Getting to 40

It’s a year from my first post, which means that I’m about to hit 40 and the end of my #80by40 challenge to myself to get out Eventing before my 40th birthday, starting out at British Eventing’s training level. My new-found horse Max had been out on the Eventing field before, but for me it was a long-held dream! We did it – we went to three horse trials in all, two BE and an unaffiliated training Event, and despite somewhat mixed results, we made a fairly positive start, and that for me was the main point – not getting it done and dusted and moving on, but proving to myself that this dream was achievable; the goal of doing it by now was based on the idea of a normal Eventing season, and we’d have kicked off in July having done lots of training.

Training at Poplar Park, July 2020

And then – well, you know. There were the added complications of minor injury and gastric issues for Max, so a good part of the first five months of this year were spent bringing him back into work, especially in a more considered way after my lockdown and his recuperation. I’m so grateful to everyone who helped me to draw up a programme of in-hand walking and a slow return to ridden work – Max has been as fit as ever through the rest of this year, and I’ve gained a lot of satisfaction from seeing that programme come together, so that we could embark on training once it was permitted before finally reaching the first dressage test at Little Downham in September.

Max doing his favourite thing – eating!

The last six years have contained some extreme challenges for me on a personal level, and throughout them all I’ve known that I wanted to make something positive from it all and to pursue my riding aspirations. More than just getting out of the house, there was a new community of friends and people who took my dreams seriously, and offered opportunities to help me advance, from friends offering their horses for hacking and hacking friends, some extremely patient riding instructors(!) and new friends made at Events and via social media channels and gave a hand up and welcomed me into this new world.

My favourite view from the yard, towards the Thames

There are so many people it wouldn’t be fair to name some (and I’d be bound to forget someone) but a huge amount of credit must go to all of the people at Runningwell Equestrian Centre where I got back on board about four years ago, and who have given me so much to think about, practical experience (I’m not too proud to attack a much heap!) and who now provide an excellent home for Max. I can honestly say that it’s a very happy place for me, and even when things have been difficult elsewhere – and boy, it’s a long list! – I’ve found so much to keep me going and I’m immensely grateful. I think that they’ve done pretty well out of it on the cake front, too…

Dressage in the rain – after our test, October 2020

I’d meant to get a review of our last (soggy) run at Little Downham out before this post, but life has been a bit busier than expected with work and trying to fit in things around that. It’s been an odd first Eventing season, but I’m really looking forward to the next one. Thanks for joining us on the #80by40 journey; perhaps in a different year it would have been more exciting, but I’ve enjoyed every minute. It’s a shame that it’s been nigh-on impossible to share the experiences with people in real time, but there’ll be other times for that, and the main thing has been the thrill and challenge of getting to know Max better, so here’s to what lies ahead and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

James (aged 39 yrs and 364 days) x

Another superb view from the yard, and Max.

E is for…

Eventing – of course! That’s what we’re here for… and Eventually writing up my blog post! I really will try harder to get the posts up sooner, but at the moment work and life take up the non-Eventing time and I forget.

This is really a late reflection on our experience at Munstead on Saturday 19 September – our first British Eventing 80(T) Event, and the point where I finally reached my goal of eventing before my 40th birthday. It was a genuine experience with highs and lows ultimately culminating in another ‘E’, more of which later.

E is for Experience – we aimed at this competiton, we went and did our best for a first, slightly nervy, outing. Despite the restrictions due the pandemic it was fun, although like conducting at a concert I rarely enjoy the experience at the time, reliving the best bits afterwards. It wasn’t a surprise to be slightly nervous and tense in the Dressage with less time to warm up than I would have liked, but we scored 37.8 – a little way behind the leaders but not a total disgrace. (Remembering the tests is a bit of a challenge for me, especially as the main points run from A followed by E, then C, and B after that, which makes visualising the order of the movements occasionally difficult.) The rest of the day went as I’d planned for: course walk of the XC, planning routes and spotting possible challenges, checking out the showjumping course and finding out where people were running into trouble. The warm up wasn’t ideal for Max – with five jumps and 10 riders in, it was tricky to approach every jump on a decent turn to prevent him just running at each one but learning how to deal with him in the warm up, ‘awake but not tired’ as another competitor’s Mum put it was part of another aspect of the Event: E for Education. We were there to compete and I was there to learn: Max is an old hand at this after all.

