The day we took on an Olympian …and won!

Yes this happened. Yes it was nearly a week ago. No I’m not over it yet.


Hunt relay

Photo courtesy of Bex. Angelic, I think you’ll agree.

Picture the scene – rank amateur event rider turns often-bonkers horse towards show jump, to find she is not alone. Turning into the other showjump in the warm-up, the one right next to the one rank amateur is jumping, is none other than Tina Cook.

If that means nothing to you frankly who even are you.

Ok that’s a bit harsh …but it’s like being a boxer and leaping from foot-to-foot (in that funny way boxers do) opposite Muhammed Ali, or running with a rugby ball towards Paul O’Connell. Actually it’s nothing like that, that would be terrifying.

She rides for Team GB. She’s won individual bronze and team gold at the actual Olympics!

But this story gets BETTER…

My team-mates and I, who for the purposes of this competition were collectively named the Jam Tarts, arrived at the Crawley and Horsham Hunt Relay at the All England Showjumping Course, Hickstead, not without a degree of trepidation.

Team mate one (Cassie B), was riding a very-young-and-not-always-entirely-brave-but-very-well-meaning pony for a friend, which she hadn’t sat on in a few months.

Team mate two (Bex), was on board the sweetest-looking ginger pony, which she’d brought out of retirement especially for the occasion, and she therefore wasn’t entirely sure what might happen.

Team mate three (me aka. the rank amateur) had Bonkers McGraw (Gigi) as my steed – who can be brilliant and also can be bonkers. Having not left the yard all winter my money was on bonkers.

Upon arrival I found out from my fellow tarts that Tina Cook had been spotted on the premises (not a surprise as she has a daughter in the local pony club). But that she was wearing breeches. We laughed that she might be competing against us in the relay, and I fantasised at length about jumping alongside her while the theme tune to National Velvet played in the background, and our photo appearing on the cover of Horse and Hound – under what merit I’m not sure …I don’t think I’d thought that far ahead.

Having discussed tactics (try not to fall off, jump all the jumps. …high octane stuff), I arrived back at my little lorry to find bonkers pony in a muck sweat – the very sound of other ponies walking past and the fact she was on the lorry meant she was sweating to the point of frothing. Lovely.

Having offered to help me tack up, my boyfriend sensibly retreated to the front seat at the sight of bonkers pony bursting off the lorry, eyes rolling, nostrils flaring and hooves clattering not unlike the steed of a Ring Wraith from Lord of The Rings. Terrifying. I honestly didn’t really want to get on.

But get on I did, and thankfully as soon as my bum was in the saddle it was like someone had pressed the ‘be calm not mental’ button. She behaved impeccably all day, thank gawd.

It quickly transpired that not only was Tina riding on a relay team, she was riding against us. I didn’t play it at all cool and got very overexcited about this.

As our two teams (theirs was called The Good, the Bad and the Olympian… excellent) walked into the arena, I showed bonkers pony one of the fences – when one of my team mates incredulously asked what I was up to I told them I was showing her the fence, like they do at the Grand National.

“If it works for AP McCoy it can work for you,” came a voice from behind me.

Yes it was Tina. She was obviously lovely and amazing and rode impeccably because off-of Olympics. But the most amazing part is that hunt relays are a team event, and by some miracle (and some excellent tactical riding from Cassie B), the Jam Tarts prospered. Jammy indeed.

Even superstars get nervous

A brush with equestrian royalty …and how not to watch a showjumping class.

Hickstead Derby bank

Sunday brought about an unintentional brush with equestrian royalty, when I was sitting in the stands watching the 2017 Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby. (That’s showjumping to the uninitiated, and involves a descent down a gargantuan grass bank…see above.)

Oh my god I’ve just looked up the height of the bank – Wikipedia (that ever-reliable source…) says the drop is 10ft 6in – that’s 3.20m! They must be mad.

So in conclusion it’s not for the faint hearted. And in a stroke of luck this internationally-renowned spectacle is local to me.

