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  • Writer's pictureHannah Craft

Operation “Stop Falling Off” (also known as THE PLAN) Phase 1

As some of you know, I have had significant difficulty staying in the saddle lately…the magnetic pull of the ground has surely been turned up to max power by the eventing gods.

After two consecutive eliminations cross country, I was feeling rather deflated.

First Husband had all of the answers: “You should just stay on, instead of falling off.”

Wise words, for which I thanked him by offering to cook dinner that night. I left it in the oven for twice its recommended cooking time, which is precisely the time it takes to cremate a quiche without causing an actual fire hazard. It’s a real sweet spot.

Anyway, that cheered me up a bit, so I sat down the next day and began to form the skeleton of a plan to boost mine and Sid’s confidence and put the smile back on our faces out eventing.

Phase 1 of THE PLAN was a combined training at our local venue, Rectory Farm.

Well, Sid felt unusually supple for the dressage, and was smashing it. I began to feel quite Charlotte, until he stumbled in the middle of a canter circle and broke to trot, leaving me flustered and riding the next few movements like a complete plonker.

I calmed down and finished the test fairly nicely, but I walked out of the white rectangle of pain feeling glum. Imagine my surprise when the scores were posted and we were on 28.5! 10 penalty points less than our score for the same test at Tweseldown a few days before. Maybe this time my pained smile worked some magic on the judge.

It completely gives me hope (and I am such an optimist as you know) that we may one day crack the 30 barrier at a BE event, because if you plotted our marks on a graph the line would be a fairly accurate U-shape (4 for the stumble, oops!)

We headed to the showjumping, but Sid felt noticeably lacklustre. We entered the arena and the buzzer went, but we were doing our best impression of my trailer when I hitch up and try to drive off with the handbrake still on. I have broken many a safety cable through sheer idiocy in this manner.

It felt like a neverending round, and I had a consistent bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.

This culminated in Sid jumping very hesitantly into the first part of a one-stride double and then not quite being able to jump out. He slammed on the brakes.

I represented and he popped the final few jumps, and we exited the arena with 12 penalties (2 poles and our stop). Whilst I was still in the saddle (good), I felt like such a failure (not good). Only a few weeks ago in the same arena we had jumped a lovely, comfortable clear.

I was rather upset that I had “broken” my horse.

Given our joint lack of confidence, I decided to drop us down to 90 at the unaffiliated event we were entered into the following weekend at Tweseldown. The goal was to give him a confidence-building run.

The night before I was roped into a few too many G&Ts and a late-night hot tub session (not as romantic/risqué as it might sound, because we were joined in all of this by FH’s dad and his wife, who were visiting us for the weekend).

On that note, OH MY GOODNESS it is terrifying seeing FH and his dad sat side by side unconsciously mirroring each other, with their right legs crossed over their knees. I have seen into the future, and all I can say is: I am so glad that I will be swapping him out when he approaches his “best before” date.

PS. if you are reading this FH I am so sorry, I love you very much, please don’t turn into your dad.

Rolling out of bed at 6am the next morning, I cursed as I realised I would not have enough time to stop by McDs for my usual pre-eventing breakfast. In fact, I had no time for cursing either, as I had yet to plait Sid/load my car/wash his legs/hitch up the trailer etc. and I was scheduled to be leaving my yard at 7am.

Working as if I was in one of those ridiculous video montages that has been sped up for comic effect, and utilising all of the skills I learnt on a recent “getting stuff done” course that my boss sent me on (it feels like he’s trying to tell me something…), I managed to leave the yard at 7:30am with a slightly dazed Sid.

We arrived at Tweseldown and I raced around to get my horse studded and ready in record time. I threw myself into the saddle and headed over to the dressage, to be told that they were running ahead of time (which would usually be perfect but NOT TODAY). After a short-but-sweet warm up, we headed over to attempt a test.

Sid was trying really hard for me, god love him, but I was a little all over the place, resulting in some rather inaccurate lines. Some would call it “artistic licence” (unfortunately not dressage judges, though).

However, Sid did what I can only describe as a bit of a flawless halt to get a 9!

Our first ever 9 (and probably our last ever 9, let’s be honest) but I have cut that section of my test sheet up and am going to frame it for posterity. Some really nice comments and marks for Sid’s paces and willingness led to a score of 30.8, which is nothing short of a miracle, given my piloting or lack thereof.

We then had a long break until we got to jump, so I tied Sid up and went in search of food. Halfway along this journey, the heavens opened. I had, of course, left most of my belongings uncovered and next to my trailer.

I quickly dashed back, where I threw my already-soaked stuff (and Sid) onto the trailer with more abandon than was probably necessary given its state of saturation.

Leaving Sid to dry off, I went for a nice long course walk in the rain. To my horror, I came across fence two. Not a problem in itself, but it was right alongside a huge trakhener in the hedge line! This will cause me a problem, I thought (ever the optimist).

