Hello everyone! I am thrilled to announce that as of just two weeks ago, Zul became one of the few hallowed equine athletes to have completed the biggest, most prestigious event in the WORLD! As is (annoyingly) so often the case, there were some frustrations and disappointments, but also some massive highs…
Badminton week seems like a very long time ago now, but I can still feel the stillness of the air as Monday ticked away, as if everyone was holding their breath in anticipation. All the horses and riders are so near, and also so far from getting there – all it takes is one silly mis-move from either party and all those months of preparation and excitement are nothing. It’s seriously nerve wracking stuff, and the worst bit is you still have to gallop, jump, school and put them in the field as if there’s nothing going on at all. Zul felt on absolutely top form though, and we had a good lesson with Yogi on Tuesday, before packing the lorry in preparation for our departure on Wednesday.
Having been drawn number 39 I had Friday afternoon Dressage, which meant I could take him for a nice stroll with fellow Scot Livi Haddow and her noble steed Cool Dancer, before Adam came in the afternoon to give Zul and I a work out after the first trot up. He went beautifully and the sun was shining – what an absolute treat it was to be at Badminton riding a homebred star! Friday morning dawned and having worked him quietly first thing I met up with my parents to watch some tests. However, I was slightly disappointed not to be able to follow the marking that easily – William and Oslo seemed to get some erratically low marks from one judge, whilst Andrew Nicholson missed several of his flying changes on Avebury and still got good marks! So I decided to retreat to the lorry and not think about it. Needless to say Zul warmed up beautifully – he felt powerful and soft, and completely relaxed – and stayed exactly the same when we went in, despite all the crowds. He produced a really lovely test, with just one mistake in the extended canter, when I brought him back a bit early and he anticipated the flying change. Other than that though, he was foot perfect – I was just annoyed with myself. The judges however were less than generous, giving him a mixture of 6’s and a few 7’s to leave us on 53. Somewhat irritating given I was hoping for a mid/ late 40’s mark at worst. It was some consolation that apparently Pammy Hutton was very complimentary about us on the commentary, and kept saying that she couldn’t understand why they weren’t giving us 8’s… but it didn’t really help on the results sheet!
Saturday sped by rapidly with a combination of media activities, course walking and taking Zul for a nice ride with one of my old friends from Scotland, Emily Galbraith. This was the in fact the perfect antidote for any pre-xc nerves, as I’d forgotten how Emily’s bravery (even on a short hack!) is infectious. I suppose I’m actually quite cautious by nature, and although I can get into – and thoroughly enjoy! – ‘hair down’ mode both on and off the horses, it does require a concerted mental shift. Emily on the other hand is about the bravest person I know, and as a result our ‘quiet canter’ up the famous Worcester avenue soon developed into a pretty full on charge, which both horses were certainly very glad about!! After that I had a very tasty lunch with some of the supporters of the World Class programme, and set about walking the course again to really cement all my lines and angles for the next day. I thought the course looked very jumpable, but equally at this level it takes so little – just a minor slip of concentration on Zul’s part, or determination on mine – for something to go wrong. Still, I thought it was less challenging than Luhmuhlen, where it was just question after question after question, and the fences looked a hell of a lot smaller than when I was here with Little Beau! The ground was fantastic though, and I just hoped that Zul would get out there and love it.
Sunday dawned and I was so glad that this time I was aware of the sheer scale of the crowds and atmosphere, and could mentally prepare for it. It’s a very strange thought that 300,000 people are there on cross-country day watching 85 riders, but I just told myself over and over that we were at Belton, and actually I didn’t get that nervous. The only downside of this is of course that when I finished I still felt happy like I would at Belton, rather than ecstatic euphoric like I’d experienced in my many dreams finishing CLEAR AND INSIDE THE TIME at BADMINTON! Zul was pleased as punch though and finished really well which was a huge relief, and I got lots of lovely compliments from people which made it feel like a real achievement. The best bit though was hearing that Pippa Funnell had been amazingly nice about us on TV while we were going round – about how she’d walked the course with me the day before and that I was such a nice person, and how the selectors should really look at me after this. I think in fact that was the highlight of my whole week!
Zul was fine in the morning thanks to Cara’s TLC the night before, and trotted up full of zest for the ground jury. There seemed to be some excitement surrounding my outfit though, and my sister even got a mention on radio Badminton, albeit as my “brother,” who tweeted her encouragement for their enthusiasm “all the way from Russia”! I was genuinely really surprised by everyone’s reactions, but maybe that’s because I’ve spent too long admiring the eclectic mixtures people wear in the city! Still, I don’t see why city style can’t translate to the country, particularly as in order for anything to progress – including sport – it needs to open its doors and embrace all groups of people.
Sadly the show-jumping didn’t quite go as I had planned. My main challenge was to make the time, having got those costly 4 time faults at Luhmuhlen last year having jumped clear otherwise. To do this I knew I had to make tight turns between jumps, which is something that I have worked hard on with Yogi this year, but is also something that Zul has struggled with. He is a big framed horse, and has his own style of jumping which requires him to have more room in front of the fence than some. This obviously makes the turns harder, as he isn’t by nature ‘nippy.’ Still, he really doesn’t want to touch anything, and I felt happy and confident that he would jump well. Unfortunately however it wasn’t meant to be. I made a tight turn after the fourth, round to the triple bar, but he was fighting on the turn and then there was no room to sort anything out and he didn’t have enough power to jump the big spread, and stopped. We turned round and jumped it, and he sprung over the rest with enthusiasm just touching one rail. I was absolutely gutted, but it was just one of those things.
The good thing about it is that I know what happened, and in fact something my sport psychologist said before the week started really rang in my ears; mistakes happen, and some of the best athletes have in fact become successful because of what they learnt from making these mistakes.
All in all it was a Badminton of highs and lows, but I’m definitely glad I had my high in the phase I did, as the other two are much easier to improve – watch out everyone next year!