INTRODUCING EWW’s 2018 GRASSROOTS BLOGGER – LUCIE STOKOE…

In the run up to this year’s Mitsubishi Motors Cup, we’ll be following Lucie Stokoe and Dolores II as they prepare to compete in the BE90 Championships. In the first of her blogs for Eventing Worldwide, Lucy introduces herself and Dolores.

I had ponies as a child but stopped riding in my early teens. Then, after a 16-year break from riding, I booked myself in for a lesson at the local riding school where I had gone to watch my niece ride. Before I knew it, I was hooked again and booking in for three lessons a week. It didn’t take me long to work out that it would be more economical to buy my own horse, so my search began for my “dream” horse.

I found a fabulous yard where I was going to keep said “dream” horse and they kindly agreed to help me find him/her. My only real criteria was that as a Novice rider, I needed a horse that “had been there done that”. However, my budget did not quite stretch to this! Instead, I fell in love with “Dolores” a beautiful little bay mare stabled at their yard that had lots of “potential” but was the total opposite of what I was looking for. She was 5 years old and “very green” with no competition experience and very little life experience! On the plus side, she had a wonderful sweet nature and was within my budget, so obviously I bought her! And so our partnership began!

It was not an easy journey – we have both been very unlucky with injury. For starters, I broke my wrist badly falling from another horse (plates and pins required!) weeks before buying Dolores. (Any sane inexperienced rider at this point would have cancelled the purchase of a 5-year-old, but I was not deterred). After that, I bruised my kidneys following another fall, dislocated my collar bone (not horsey related!) and had multiple ankle sprains (why is it always ankles??). During this time, she has had various infections and numerous kicks/cuts, so every year we have been out of action for at least a few months. However, we have been learning and growing together along the way and we finally got started with our competition career in 2016.

We started off joining BE in 2016 and began competing at the BE90 level. She was still very green and I was still a very novice rider so we did not look a pretty pair to watch. However, we somehow managed 4 top 6 placings in our first ever 5 events (and 2 regional final places!). Unfortunately, our inexperience caught up with us as we struggled to cope with the variable going during the season (in the wet, Dolores was forever losing shoes and on the hard ground she hated the going) so she began to lose confidence. Our lowest point was at the Weston Park regional final in 2016. I knew going into the event that she wasn’t in a happy place, but I was desperate to compete seeing as we had qualified for it. So off we went. It was a horrible feeling sat in the show jumping warm up, knowing we were in the lead after the dressage, but that I was riding a horse that didn’t have the confidence in the ground to jump. I tried so hard to get her round, but with 1 stop in the show jumping and another in the xc, we ended up near the bottom. At that point I thought we would never get through this.

However, during our low point, we were recommended a fantastic farrier, who kept her shoes on in the wet and introduced us to gel pads for the hard going, and slowly, I could feel her confidence coming back. We even managed to finish our last two events of the season without a stop and were back in the top 6 placings! I was therefore looking forward to a more confident 2017!

But life is never that straight forward. Dolores suffered a nasty kick at a show in January 2017 and was out of action for most of Jan and Feb. She then developed a horrible infection in her legs that we struggled to shift. By the time the season started, I thought we were back on track. She felt great and was doing some lovely dressage tests. But, when it came to the jumping, she just didn’t want to jump. After 5 events with multiple stops each time out, I was ready to pack it all in. She wasn’t enjoying it and I was quickly falling out of love with Eventing. (My bank balance was not looking too happy either!). She is a super little dressage horse, so I decided, if she wasn’t jumping by the end of June, we would just have to stick to BD instead. (I like to think that the threat of turning her into a pure dressage pony gave her the wake up she needed but looking back, the infection must still have been lingering and causing her discomfort!)

It was not until Mount Ballan that everything (finally!) seemed to click into place. The weather was horrendous – the rain did not stop all day and we did a terrible dressage in the mud, skidding around the corners. I was not looking forward to the xc. But she gave me the ride of my life – she flew around like a xc machine, galloping through the mud like an old pro. Whilst everyone else was getting time faults for being too slow, we incurred 3.2 too fast time penalties and finished in 5th place. Those time penalties cost us second place but I didn’t care – I just could not get over the transformation in her – it was like riding a totally different horse (well the old Dolores before the stops!). I began to think that maybe we could do BE after all.

Ironically, from then on, the xc phase became her favourite phase and we started to really enjoy our eventing and shock (!!) actually look forward to the xc phase. The only negative is that unfortunately, she runs at Novice pace naturally, so we struggle to not incur too fast time penalties at BE90! The highlight of our season was second place at Little Downham (those too fast time penalties xc cost us the win!) followed by 4 wins in a row. (I still can’t believe how much she has achieved, given where we were only four months earlier when we were planning on packing it all in!).

We could not have had a better lead up to our two regional finals. Until (drum roll!) she stood on her noseband (whilst wearing her bridle!), panicked, snapped it and bruised her mouth. I could not work out why suddenly my lovely dressage horse was sticking her tongue out whilst we were schooling and tossing her head up whenever I took a contact, until the bit lady came out and the penny dropped. At our first regional final at Little Downham, we didn’t do a bad test (all things considering) but she was well out of it and even a double clear inside the time wasn’t enough.

Our final chance at a qualification spot was at Weston Park. She was particularly sensitive in the dressage warm up and I was not looking forward to our test. It wasn’t our best effort (more of a damage limitation effort!) and we were sat in 16th odd position after dressage. At least the pressure was off as I had written off the chance of qualifying after that. However, she did a super double clear inside the time which saw us start to climb the leader board. It was a nerve wracking wait as we saw ourselves climb to 10th place then 9th and finally for us to finish in 8th (with the same score as 7th place). I was not sure how many people would qualify as there had been a few non-starters on the day and was cursing our speed again, thinking that we may miss out on qualification by 2 or 3 seconds. I was so mad with myself that I didn’t even want to stay for prize giving, but my poor partner and friend who were with me persuaded me to grow up and stay. So I did.

I looked an absolute state, but when I was handed my 8th place rosette and “qualified rider” sticker, I was in disbelief. Had I really qualified? I had to phone up BE the next day to confirm, as I could not believe we had got there by the skin of our teeth! The relief when they confirmed that yes we had was unbelievable. It still feels like a dream. My wonderful horse that would not jump a 70cm roll top back on 1st May 2017 has qualified for Badminton on 1st May 2018. (I am just hoping that we don’t have such a roller coster ride on the run up to Badminton this year!)