During September, the Girl with the Jumping Arabs fits in a few more competitions as the season gradually draws to a close. Some are more successful than others, but there are lessons to be learnt from mistakes – and mistakes do not mean failure.
After a turbulent event season, I had a highly successful event and a less successful event, on paper at least. My successful event of the month came with Penny – Annia Aurelia (Marcus Aurelius x Bint Zaehaebi). After her win in the 50/60cm event – the smallest on offer – last time out, we allowed Penny to step up to the dizzying heights of the 70cm. The hosts, Solihull Riding Club, had named this event the ‘Solympics’ so there was the added Solympic pressure and grandeur that suited Penny perfectly.
Having stood victorious at one event before, Penny was absolutely sure she knew best, and our dressage test looked like a rather tense chess game. No matter, we still scored 32.8 and were in the hunt for a ‘Solympic’ medal – provided she could stay on that dressage score of course! After a hair-raising showjumping last time out, I had worked with my trainer on insisting that Penny waits for a stride rather than charging off. This meant we produced a textbook clear round in the influential showjumping phase and our ‘Solympic’ dreams looked more achievable. The only thing that stood in our way was the cross country. After some schooling in this phase, I realised that Penny was far happier when I had really worked her in instead of just warming her up and popping a couple of fences. I think I must have been the only one doing shoulder-in and leg-yields in the cross country warm up!
The technique paid off and Penny trotted out of the start-box confidently towards the first fence. The fence judges for fence 1 were family friends and I had earlier joked that they might need to chase her over it, but this wasn’t necessary as Penny slipped into canter and popped it out of a lovely rhythm. Previously, this rhythm may have quickly deteriorated into her pulling me into gallop and me wrestling her back for the jumps, but Penny’s confidence had outgrown the need to pull my arms out and she listened attentively to my every signal. We were enjoying a very smooth round and were significantly up on our minute markers when we came out of the water and turned away from the warm up to gallop up a parallel field and then back around to the finish. Unfortunately, Penny locked eyes with mum’s video camera as she came through the water and thought it was a ridiculous idea to turn away from the very obvious finish line when she could get there quicker. So she stopped dead. Fortunately, we were well over 10 metres away from the next fence – which was jumped directly away from the finish – and after a quick chat with the fence judges, I circled her and presented to the fence officially for no added penalties. In times like this it is so important to know the rules to the letter and to communicate effectively with fence judges. The key is absolutely politeness, they make the final call whether or not to penalise you, so I asked whether I was far enough away to represent, and we agreed I was. This meant we were now slow enough that we wouldn’t get penalties for finishing too fast and Penny cantered very smugly between the finish flags, despite my insistence to go the long way. I was thrilled with how she performed and delighted to find out that we had come second – Solympic silver medallists! Although I joke about the Solympics, I am very proud of the way Penny is grasping the idea of cross country and I’m sure she’ll be away and flying next season.
Annia Aurelia cruising around the XC (c) Topshots Photography
My less successful event came, once again, with Avonbrook Odin (Marcus Aurelius x April) who has enjoyed a run of walking off courses again recently. However, there have been positives and lessons to take away from all of them and I hasten to add that I have not been completely blameless in the incidents. First, I retired him a few fences from home at the BRC National Horse Trials Championships when he slipped at skidded into a couple of fences; then I rode a bit frantically and tried to push him for longer strides at Sapey BE100, where he naturally punished me for with elimination for accumulated refusals by fence 8. Then, this time at Cirencester, I fell off at the last combination! It was a bit embarrassing, but it was a mistake I certainly never hope to make again. After an entertaining dressage where I dared to challenge him in the arena, we almost had a clear showjumping until I let him drift off a line for a fence down. So far, the usual. I was mostly doing a good job of reschooling him to listen to me and pick his own feet up, but I occasionally took my eye off the ball and that’s when mistakes creep in.
