Most event riders have a carefully planned routine for the day, or days, preceding an event. Some might run through their test a couple of times. Others may go for a quiet hack. A few will have a bit of jump. Me? The day before my first Intermediate of the season, I received a parking ticket, for parking outside my house, before I’d so much as had my breakfast. On my way to the yard, I proceeded to be given three points on my licence, a caution and a 100 pound fine. After my sorry return from this morning of criminal activity, I left the house with the kids and, as I shut the door behind me, I realised with a sinking feeling that I was in possession of two small children, numerous My Little Ponies, a small amount of baby vomit, no nappies and, fatefully, no house keys. Things became a little more ordered later than evening, when I managed to get both children fed and bathed and one of them into bed in a vaguely controlled fashion. At this point, though, it dawned upon me that I hadn’t got my start fee for the following day, so I went to the cash point wearing nothing but my pyjamas and the other (non-bedded) child. The cash point, I thought, lay down dark, unlit back streets, a mere stone’s throw away from my house. I’d sneak there, withdraw my cash and sneak back, unspotted and un-noticed by the world at large. The cash point wasn’t working. I had just one option. The brightly lit, heavily populated, Co-op. With its cash point right by the door, the users of said cash point backlit against the aisles of cornflakes and donuts, highlighted for the inhabitants of half of the N1 postcode to see.
After we pulled in to the lorry park (with my shamefully-gotten cash), I yawned, stretched and lay my head on the steering wheel. My husband prodded me. “Stop it!” he yelled. “You don’t have time to yawn! Dressage Time Warp, remember?” The Dressage Time Warp is a Thing. It’s the strange supernatural twilight zone that exists between arriving at an event and entering the dressage arena at A, a twilight zone in which time, normally so reliably measurable, shrinks and contracts until it disappears altogether and one finds oneself transported, tardis-like, into a dressage arena and trotting down the centre line. As babies go, I’d say mine is one of the least demanding models on the market. He’s quite amenable to being dragged off to the stables and plonked behind the mounting block whilst I ride, but….. He’s still a baby. Still wakes up for night time feeds and still refuses to countenance sleeping anywhere other than in my bed. So the night time feeds, combined with the horse o’clock start, meant that, Dressage Time Warp or no, I was feeling pretty tired and pretty inclined to yawn. I sighed, gave in to my husband’s nagging, fished around in the back of the car for a bit, unearthed the baby and gave him a feed.
In the end, I wished that the Dressage Time Warp had transported me to “Leave the arena on FWLR at A”. Vito, excited and sensitive, tossed his head and skewed his quarters throughout and, once again, we were pretty much last after this phase. The baby, apparently concerned that he might lose me forever in the Dressage Time Warp, had started screaming at my husband.
The NHS is very good at encouraging mothers of newborn babies to breastfeed. In the first few days after I had each of mine, I was positively hounded by support groups, drop-in clinics, support counsellors and various other earnest individuals who were intent on discussing the finer points of my nipple position. What this small army of milk militia did not give any guidance on, however, was how best to feed one’s baby whilst wearing a stock shirt, a show jacket and a number bib, and holding a horse in one hand. To be fair, part of the blame for my next conundrum does lie with the M&S lingerie department. Their daintily packaged maternity bras are all very well and all very convenient with their front clips and second straps and so on and so forth, but they give little support when belting around a great big showjumping track. No, for this, you want a heavy duty sports bra. One with cast iron straps ands cups made of asbestos, one that’s also near impossible to do back up again under the afore-mentioned stock shirt, show jacket and number bib whilst one is holding a horse. As I started to canter, post baby-feed, round the SJ warm up, I realised that my faithful Shock Absorber wasn’t quite on properly. To start with, I tried the non-invasive route. I pulled Vito up to a walk and rolled my shoulders about a bit. Nothing doing. I stepped up the efforts. Glancing furtively over one shoulder to check that nobody was looking, I had a quick hoik of my chest area with one gloved hand. No go. Now I had a choice. Leaving things as they stood was risky. Very risky. What if, mid way down the related distance between fences three and four, I were to suffer an unexpected boob escape from underneath my jacket? No, I decided. This could not be left to chance. So I pulled off my gloves, stuffed them in a pocket, dropped my reins, untucked my shirt and, as the warm-up full of household names thundered about me, I wrangled my Shock Absorber back into place.
