Despite a less than straightforward year, Avonbrook Stud’s resident rider Katherine Bertram continues her eventing season while rebuilding her confidence.
With mine and Avonbrook Odin (Marcus Aurelius x April)’s previous event marking my first time completing a British Eventing cross country (XC) course, hopes were high for me to go one better and keep a clean sheet – this time at Ascott-under-Wychwood. Walking the course, however, proved to be my undoing. Unfortunately for me, I walked the seemingly impossible cross-country course during a run of disastrous rounds. Rider after rider stopped, fell off, or walked off the course, and the jumps started to look bigger and more dangerous by the minute. It was at this moment I should have called my trainer so she could remind me that none of those combinations are me and Odin and I shouldn’t be watching them, but hindsight really is 20/20. Instead, I cried, I mulled over withdrawing completely, and couldn’t fathom getting out of the startbox, let alone galloping through the finish. When I got home, we decided that we were going to compete in the dressage and showjumping and call it a day before the XC. It was obvious how stressed the idea of going XC was making me, and I just wanted to enjoy the day rather than get sick over the last phase. After executing our plan, I was left with the deep seated frustration of not being able to pull myself together when it mattered, and vowed to not let myself wimp out of a XC course again, even though I still stand by my decision to withdraw that day. I would have been a liability in that frame of mind. Before our next event, we had two excellent schooling sessions, one of which was around the very course that had caused me so much anxiety. Needless to say, Odin flew and I felt much more confident for my next event.
Avonbrook Odin schooling at Oxstalls (c) Rowena Bertram
After a very long journey down to Pontispool Equine Centre, we settled Odin into his stable and set off to walk the XC course. Unlike Ascott, this time I had mum walking with me, so there was no talk of whether a fence seemed scary or not, only how I was going to keep my leg on and jump it. Brimming with confidence, we sailed through the first two phases and, before I knew it, we were striding to the startbox. Although eventing is made up of three equally important disciplines, the XC has become the main focus for me this year – the wildcard. Following team orders to set fire to his tail and set off meaning business, you can imagine my surprise when Odin slammed on the breaks at the third fence, then fence 6, and then fence 7a. I thought I was riding forwards and was convinced of wanting to get round, but we would later find out that Odin simply didn’t believe me. I managed to convince him for a few more fences, but I eventually ran out of determination when he skidded into 12a, the jump into the water. If I thought my confidence was on the floor walking off the course at Dauntsey, it had dug its own grave walking off the course from the top end of Pontispool. Thinking that I had made Odin hate eventing, or I had taught him how to save himself the effort of XC by stopping too many times, my mind was reeling with what I would do with him if he wouldn’t event. As it later transpired, Odin wanted to fly but needed me firmly in the pilot’s seat to feel safe to do so. After deliberating with my trainer and mum, we decided to run him at an unaffiliated event the weekend after as we had little left to lose. The event was back at Ascott-Under-Wychwood, the course that I had unfinished business with. With my mind now focused on letting Odin fly, I was finally ready to put some troubles to rest.
Avonbrook Odin in the dressage at Pontispool (c) Rowena Bertram
The day before my second attempt at Ascott, I took my friend and regular photographer Jazz to walk the course with me. I had learnt from last time where it was just me and several fallen riders on the course, and Jazz was able to point out that it was a 90cm course, not Badminton! To add some variety, the course-builders had moved many of the fences and changed some of the routes around the rolling fields, but the fences themselves were mostly the same which gave me great confidence. Odin had seen most of them when we schooled round, so there was no excuse for any refusals. After walking the course twice, once to figure out where we were going, and again to feel more comfortable with the jumps, we headed home so I could plait up and pack the lorry. Odin was very fresh in the dressage and threw in a few extra moves, but he must have impressed the judges for a 32 penalty dressage score. Having broken his run of showjumping clears this season at Pontispool with the penultimate fence down, I was delighted when Odin cruised around the showjumping with a clear round. After a long walk down to the XC start, followed by an anxious wait for my turn to start, we finally trotted over to the start box to be counted down. I knew my plan – I was going to find a forward rhythm immediately after leaving the box and find forward strides to the first two fences to find our pace and prepare for the rest of the course. I saw two absolute flyers to the first two fences and, as we sailed over, I took a breath out and spun him around the corner to the next jump. This is where we had our first deviation from the previous course, and we turned into a wide oxer followed swiftly by a Cotswold stone wall. With little time to admire the beauty of the fences, we pressed on and arrived at the combination that had caused me so much stress when walking the course for the first time just over two weeks previous. Three long, downhill strides separated the imposing table with castle wings and the skinny palisade that followed. Having ridden forwards to the first element, the more technical second element came up quickly and without any problems. Galloping back up the hill for the next few fences, I gave Odin a quick pat down his neck and opened my hands out to give him his head. With the constant movement, one of my shoulder guards came loose and started flapping against my right arm. For a brief moment, I was completely distracted by it as it slapped against my cheek with every stride, only attached by its top end to the rest of my body protector. With no option but to ignore it, we soared over a saw bench, then an apple cart before disappearing into the woods to climb another steep hill. Each fence came and went with a reassuring regularity of riding him like he might stop at any moment, ensuring that my legs were on and I was sat with two-thirds of him in front of me. After galloping through the water and charging back down the hill, we only had a couple of fences between us and the finish line. Determined not to fall at the final hurdle, I kept my composure and found forward strides into the final jumps to finish our round. We were a couple of seconds slower than the optimum time, due to me slowing him up the hill through the woods to regain his focus, but I couldn’t have been happier and Odin swaggered back to the lorry park with a real spring in his step. We held on to a top 10 finish, but just missed out on qualifying for the championships which made me hungry for a better placing at the next event.