The final phase was what I was most looking forward to, despite some challenges that I felt we’d meet out on the course, including a daunting-looking owl hole and a confusing route through several different jumps from the other classes. Sadly, we only made it a fifth of the way around: having had a good run out of the start box and good jumps over the first two, Max refused at the third fence – a big-looking chair in dark wood. The light was starting to go, so perhaps he struggled to read it, and after a discretionary third attempt and an encouraging ‘You can do it!’ from the fence judge, we were over. We didn’t quite have a good feeling towards the fourth and although I thought Max would find it no more challenging than an identical fence in the warm up we had two refusals. The fence judge checked to see if we could carry on but that was that under the rules so we reached another E – one that now sits on my BE record: Eliminated. If nothing else, we had a representative day out on the field – it wasn’t a magic clear with a flukey easy ride. We didn’t fall so it felt disappointing more than anything – at least we were spared a long walk home, and we were both fit and good to go another day.

And that takes us neatly to another E – for Ely, when we’ll have another crack at a ODE at Little Downham on Saturday (3 October). I’ll try to get writing up sooner next time – watch this space for news of how we get on at our last Event of the season; it must mean that there’s a birthday looming…

Getting set for Munstead

We’re almost there – this week has seen the usual round of horse laundry, getting kit together, writing lists, and planning timings. It’s all good and makes the coming Event more real, especially when you get the email with your number and you start to become part of the whole thing.

Arranging all this around work, plus riding, and one or two extras like Max getting his back done has taken more planning than usual and I’m hugely grateful to a whole host of people who are lending help or bits of kit, driving me to collect the horse box, and all the things that will leave me with the ultimate task of piloting Max around the Dressage and SJ arenas, and the XC course which looks fun from the course map.

It’s all a little daunting, but we’re going to get out there and make the best of it, have fun, and hopefully bring back some great memories and details to write up here.

Thanks for reading – please share this with others who might be interested!

Putting our best feet forward

We’ve been Eventing! The training Event run at the superb Ely Eventing Centre at Little Downham was an excellent way to dip a hoof into the water and experience the pressure of riding in a show environment for the first time. Max is no stranger to Eventing, but as a combination it was our first go, and my first too. I’ve been to plenty of Dressage shows, attended One- and Three-Day Events, and I helped out at the last similar event at Ely, but this time it was me on board, and dealing with the extra things like judging how long to warm up for, whether we’d cope under scrutiny, and be able to focus in the test and jumping rounds.

The drive up was relatively stress-free, although a long stop at roadworks prompted impatient stamping from the horse area, with Max letting me know that if we were there he’d like the ramp down…! No such luck, but after a little longer we were there and the excitement of actually being at our first Event started to kick in.

I had expert help for the afternoon from Adrienne Devonish from Church House Farm Livery: she provided reassuring calm vibes, picked up some of the grooming jobs, and took lots of photo and video material. I love how the equestrian world is full of helpful people who go out of their way to offer advice, support, wish you luck, and make you feel part of a really encouraging community (even if in a competition they’re out to beat you!)

Our Dressage warm up was windy, and as it was my first ridden test ever, it was a little nervy and hurried, but the point of the day was for training, so we had a good debrief after the test (I managed to get all the movements in and in the right order, so that’s a start, no?!); with a little more control and confidence there are ‘higher marks to come’, which is encouraging – just need to make sure that I have a white tie in time for our first BE Event. After a walk of the surprisingly long course (given the relatively low height of the fences themselves), it was time for a change of outfits for us both, and we headed over to the Showjumping field.

The SJ warm up was – to put it politely – challenging: not so much the jumping around others and keeping out of their way, but more finding out which order we were going in, but it meant that there was the chance to watch a few people go ahead of me. In the warm up, Max was very strong and full of go – once we were in the arena itself things calmed down and despite one brief stop – I’m not sure that he’d spotted fence 3 – we cleared each fence and ridden a fairly efficient round without taking risks on the turns; the ducks on fence 2 didn’t cause any complaints, which was a relief, given what fusses the real things on the pond back home cause…

And then it was onto the part I’d been waiting 12 years for: a cross course as part of an Event. Again, Max started to get very excited about getting ready to go XC, but first there was a surprise encounter with his previous owner Claire, and her daughter. It was so lovely to see them and for them to see Max out and about a year since he came to me, and he was happy to see them too – I think he was probably still thinking about the course at the time though, as he established a solid reverse gear for the next few minutes!

