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.

Hamish

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Burghley

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.

Oops.

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.