Although June was unusually competition-light for a mid-season month, the competitions that the horses of Avonbrook Stud did attend were successful ones. Both were representing Worcester and District Riding Club (WDRC), and both finished with some impressive individual placings.
Preparations for the two riding club area qualifiers began early this month with a trip to a local arena for some showjumping practice. When it gets hot and dry, the arena at home becomes unusable so there is often a lot of hacking out and arena hires during the heat of summer. The start of June proved to be very dry, so we took Marcus Aurelius (Aurelian x Fiesta Magica) and two of his children, Avonbrook Odin (ex April) and Annia Aurelia (ex Bint Zaehaebi) for a school over someone else’s jumps. All three horses coped well in the heat and certainly enjoyed seeing some brightly coloured fences in an arena big enough to create more technical jumping lines. Although I was starting to wilt in the heat by horse number three, I managed to maintain a little bit of style ready for the ‘style jumping’ qualifier that Marcus and Penny would attend.
Marcus Aurelius having a practice before the his competition (c) Rowena Bertram
Odin, however, would not be at that particular qualifier. Instead, we used that outing to prepare him for the riding club horse trials area qualifier. After qualifying for the 2019 Championships as part of the 100cm team, there was some pressure to perform well this year as part of one of the WDRC 90cm senior teams. After getting bored walking the cross-country course, I contemplated moving Odin up to 100cm classes in the near future. It was lacking in the severe technicality I was expecting for an area qualifier, although the showjumping was sufficiently technical to at least ensure it wasn’t just a dressage competition with a bit of jumping tacked on. I did know, however, that I would need to post a convincing dressage score to give our team a chance at qualification.
Odin felt on fine form in the dressage warm up and I channeled my inner professional, even maintaining cheerful conversations while warming him up. After a chat with the steward, we were sent all the way down to the furthest arena to complete our test among the pigeon-sized horseflies! Although Odin was far from impressed – and even had a tense little canter before entering the arena – we were able to transform his tension into a relaxed dance and swing our way through the test. He felt great, if slightly argumentative in canter, so we compromised a little and my hopes of a sub-30 test slithered away. Odin did not want to participate in the final centre-line, so it ended up a little crooked, but I did manage a smile for the judge as I saluted and gave him a pat. You can imagine my surprise as I started to walk to the exit when the judge opened her car door and got out. Usually that only happens when they want to eliminate you so, with my heart in my mouth and my stomach kicking around somewhere near Odin’s feet, I waited to hear what I had done wrong. “I just wanted to tell you that was the nicest test I’ve seen so far today…” Pardon? I mean it was only 11am so she still had a few hours of judging left, but I managed to choke out my thanks and wander back to my confused team with a big smile on my face. I told them what had happened – they also thought I had managed to get myself into trouble – and we all looked at Odin in surprise. Odin, who hates dressage. Odin, who likes to add unnecessary flying changes to boring tests. Odin, who lets the judges know how tortuous flatwork is. This same Odin had his ears pricked forward and eyelashes batting in a display that was dripping with ‘Mr Perfect’ energy. The judge must have really liked him as he smashed his personal best with 26.5 penalties! Needless to say, he was duly rewarded with sweeties and grass before the next two phases.
Avonbrook Odin on his way to posting a 26.5 personal best in the dressage (c) JHemming Photography
The showjumping was the most influential phase of the event. The course was technical and required careful riding; I wished I was jumping a bit higher so Odin might pay more attention. Nevertheless, we warmed up and waited to go. While we milled around in the collecting ring, we watched the 80cm combinations tackle the cross country and I made a mental note to ride strongly into the water as almost half of the combinations we watched had problems there. Finally, we were called into the ring so I picked up my best showjumping canter and started the round. The first few fences were designed to get us into a forward rhythm before we were asked to jump a very technical mid-section of the course. Fence 4 was a light set of planks perpendicular to the previous oxer, requiring a strong inside leg and outside hand to make the turn correctly, then we embarked on an ‘S’ bend, with a wide oxer in the middle and a one-stride double on the other side of the curve. The double was a maze of blue poles, white poles, and stripey fillers, and plenty had problems here. Sadly, this included Odin who just knocked off the top pole of the upright coming out. With no time to commiserate, we committed a short 10 strides to the 90-degree right hand bend to a flimsy downhill upright, then eight curving strides to a wide oxer at the base of the hill. To finish, we made another right-handed hair-pin bend to the final upright and cantered through the beams with only one fence – four penalties – to add to our dressage score. This meant we waved goodbye to a sub-30 finishing score, by half a penalty, but we were still in a competitive position going into the final phase.