A quick pop over some practice fences and into the start box we went – I’ve seen people go out before, but this was exciting to do for the first time, and we made a good start. A quick sort-out of long reins would have counted for a little loss of momentum, but we only had one real issue, at a long blue pipe in the middle of a field: a cheeky run-out got me out of the saddle, but as I was fine and kept hold of Max I remounted, as allowed by the Event rules, and we came to the fence again. We flew it, and moved on [having abandoned a fallen packet of polos] to more connected fences which he was much happier to see, and made fairly light work of the rest of the course – having taken care to work out as far as my novice eye could what we need to be aware of, and having taken decent lines to the fences; we wouldn’t have been hugely competitive as far as the time went, but I meant to get round and it was such a fantastic thing to experience something that I’ve wanted to do for so long. As quite a bit of my job, and my training with Max at home, is spent working in isolation, it came as a bit of a surprise just how isolated you can feel up on top of the horse, even when there are several hundred people in the same venue – without spectators or the tannoy rattling in the background, it is rather different.

And then it hit me – we’d actually put so much training together, a year of Max and me, so many lessons on different horses – so much still to learn of course – and we’d been out and done our ‘warm up’ Event, so the #80by40 challenge is still on: I turn 40 in November, and before then we will – all things being equal – be going Eventing under British Eventing rules, with our first BE outing being at Munstead on Saturday 19 September. Thank you for reading, and for your support so far – this is very much not the end of a journey, but the beginning. Who knows how far it will go, but I’m really excited to be able to be a part of a sport that I’ve loved – my school PE teachers would be shocked to hear those words coming from me – for just over a decade, and to actually be competing is (as cheesy as it sounds) a dream come true.

Nearly there!

Since my last post Max and I have been cracking on with our training, working out issues and trying to cement a partnership.

We’ve had success in clear round showjumping competitions at Runningwell EC (pictured) and have been out cross country schooling and jumping at home. All of these activities have shown how encouraging and supportive my trainers and the staff and liveries at Runningwell.

We’ve taken as many opportunities as we could to improve, working on basic paces, rider posture, awareness and planning, and here we are on the edge of our first One Day Event.

Back in July I went to volunteer at a training Event at Little Downham, near Ely, to see how things worked from the inside instead of being a spectator. It was good to be able to play a part in the running of an Event and it gave me lots of insight into what I would need to think about when competing.

Six weeks later, I’m heading back to Little Downham, this time with Max and we’ll be training. Although it’s a non-competitive Event it’s going to pose all of the same questions (albeit with a few different possible answers) and it will be my first time in both the dressage arena and on the XC course.

We’ve lots to learn (and Max has much to teach me), but it’s time to do that learning under competition conditions and I’m glad that we’ll be somewhere familiar.

News and photos to follow – keep following. Our first British Eventing-run Event is just a couple of weeks away, so this is quite a big part of our preparation, but we’ll try and have fun as we go!

Thanks to all who’ve helped us to get this far – wish us luck!

Juggling horses

Today was the day I’d earmarked for a first run at an affiliated Event, but one or two things put paid to that and so I decided that second best would be seeing things from a different angle, signing up to volunteer at a training event at Little Downham. I wasn’t riding and spectators aren’t allowed as such, and this was a great way to learn how an event is run, what you need to bear in mind through the day, what the stewards can help with and so on. As a first-time volunteer it was a bit daunting to be in charge of the showjumping warm ups, ensuring that the limits on numbers in each place were stuck to, getting riders into the warmup on time, accommodating the people who’d jumped and wanted to change for XC without going back to their lorry, keeping queuing riders in the loop… It all went remarkably well, with horses in five different places and deciphering riders’ self-produced (and in some cases beautifully handdrawn) numbers providing an extra challenge.

As a sop to the quickly-passing sadness not be riding (although a but jealous of everyone who was going XC), one thing that struck me was the huge number of thank yous and kind comments that came my way – there’s the secret: the volunteers might be on their feet for 8 hours and your encounter with them might only run to 10 minutes, but those appreciative comments and smiles make all the pressured things easier to work through. The low-key atmosphere of the event meant that people had more time to talk, hopefully putting them at ease or keeping minds from racing. I didn’t expect any praise – after all, I wasjust following my instructions and could always fall back on a smiling appeal to current restrictions because of you-know-what – but it did make me aware of how much I’ll be looking for guidance and reassurance from the stewards, fence judges, and all those who make these things run.

