The Day My Dreams Came True

Friday 25th May – 10pm. Most people I know are out enjoying the warm sunny day, having drinks in a beer garden or chilling at home watching Graham Norton. Me? I’m doing final checks in the stables and packing everything up for Saturday’s Riding Club RDS Qualifiers:

And so by the time I get home, lay out my own kit for the morning, and lay my head down in bed, it is close to midnight. Such is the life of a busy amateur rider with a full time job and endless other commitments on top of the horses! I set my alarm for 6.30am, and off I fall to sleep…

Waking up naturally, I find it strange that I haven’t yet heard my alarm. Feeling smug that I have for once woken up before my alarm, and may even be early for a change, I pick up my phone and have to do a double take when I see the time. 7.50am. SHIIIIIIIIIIIITTTT. I am supposed to be loading the horse up right now, and it takes 30 minutes to drive to the yard!! In a blind state of panic, I’m glad I laid out my clothes the night before as I pull them on and fly around the house at speed. Just pull on my boots, and then I’m off – not so fast, my boots say. As I’m pulling the zip up on my right boot, my trust Tredstep of three years decided now was the perfect time to split its zip the WHOLE. WAY. UP. MY. LEG. In an even deeper state of panic, I couldn’t zip it back down, so I decided this would be a problem for 9am Natalie and I would just focus on getting to the yard for now, albeit with a half attached boot.

The time, traffic and horse loading gods all must have had an assembly the night before and decided that I was going to be their charity case for Saturday, as I managed to hit every green light, zero traffic, managed to hitch the box first go, and the horse walked himself into the trailer. Somehow, I managed to make it to Boswell Equestrian Centre just 10 minutes after the course walk started. Our trainer Taylor Vard was already there walking the course with the rest of the team, and has a great calming influence on me – he totally ignored my flapping when I arrived and just put me to work walking the course (in my runners, as I managed to get the faulty boot off my leg) which I was grateful for.

The course seemed misleadingly straightforward – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Lots of room between fences, no particularly technical lines, straightforward fence builds. Until you walked it, that is. The time allowed was tight, and so you had to move between fences to make the time – however the distances between the fences were not forgiving, they were at times even short, and so you had to respect those distances as there was no room for error. To move between fences yet be able to meet each fence accurately is not an easy task and one that must be carefully planned – we would maintain our pace, but shave a few yards off each turn, as well as moving up a touch between fences so you could come in quietly for the related lines.

I have a tendency to overthink and catastrophise, and I actually can even feel physically sick if I think too much about how nervous I am before a show, so I felt somewhat blessed when the jumping order was drawn and I was first to jump for my team, eighth rider into the ring – no time to think, straight up and warm up after the course walk. A quick cup of coffee, my friend helped me tack up, I managed to jimmy the boot into staying put, and off I went to the warm up. He felt a bit wooden in the trot and on the forehand, but I recently discovered the power of quick, successive, walk-canter-walk transitions to get him sitting on his hocks and off the forehand. This helped a lot. Taylor had a great system going where he would warm the first rider up, go down with them to jump their round, and by the time they were done the next rider would be ready to be warmed up. A few verticals, a few oxers, and back to a vertical to sharpen him up and we were ready to go in. Even typing this now I can feel the butterflies in my stomach all over again!

Image Credit: Gabby Manning

He was a bit flat in the warm up, behind my leg, so when the gate opened I cantered him straight into the arena and down the long side to wake him up. Already he felt like he had his spark back – he wakes up once he gets into the main arena and realises there’s business to be done! Taylor told me before I went in to save my time by making some strategic turns, and moving up between fences, but to keep my pace on the approach and on related lines, and respect my distances – I’m glad there was a tight time allowed as in fact moving Paddy up gave me a better canter to contain on the approach to the fences. We had one wobbly moment from 7 to 8 where he came in deep and so on landing I said “GO” and he (shockingly) actually listened to me and went a bit too much! So I had to bring him back and he was a bit like “what do you want from me woman?!” so fence 8 was a bit touch and go! We crossed the finish line clear and the cheers from my team were such a wonderful vote of confidence.

Back to the box after a quick drink and a few bites of grass, and it was all about supporting the rest of my team – one unfortunate pole down from one of my team members meant that our other two riders HAD to go clear (best three scores count). And clear they went – putting us into the second round as one of three teams on zero faults. But as we all know, it was still all to play for, with time causing problems for many, and the tight distances posing a few issues for the bigger horses – the course wasn’t changing, so complacency or over-confidence was also a risk. We had to respect the course once again.

