Laura Phipps ….
Spectators have taken him to their hearts. Ben Hobday has marvelled at his horse. He is living his dreams – earlier than dreamed. David Britnell has thrilled eventing fans with his exhilarating cross country riding, which has catapulted him up the table into 16th,13th & 14th place at three Event Rider Master Series events in 2017. “The ERM series this year has been the most amazing opportunity to compete against and learn from the very best, in a way I never thought possible until later in my career” enthused David. “The riders have been so encouraging to me, the new boy in their midst – I have become braver in asking for help!” A noteworthy skill in itself.
Speaking with David feels like chatting with a friend. He has a warmth, an infectious zest for the sport in which he is carving out a name for himself. I feel ‘going journalist’ and chopping his interview to give a snapshot of what are considered the best bits, would be doing a disservice to you, the readers. And so, you get a full David Britnell experience or ‘late night ramblings’ as he refers to it.
Dreams and reality rarely collide. But David is about to execute a dream he hatched a fair while a go. “I am privileged to ride around the most amazing estates – Barbury being my favourite but when I compete at Blenheim in September it will be a fulfilment of a dream hatched when I first competed there as a member of the Old Berkeley Hunt. I would walk the ‘big’ course afterwards and make my Mum blanch by telling her I would ride it one day!” ‘Mum’, Dawn Britnell, is a freelance BHSII riding instructor, coach, examiner, assessor and List 6 BD dressage judge; successful upto Advanced level dressage, Intermediate eventing and Foxhunter level showjumping. Quite a success then in the equine industry. Yet, her pleas to her son? ‘Never work for yourself, with animals or kids.’ “I ignored this” laughs David. “Well actually, growing up, I was more interested in mountain biking, athletics and gymnastics.” Appeasing his Mum seemed promising then. “I was late to riding aged 13. My first horse was a 15hh gent called Bentley who calmly showed me the Pony Club ropes”. Maybe not then. That sealed his fate. His second horse – a 15.2hh Anglo-Arab named Buddy, took him to ‘many Pony Club championships’ – “he helped to make me the determined rider I am today as he had a real sense of humour!” In stark contrast to his Mum’s wishes, David is fully immersed into everything equine. And doing better. “I now make my
living and fund my eventing addiction by teaching, riding out and schooling. I wind Mum up no end as I now earn more from teaching than she does!” Quite an obvious omission then, at least for most riders – You don’t buy and sell horses? “Well, I know there is much more money in selling but I get too attached to them, I honestly don’t like doing it at all. So, teaching it is. I have my sights set firmly on my BHSI and then the FBHS as a means to supporting my horses. I LOVE teaching and feel lucky, that every day I earn money from having fun.”
Despite a rebel against his Mum’s pleas, love or in this instance knowledge was not lost – Dawn is his trainer. Rather tongue-in-cheek David quips ‘I can blame Mum for things!’ alluding to his cross country style. “I am told by some that my style across XC is not the prettiest.” (Dear David – unique is revered nowadays). “They are referring to a serious safety position that I instinctively adopt when my body feels the need. Nobody likes to fall off, I am no exception, so, if my lower legs feel the need to go straight out in front of me over a water fence or down a drop, then I am not going to argue with them. I find the way some riders lean forward into water alarming but I don’t ask them to change – unless I’m teaching them of course!” He continues (using his get out of jail card again!) “Mum always told me you don’t have to look pretty, just get the job done.” Horseplay aside, David very much knows how lucky he is as he continues “she doesn’t let me get away with a thing on a daily basis. Boy do I know it if a bit of tension has given my elbows flight. But I am so grateful for it.”
Several times throughout the interview, David refers to garnering ‘odd looks’. In fact, the reasons for the odd looks are all rather endearing. If you wish to catch a glimpse of David at Blenheim keep your ears on alert. “Mum greets me home (from completing XC) with a very Pony Club whoooohooooo. That gets her some very odd looks at 3* I can tell you, but it is part of our family ritual and it always will be, including at Blenheim!” If you hope to catch David on dressage day then keep a close eye on rider attire; “I wear a shirt and tie for dressage to mean business – I was told by the ERM crew that this was very odd” said David. If you do see David, be mindful that, even if his round has gone well, he might not seem pleased about it and wear an expression of seriousness as he explains “I am told I am frustrating in that I don’t celebrate properly but I am just processing and analysing what I could have done better. My sole focus is on making sure the horse is cooled off properly, legs attended to, stretches done etc – I am OCD in that I HAVE to do all that myself. The penny will drop that I’ve had a good result on the way home when Ed Sheeran gets turned up to a stupid volume and I start singing” (this confession was offered freely, just to add!). He continues “so if you wish to see me ecstatic, travel home with me!” An invitation then – in our eyes anyway.