Avonbrook Odin negotiating the influential showjumping track (c) JHemming Photography
The cross country was running late, as we found out when we arrived ready to jump on our time and they were still setting off 80cm competitors. This meant that they had to finish the 80cm, move all the fence judge cars to the 90cm course, let the hardworking volunteers have a short relief break, and check all of the radios before giving the 90cm starting stewards the green light. There’s actually a light that goes red when the course is closed and green when it’s live. As the event was running behind time, it became a free-for-all for positions and no-one wanted to be first to go. Well, no-one but me. I’ve noticed that people often don’t like to go first, they want to get a feel for how the course is riding, which combinations are proving tricky, and whether or not the time is hard to catch. I have worked hard on my sports psychology over the past couple of years, so I felt confident in my ability to ride my own horse and not worry about what everyone else was doing so I volunteered to go first. I had made some last-minute adjustments on my riding plan based on just how much trouble the water complex was causing, but otherwise I stayed focused on how Odin, and only Odin, needed to be ridden. The downside of going first meant we had no indication of when to warm up because the light could turn green at any time. Luckily, horses rarely need a lot of work before the cross country, so I gave him a gallop and a couple of jumps when the stewards started to prepare themselves, then just as I checked my girth, the light turned from red to green. I grinned at the steward who beckoned me over to the start-box. Odin started to rev up, cantering on the spot and readying his own mind for the next five minutes. Convinced that the green light meant the start of the two-minute countdown, I relaxed my reins and he came back down to a walk. “10 seconds,” said the steward and I scrambled to start my watch before revving Odin back up and waiting for the final three seconds to get into the startbox. I always start my watch with 10 extra seconds as I don’t like the interruption of starting it as they say “go”, which is when my mind needs to be focused on the horse and the first fence. I’ve also known friends who have missed the start button on their watch and, with a top placing on the line, I did not want to jump ‘blind’ to the time and risk penalties for being too fast or too slow. Luckily, I got to my watch in time, and we stormed out of the box to the first fence.
Avonbrook Odin jumping into the water (c) JHemming Photography
There was almost a cheer from the crowd as we set off. A lot of riders and grooms had gathered as the news of the delayed start hadn’t been received in the lorry park, and they were thrilled to see the first in the 90cm gallop away. I saw a shocking stride to the first and Odin gave me his best ‘oh, come on’ sort of a jump as he scrambled over it. I gave myself a kick and Odin a pat as we continued to the second and, after a few good jumps, we settled into a good rhythm to swing around down the hill and approach the lorry park for the first time. We were meeting everything on good, forward strides and I braced myself as we galloped around the bend towards the water. This was directly away from the lorry park and burger van, and I could smell bacon as we approached the fence into water. I’m glad I managed to regain my focus as Odin’s head came up and his shoulders came back approaching the upturned boat. At our first ever event, we had a stop here over that exact jump but we had four more years of experience under our belts now, so I knew how to ride it. My legs gripped tight, my hands went wider, and my reins lengthened a fraction. There we go, Odin’s neck dropped, then his shoulders dropped, then his shoulders and knees snapped up and he basculed over the fence. He then splashed me in the eyes with water as we cantered through, but I had plenty of time to get my sight back as we stormed back up the hill to continue the course. There were a couple of moments where I was over-cautious and closed the rhythm down to make sure we stayed accurate, but I knew we were fighting for a top placing and could make up the time with long galloping stretches. Odin was more than happy to oblige, and we found ourselves up on our minute markers by a significant margin. It’s possible to be awarded 15 penalties for slowing down too much so I had to be sensible with how I cantered him in for the final few fences. The balance paid off and we finished comfortably within the time.
Avonbrook Odin receiving a pat after the water complex (c) JHemming Photography
After washing him off and letting him have his bucket of sloppy sugarbeet, we packed up ready to go home. There were still no prize-givings and the rest of our team still had to run cross country so we followed the ‘arrive-compete-leave’ protocol that’s dominated horse sport since last year. On our way home, I checked the scores and we had officially won our section as individuals. The only person who was ahead of us after dressage (they must have gone after me!) had eight faults in the showjumping, and there was no-one else with a dressage mark higher than our finishing score. Proud was an understatement, I was delighted with Odin’s performance and attitude all day and he thoroughly deserved the win. Not only that, but we had won the 90cm overall as well, meaning that we had qualified for the NAF 5* BRC National Horse Trials Championships as individuals to represent WDRC. Odin has only competed in two riding club eventing qualifiers, and he’s qualified both times. What a good boy! Both Worcester teams gave it their best shot, with my team placing 4th and the other team placing 2nd. Unfortunately, if the best three from both teams were combined, that would have been the winning, and qualifying, team by a huge margin. Nevertheless, WDRC came home with some top placings all day.
