CATCH UP WITH LUCIE STOKES AS SHE ‘TRIES’ TO PREP FOR THE MMC

Since our regional final last October, Dolores (Dolly) and I have been keeping very busy (trying to distract ourselves from this horrible and very long winter!).

We finished the season at Broadway with our first ever BE100. (I say BE100, but we actually had to compete in the open section! I thought I was being very clever using my ballot sticker, but apparently not that clever seeing as everyone else was using their super ballots! So it was either the BE100 open the day after my friend who I was travelling with was competing or ballot!). The BE100 open section it was then with my lovely friend (who was riding the day before) as groom!

I was pretty petrified at the thought of doing my first 100 in the open section, but I suppose we have to start somewhere! It didn’t help that I (stupidly!) walked the xc course the day before. I then spent a sleepless night stressing about how on earth we were going to get over fence 6. (Anyone who walked the Broadway course will know which fence I mean – the skinny brush in the shape of a tractor half way down a massive hill!!) Sleep deprivation is not the best mental preparation for an event, but fortunately I had a few wonderful friends with me to offer me some moral support!

Our dressage was not great (we were still having issues with the contact following the “bridlegate” drama) and I stupidly went wrong in the test! (I hadnt been wrong in a test since BD regionals 6 months earlier when I went wrong twice!!). However, we managed a 31.3 so not too bad considering! In the show jumping, I rode like a complete beginner – I was so scared – but somehow, Dolly jumped around with the agility of a cat – shuffling in strides where I had messed them up to give us a clear round. Then, it was on to the xc… the fear factor was off the scale! (I know we are supposed to do this for fun, but I just could not get fence 6 out of my head!) But before I could talk myself out of it, we were off. Fences 1- 5 passed us by before I knew it and we were heading down the hill to fence 6. I had the mantra “sit up.. sit up.. sit up” in my head as I prayed for a good stride. Then we were over it. (I was so relieved we nearly ran out at the next fence!) The rest of the course went by in a blur until we passed through the finish. Clear and inside the time (almost but not quite too fast!). I was absolutely delighted – double clear in our first ever BE100 (open!) and 5th place. (That was also good enough for a regional final place!)

After that Dolly had a bit of a break before we started on our winter sports – BD and BS!

You may have gathered already, but I am not a great fan of show jumping. Dolly is bred for show jumping. I however am very definitely not! (Anyone who has watched me jump a course will spot that!). Unfortunately, the only way to improve is to do more. So my solution was to join BS! I still don’t love it but at least now I can jump around a 90cm course without wanting to be sick with fear!

Our first “winter sport” competition that we had entered was the Amateur Show Jumping Championships at Aintree. We had qualified for the 85cm and 95cm classes – although I was not sure I really wanted to do the 95cm class. The start height was 1m and it went up to 1m 15 in the Championship Final. (I don’t really understand the world of BS -why do they call it a 95cm class if only the first few fences are 95cm and everything else is much bigger?)

So in preparation for Aintree, we went to Hartpury to do the British Novice (90cm) and our second ever Discovery (1m) class. Unfortunately, what I hadn’t realised when we entered was that the Discovery was a big qualifier for the Blue Chip Championships, so not only was the number of entrants massive (65 in the Novice and 82 in the Discovery) but the course was also well…. massive. Now, I don’t usually go for a time in show jumping (Dolly is blessed in the speed department so even when we go around the houses, she is still pretty fast!) but given that we were going to Aintree the following week, I thought I had best at least try a few turns. So we did. Dolly I discovered is not only very speedy, but she is also pretty good at turning! We were very lucky and managed to keep the poles up in both classes and were rewarded for our efforts with wins in both classes. (Now, this is not a regular thing for us, but as you can imagine – I was absolutely delighted!). Although, what this also meant was that I had qualified for the Blue Chip Joshua Jones Discovery Championships (where the course will start at 1m 5 and be at least 1m 15 in the jump off!). I am still not sure whether I am brave enough to do this!!

Anyway, I was on a high as I drove up to Aintree the following week for our 5 night stay away show, thinking that maybe I could do the 85cm and 95cm classes after all! The first day at Aintree went well. Dolly had settled into her temporary home and we began the show competing in the first of two 85cm qualifier classes. There were 130 plus entrants and the top 25 qualified for the final. I didn’t want to peak too soon, so had instructions to not go for the tight turns, but to be sensible. So, I went for my clear and we were lucky enough to finish in 25th place and qualify for the final. Unfortunately, that was where our luck ended. That evening, I wrapped my lorry around a metal gate post and fed Dolly “rocket fuel” (haylage that I bought from Aintree as a special treat for her!!). My lorry looked a bit of a sorry state and my pony was metaphorically climbing the roof of her temporary stable. (When I rode her the next day, she was bucking and squealing in the warm up and blind ran at all the fences in the ring). Needless to say, we had poles every day from then on.