They had also moved the 90 hanging log in front of the first water to a location between two trees, which was where the 100 jump was that Sid stopped at a few weeks earlier. He was too busy tree-gazing and didn’t realise we were a few feet from the jump. Awkward.

The second water had a triple brush on the way out that was right up against the secretary’s marquee.

By the end of the course walk, I was uncomfortably damp, and I actually thought I might have had more luck doing the 100!

That was not an option, though, so I resigned myself to getting through the showjumping and then seeing how he felt cross country. On the plus side, the ground felt softer (in case of emergency landing).

We tacked up and plodded over to the showjumping warm up for “the fun part”. It always tickles me when the dressage steward says that as you walk away after your test.

To be honest though (and more positive, because I feel like balance is important), Sid felt quite comfortable warming up. The course looked pretty small (makes sense – 90cm is smaller than 100cm) and I headed into the arena with slightly less nausea than normal.

Sid was rather terrified of the gazebos dotted around the edge of the arena, because of course he has encountered several very dangerous gazebos in a past life, but we picked up canter and headed for the first jump.

After a split second where I thought he was going to stop, he leapt over the first and we were off.

Although he wasn’t fighting me as much as normal (can’t work out whether schooling has started to pay off or if he is just generally less enthusiastic at the moment) he popped through the course, with only a slight hesitation over the first half of a red one-stride double (clearly he is not enamoured of red jumps at the moment).

I couldn’t believe it when we rattled the last but left it up – we had gone clear! I can count on my fingers the number of times we have done this, which is to say that it is not many times at all.

Feeling very proud of Sid, and like we had put our demons partially to bed, we jogged back to the trailer to boot and body protector up.

Thus armoured, but hoping not to need our protective gear for a change, we trudged over to the cross country warm up.

I reminded myself that we could do this. At least, we could try!

As I cantered round the practice jumps (and occasionally over one), I tried a new tactic of basically not stopping in the warm up. A plus of this approach is that I didn’t have too much time to think of all the things that could go wrong. A con of this approach is that I’m rather unfit and was a bit puffed out by the end!

However, it seemed to work reasonably well, and before I knew it I was being called over to the start box.

The starter was so lovely that I began a full confessional in my two minute wait time. I told him that I had fallen off a few weeks ago at this event but that I had come back to try and get round a slightly smaller course to get us back on track. He wished me the best of luck and counted us down, and it really made a difference for those final few seconds, knowing that someone believed I could do it (albeit with no prior knowledge of myself or my horse – blind faith, I think they call it) and that they were wishing me well and wanting me to succeed.

The fence judges I had spoken to on my rainy course walk had also all been so encouraging, which bolstered my spirit somewhat and calmed the nerves (and thank you so much to all of you).

I kicked on and Sid made light work of the first fence, so we headed to our first test at fence two.

Happily, Sid had spooked so much the 100m before the fence, at the slightly different coloured ground and at spectators, that I already had him in hand and was driving forwards, so it came as no surprise whatsoever and did not disturb my “bracing” seat when he shied away from the gap in the hedge and trakhener.

He finally saw the fence a few strides out and soared over, whilst I gave him a huge pat and spurred him on towards the next fence. This was a silver birch oxer, which he got a bit deep to, but jumped.

We then headed to the coffin combination, which he popped through just fine, and then we were over the logpile before I had really noticed it.

We headed over to the trees and I sat right back and squeezed. He was able to be a bit braver this time and jumped over the log and cantered through the dip in the ground (sans water) and then out over the house.

We galloped through the scrubland to get to the milk bottle table, which he made feel tiny (to be fair, the whole course was feeling very manageable size-wise).

We then came to the trailer, which was at the top of a fairly steep incline, but again Sid was not sweating it. I had told myself to give Sid lots of vocal encouragement and pats during the round, because I wanted him to really grow in confidence, and it turned out to be no problem at all, as he was so honest at each fence.

He was slightly spooky approaching the second water, but nevertheless threw himself into the water and then was very clever with his footwork out over the triple brush (I love a half stride).

Before I knew it we were over the second silver birch oxer, clear through the double in the little valley and over the dragon to finish!

Giving him the biggest of hugs, I dismounted around his neck and we walked back to the trailer with a huge grin on our faces. Sid looked rather proud of himself, and rightly so.

I knew that we had gone fairly slow as I wanted to cruise rather than push him and end up making a mistake, so it was no surprise to me that we had incurred 5.2 time penalties. Somehow, though, we managed to finish 7th! Our first one day event rosette, albeit an unaffiliated one!

First Husband likes to refer to it as a “record-breakingly expensive rosette” but the joke is on him because most of my horse-related purchases are ordered directly to my work office and he never knows about them. So he is massively underestimating the cost of that rosette. Take that, FH.

A successful Phase 1, then, and we are really looking forward to our 100 combined training at Rectory Farm on Tuesday, followed by heading back to one of our favourite hunting grounds, Chilham, next weekend to hopefully get that 90 MER so that we can move back up to 100 and crack on with our season. Bring on Phase 2………

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