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.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Gatcombe Horse Trials – The Festival of Australasian Eventing

Quite rightfully, you will probably think the worst of me. I’m writing this sitting at the back of the Stapleton Arms. It’s the pub in the tiny Dorset village of Buckhorn-Weston where Sam and Lucy go to celebrate their victories. Since – unlike them and Burto – I don’t have any victories to celebrate from the British Eventing Championships over the weekend it seemed sensible for me to chalk one up by winning the race to the pub. But my victory – by over ten lengths, 2 pints or one hour depending on how you gauge these things – is a hollow one. There’s no swarming press here to cover it, no crowd cheering me on, and no Princess Anne to present my prize. After such an amazing weekend of eventing at Gatcombe Park, I realise that unlike winning, for instance, the British Open Championship, my victory is pretty grim.

The Stapleton Arms - the finish line inthe most important
race of the weekend
They call it the Festival of British Eventing and apart from the big four star events at Badminton and Burghley, it’s the showpiece of the sport in the UK. Hosted by Princess Anne and run in her backyard at Gatcombe Park, it’s a phenomenal event held in a stunning location. Not surprisingly it drags in the big names and the Championship classes are littered with the superstars of world eventing. The Fox was riding half the equine population of Britain, and the only class Ollie Townend didn’t have a start in is the one in the photo below.

The Shetland Pony Grand National - no adults allowed
In terms of one day eventing, this was the biggest competition I’d ever ridden in. I wasn’t competing in the British Open class but in one of the Advanced sections, where the outcasts and riff-raff duel it out over the same course as the Open but for less financial reward. Even still, if you win a ribbon Princess Anne fronts up to shake your hand, and since we all want to meet a princess at some time in our lives it’s a pretty fiercely contested competition.

If you look really hard you can just make out Princess Anne
in the white trousers
This is a good moment to note that writing about your own riding performance is tough going. If you go well, you sound like a knob when you pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself on your fine achievements. With the exception of the USA, in most cultures around the world people will line up to gleefully punch self-congratulators square in the teeth. Go badly and you’re almost obliged to make excuses, and that is tiring and boring and generally practised by people who have a large ‘L’ stamped on their forehead. So I’ll quickly just say that Tiger and I did a reasonable dressage test, had a few thousand rails in the show jumping and then ripped around what was a very big cross-country track clear with some time penalties. Sound, fitter, more confident and with some long hours in the show jump paddock to come over the next few weeks, we’re on track for Burghley.

Looking down into the park bowl
With my competition finishing on Saturday I had plenty of time to take in all that Gatcombe has to offer. The trade-stands are pretty awesome here in the UK, and if you’ve got a bit of spare cash in your back pocket it’s an easy place to dispose of it. Kit yourself out in some new threads – preferably tweed if you really want to score an invite up to the Princess’s house – and then go and blow a hole in your savings at one of the twenty or so saddleries that are on site. If that doesn’t seem extreme enough, you can always buy yourself a new horse truck, fill it with a spa, chicken coop and some outdoor furniture, and then make a friend while eating a bacon sandwich at the Pimms tent to help you drive your new Range Rover home.

Crowds - Wellington boots, tweed, dogs and... is that
guy really smoking a cigar?
If it’s not the trade stands that impress you then the crowds will and on Sunday the place was packed, with people piled up four deep around the jumping arena, with the remainder swarming through the cross-country course. It’s an enthusiastic crowd, and whether they are there for the sport, the royals, or to see if Mike Tindall is as ugly in the flesh as he appears in photos (he’s not), it’s fantastic to have them there supporting eventing.

Clayton Fredericks over fence one in the Open Championship
The crowd sees a phenomenal spectacle however, and as it is every year the Open Championship cross-country was run at express pace. This class has always been won by the rider willing to chance their arm and go flat out for six and a half minutes. Never before however, have the top five riders been able make the time. Unfortunately for what was obviously a predominantly English crowd, New Zealand and Australia stole the show, and while the English are good at royal weddings, building pubs, hacking phones and standing in puddles, when it comes to going flat out around cross-country the Kiwis appear to have the edge. First and second to  Andrew Nicholson (he also won the two advanced classes the day before so practically owned Princess Anne’s hand by the end of the weekend), third to Jonathon Paget, and fourth to Mark Todd. Burto popped up and pinched fifth from under Pippa Funnell’s nose, and she had to settle for winning the British National Championship from sixth place.


