Sunday, 4 November 2018

Showjumping - Hartpury 2018

This post is about my showjumping class at the RDA National Championships 2018. I was going to group all the classes together but showjumping was such a trial that it merited its own post! Read on to find out how I got on...

Regional Qualifier
If the dressage was on a bit of a wing and a prayer, the jumping class was plain ridiculous. I was entered into Level 4 Showjumping - 70cm course with 9 jumps altogether (two doubles, so 7 fences but 9 jumping efforts). My experience at this level consisted of one session with my coach and the regional showjumping coach, which had been partly to sign off my coach as capable of coaching this standard (which of course she was, no problem) and partly for me to have a go at it and then film me doing the whole course, which would count as my regional qualifying round.
From the training session - I have no idea why I had the giggles but you can tell from my fashionable attire that it was hot, hot, hot!
Previously I had completed longer courses at a lower height (65cm - and those 5cm make all the difference) but this course did feel rather big. It was a burningly hot day too and both Rolo and I were struggling a bit in the heat. The crowning moment came when I did a spectacular cartwheel dismount over the fourth fence, which resulted in some impressive bruising and a torn meniscus (fortunately not felt until a few days later!), and also in me learning a very valuable lesson about the importance of not taking off for a jump until your horse does.

It isn't easy to see, but if you look closely in the red circle you will see my little booted legs up in the air...
Anyway, I survived the qualification, just about, but I had real doubts over my ability to compete at that level at Hartpury. I had thought that I had Level 3 as a back-up - I had won that as Class Champion in 2017 and RDA rules had always allowed for the Class Champion to qualify automatically for the same class the next year. It wasn't until after the Level 3 jumpers had qualified that I realised that this rule had been changed for 2018, so I'd have to enter Level 4 or nothing. I needed to man up a bit!

'Preparation' for Nationals
To be honest, I didn't feel confident about doing the jumping at all, and the only horse I would have contemplated doing it with was Rolo. However, as already mentioned, he wasn't really sound. With the various illness/lameness problems we were having, it was hard for us all to get our rides in, especially with so much to prepare for. I looked at booking some private lessons but the only ones with instructors qualified for jumping were booked up completely until long after Hartpury.

So it was that on Wednesday - the day before we drove to Hartpury, and just two days before the showjumping class - I had my first ever jumping lesson on Danny. Gillian had kindly managed to get the arena and some jumps out for us and had given up her morning to help me and a few other riders. I was not confident about jumping Danny, to be honest. I'd ridden him only a few times and always on the flat, but I had seen him get really strong even when it was just poles around, let alone jumps. 
Riding Danny in the presence of poles...eek!
On that Wednesday, though, he was actually very good. We didn't attempt anything like the complexity or height of course that we would have to do at Hartpury - Gillian astutely decided that some confidence-building was more what I needed than anything else - but he was well-behaved. He didn't rush into the jumps and popped them nicely. I was reassured - reassured enough to feel that Friday was, at the very least, a vaguely attackable prospect.

On the day...
It's a good job I had that feeling because otherwise I don't think I'd have slept a wink for two nights. I had expected that Danny might feel a bit different at a competition venue, and I wasn't wrong. He was hyped! We went into the warm-up and I attempted the jumps. He was feeling very strong and flew over them. I realised I just couldn't control him with one hand, so I stuck my left hand into the bar reins and tried my best with both arms. To be honest, I don't think it curbed his enthusiasm at all but it made me feel a bit safer! He also had a martingale on for a bit of extra control and to give me another strap to clutch!

I was therefore feeling exceptionally unwell when Gillian called me over with Chris (another rider from our group, who was riding his own horse, Quintus) so that we could go and walk the course. The showjumping is held in the large international arena which is a lovely space to be in and it feels very special to ride there. On the other hand, it has a strange acoustic for the horses and there is lots going on all around. The jumps for Level 4 are very spread out so we'd have to be comfortable with basically the whole arena. The one, massive comfort was that they weren't very big. I don't think any of the jumps was at full height and the spreads in particular were quite low. It didn't make a huge amount of difference to how sick I felt, but it probably eased my heartrate a few pips (I'm in the photo below, on the left hand side with my purple crutch and Gillian!).

We went back to the warm-up and I prepared, as best I could, for the off. From the collecting ring/warm-up arena, there is a little walk down a sandy path to reach the big building of the international arena. Before riding into the arena proper there is a much smaller arena - maybe about 20x30m - that I used to try and pretend to Danny that I wasn't terrified at all. He walked out nicely on a long rein and I tried to stop myself from shaking, and to swallow down all the nervous vomit!
Helen, one of our wonderful volunteers, was at hand at this point, as well as Gillian. Helen has ridden Danny herself and is a huge comfort to me in times like these - she is such a good horsewoman and she also understands me really well, but manages to make this known without annoying me even when I'm really nervous, like other people can do! We were waiting at the entrance to the mini tunnel for the main arena, and Helen put her hand on my leg, looked at me and just said, "Stop thinking!"
Helen and Laurie at Hartpury. I was in this photo but looked hideous so I cropped it!
"I'm thinking about how nice it'll feel when it's over!" I replied, honestly. I couldn't wait. I had one goal: don't get eliminated. In jumping, there are a few ways in which you can get eliminated, of which the main ones are falling off, having three refusals or run outs, going the wrong way, or otherwise being an eejit. I thought that the most likely scenario was me falling off. When I say this, I don't just mean, the most likely way of me being eliminated. I genuinely thought it was more likely that I would fall off than I would stay on.
My turn...
Finally the rider before me came out and it was my turn to ride in. You never quite know how a horse is going to respond to a new arena. He had been for a little walk around it earlier, but that was before they put all the jumps up, before the judge and photographer were there, and before the spectators had gathered. Taking Boysie into that arena two years before had been quite sweet - he walked in quietly but reasonably confidently, but as I turned him around to see the banks of seating I felt him stiffen, plant his hooves and roll his eyes back at me, as if to say, "What on EARTH are they all doing there? You can't SERIOUSLY expect me to go near them?!"
With Boysie in 2016
We walked towards the judge. I felt extremely sick. I saluted, and the judge nodded back. We went off to trot around the edge, waiting for the judge to ring the bell to signify that we could ride to the start and begin. I had another look at the jumps near us and tried to communicate to Danny that I really wanted him to listen to me and look after me - without wanting to sound like I needed him to do so!
As soon as we turned and picked up trot, I felt a bit better. I'm sure most people find this - once you've actually embarked upon whatever task it is that has been so daunting, you can stop worrying about how or whether you will do it, and simply get on with doing it. The bell rang and I thought, "Right. Here we go." We picked up canter and headed for the start.

