to step out of the car so a lady in high-vis can fulfill her quota of baggage x-raying for the evening. Strangely, while the blue hatchback packed to the roof with bags sits idly by I have to remove my belt and scrounge the change from my pocket so I can walk through a metal detector. As I dress myself again I can only imagine the quality of criminals that are caught by this system.

The view over the ferry terminal from the top deck
Onboard the ferry our cars get squished in like you find in only the best value tins of sardines. I slip out of the car through the narrowest of gaps, careful to remind myself not to put on any weight before the return journey. As soon as I’m onboard a change happens. I take it back about the lack of French people – without the ferry even moving we seem to have landed on the continent. Given that it’s a French ferry I guess this makes sense. I practice my ‘bonjour’ and have to admit that it’s even hard on my ears.

Overnight ferry travel is fun. There’s a party kicking off in the bar upstairs and while we mightn’t have paid a visit on this journey, I can’t make any promises about the trip home. Having avoided the bar we wait an hour in the restaurant before going to check on the horses. Since I wasn’t there when they loaded truck I’m surprised to find the horses jammed in among freight vans and enormous Hungarian lorries. Tiger is one of the world’s more experienced travelers these days and for him hanging out in the hold of a ship is all in a day’s work. As the resident father figure he provides a reassuring presence for Lucy’s young horse, who hasn’t quite mastered the same nonchalant look of worldliness that Tiger has perfected over the last six months.

Down in hold - Bols guards the tail ramp
while Tiger enjoys the cruise
Accommodation for our overnight ferry crossing is in a four berth cabin. Just before we enter Lucy tells a frightful story about opening the door to find your cabin already occcupied with snoring truck drivers. It must be our lucky day because we’ve got it all to ourselves, leaving us only to fall into bed just before midnight.

A tight squeeze for the trucks on the ferry
The rude surprise of the whole trip happens the next morning. It’s 4:45am when the speakers beside my bed start whispering out a few notes of elevator music. Just as your brain is trying to work an elevator ride into your dream a sadistic Frenchman somewhere deep in the bowels of the ship turns up the volume on the music until it reaches into your brain and snaps you into reality. Attempts to ignore the music – a 30 second loop played repeatedly for 15 minutes – are impossible. Everyone on board greets the day with the offensive tones of the flute and harpsichord – an offensive instrument at the best of times – ringing in their ears.

Breakfast is a real taste of France. Croissants are a highlight although the warm UHT milk they tend to serve with cereal in Europe is an unfortunate blight on the culinary scorecard of a country with such a rich food history. We bolt it all down, head our separate ways and here I am, sitting in the driver’s seat of a blue hatchback waiting to drive off a ferry on the wrong side of the road to go eventing in France.

What a strange life.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Happy Times

England hasn’t been having a very good run in the last few days. Kiwis and an Australian won five out of six of the ribbons in the British Open Eventing Championship last weekend, and riots have broken out on London streets. Contrary to popular opinion, these events are not related.

Of course, they can’t be related because the rioters are all wearing tracksuits and no self-respecting horse owner in this country would be seen dead in one of those. When the rioters start looting shops selling tweeds we’ll know that the demographic involved in this trouble has changed. Here in Dorset we feel quite removed from the drama, not least because the multicultural blend of this predominantly farming area is limited to one Chinese restaurant and a microwaveable Tandoori chicken on the supermarket shelves. Besides, most of the youth around here are too busy trimming hedges and mowing lawns to spend much time channeling their inner Ali G. Say ‘innit’ on the streets of Dorset and you’ll be thumped over the head by an old lady wielding a handbag; even think of rioting and you’ll be swiftly dealt with by a farmer, a tractor and a hay spike.

Dinner for one?
With rioting off the cards, we’ve had to find other ways to entertain ourselves this week. Burto started off on Sunday night by trying to eat an entire pig down at the pub, and for a guy who doesn’t consume much more than a bowl of Crunchy Nut in a day he made a pretty courageous effort on a dinner that was actually designed for two. A good porking was just what he needed after a tense weekend where he came second in an advanced class and fifth in the British Open Championship at Gatcombe, and while it initially seemed like a lot of meat I’ve since realized that one pig per day is the standard intake for the average male in England. Take away their bacon and there really would be a riot.

After Sam G won the Express Eventing at Gatcombe – smashing records all over the place in the dressage to music – he’s been working out whether he should cash his £3000 novelty cheque or just send it straight to the pool room. Lucy – who is English by birth and therefore doesn’t understand the reference to The Castle – is pushing hard for the cheque to be cashed. Burto and I – who admittedly don’t pay the bills around here – think the novelty cheque is the beginning of a world class pool room collection. The Mexican stand-off has endured for most of the week.

I had to feel sorry for Lucy and Sam when they loaded up the truck and trundled off to a Pre-Novice event an hour down the road on Tuesday, only two days after finishing up at Gatcombe. People go on about how good eventing is in the UK because you can go eventing mid-week, but I think this is crap. They were definitely searching for positives when they were getting a bunch of youngsters ready to go out on Monday, and as you’ll find if you eat lots of ice-cream , sometimes it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

After the showjumping disaster last weekend, I’ve been busy out practicing in Sam and Lucy’s jump paddock. Unfortunately it lacks the atmosphere that makes Gatcombe as tough as it is, but we thought that with some lads in London seemingly at a loose end we could rent-a-crowd and get a real vibe running through the place. Obviously it would be necessary to lock away anything that’s not actually bolted to the ground but you have to admit it would be a novel and effective training tool. George Morris would be impressed.

Otherwise, with no eventing for Tiger and I this weekend the past few days have been relatively quiet. There’s been time for long solo drives in the country

Time to commune with God

Salisbury Cathedral

Time to snap Lucy riding

And even time to bother Burto while he took his washing off the line.

Fortunately, we’re off to France next week to go eventing so I've got to be honest, we've got nothing to start a riot about.