I did enjoy being party to the staff comments over the walkie-talkies, and working on my own meant that they were a welcome connection to the staff around the event. Having ticked two boxes in the list of spectator-volunteer-rider, I can’t wait to get to the third – Max and I hope to be out there before the season’s end, with great respect for the volunteers and ready for my turn to say ‘I don’t envy you your job!’

Today and tomorrow

Today Max is 17 – he’s officially been 17 since January 1, but today is his actual birthday. As we’re on an alternate-days pattern at the yard I won’t see him until tomorrow, but he won’t be terribly worried about that; extra carrots for breakfast are good – who cares who put them in your feed bowl?

We should have been in the middle of training for our competition plans now, but it seemed fairly clear from the start of lockdown that there wasn’t going to be much chance of our having our planned outings, so we’ve both had some time off and Max feels all the better for it, which is really good to see.

Now we’re back to very basic work to get him fit again, taking things slowly and enjoying the chance to bond and we’ll see what training opportunities will be available when we’re ready for them.

Today’s a sunny day and there’ll be plenty of carrots, grass, sunshine, and fuss from the yard staff – happy birthday Max!

Lockdown life – how are you coping?

Almost everything you read at the moment begins ‘in these unprecedented times…’ and they certainly are; everyone can remember a time when they couldn’t do what everyone was else was doing: FOMO (or Fear Of Missing Out) is what drives a lot of advertising now. In these unpr- frankly odd times, we’re all missing out: I’m not riding (but I know that Max is getting great care, lots of time in the field, and as much hay as he can eat), much less Eventing, and I’m not even allowed to go in to the Chelmsford Cathedral (where I work) to play the organ there.

It’s a good time to have a think about my basic priorities for riding and the drastically different year that Max and I will (eventually) have – perhaps our first Event will be Poplar Park after all! I’m enjoying Charlotte Dujardin’s autobiography – don’t get me wrong, I know just what the gulf between our riding is – and am going to read up on mindset improvement too; it’s all very inspiring stuff.

The chance to read and think, and listen to music more than usual has been good – as I’ve said before, don’t waste a crisis – and although I’m desperate to use this free time from work to get on and ride, I hope that the me that emerges at the end of this lockdown will be a more prepared, relaxed, and enthusiastic me. Do you think that this will change you? How are you coping day-to-day? I’d love to hear your thoughts and strategies for coping with all this time!

Stay safe.

James x

Plans on hold

As of last night (16 March) British Eventing (BE) fixtures are cancelled until further notice. The importance of public health measures is paramount and other things need to take a back seat for now – the board of BE have undoubtedly done the right thing.

For the people whose business this is, either as riders, organisers, staff, or running trade stands it’s going to be a very hard year; for the spectators and the BE volunteers it’s going to be frustrating to say the least.

For me and the lovely Max it means a delay to his return to/ my debut on the Eventing field, which is extremely disappointing and frustrating, and the uncertainty around the current situation is making it hard to see just what will be possible this year – even travelling to training venues may not be possible.

We’ll stay working and doing what training we can and keep you updated with our plans as they evolve, but it’s possible I might need to delay my birthday until after the 2021 season: 80by41 just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Things are looking up

We’re coming to the end of a slow period for Max and me, and looking forward to better weather for us both, turnout for him, and lighter evenings to allow us to train more consistently.

I’m starting to make plans for our first outings over XC fences, prior to our planned affiliated competition(s) in the Summer; there’s a lot to learn, tons of training to be fitted in, and some extra financial juggling to do but I’m feeling really encouraged by the people around me: the yard staff and other liveries, friends who want to come and watch, competitors at last weekend’s BE80 at Poplar Park, and my coaches, who are all inspiring and supportive.

The Eventing world is full of superb elite athletes, and those who are ‘naturals’ or have being riding and competing for years, as well as the newbies and nervous, and there is so much positivity and encouragement out there that it makes the slow and frustrating times bearable.

In the last 9 years from first seeing riders go around Gatcombe and meeting Eventing legends I’ve loved the sport and hoped to join in, but it seemed so remote; not once has anyone said ‘this isn’t for you’ and I’m grateful for the encouragement when it’s a daunting world to join (even at the shallow end). These are dreams I thought I’d never realise and we’re not there yet, but I’m feeling hugely positive about the possibilities in front of us. Here’s to the challenge! #80by40