Blow by blow account!
The first jump was fine. Danny felt very fast and strong, so I remembered what Gillian had told me - "I'm not bothered about you cantering him the whole way round. I'd rather you were in control and you made him listen, and spent time in trot, than just let him charge you around." We went back to trot and made our way, reasonably calmly, towards the diagonal line which had the second and third jumps. They were both OK too. We were even OK to canter the related distance between them without getting legs in a muddle!
He cleared both fences easily and it was time to head round to the fourth. After the fourth fence I distinctly remember thinking, “This is hell. And I’m not even halfway through yet.” By this point I could hear my breathing becoming more and more ragged. I was physically exhausted and probably holding my breath!
The fifth and sixth jumps were part of a double, so they did at least have the good grace to go quite quickly. We jumped the fifth almost from a trot – it was right by the entrance to the arena and I could sense Danny’s concentration going. I have a great photo of that one – me looking like I was about to throw up, and Helen looking at me as if she had seen into my future and glimpsed only imminent death. The sixth was better but I was mostly concentrating on the seventh. It was on a bit of a curve, and had been pointed out to me in the course walk as ‘the spooky fence’ because of its filler. Fortunately Danny wasn’t fazed by it and we had just two fences left.
Helen's face (top right) is a picture...
Between fence 7 and fence 8 we had a minor altercation with the wall of the arena as I attempted to regain some control of Danny and he attempted to regain some control of me. Although it felt like I was dancing on the spot with him, the video suggests that this moment was magnified in my mind and soon we were pointing at the penultimate fence: the planks. He cleared that no trouble and so it was just one fence left. This last one he jumped nicely and I rode through the finish markers with a huge sigh of relief.
I wasn't joking about the sigh of relief. You could've seen it from space.
Nobody applauded – my mum later said that everyone had felt so tense watching us that they weren’t sure if doing so would set him off like a rocket – and I actually heard all the spectators breathe out with me when I let Danny have a long rein and he walked out as calmly and meekly as a lamb.
For the first ten minutes or so after the round I was still shaking, and I was still vowing that never again would I attempt anything quite so foolhardy as jumping a horse I didn’t know well and who, to be honest, I was a bit afraid of, at the National Championships, around a course I didn’t feel I was capable of. Of course, it only took another ten minutes or so for me to calm down more and start thinking about what I could have done differently to have done better, or what I might try and work on for next year.
It wasn’t until quite a lot later on in the day, when someone pointed it out to me, that I realised we’d had a clear round. Having been focussed merely on survival, I hadn’t thought about anything else, and since the round had been so disjointed (with so much trotting and the odd moment of piaffe) I hadn’t really thought about it in that way. I can’t say it made me feel any better about the whole shebang but it was nice to think about. Dear old Danny had certainly jumped well for me and, whilst being very keen, had been bold and jumped everything that he was pointed at.
The result was one that I am proud of. We came third, and I was thrilled.
The judge gave me my rosette and asked, "Did you enjoy it?" My answer was as honest as I could make it: "I enjoyed it after it was finished..."
The upshot of the whole ordeal
My showjumping round at Hartpury this year was a really great result for me as a rider. It’s very rare for me to get nervous before competing – usually I’m so focussed on what I have to do and the fact that I enjoy what I do that I love the actual thing and just get nervous about the scores – but I don’t mind admitting that I was incredibly nervous for this one. Gillian realised how nervous I was and had already told me that I didn’t have to do it – that ‘nobody would think any the less of you’ if I backed out and didn’t want to ride Danny. She meant it, I know, but I think she also knew that I would think less of me if I wimped out.
Being this nervous gave me an opportunity to put into practice all the things that I know I should be able to do, both physically and mentally. It gave me a renewed appreciation of the strength of character of those who get nervous frequently, yet still do what they do. It’s a cliché but it’s true that courage isn’t about never being afraid, but about what you do in the face of fear. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was afraid of doing this competition – even though, when I watch the video of it, I look a whole lot more competent than I felt! I’d had so little preparation and the preparation I had had (particularly the big fall and the injuries) hadn’t been particularly promising.
I’m glad that I didn’t back out of competing and that I got a lovely shiny yellow rosette for my trouble. Most of all, I’m glad that I proved to myself that, whilst I may not be fearless, I don’t fall apart in the face of fear. I learned a lot about myself in this year’s showjumping round. I hope to remember and live up to it.
 Thank you RDA!

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