University sport usually involves – in no particular order – alcohol, a lack of organisation, hangovers, deadline-dodging, occasional training and rivalry the likes of which could challenge the Yes v No factions of the Scottish independence debate. Throw in a horse or two and what do you get? BUCS riding, an often-overlooked branch of the equestrian world which allows students to ride and compete throughout our university careers.
I’ve spent the last nine months competing for St Andrews University and was thrown in at the deep end as the youngest of four ‘A’ team members – Kirsty Winkle, Hannah Watson, Pip Halpin & myself – in my first year. Coming from a showjumping background I had the frankly shocking task of dropping my stirrups and learning how to ride a dressage test. Never in the history of equestrianism has a five metre loop caused so much stress. Nonetheless I’m now a convert and have even purchased some tweed for next year in an attempt to disguise my murky past and blend in with the eventers.
BUCS (British Universities & Colleges Sport) rules are obscenely complicated and understanding them requires a degree in itself. Riders turn up to a yard. It is, without fail, cold. Said riders sit in the car for longer than is strictly necessary, debating the importance of extremities – such as fingers – versus the potential for winning a small rosette. Being riders the hypnotic lure of ribbon and cardboard wins out and we decamp indoors to what has been designated operations HQ for the day. If we’re lucky there might be a radiator. And some Kitkats. Half an hour after the scheduled time we draw for the dressage test: four horses ridden four times by one rider from each team. Best percentage scores zero penalties and, using their test as a benchmark, the remaining riders are given the difference between the winning test and their test in penalties.
At this point it is worth mentioning that your idea of a dressage horse is probably a bit different to mine. During the course of the year I’ve tried to coax flexion out of a thirteen hand cob, a scatty thoroughbred and what I still to this day believe to have been a giraffe masquerading as a new forest pony. Although our mounts can occasionally be less than ideal, team spirit perseveres and you can always laugh about it on the way home. Plus: the more you have to kick the warmer you become, thus warding off frostbite. It’s a win-win situation.
Once the scores are collated and relevant unnecessary & unrelated complaints lodged we move on to the wall-of-certain-death, or showjumping, phase. At this point another four horses are demonstrated over courses beyond your wildest dreams which would send a British Showjumping judge through a kaleidoscope of emotions. We’ve found it’s best to avoid walking distances, preferring the if-in-doubt-take-one-out school of thinking alongside the close-your-eyes-and-pray-the-surface-is-soft method. Thus far this has treated us surprisingly kindly and we tend to pull it out of the bag, thanks in no small part to the quality of training afforded to us by our showjumping-centric coaches. In this phase marks are awarded out of ten for your style over each fence, with a refusal or pole meaning an automatic deduction of five or ten marks respectively. The same scoring system is then applied to leave the top rider on each horse with a score of zero and the others with penalties relative to the difference in scores. Then you wap out the calculators, shiftily triple-check the scores which have already been painstakingly triple-checked by whichever poor dear is on marks duty and shuffle about a bit until the host team appears with some frilly bits of cardboard. Then it’s back to the car and quick recce on finger damage before our uncanny ability to home in on the nearest McDonalds kicks in. Athletes must eat like champions after all.
Despite the struggles, hilarity and navigational fails which are the hallmark of our team, there are occasional glimpses of brilliance which have propelled us to the dizzy heights of the regional and, incredibly, national finals – an unforgettable experience which I’ll treasure during the training sessions when my core strength gives up the ghost and any semblance of sitting trot become a distant memory. I’ll fill you in on our adventures south of the border next time. They involve a minibus called Mickey and accidental Morris dancing. Get excited.