Paul Tapner out of the start box
Andrew Nicholson finishes after winning
everything except Masterchef

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hakuna Matata

Bringing your horse to a foreign country is an odd thing. Normal overseas trips involve sightseeing expeditions, random adventures and plenty of down time by a pool with a cocktail in your hand. Understandably, horses change all of this. They give a purpose to it all, and because you have the horse it’s easy to get carried away with equine activities, forgetting that you’re in a new and exciting place with lots to see and do.

I refuse, however, to come to England and not visit all of the places on the Monopoly board. Dorset is lovely but it’s, well, Dorset. It would be like going to Australia and spending all of your time in Canberra. It doesn’t get your heart pumping.

With this in mind a trip to London was required. Fortunately I had an excuse as my riding gear had finally arrived at Heathrow and needed collecting from a dirty warehouse at the back of the airport – a location that, judging by the smell was either home to a significant homeless population or was the dumping ground for airline lavatories.

When you visit a warehouse like this you’re almost guaranteed to encounter a person working there with the social skills of a wild boar. They drive trucks or forklifts and will happily admit that their best relationship in life is with the machine they’re sitting in. Fortunately I wasn’t there for the conversation either and after only a few sour words I was on my way. It was tourist time.

It seemed sensible, given the Olympic equestrian events will be held there next year, to head across town to Greenwich. This little suburb is jutted up against the city and the River Thames and hardly seems a likely place to hold a horse show, let alone the Olympics. The streets around Greenwich Park – on which an entire temporary arena and stadium will be constructed – are a confusing rabbit warren of pubs, restaurants, pubs, tourist shops and pubs, meaning that the equestrian events at next year’s Games may turn out to be the least remembered of all time. Sadly I forgot to take my camera but if you just picture a horse and a pub you’re half way to being there already.

Despite the fact that this was a future equestrian venue, I wasn’t going to get sidetracked by walking an imaginary cross-country course or pacing around a dressage arena that doesn’t exist. This afternoon in London was horse-free and I was staying focused. A tour of the National Maritime Museum was a welcome distraction. After a few hours it dawned on me that either England has a really dull maritime history or this was a crap museum. The worst thing about travelling on your own is that you have no one to express this to, and this inability to vent was perhaps more disappointing than the museum itself.

Evening traffic on The Strand

Back in the car I told TomTom all about the rubbish museum but like many travelling companions all he wanted to do was give me directions. I was headed to the West End to catch up with some fellow eventers, and together we were off to the stage version of The Lion King. My drive across London took in a number of the city’s most famous landmarks, many of which I became quite familiar with as it took me an hour to find a park. With a few laps of the Monopoly board under my belt I finally found my theatre going friends, and it was great to catch up with rising stars of New Zealand eventing Clarke Johnstone and Lizzie Brown, as well as Australian young rider Bec MacPherson.

Out on the town - me, Bec MacPherson, Clarke Johnstone and Lizzy Brown
The West End is a bustling, bright and exciting place, which makes it the complete opposite of Dorset. On a balmy summer’s evening it was a great spot to be. Apart from riding my horse and winning some English ribbons, this is what I had come to England for. Now would be a good time to confess that I like The Lion King a lot, so this was a pretty exciting experience for me. It is a fantastic show and it’s amazing how, with only a little effort, people can do a fair impression of most animals, and for two and a half hours I was transfixed by the all singing, all dancing African safari that was going on in front of me.

While the show was exceptional, the same can’t be said of the climate inside the theatre. For some reason England hasn’t cottoned onto the magic of air conditioning, and after a 30 degree day the theatre was a almost hot enough to bake a cake. By the end of the show it was so warm that it genuinely felt like we were in the African desert with Elton John singing show tunes to us. But as we slushed our way outside, sweat filling our shoes, there was only one thing to say.

Hakuna matata.

Bec and Clarke sweat it out in the theatre

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Debut appearance - Wilton Horse Trials

It has been a long time between drinks on the blog and I have to admit I’ve been getting itchy fingers. There’s a lot to report on here in England and I’m pleased to say that we’ve been busy little badgers over the last few days.