After a tense wait for the cross country, we were off and in fine spirits over the first half of the course. He was covering the ground well and had settled into a lovely rhythm, taking each fence out of stride. I sat up and waited where I needed to, then pushed him a little when he fell behind my leg. The final combination was a tiny – tiny! – rolltop that needed to be jumped on a slight angle to make a comfortable three strides to a corner. I had noted that the corner was narrow so I would need to stay straight and committed to put him in a good take off spot for the second element. I never got that far. Instead of sitting and waiting for a nice stride to the rolltop, I rounded the corner in our ‘between fences’ rhythm and didn’t give myself time to let the fence come to us. Before I had really understood what we were doing, we were about three strides out and going too fast with a decision to make. Either I pulled his head off to slow us down enough for an extra stride then kick hard to make the distance, or cruise in on our forward stride, then sit very quietly for the three strides. I am naturally a fairly quiet rider, so I went for the latter option. What I hadn’t thought of in that split-second decision was that Odin would back off the tiny rolltop. The forward stride became a long stride. I pushed hard to make it. Odin took off. Odin landed abruptly. We were still in front of the rolltop, and Odin had ‘put back down’ because we were too far off and now, I was collapsing in slow motion onto his shoulder. His forward energy had to go somewhere so he spun left, and I plopped down his right shoulder and landed on my feet hugging his neck. Oh dear. Although there were only three fences left, it was a long walk back to the lorry. I knew immediately that, although Odin hadn’t helped me out, the situation was utterly my fault as it was unfair to put him in that position. I needed to be more prepared coming around the corner and set him up from further away. I was gutted as he had been jumping so well, but it was a harsh reminder that I cannot lose focus for a second and I’m lucky he will always stop instead of getting us both hurt by jumping from somewhere that he’s not comfortable with. Ultimately, there was no harm done and it’s made me far hungrier for the next and final event.
Avonbrook Odin over the second fence (c) JHemming Photography
The main man himself, Marcus Aurelius (Aurelian x Fiesta Magica), was utterly unimpressed that his progeny were out competing and he was stuck at home. He may be a high mileage 20-year old, but he is still fighting fit and ready to party. Once my little lorry was back from its MOT, I took him on my own to our local competition centre for a spot of BS Club jumping. Although it’s unaffliliated, it takes place on the same day as the British Showjumping affiliated classes, so the courses are all the same. Marcus jumped a beautiful clear in the 90cm for 4th, which he deserved but I didn’t as I saw some pretty deep strides that he dutifully jumped out of. Reminding myself that the 100cm class went up to 110cm in the jump-off section, I rode much more positively in the next class and Marcus rewarded me with some serious air-time over the bigger jumps. He gives the most amazing feeling when you put the fences up high enough for him and his honesty is second to almost none; I suspect Penny would jump from quite literally anywhere. The warm up steward was nowhere to be seen when I was getting ready for the 100cm, so I had to jump the two warm up fences while they were still at 90cm. Was this why we had the first two fences down in the class while we got our eye in? Probably not, but it did mean I didn’t kick myself too hard for not riding him to another clear. There was one double on the course that Marcus proved his scope for; 110cm oxer one stride before a 110cm upright. I got too deep into the oxer and he made a lovely shape, but landed a bit short, meaning the one stride became very, very long. Mere days after my Cirencester fall, I was determined not to let Marcus down, so I slipped my reins, widened my hands, and kept my leg on while he worked his magic. He reached in that stride like a Grand Prix horse. We were still quite far off but that gave him room to shift his weight and attack the upright with a mighty leap. He arced through the air, giving the upright about a foot of room, and jumped the remaining fences like he hadn’t just done his best ‘Spirit jumping the gorge’ impression from Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. I beamed all the way back to the lorry and threw my arms around him like a small child once I got off. He looked content, his eyes half-closed in the satisfaction of reminding me why he’s the main man.
Marcus Aurelius making lightwork of the 100cm class (c) Topshots Photography
Despite staying busy enough with competitions and the preparations that come with them, I have been tempted to far off places multiple times during September by my other love: theatre. I struggle to say no when my sister suggests booking to see a West End musical and, with several shows only recently re-opening after the 18-month shutdown, I didn’t take much convincing. We saw Heathers on the West End for the third and final time for its 2021 run, and were lucky, and prepared, enough to get tickets on the second row for their closing performance. Earlier in the day we watched Come From Away, which was even more emotional and beautiful than usual as it was the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Just over a week later we saw the re-opening performance of & Juliet, a show that gave out complimentary mini prosecco bottles so the audience was a bit tipsy by the second act – this added wonderfully to the already party-like atmosphere! Most recently, Becky scored rush tickets, that you can only buy on the day of the show, to Frozen, so as soon as I got back from showjumping with Marcus, I had just enough time to unpack and change before jumping in the car down to London. I cannot describe how lucky and fortunate I am to be able to go to the theatre again. It’s a privilege to have grown up watching live theatre and to be able to keep consuming it at my free will. I missed it hugely during lockdown and it’s good to be back. I must now, however, admit that I’ve had enough time off – even if I haven’t really rested – and it’s time to get job hunting!
I promise I am smiling! Ready for Heathers with my sister
Lead photo: Avonbrook Odin after his showjumping round (c) JHemming Photography
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.