Avonbrook Odin jumping double clear in the BE90 (C) Jasmine Punter Photography
The very next day, we took Annia Aurelia (Marcus Aurelius x Bint Zaehaebi) – Penny – to her first ever hunter trial. I had entered the ‘mix and match class’, where we could choose between the jumps on either the 50cm, 60cm, 70cm, or 80cm courses. As I had entered her for her first event a few weeks later at 80cm, I decided to jump all of the 80cm fences unless she needed to step down a height. I needn’t have worried. After walking my very twisty and winding course, I got on a very fit and fresh Penny and walked her around the venue until it was my time to warm her up. When I started to canter her in the warm-up, she began to jump up and down and played to perfection the part of the ‘wild Arabian horse’ that her sire has always refused to engage with. By the time we approached our first warm up fence, a crowd of onlookers – albeit a socially distanced crowd – were watching and eagerly awaiting the fireworks that may follow. Never one to disappoint an audience, Penny leapt everything a few feet higher than strictly necessary and I battled to keep her out of the way of multiple small children that may not have had the experience to avoid a very naughty mare. Our start time couldn’t come soon enough and, as we set off at speed up the hill, I went to test my brakes only to find I didn’t have any. Luckily, Penny jumped every fence in her stride. Some of them required huge ballooning jumps, and those deemed unworthy were quickly hurdled and forgotten about. Galloping up a hill with no brakes is one problem, galloping back down the hill is quite another. In between two downhill fences, I defied Penny’s lack of steering and pulled her into a couple of circles before continuing, thankfully now at a less frenetic speed. Having understood that XC is not a race, Penny settled into a much nicer rhythm and we completed the course with a clear jumping round, although we had been awarded refusals for our circles. Despite the British Eventing rules permitting this, every unaffiliated venue can play by their own rules, but I wasn’t bothered as I had achieved what I set out to achieve and learned what I needed to do differently to ensure an easier round in an actual event.
Annia Aurelia competing in her first hunter trial (c) Still Light Photography
During September, I was lucky enough to be asked to write an article that required photographs of the horses completing jumping exercises in the arena at home. I chose the two stallions, 19-year old Marcus Aurelius (Aurelian x Fiesta Magica) and his five-year old son Audace Encore (ex Avonbrook Green Rose) as our models. This meant I was able to show a progression in each exercise from a young or beginner horse, to a more experienced horse. We started with Marcus so any strides could be adjusted easily and everything could be set up while the more experienced horse warmed up. Marcus really does love the camera and jumped through his exercise identically every time, allowing Jazz to capture him at every angle. Next up was young Sammy, who took the slightly odd schooling session in his stride as he was asked to do exercises with Jazz crouching by a pole or a jump to take photos. He is definitely one of the family as he turned it on for the camera and possibly decided that he would rather like a personal photographer to follow him around from now on!
Audace Encore schooling at home (c) JHemming Photography
Later in the month, we had a rare day off that I deemed unacceptable, so we took Marcus and Sammy to a local competition centre, Moores Farm, to have a practice around a course of showjumps. Jazz rode Sammy, who saw proper jumps for the first time in little under a year, and I rode Marcus to practice over a course of 100cm fences ready for a winter of showjumping. Both stallions were absolutely super. and Sammy’s confidence soared after being allowed to canter over a course of small jumps. We’re hoping to get him going properly this Winter after my unscheduled break last Winter, and we hope that it won’t take much for him to rival the scope of his sire. Marcus, who later enjoyed rolling on the arena surface – we did manage to take his saddle off in time – cruised over everything I pointed him at, including a rather impressive 105cm triple bar!
Marcus Aurelius making light work of a 105cm triple bar (c) Jasmine Hemming
Despite a very dramatic year, the competition season is still pushing on and regulations permitting, we are hoping for a fun and full October to finish the season in style. There is a lot to still look forward to this year and this winter might be one of our busiest yet, not least because I have stayed in full-time education for my 18th consecutive year. This time I am studying for a Master’s degree in Business and Organisational Psychology, which is already proving to be both challenging and rewarding. Another year of juggling horses and education is on the cards!
Lead photo: Avonbrook Odin jumping double clear at Ascott-Under-Wychwood (c) Jasmine Punter Photography
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.