Was it the fact my head was still in ‘building works’ mode and I was exhausted from the constant noise, mess and relentless cleaning, so I wasn’t my normal mentally alert and physically sharp self? Things should have been finished the previous weekend but ended up spilling over into ‘planning and packing’ purdah just before the competition. Or was it a couple of shocks I had when reading the FEI schedule a few days before we were due to leave? Or perhaps it was just part of the ongoing metamorphosis of my life. Probably a bit of everything.
The first shock was the vaccination rule. For international competitions under FEI rules, your horse must have a valid flu jab within 6 months and 21 days of the previous booster, on the day they compete. I knew about the 6 months but had forgotten about the 21 days and read it to mean 21 days in addition to 6 months. My heart skipped a beat. This would have been an issue as Talisman’s was just 13 days within 6 months and 8 days short of 21. In any event, he would not be allowed to compete within 7 days of being vaccinated if he was done immediately and there were only 3 days to go before the competition. I ‘phoned a friend’ who informed me the 21 days was a period of leeway in addition to the 6 months for those who might have missed their vaccination date. Phew! Crisis over.
Then I read there was a minimum weight of 60 kilos for the rider in the 2* class at this event. The last few competitions at this level hadn’t specified a weight and while I was aware of the 75 kilos minimum weight at 3* level (160K) I had forgotten minimum weights at 2*, or in the back of my mind perhaps I thought it was no longer required? The last time I rode at a minimum weight, it was on Taz in a 2* before moving to Wales and then it was 70 kilos, which I made by a hair’s breath!
So I rushed down to the tack room, put on my competition gear (boots, hat, bum-bag, gloves, watch, every little last thing) and got on the scales with saddle, girth and numnah, to find to my horror that I couldn’t even make 60 kilos now. It was difficult to tell exactly what the reading was, as I peered down over everything I was holding, so I would have to wait until the morning for confirmation when someone was around to check it for me while I remained upright on the scales. But I could get an accurate reading without any kit. I was just over 8 stone, a whole stone lighter since moving to Wales with all the relentless physical activity involved in maintaining the place (on a hill), in addition to ridden and personal training.
I spent the rest of the evening acclimatising to the almost inevitable outcome that having done all the training and with Talisman on top form and racing fit, we would probably not be going to the competition. Whilst I dwelt on this, I began to examine how I felt about my participation in the sport generally and started to wonder if this was crunch time? In the ‘here and now’ though, I could not ignore the fact I felt uncharacteristically tired and, for the first time ever, was dubious about summoning the energy to plan, cook and pack, drive 6 hours to the competition, do all setting up, ride the race the following day, pack up and the drive home the day after. Normally, I would just do it but this time, maybe I was saving myself from something – an error of judgement resulting from fatigue?
Longer term, there was the whole issue of weight. This was a big factor. It had been in the back of my mind ever since I began the sport. At the highest and most demanding level the sport insists on a level playing field for weight which benefits the heaviest competitors, who are mostly men. This requirement has long since been abolished in eventing and I can’t think of another equestrian sport that has it. Weight categories would make far more sense rather than asking so many riders to carry dead weight which puts them and their horse at a disadvantage, as dead weight is inert. While, as a rider, you make constant adjustments to your position to fine tune your point of balance on your horse and use your seat aids for change of pace, dead weight on your horse’s back is just that – dead and immovable. I realise that many horses carry it and are successful at the top distance but I think it’s unfair to put that extra demand on the horse when the effort required to complete 100 miles at speed is extreme enough.
In my case, it would be 1.5 to 2 stone depending on whether I put on weight which I would prefer not to do, as it’s taken many years to create a body I like! Common sense surely dictates that carrying dead weight has likely consequences for the competition life (maybe even the ridden life) of a horse and, personally, I want my horse to last as long as possible. So, the issue I found myself considering was whether there was any point in continuing with the sport when the only place left to go was 3* (and possible team selection). My horse is good enough to turn his hoof to other disciplines, in which I am already experienced and we could have a lot of fun.
The following day, I got back on the scales and Clare (strimming queen, occasional groom, gardener, house sitter and general right hand person) checked the weight. I was borderline 60 kilos. Based on past experience, if you are borderline there is a greater chance of being asked to weigh during the ride and / or afterwards and I wasn’t about to risk elimination on the grounds of weight after all the effort and expense involved in getting to an international competition.
There was one final thing and possibly the most profound. While I agonised over what to do, I tried to find a broader perspective and, instinctively, the realisation came that ‘my life is no longer an endurance’. It has been that many times in the past but now, in my current metamorphosis into a new person in a new life, this is not the vibe. So perhaps the sport no longer fits?
For all these reasons, after a fairly sleepless night, I decided not to go to the competition and no longer to compete in the sport (probably long term but certainly for now) and I felt a huge sense of relief. The following day, I rode out and Talisman and I did a shorter session of cantering at the top of the ridge than during peak training…..‘just because’. He felt awesome and was a complete joy; the connection between us was wonderful and it was poetry. This winter, he will learn to jump and hone his dressage skills with a view to competing in arab dressage and Working Hunter classes next year. Everything I have learned in a sport which tests you, your horse and your preparation to the limit is invaluable and my horsemanship has increased hugely because of it. I am also pleased that I have achieved reasonable mastery over what was a new sport for me, proving a somewhat unconventional training programme in the process and working out Talisman’s management to be able to successfully compete at 2* level. I am eternally grateful for the friendship and support of a few key competitors who helped me fast-track to international level but now it’s time for pastures new (pun intended)!
Meanwhile, on the home front, this is the last day of kitchen works. So once I have scrubbed and cleaned after ‘the maestro’ master craftsman Charles has left and spent the week painting the cupboards and the doors, I should have two shiny new kitchens and I am thrilled with the beautiful transformation which respects the historic nature of the property. I have also had 5 roof openings made (4 velux and 1 sun-tube) which proved challenging for the roofer (and prompted a vocabulary I cannot repeat) due to centuries of botched repair jobs to the roof! But what a difference light makes. It changes everything. Outside, fine artist and occasional decorator John has transformed the barn on the yard-facing side which is now blue to match the sky. The roof will eventually be metallic silver to match the clouds! So, for now, the coffers are empty which means all other house and garden projects are on hold but that’s no bad thing as I need time to recover and enjoy the upgrades so far, not to mention the space to kick-start my new professional life!
Pics: Talisman competition fit and looking great; rainbow over the wood chip track and over the fields; fine artist John finishes the last corner of the barn; the completed item, blue to match the sky; me with the wheel I painted now in situ.