This photo is from way back in the mists of time, Savernake Advanced, in 1999. The grey in the picture is my best ever horse, Skylarker (Doris), a wonderful Skyboy mare. I’d bought her as a show-jumper from Vere Phillips and turned her to eventing. She was smart and opinionated, and very difficult on the flat, but she was a freakishly brilliant jumper and utterly loved it, as shows in the pic, I think. Most of that long-ago weekend at beautiful Savernake Park is seared indelibly in my memory, even now, 15 years later.
1999 was the most ‘annus horribilis’ eventing has ever had. Five event riders died in the U.K. that year. Four of those were top level riders. It was also the year that BE had changed the penalty system so that 1 second over time on xc = 1 penalty, not 0.4 of a penalty. More than doubling the effect of being over the time – who is to know whether this contributed to any of the fatalities? At least one, I suspect. The penalties were changed back to 0.4 per second over the time after that season.
We had day-before dressage, and while we were warming up for our test there was an extremely long hold on the Novice xc course and the air ambulance was called. I clearly remember watching it take off and go over our heads, and recall sitting there, staring at it, concentration gone, sending devout prayers up to whoever was in it. I never really did get my focus back on the dressage after that.
This was the days before Social Media, so there was no wildfire news-sharing that night. On arrival back at the event early the next morning I saw a friend in the lorry park, who told me the terrible news, that Peta Beckett, who had been on the British Team the previous year, had, tragically, died. I didn’t know her but I’d seen her around at a few events and warmed up beside her at Tweseldown OI that spring, and she’d always been smiling and laughing. She had two young children.
They made the decision to carry on with the competition.
Half way through our SJ warm-up, they held a minute’s silence for Peta. It really brought home the risks we all take for the sport we love. I pulled myself together to show-jump, and we did a good round, except for at one big parallel right in front of the judge’s box, where I put her a little deep, a spot she never relished, and she just rubbed it out in front.
I couldn’t get my mind back in the game. I walked the xc again with my best friend, and told her how I planned to jump all the fences, but I really wasn’t in the mood. Fortunately she made me focus and get on with it, when my heart really wasn’t in it. It was a big enough track and needed respect and attack, not faffing around and half-heartedness. I intended to go all the direct routes.
We started well, all good over the first few fences, then had a bit of an eek moment at the serious bounce of logs to a skinny – I think the mare was a bit surprised at how big the logs were, she didn’t usually have to make much of an effort, even at Advanced level. Trying hard, she skewed a bit over the one coming out, and was very honest to jump the arm of the following skinny for me on an acute angle, as I wasn’t exactly in the best position at that point! A few more good jumps, then there was a fence with two options out, built in a bomb crater. Doris skewed dramatically down the drop after the first element for some reason, most unlike her, and I instantly abandoned my plan to go the direct route, a curving few strides through the bomb crater and out over a very skinny upright log (which someone who did it later described to me as “like jumping a flag”) instead going the longer route over a wider fence, safer but losing precious seconds. A few more fences went well, then we came down to the water: a house, few strides to a decent log drop into the water, then through the water and two big steps up on a bounce distance, one stride to a large flower bed skinny.
She jumped the house and log really well, and, as usual, trotted through the water. (She’d been over-bold as a Novice and I think I made a mistake in keeping her in trot too many times. Lesson learnt.) Knowing her very well, I let her stay in a good trot, but I’m sure the crowds wondered what on earth this numpty was doing, trying to come to two big Advanced steps from trot, let alone attempt the direct route out (which I was told only a few of us did all day, the others being top Pro riders.) But I knew my mare, and sure enough, she powered unhesitatingly up the steps, took one perfectly straight stride, and absolutely flew the flower bed. I said “good girl” and gave her a big pat in mid air, and we got a loud cheer from the big crowd, which put an even bigger smile on my face. I guess the crowds were shocked that the muppet who trotted through the water had just managed to do the direct route so well. It was an amazing feeling, I can feel it right now as I rerun the memory. This is why we do it.
The next few fences were fine, although we weren’t exactly copybook through the 90 degree angled brushes a couple of strides apart. Jumping into the second water she managed to spook at the pipe on the left bank carrying water in, which she saw in midair as we came over the fence, and which made for an interesting landing and cost us a few more seconds, but we carried on, clear all the way, and the photo is of the final fence. Bizarrely, it was the one I was most worried about on the whole course – a BIG wide parallel (no frangible pins in those days) and I thought I might fiddle to it and make a mess of it, but luckily I saw a really nice shot off the corner, we still had plenty of petrol in the tank, and she sailed it out of her stride and finished full of running. I should have gone faster, in retrospect, but I’d thought the hills might take more out of her than they did.
We got some time penalties, mainly due to the unplanned detour at the bomb crater, and either those or the fence down put us down into 6th place… if we’d SJed clear, or gone faster xc and avoided 5 time penalties (just 5 seconds!) we’d have won the section. I still kick myself for those two mistakes… my lovely generous Doris truly deserved that win, bless her, although I guess I probably didn’t.
My then-trainer had a good day to get a placing in the other Advanced class, on a horse he had totally retrained after the previous rider had blown its brains. I had witnessed my trainer having to dismount from this horse in the middle of a BD test when it reached meltdown point. He’d calmly done a circle and saluted the judge, got off, patted the horse, and led it out of the arena. Started again. He’d spent hours and hours patiently and meticulously rebuilding that horse’s confidence, in all phases. It looked fantastic, fit and well. They sailed round clear, after a good Dressage and SJ. On the way back to the horsebox park, after he’d dismounted, the horse collapsed and died of a heart attack. The owners, lovely people, were totally devastated, as was he.
There was no prize giving. The day was very subdued. I just collected my rosette and prize money from the Secretary, said my Thank Yous, fussed my horse, and started the long drive home. Savernake never ran again. I was told that it was because the landowner was so upset about the fatality that had happened on his land, that he could not bear it again. The repercussions of days like that are huge and far-reaching.
Words cannot express how unfair this sport of ours is. It is totally random, like life. Those of us who do it, who absolutely love it, who know that the feeling of riding a good horse cross-country and both getting it all right really is like nothing else on earth, also fully realise that that is a double-edged sword, and that at any moment our luck might run out, in spite of all the ‘safety measures’ introduced. It doesn’t always have to do with competence, as we all know. Better riders than most of us have died, and not necessarily because they made any mistake at all. We entrust our lives to our training of animals that are amazing athletes and generous, responsive partners, but which aren’t always bright enough to poo in a different corner to their water and food. A horse can misjudge a fence by an inch and that can be that. We all know this.
I love eventing with all my heart, and that was one of my best ever results, but it was a very tough weekend. Tough weekends keep coming, it’s the nature of our sport. There have been full rotational falls when a horse overjumped and didn’t even touch the fence, and also at show-jumps. Even if the powers that be made all the fences collapsible it wouldn’t totally eradicate the danger. Riders choose to do it. We know and accept the risks.
It’s utterly tragic. The loss of a good horse and two riders yesterday, two such bright stars as those two young men, makes me feel absolutely sick and numb with grief, so I cannot even begin to imagine what those nearest and dearest to them must be feeling this morning.
My very deepest most heartfelt condolences to all those who have lost loved ones to this sport.