From the rider’s unorthodox fashion choices to a horse bought as a failed showjumper. The other half of the partnership is Continuity (Brad to his friends), a 13yo gelding by Contender. It is abundantly clear that David adores the bones of this horse, even if he does have a party trick that is quite unnerving “he is sharp ridden at home and when hacking spins fast and hard to the left – I feel safer on my 4yo. But luckily he isn’t spooky when competing – he focusses completely on the task and seems to love the
crowds. He is totally kind and has the softest eye.” Blindsided by love then. Rightly so, Brad and David have risen through the ranks from BE90 to 3* in only 6 years, counting a 5th place at Badminton Grassroots BE100 final in 2013 on their glittering CV. Their story is made even more meritorious as Brad is the first horse David has produced to event. Brad is also the only horse David events. As a result, the pair have a partnership which is beyond a ‘working relationship’. When questioned what his biggest achievement so far was, David responded ‘on paper it is the 2* win at Rockingham, the 10th at my first 3* at Hartpury 2016 along with my ERM placings but actually I think my biggest achievement is my relationship with Brad. I turned down a big offer for him a couple of years ago and I am glad I didn’t sell my best friend.’ Having been together for nearly 8 years the pair know each other inside out and ‘take on each new challenge absolutely together’.
Their next challenge – ‘I desperately want to break into the 40s in the dressage phase’ commented David. He continues “conformationally, Brad is strong in the shoulder but has very long hind legs meaning he has to work hard to sit in the dressage. He doesn’t have the elastic paces but his brain is exceptional. He may find extended trot difficult, for example, but he always has the attitude of yes Dad, I will try. I cant ask for much more than that. Having said that, we are asking for increasing cadence, swing and thoroughness in training.” Hungry expression activated – means the XC is impending. “This is our favourite phase.” This is also the phase which elicited ERM commentator Nicole Louise-Browne to shout ‘That horse is amazing, he sees the flags and goes.’ During the same round, at Chatsworth, Ben also commented that he would like to buy the horse. Some praise indeed. So, has it always been so straightforward? ‘No’, the response. “In the early days we missed a few corners” said David. “This made me more determined – lots of straightness training ensued. He also cannot tolerate a flash noseband for dressage and SJ but I do use one for XC to nail the steering.”
So, you may have seen images of the pair across country – smiling face, ears pricked, seemingly as cool as cucumbers. Does David get nervous? “Nerves are an essential part of competing. If you don’t have them, you don’t care enough. They are different for each phase and I am learning to better utilise the energy. I used to have crippling nerves before SJ – always really worried about the poles and they ruined many a round. I now accept that poles do come down and all I can do is look after the canter and approach. It used to be the same before dressage but now I always lock Brad and myself in a bubble and enjoy it. XC is interesting. Up until 3* I have always been able to find a point where experience overcame nerves and I felt very confident in the start box and the feeling would be – wow, that was easy but I could have done better at fences 5,7 etc. That was always the moment I was told to wait for before moving up to a new level. Now at 3*, the adrenalin, self preservation and sense of battle are all very much there. I feel truly alive.There is no other legal buzz to match it. I don’t think I will ever or should ever feel comfortable at this level – it is supposed to be seriously hard.”
For any aspiring to be the next David Britnell, then take some budding advice from the man himself – “Stay in the Pony Club! I believe young riders now are specialising too early by going BS, BD and BE and I always encourage them to continue on in the Pony Club instead – for the broad based eduction, social scene (especially camp!) and to help the youngsters also. I achieved the pinnacle of the Pony Club by passing the A Test and I still wear my felt proudly.” His experience at PC has clearly stood him in great stead, take heed!
The present is clearly splendid but what about the future for David? “I only compete Brad at the moment so I am actively seeking rides and owners. I have got to keep hoping that someone will trust me with their pride and joy – I don’t have the funds to buy myself. That said, I do have two youngsters at home – an ROR horse bought for a song and a lovely Monart sales purchase owned by my Grandmother and I. I am excited at the prospect of getting them out next season. The one could be out now doing 4yos but I am in no hurry and would rather have his mileage to use at the other end of his career. So that seems the present and the future are bright for David then. Keep on kicking.
David wishes to say a big thank you to his sponsors: Red Horse Products, Dingocroft, Timothy Foxx, Brian Findlay Photography, Tring Gallops and WOW Saddles, for their continued support.