The SJ course looked big. I haven’t jumped a 1.20 track since last August and this one was using every last centimetre of its height and width allowance. We jumped the first two well, took a flyer at the third, recovered well and then came to a line of three. Frustratingly, he made up too much ground, even in the long distances, and we had the middle one of the line down. Next up was the largest oxer on the course and, as I came to it, I couldn’t see a take-off point. Panic washed over me. For a second, I thought wildly about pulling him out, circling; this was too big to get wrong, and wrong I must surely be. Just as quickly as I had had the thought, I banished it. “No”, I told myself. “This is what you have. Your stride is there. Find it.” I checked almost imperceptibly, then sat still and soft and Vito popped neatly over it; a lesson to me in the merits of mental discipline and trusting my horse. So we finished with an annoying four faults but the round had felt nice and I could take confidence that we were ready to jump the bigger tracks.
I’d thought that the XC looked reasonably do-able, but there were definitely a couple of tougher fences to be dealt with. One of these was the water jump, which had four elements; big wide skinny log in, out up a mound, a hanging log on top of the mound and a curving line down the mound to the final part, another big wide skinny log. As we neared the end of our course walk, we passed quite close to the water and I wandered down for another look at it. This was to be my undoing. After I’d assessed it again, watched a couple through and re-walked the distances, I felt that I had a better idea of how I was going to ride it, so I turned, went to look at the last fence and then came back to the trailer to get Vito ready for the dressage. This was foolish and naive and I was later to pay the price.
Vito set out positively and was very neat through the other tricky combination on the course, a hanging log downhill on a curving line to a corner. Round we came to the water jump and I rode him strongly through the first element. As I went over the hanging log on the mound, I saw fit to lose my right stirrup and I was engulfed, as I’d been in the showjumping ring, by a momentary panic. Should I stop and retrieve it? I was but moments away from a hefty great log fence and closing fast with just one stirrup. When I was a pony-crazed child, I used to enter bareback jumping competitions, I would hurtle saddle-less along the Norfolk coastline on an assortment of unsuitable ponies, I would do bending races in nothing but a headcollar – but that, I thought frantically, that was hardly comparable to approaching the whacking great D element of one of the toughest fences on a BE Intermediate course with only my left foot safely encased where it should be. As in the showjumping, though, I forced the thought away. We were on a good line, we were in balance and the canter was there. I had to look up, put my leg on and trust my horse. Vito, of course, bounded over the log and I patted him as I regained my stirrup and cantered on to the next fence.
So the corner was done, the water was done, the rest of the course went well and then we came to the penultimate. As we cleared the second element, I realised what I’d done wrong. I could see it now, with the benefit of the 20/20 vision that is hindsight. I knew what had happened and I knew with sinking certainty how predictable my mistake had been. Knowing one’s weaknesses, they say, can be useful. Forewarned, they’ll tell you, is forearmed. My weaknesses are far too numerous and too extensive for me to know them all on a personal basis, but this one, this one is my old friend. I know it so well. I am navigationally incompetent. I can get lost whilst going to the loo in the middle of the night. I can fail to find my way to the post box. This is fine. My incompetence is so firmly ingrained that I deal with it as I would with any other problem area. I’m short-sighted, for example, so I wear glasses. Problem solved. To fix my directional dysfunction, I put mental triggers in place, handles that I can hold onto. “Turn right after the second tree past fence nine” for example. I give myself little beacons of geographic hope round the course. When I’d walked the course this time, though, I had failed to do this. After I walked the penultimate, I had gone back to the water jump. From there, I had gone to the last fence. And now here I was, cantering Vito away from the penultimate, with no idea at all how to get to the last. I cantered on, hoping that all may become clear. Eventually I arrived at the XC warm up. I knew that last fence had been near the warm up and then I saw it, there it was, now I could jump it and finish the course. If I could get to it. I was on the other side of the XC warm up. I looked up and down the strings that roped off the warm up area. Saw a gap on my side. I could get in, I could get in and cross the arena, but could I get out? Would there be a gap on the far side? I cantered slowly across the warm up arena, hoping to see a gap in the strings. If not, I thought, what would I do? Go up to the start box, round from there to the finish, through the finish the wrong way and then over the last? Would I be eliminated for crossing the finish line in the wrong direction? Thankfully, there was a gap in the string, so through we went and we came home clear.
“Having some control problems” boomed the tannoy, as I had failed to turn to the last, “some braking issues for Vitos Fleur Z”. My husband, watching with a mixture of amusement and exasperation, knew full well that it wasn’t my brakes that had failed, but rather my brain. He knows me well, knows my flaws and accepts me anyway. But too much acceptance, too much trust in a relationship is sometimes a bad things and occasionally, just occasionally, it pays to check just exactly what your partner is doing when your back is turned. My husband, eager to help me back at the trailer whilst I fed the baby, had got Vito ready to go home and had loaded him onto the box. And as I put him back in his stable that night, I couldn’t help but notice that he had two of his travel boots on the wrong legs and one of them was upside down.