There is a fine line between excitement and fear and while The Girl with the Jumping Arabs found the balance with one horse, the line became a knife-edge with another.
April marked the start of the competition season for Avonbrook Stud, and we started how we meant to go on; with a British Eventing (BE) competition at Solihull Riding Club. Avonbrook Odin (Marcus Aurelius x April) and I had a tough 2020 season while I clawed back some confidence after breaking my collarbone in a rotational fall, but we ended the season on a high with 4th at Broadway BE90. After a winter of hard work, we were ready to return to form and chase our final qualifying score at 90cm that would allow us to compete in BE100 classes when we felt ready. Solihull was the obvious choice as it was the earliest ‘local’ event on the calendar, so I put in my entry and prepared to start the season. My times were horribly early, but at least they were also close together so I would be done shortly after 10am. When walking the cross-country course the day before, I managed to get to fence 6 before regretting every decision that led me to that point in space and time. In my defence, the brush was 120cm high and almost as wide and I did question whether or not we were looking at the correct fence. Seemingly, so did several other people as we got word on competition day that they had trimmed it down significantly. At that point I had already made an alternative plan at fence 6, where an alternative was thankfully provided, so I stuck to it and jumped a very beefy house instead. When discussing tactics with a friend who was also riding, it became clear that I was in the minority of people who realised that there was an alternative to the brush which added about 10 seconds to the time and acquired no penalties for jumping instead of the ‘problem fence’. Indeed, several competitors before me had refusals at this fence and ended up taking the alternative with 20 penalties slapped onto their score. We would later find out from the event statistics that over 20 horses had problems at that fence alone, and there were even some falls and eliminations at that one fence!
A bit big for a BE90! Credit Jasmine Hemming
Before we could get to the cross-country, we had to do our dressage and show jumping. As it was Odin’s first event in six months, I wasn’t expecting miracles between the white boards, but I hoped our hard work at home might pay off in some way. We scored 33 penalties after a fairly good test, but there were definitely some areas for improvement. I don’t think Odin’s attempts to leave the arena went completely unnoticed, and I am also unconvinced the judge ignored the tail swishing every time I put my leg on. I wouldn’t mind but he can whip me in the back of the neck with it which I think is quite unfair; Odin thinks it’s funny. After eventually coaxing a square halt out of him, we sniggered our way back to the lorry and got him changed ready for the show jumping. Due to the current regulations, we weren’t permitted to warm up indoors, so the outdoor arena was split into a warm up and competition arena. This meant that space was a little tight and the course ‘pinballed’ us from corner to corner, which would have been easier if the arena fence wasn’t covered in banners. Not that this should have been a problem for Odin, he has seen plenty of banners in his life and specifically the Solihull banners countless times before. However, he was too busy gawping at a banner to notice fence 5 which rode 2 and a bit strides off the corner. After slamming on the anchors, I fought my “give up and go home” response and chased him around the rest of the course, clattering a jump to the ground for good measure. With 8 penalties added to our dressage, there was no chance of a placing now, so I was firmly chasing my MER (Minimum Eligibility Requirement) for BE100.
Stretching or trying to eat… Avonbrook Odin post-dressage. Credit JHemming Photography
Luckily, my times didn’t allow for much thought in between phases. This was definitely for the best as most of my thoughts consisted of “he’s had a stop in the show jumping, how am I going to get him around the cross-country?”. It was only in the cross-country warmup that I relaxed and fully focused on the job at hand. Odin was flying at every jump I pointed him at. The minutes dragged as we waited for our turn, rider after rider either walked off the course – a disaster I know well – or made reattempts at various fences that were causing issues. With my plan of action firmly wedged between my ears, I waited to be called for my two-minute countdown. There’s a fine line between relief at being next to go onto course and utter sickness that you’re about to be moving very fast at fences that don’t fall down if you get it wrong. Directing my mind towards only the excitement of getting to go cross-country, I started my watch, walked one more circle around the start box, and set off like we were at Badminton. We soared over the first fence and pressed on to the next field, which contained four separate jumps all in the first 40 seconds. Once we had flown over the trakehner at fence 5, I had a bit more space to open him up before shutting down his canter to make a tricky turn to the alternative fence 6, that I was committed to jumping. As we rose up from a steep dip, I called to the fence judge to inform them I was taking the alternative fence before completing three-quarters of a 20 metre circle to line up on the house. Disaster. Odin had seen some sponsorship banners behind the jump that weren’t there when I course walked and he was backpedalling. Two strides out and his shoulders went left, my legs clamped on. One stride out and his shoulders went right, my legs clamped on tighter. With the confidence from my fully clamped legs, he redirected his shoulders between the flags on take-off and I slipped my reins to let him have his head. After another wiggle on landing where he tried to take on the 100cm brush at an insane angle, I gathered up my reins and sent him down the hill to the next fence. We re-established our rhythm and took every fence out of our stride.