Since Aintree, the weather deteriorated (and seems to have not got any better – the never ending winter!) and Dolly stopped going out in the field. So our BD and BS outings have been incredibly exciting. (Windy, wet, cold and snowy conditions plus a clipped horse that is not letting off steam in the field equals a crazy explosive cocktail!) Needless to say, we have not been very successful! But I have been persevering in the hope that at some point she will begin to calm down. (I am still hoping!)

Before we knew it, January was here and we were starting to think about entries for the BE season. I had strategically planned all of the events that I wanted to do on the run up to Badminton and was just waiting for the entries to open. But it hasn’t been going well. This was my plan:

Then, in the same week that Moreton was abandoned my BD Dressage regional final (blinking dressage!!!) was abandoned because of the snow in March. At this point I was feeling quite despondent, so decided to put myself down on the Oasby waitlist for the BE100. (I know it is crazy to leap straight into a BE100 having only ever done 1 BE100 and not been xc on the grass since Broadway 6 months earlier, but I was starting to think that I would never get going and Oasby only had a waitlist for the BE100). So that was that.

On the Wednesday 7th March, we did our BD regional at Summerhouse and on the Thursday 8th we were off to Oasby to do our second ever BE100 having not done any xc schooling in preparation – which is something I have never done before! (At least we had been getting in lots of show jumping and dressage preparation!).

Well, the BD regional did not go according to plan. I am not sure what it is about the Novice 37a test or the combination of it being that test at the regionals, but in the three times I have done it at regionals, we have had a total disaster test each time. (I say after every regional, that was our worst BD test EVER – but then at the next regionals, we seem to go one better and do an even worse test!). The first time, I went wrong twice (missed the halt on the first centre line and it all went downhill from there!), the second time, she cantered off in a 10m trot circle and in the two medium trots and this time, well, you would think she had never been in the arena’s at summerhouse. (For the record she has and scored over 71% just two weeks before in the same flipping arena!) She spooked in the trot, halt, walk and bucked and galloped off in the canter. (I think we finished near the bottom!) In our Novice freestyle test she was much better, but jig jogged in her medium walk and changed legs in the canter. We finished 4th (less than a mark from each judge off 2nd place) but unfortunately only 2 qualified and it was a low scoring class, so that was that. (I am hoping we have better luck at the Summers – only another 6 months to wait!).

Then on to Oasby – a 5 hour round trip. (Total madness but it goes to show the depths of my desperation!) I have never been to Oasby before, but blimey it was wet and windy! Just as the bell rang at the start of our dressage, the rain pelted down and the wind whipped up. The judge laughed and shook her head, so at least appreciated that the weather was against us but we did not put in our finest performance. Dolly (being a very sensitive and fair weather mare!) was disgusted that she was being asked to perform in those conditions so started her protest as we went down the centre line (her head shaking as she tried to get the rain out of her ears!). It didn’t get much better! I was therefore pretty surprised and very grateful to the judge for giving us a 28.5.

Our winter of BS seemed to pay off as we did a lovely clear round in the show jumping (when I finally got her in the ring, past the sponsors sign that was flapping ferociously in the wind). We were then off to the xc. The course was weathering really well in the wind and rain so whilst I was nervous, I wasn’t too worried about anything in particular. In the start box Dolly was raring to go, and set off full of confidence.

She was jumping really well, but in between fences felt very spooky. Quite early on in the course there was a fairly sizeable Trakehner, which I was not too worried about, but as I came around the corner I could feel her backing off. (They were digging a ditch to the left of it and she had spotted the hole in the ground from way off and was starting to dig her hooves in). Aghhhh. Once she had looked into the ditch, I turned her around and she finally focussed on our jump and popped it like it was nothing (Very frustrating!!). Then off she went, flying around the rest of the course. Three from home I had a bit of a sat nav crisis and ended up in the lorry park, but was soon pointed back onto the course to finish 8 seconds over the optimum. (There were only a few people from each section within the time, so even with the stop and getting lost, she was still one of the fastest times of the day!).

Unfortunately those 20 pens cost us 2nd place. But I have to remember, she hasn’t been out on the grass (even in the field!) for 6 months, so it was not surprising she was a bit spooky. I have also gained lots of confidence from how she felt jumping around, so am hoping that if we can ever get to another competition (or even out xc schooling on the grass – everywhere is still shut!) I will start to look forward to and enjoy my eventing.

In the meantime, we will be out show jumping and practicing our dressage at home.

I will keep you posted with our eventing plans and will hopefully have more events to report back on if the weather improves!