When I opened my eyes, it seemed as if the screaming had been going on forever. In all likelihood, I had probably woken up as soon as it started, but as I waited for my brain, drugged heavily by sleep, to focus and to tell me what I needed to do, all I could hear was screaming. With my eyes still closed, I stumbled towards my daughter’s room. She broke into sobs as I approached her doorway, and screamed my name, over and over again. “What is it, Rosie?” I asked, kneeling down so that my face was level with hers. She stretched her hands out towards me and her whole body shook as she wailed in grief. From her left hand, there dangled a pink pony, its scratchy polyester mane entangled in Rosie’s small fingers. It was one of a pair and was almost always to be seen with the blue pony that I’d bought her last month. In the early hours of that morning, though, Rosie’s right hand was empty and the pink pony was alone, its blue partner nowhere to be seen.
“MUMMY” screamed Rosie, almost incoherent in her despair. “MUMMY…… I’VE ONLY GOT ONE PONY.”
I held her then, and my tears mingled with hers as we clung to each other on the threshold of her bedroom, because I was crying for exactly the same reason.
It seems ridiculous to want to say “thank you” to a horse. As I stroked Parrot’s neck one final time, as I steeled myself to let go of his lead rope and turn away from him forever, I felt frustrated by my inadequacy. I was helplessly unable to tell him how much he had meant to me and I couldn’t articulate my recognition and appreciation of just exactly how much he had done for me.
The vets told me, when Vito did his tendon last year, that he would come back. He’d had the best possible care, they reassured me; there was every reason to believe that he would make a complete return to competitive life. But it was over, then, really, over for Vito and me. Because I knew that everything would be different, that everything would change. When Vito did come back, when his tendon scans were good, I was ecstatic. I was right, though. It was different, and it had changed. I was different. I’d met Parrot. I’d met this phenomenal orange horse, who’d taken me to Intermediate, and who’d then carried on taking me. He took me two-star and then, because he could and because it was easy for him, he took me Advanced. And when he wasn’t jumping round some of the very biggest fences that national eventing has to offer, he was happily giving pony rides to my 18 month old son, letting my husband try to tack him up and standing patently whilst three year Rosie brushed his tail and gave him carrots. And now here I was, standing in a field in Cambridgeshire, with tears coursing down my cheeks as I thanked him, as I pulled at his ears for the very last time, lay my head on his shoulder and cried for the very best cross-country horse that I have ever had the honour of riding. Then I turned slowly round, drove home with my empty trailer and tried miserably to come to terms with the fact that, like Rosie, I now only had one pony.
I think I knew that this couldn’t last. I knew that my days were numbered and that I had to grab every last opportunity that I could, now, before it was all over. My friends used to quiz me about it, and I made for a frustrating target, because I couldn’t give them any answers. “But what are you going to DO, Viv?” they’d say. “I mean, can’t you find another job? Can’t you give up work? What do you think you’ll DO about it?” It must have been apparent that what I was doing was not sustainable. I was trying to hold my own at hard-core City law firm, event Parrot at two-star, Vito at the lower levels and I had two small kids at home. So I’d smile, I’d shrug, I’d admit to having a fairly appalling coffee habit, and then I’d get at up in the early hours of the night to ride both horses before work and then I’d come home to put the kids to bed, before opening up the laptop and carrying on with work. When the time came, I thought, I’d know. The gong would sound, signalling the end, and I’d know what to DO.
In the end, it turned out that the answer was reasonably clear-cut. Sell everything we owned, and leave the country. In fact, leave the continent. My husband rang me from Tokyo. “They want us” he said. “Want us to move out here in October.” I didn’t really need to let it sink in, because I knew that this made sense. Here it was, my answer. The clock had chimed its very last chime and now its hands had stopped and my time was up.
My friends are surprised that I can give it up so readily, that I can walk away from the sport I lived for, sell the horses who meant the world to me, but it’s always been a double-edged sword. I’ve been lucky, privileged and I’ve had the time of my life. It started with a surreptitious run at BE90, hiding my pregnancy from the world for fear of disapproval. It bloomed into dirty nappies being changed in collecting rings and walking the course whilst breast-feeding a baby. It got more serious when the fences got bigger and then it culminated in walking down to the start box after Sam Griffiths and Paulank Brockagh before they set out for Rio and I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
But it’s been draining. It’s been mentally, emotionally, physically far, far beyond my comfort zone. I gave it all I had and then, when I thought I had nothing left to give, I upped my game and I gave it more. And there’s a darker side to it, too, of course there is. We had a frank conversation about it, after it was all over, when it was comfortably now in the past. “The stakes are too high” said my husband. “It’s very obvious just how wrong it can go.” He paused and then he said: “That girl who fell at the white rails…” “Aoife Clarke”, I whispered, “Vaguely North”, as I recalled how the bay had rolled sickeningly over and over as the two slammed into the back rail of the oxer at Burghley two years ago. Now, now that it’s over, I have the luxury of allowing myself to think these thoughts and to be positive about this new, horse-free chapter that we start as we move to Tokyo and leave eventing behind. It’s been amazing, but it’s time, for now, to close that door and to open another. So we’ll say goodbye, but this is not forever; this is not the end. For I have no doubt that some day, somewhere in the world, I will leave a start box once again, and I will ride once more across the country, between the coloured flags.