Since we all missed out on a start at Zara and Mike’s wedding the weekend was all about eventing. Mind you, some people that did get invited to the wedding still managed to go eventing over the same weekend, showing that stupidity among horse riders is a universal trait. Anyhow, after a week and a bit here my royal connections still aren’t that strong so we had to focus on the event at Wilton, which is one of the closer events to Sam and Lucy’s place here in Dorset.

It was a genuine one day one day event which left me all of Saturday to worry about whether my riding gear would arrive to me before I went to the competition. 134 unanswered calls to the freight company later and I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be picking it up that day. Riding in borrowed gear has become my trademark this year and I’m beginning to wonder how much you could save if you sold the lot and just pilfered what you need from your friends.

Lucy goes above and beyond the call of duty plaiting Tiger's tail
I mightn’t have had a win with the gear but at least I found some willing takers to plait my horse. Thanks to all those people who sent me messages offering to plait Tiger for the cost of the airfare to get here, but I have to admit I have an eye for a good deal and I’m not sure if that is one. Far cheaper to play the useless male card on the army of delightful young ladies that work for Sam and Lucy. It’s a trick that never gets tired and I was stoked to wander into the barn on Saturday night to find a grooming league of nations attacking his mane. It’s great to know that whatever language you speak wherever you are in the world, the helpless man in need of assistance remains a powerful tool.

After lending their staff to plait our horses, Sam and Lucy may have wondered what sort of deal they’d struck for themselves when they found themselves driving both their trucks to the event at six in the morning despite Sam only having two horses competing. With Burto riding four and Tiger tagging along, we’d commandeered Sam’s truck for ourselves and forced him to drive it. They’re a couple of saints however and it didn’t seem to phase them one bit.

Wilton is not the flashest event in England but with a giant manor house (castle) in the background of the dressage photos it does stand out from the events back home. Mind you, there was about as much flat ground in the warm up for dressage as you’d find on a Himalayan mountain top, and the single patch that was available was prize real estate throughout the day. As a recent import from Australia I stuck to the hillsides, and it struck me for a second that I’d never read about this in the propaganda extolling the virtues of British eventing.
Tiger and I ride dressage in front of the manor house.
Photo courtesy of Samantha Clark

Here in England only the biggest of the big kids get a full size arena, so for the first time since I was eight I got to ride in a 40 x 20. This is an experience in itself but it sure is hard to get away with anything – you’re so close to the judge the whole time it feels like you’re doing dressage on the bonnet of their car. Dressage judge’s often don’t have the best eyesight so the 40 x 20 must have been developed with them in mind. The best thing is that with such a little box to play in you’re in, around and out in no time and off to do the fun stuff.

The big difference with eventing in the UK is that even at your average event there is a crowd and an atmosphere that we find hard to replicate in Australia. Trade stands, food vans and beer and Pimms tents all add to the vibe and have the ability to make a good show into a great one. With all these distractions you could almost fail to notice that you’re showjumping in the Alps too. Of course, the Earl of Pembroke has better things to do with his time than sit on some heavy machinery to flatten out the showjumping arena, and even if it was a little up and down it was still a beautiful spot surrounded by oak trees and a fair crowd.

Tiger and I over the second last.
Photo courtesy of Samantha Clark
Only 20 minutes after my showjumping and an hour and a half after my dressage I was out galloping around the Earl’s paddocks. While Burto and I thought the going on course was good, there was a fair bit of talk among the locals about how hard it was. In a solemn ceremony Burto and I took a moment to promise ourselves that we would never forget our roots and what genuinely hard ground feels like. It mightn’t have been the biggest cross-country course in England but it suited me perfectly, and with a fair hill and two water jumps it was a good run to have. At first glance the course had looked reasonably innocuous but if claimed its fair share of scalps and one or two well known Aussie riders failed to make the finish flags.

It had been a fun day of eventing in beautiful, even hot weather. I’d manage to keep Tiger off the truck for most of the day, which means that despite the fact that I wore a back number in dressage and a jockey silk on my head in the showjumping, I’m not a naturalized Englishman yet. The fact that we finished the day with a warm Fosters in the beer tent means something, but I’m not sure what.

It’s a scary thought.