But aside from extolling the event’s virtues, this year’s Derby class was a fantastic one to watch, with thrills and spills a-plenty in the first half, and a gripping competition in the second, which saw Nigel Coupe and Golvers Hill (pleasingly known as Ricky at home, and pictured above), narrowly claim the title from fellow GB rider Harriet Nuttall.

The really exciting part though was not watching the crazy showjumpers (and one eventer – go Elizabeth Power!) tackle the legendary Derby course, but my brush with actual equestrian legend Michael Whitaker.

I was sitting with friends, gripped by the action, when a lady asked if she could sit in the spare seat next to me. Obvs I said yes. And I sort of noticed her Yorkshire accent in between gasping, clapping and occasionally weeping (for that is what I do when I watch equestrian sports, strange but true. Totes over-emosh.)

Now everyone’s an expert from the comfort of their sofa/seat, including me. Except it should be said that my exclamations-to-self are probs a bit louder than everyone else’s, as is my inimitable style. (Irritating but also inevitable).

Armchair expert

So I was giving my (ignorant) opinion on what was happening in the ring, and exclaiming that a rider had lost a stirrup, loudly informing all those around me of this, (in spite of the fact that we all had the same view and they could see just as well as me).

Then the Yorkshire lady (who I now know is called Melissa) quietly told me that his martingale had in fact come undone, which it had.

My friends and I were then discussing (too loudly in my case) why so many horses were balking at the white wall of the road jump, just before the afore-mentioned bank of doom. We concluded perhaps the light was glaring off it, there was something distracting in the crowd, or they were napping past the entrance.

Melissa quietly came to the fore again and said that a lot of this year’s entrants hadn’t jumped a derby course before, and that the fence had appeared in the Derby Trial class (which Michael won), but not the Speed Derby – so some horses had jumped it before but most hadn’t. (The facts might be the other way around there…as I mentioned I never let a lack of solid facts get in the way of a good yarn).

I thanked her and asked if she was involved in the sport, as she seemed to know what she was talking about. She told me she was Michael Whitaker’s wife, (cringe) and I then realised he was sitting in the seat behind her, (cringe again) probably cursing inwardly at my ignorance. C’est la vie!

Michael Whitaker

In truth I think thankfully he was too focussed on the action to listen to my drivel. So when he went to the loo (which I noted he did a few times), I asked her if he or she ever got nervous. She said they both did, but she tried not to show it. She seemed lovely.

When he returned I could see that his hand wasn’t as steady as it might be, holding the programme, and I found this strangely reassuring. I compete my horse at a far inferior level, but there’s something comforting about knowing that even superstars like Michael Whitaker get nervous.

I also enjoyed his brusque Yorkshire commentary on proceedings…having actually realised he was there. He is a man of few words, and the ones he does utter are fairly difficult to understand for a softie southerner like myself. I wouldn’t like to betray his views on the other riders, but let it be known that he has an excellent sense of humour.

Michael unfortunately retired his horse Gentlemen VH Veldhof (pictured above) half way around the course, but even I could see this had nothing to do with nerves.

I later saw him interviewed on Hickstead TV by Daisy Bunn off-of the Bunn family, what-own Hickstead – he was there with about six members of his family, who together form something of a showjumping dynasty.

So it turns out the whole family do the gruff Yorkshire grunting thing. It’s hereditary. They seemed like a cheerful bunch though, which I was able to ascertain only from their expressions, as god only knows what they were saying.

As an aside, Harriet Nuttall, who jumped off against Nigel in a nail-biting finish, gave her horse a fantastic ride, and I wasn’t alone in the stands in feeling slightly miffed that she didn’t win, despite having the fastest clear in the first round. But them’s the rules and Nigel was certainly a worthy winner – and a GB one at that.

I’d like to pretend that this experience has taught me a valuable life lesson and I will keep my views to myself in future. But tbh that’s not happening any time soon. Soz.