Avonbrook Odin flying around the BE90. Credit JHemming Photography
The second half of the course was much more forgiving than the first half and that allowed me to ease off the accelerator so I didn’t pick up too many naughty time penalties for going too fast. I couldn’t get too complacent though as the penultimate fence was a combination that a few riders before me were having problems at. The question was simple enough: an up to height oxer then a skinny upright. The striding, however, was asking riders to choose between 8 shorter strides, or 7 longer ones. If I wasn’t making an active choice to finish steadily, it wasn’t a difficult 7 strides, but it was all too easy to glance off the very skinny second element if a rider didn’t hold their line. Odin is very honest with skinny fences, but I had no reason to gamble, so I sat quietly for the additional stride before rounding the corner to the last. On landing, I gave him a huge pat and let him canter over the line to finish just slow enough to not pick up fast penalties. We now have our final MER for BE100 but I am certainly not rushing to enter any bigger classes any time soon. I want to have a few more runs at BE90 with Odin, especially at new venues, before I step up and start collecting BE100 results. My next step is to become a consistent partnership at this level again, but what a good first run for 2021!
Confidently over fence 4 and looking to fence 5. Credit TopShots Photography
Typically, the luck could not last forever. We returned to Solihull the following weekend for an unaffiliated 80cm event with Annia Aurelia (Marcus Aurelius x Bint Zaehaebi) – Penny – for her second ever one-day event. Mum and I disagreed on how the dressage went, mum said it looked like she was trying her best to do it well, I said she felt like she was trying to argue with me and that we weren’t going to get a good mark. After our clear show jumping round, the commentator finished by declaring that we had nothing to add to our 28.8 dressage score and we were leading the section going into the final phase. I almost gave myself whiplash with how quickly my head spun towards mum, who decided against taking the high road and proclaimed how right she was and how wrong I was. Fair enough. The steward warned us to be at the cross-country as soon as we could owing to the large number of withdrawals – never a good sign – so I quickly changed kit and changed Penny’s bridle to a pelham as her favourite game is “how fast can I go and how loud can I make Katherine scream because she has no brakes in my snaffle and grackle?”. As soon as I arrived at the warm up, the chaos began. A horse had become trapped in the brush at fence 6 and the course was held while it was freed. Then someone fell off at the trakehner, then at least three riders walked off the course. Chaos seems to find Penny; she was held in the start box at her first event while an ambulance scraped someone out of a trakehner, and sadly Penny joined the chaos this time. Despite warming up brilliantly and taking everything on with her usual boldness, she completely wimped out in the start box. It was as if she took herself off to her happy place and didn’t look at any of the fences until we were a couple of strides away, at which point she would skid to a halt. I got her very stickily over fence 1 but not fence 2. Then I nursed her over fence 3 and we ballooned fence 4. At this point, it was clear that I had very little trust in her and she repaid that with having little trust in me, so she ground to a halt in front of fence 5, then didn’t even look at fence 6 (the brush) before halting in front of it. With only one stop left until elimination and the realisation that trying to force her around the rest of the course was not only dangerous, but would be damaging to both of our confidence, I retired and walked her back to the lorry. Trying not to let the feelings of “not again” overcome me, mum and I tried to make sense of why our Warrior Arab Princess threw in the towel.
Annia Aurelia looking the part, but not at the jumps. Credit Rowena Bertram
May will therefore be a month of building a relationship with Penny on the cross-country course to build her confidence and my trust in her. It is very unlike her to get stage fright but there’s something about the aspect of cross-country that she clearly doesn’t understand yet, and Penny hates not understanding things. With her, I forget her inexperience in this new and strange sport, so we will be going back to basics and I hope she will let me hold her hand until she either decides she ‘gets it’ or wants to play a different game. There’s a fine line between daring her and scaring her, and I am determined to stay on the right side of it.
Annia Aurelia training at 95cm during April. Credit Rowena Bertram
Lead photo: Avonbrook Odin cruising home at Solihull BE90. Credit JHemming Photography
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.