A quiet moment earlier in the day at Sapey (c) JHemming Photography
The hero’s welcome that we gave Odin did nothing to improve the moods of Marcus and Penny, who were not-so-patiently waiting for their turn to shine at the style jumping qualifiers. Marcus won the 85cm qualifier back in 2019 so he was defending his title, and Penny was going to try and steal his crown. It was supposed to be a low-key day with only those two horses until I got two urgent messages only days before the competition. The first was from the team coordinator who needed a combination for the other, 75cm, division, and the second was from a friend whose junior daughter, Lily, was supposed to compete but couldn’t because the horse wasn’t right. After checking the rules, we found that one horse could compete twice with two riders, providing it was at the same height and in different divisions. This ruled Marcus out as we were already slated for the 85cm so we shone a searchlight into the sky to signal help from SuperSub. Avonbrook Silver Eagle (Marcus Aurelius x Caveland Calypso), or Robbie to his fans, has a long history of being thrown in the deep end. To the best of our recollection, he hadn’t competed since the summer of 2019, maybe the winter of 2018, and hadn’t been ridden in over a month as he was at the summer grazing babysitting the youngsters. Nevertheless, we cheerfully threw a saddle on him and brought him home the day before the competition for Lily, who had never ridden him before, to practice on him before representing our riding club.
Avonbrook Silver Eagle commencing his first round (c) Eric Trafford
The next day, we loaded up the three horses and took them down to Rectory Farm for the competition. Robbie was up first with me, and it was just as well because it was a huge ask of him and he found the large arena a little bit daunting. He wasn’t really looking at the jumps so we had a couple of poles down, but otherwise held it together for a fluent round. Luckily, Lily wasn’t phased by any of it and took all the guidance I gave her to produce a beautiful round, only lowering one pole for 4th place. After a long wait, it was Marcus’ turn and he warmed up like a loon. No one believed he was 20 as he dive-bombed around the (luckily) empty warm up arena and he swaggered into the arena winking at the judges. He produced a stylish and correct round, although he too had a fence down after he spotted dirt bikes in the distance and clearly found them more interesting than the task at hand. I was convinced that the fence down had cost him greatly, but I was thrilled with how well he jumped and how much I thought the judge would like him.
Marcus Aurelius giving fence 3 some room at the area qualifier (c) Eric Trafford
Alas, seemingly the judge preferred them to be more out of control and, frankly, sociopathic than Marcus’ caramel-smooth round. Penny was on a mission that afternoon. She was disgusted at having been left until last and we were allowed to slot her in early as I don’t think she would have waited another hour for her official time. She snarled at the judge, gee thanks Penny, and rolled her eyes backwards to stare straight into my eyes as I saluted. Oh no. We just about completed our figure eight in canter with no fatalities before the bell rang and I pointed her at the first fence. Instantly, the princess’ ears shot forwards and she lunged at the jump in reckless glee. As much as I oversell her diva-ishness, she does genuinely feel vaguely worrying when you’re on her while managing to look very happy and composed to onlookers. She’s made of fire, that horse, but there’s no horse I’d rather ride into battle on. She’s the horse who would take me safely to hell and back again, a proper Arabian warhorse. I decided that attempting to fight her would prove futile so I let her jump from her forward rhythm that might be more in place on a cross country course, and we finished our round with one fence down. When I mentioned that the judge was rewarding this kind of round, it was because Penny came 2nd. Even with the fence down and my riding tactic of ‘whatever, do what you want Princess’, we came 2nd. For reference, Marcus came 6th, which was still brilliant, but 2nd? I was certainly surprised! Penny is now very pleased with herself and is eagerly awaiting her next outings.
Annia Aurelia’s face for the judges and my reaction (c) Eric Trafford
Things have started to reach a whole new level of stress in my MSc. I am now onto my third supervisor for my systematic literature review, and he is the first one to give me major restructuring notes rather than manageable corrections. This has given me major stress that I certainly didn’t need with everything else that has to be done by mid-August, but as he will now be the first one to mark it, I really ought to follow his instructions exactly. I used to think I liked having several sets of eyes on my work, but I realised that’s only true if they all like it. Wish me luck, it’s not over yet.
Lead photo: Annia Aurelia flying around the BRC area style jumping qualifier (c) Eric Trafford
You can read more from The Girl with the Jumping Arabs here.
Katherine Bertram is an English young rider who competes in a variety of different disciplines on her mother’s homebred pure and part-bred Arabians. Having achieved advanced rider status in Endurance after her first season at age 14 on Marcus Aurelius (Aurelian x Fiesta Magica), Katherine turned her attention to showjumping with his progeny, at which she currently competes at Senior Newcomers (1.10). As well as also delving into showing, eventing and, occasionally, dressage, Katherine juggles her studies while attending the University of Birmingham.