Quick lunch and up I got again, Paddy looking at me with total disdain as I dragged him out of the box for his second round – he warmed up much better this time around, much softer in my hand and more responsive to my aids. I reduced his warm up time to keep his energy, and we only did four fences (two verticals, two spreads) this time for the same reason. Taylor could tell this round was different, as I was walking down he said “stay cool, it is exactly the same round as you did before”. I was so grateful for Taylor being there to keep me out of my head, focused on the task at hand, and to remind me that I am capable, I’ve got this, we don’t need to change ANYTHING.

So in I cantered into the arena again, keep everything the same Natalie, just you and the course – this time I moved him up a little more between the fences, to keep him sharp given this was his second time around the course. I was really worried about the two stride double as it was tight (it walked a very short 11 steps) and many people were having it down. I elected to get him very deep to the first part, an oxer, and sit up and keep my leg on for part 2 – clear, whew. Then the final fence, we came in disunited – we weren’t going to make the deep one disunited, I had to get brave and go for the long one and hope he picked his back legs up – and up the came, we were CLEAR! Two clear rounds, and my team behind me erupted with cheers, I could have cried with pride that I had been able to deliver two clear rounds for my team. It is a very different feeling of pressure when you ride not just for yourself, but for others – something our team captain was about to feel about ten times more magnified, very soon.

That pesky two stride double reared its ugly head for one of our team members, so as our captain cantered into the arena, she knew that she had to go clear to maintain our zero score. That is not a pressure that I would ever like to have on me, and I felt so much for her as she began her round, knowing what she must be going through as she cantered up to fence one. Every single member of our team were silent as she jumped each fence – hands were on heads, over eyes, lips were muttering words under their breath, and legs were lifting with each fence she jumped. The atmosphere was palpable as she cantered up to the final fence, and the roars that erupted as she landed clear could likely be heard two towns over. Our captain is also my yard owner, and one of my closest friends, and the pride that I felt not just for our team, but for her to cope with that pressure and deliver, was immense.

We knew walking out we were at least going into a jump off, but what we couldn’t be sure of was who we were going to be jumping off against. In the midst of the excitement, we didn’t keep track of the other two teams who were on zero penalties, and no one could be sure if they were still on zero, or which teams they actually were? That is, until the judge read out the final results with the words “we have an outright winner” and I watched our captain grab onto her reins getting ready for her horse to spook as the club erupted – the second round had caused problems for the other two teams, and we had won our qualifier outright as the only team on zero penalties, with no need for a jump off!

 

Back to the box and drag poor Paddy out for the third time that day – at this point he looked at me like I was the most ridiculous person on the planet. Our secretary came over and helped us put on our beautiful Horseware winners’ rugs, and in we went to collect our rosettes and our trophy. Thank god Paddy was tired as I was able to get him to stand quietly for all the photos, and he was very well behaved in the lap of honour with about 12 horses galloping around!

Image Credit: Gabby Manning

I think it took me until I wrote last night’s post on my Facebook page to realise what had actually happened. For as long as I can remember, I have gone to the Dublin Horse Show, watching friends, trainers, or idols compete, wondering if this would be something I would ever be able to do – for so long I never had my own horse to try it on, and when I did finally get my own, I had things get in my way every time. I was determined when I got the all clear from my vet that this season I was going to try and get to Dublin, and that I would work as hard as was needed to do so. I attended every team training, often starting work early and pulling in favours to get to training on time, I did my homework that was given to me on the flat, I cantered endlessly over poles to get my eye in, and when I made the team I kept up that work and did everything I could to make sure that Paddy had the right balance of work and breaks to keep him fresh.

Image Credit: Gabby Manning

I believe that I earned my two clear rounds, and I believe that I had three very strong team members who really delivered to help us get our ticket to Dublin, but I also know that you always need a bit of luck on your side on the day, and for that bit of luck I am grateful. I am grateful to our trainer Taylor for all of his excellent coaching – Paddy and I are twice the partnership we were before we started working with him – and I am so grateful to our super club Brooke Lodge Riding Club for all their support and encouragement in the lead up and on the day. Most of all I’m so grateful to my horse who teaches me so much, and saves my bacon when I stuff things up – he gives me all these amazing opportunities and I just hope I can do him justice in Simmonscourt in August.

Natalie xo

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