I got the call from Horse Canada.com that I’ve been remiss about my writing. This is true. The winter/spring season kicked my butt’ we were so busy I could hardly stomach it and at times felt I wouldn’t survive it. But, I just had a great 12 days. Those of us entrenched in the horse world know that having 12 good days on the trot is pretty much epic, so alas I will write a lot now to make up.
As I’ve said before, when I was a young dreamy 20 something looking hopeful into my future, dreaming of a life somewhat like I have now, my elders warned me that a life with horses was difficult and ‘not so easy.’ I didn’t believe them. I believe them now. In fact, I think they were too gentle with me and sugar coated it too much. So again, 12 great days in a row? That is something to write about.
Our adventure started in Atlanta at Chattahoochee Hills horse trials. Our barn took nine horses up there to the event and I took my two young ones ‘Fleur’ (Lady Chatterley) and ‘Cianu’ (Syd) to do their second intermediate. Fleur did her first event with me back in March of 2017 and Syd did his first event ever in April of 2017, and they are both seven-year-old Holsteiner/TB crosses owned by myself and Jackie and Steve Brown, a fabulous couple from Indiana whom I met through doing camps out there.
To get them to their second intermediate (both having placed at one star CCI’s along the way) in about a year and a half has been pretty darn exciting. They did one heck of a job at Chatt and placed 2nd and 5th. The placings sound good, but really the important bit is their performances. Both placed 2nd after dressage, had 2 of 6 clear show jumping rounds in the divisions, and put in solid clear xc rounds with just time added. Both are so talented, but at the same time have very strong personalities (although very different from one another) that have at times thrown up obstacles for us, but as of late they seem to really be blooming and coming into their own in all the best of ways.
What makes it truly special is to be on this journey not just with them, but with Jackie and Steve. There’s a myth out there that owning horses is about throwing money at riders so that they can chase some kind of dream. If only they knew what it can really be like. Jackie and Steve come out to just about every other event, and most of the big ones; the first CCI’s, the first intermediates. In the Browns I have gained a father-figure and a second mom. I have gained a support system, a fan club, a family with these two horses, partners to adventure with, friends to plot with, people to dream with. I cannot tell you what the Browns mean to me, but what I can tell you is that the money has the very least to do with it. They are like fairy godparents, and I can only hope that what I, and the horses, give back to them in joy, excitement and love, comes somewhere close to what they have given to me and these horses.
I have long since lost the 20 year old dream state I used to live in, but there is a small, quiet piece of me that does, in the most secret place of my brain, have hopes and dreams for these horses and the Browns. But much like the villain in the Harry Potter novels, I have learnt that horse dreams are better left unsaid out loud, lol. But alas, that was a special weekend for all of us to be sure. Roll on our first CIC** in a month or so.
On the Sunday afternoon we shipped 8 of the horses home with two of our amazing girls and Leslie, Liam and I stayed on with one horse, Voltaire de Tre (Splash), in Atlanta to wait until Wednesday, at which time we were leaving for Virginia to meet up with the rest of the British Team for Leslie to take part in the Nations Cup at Great Meadows.
OK, so now I have to back track a bit so you understand how big a deal this was. It was a monumental, two-fold, big deal as:
1. The rider. Almost 14 years ago Leslie left the UK to come here. He left many great owners, an established string of competitive horses, an entire life built brick by brick to success, he left it all to come here. When he got here we had exactly: two horses, one truck, one two horse trailer, one border collie and a bit of cash. Period. To say it has been tricky establishing ourselves as foreigners in a wonderfully patriotic country in a sport that is dominated by the wealthy, well… ‘not so easy’ as my old friends would say. It has taken more work then you want to think about, 7 days a week. It has taken a toll on us physically, and worse, mentally and emotionally; it has been hard. But, slowly, in time, we built up a business that I think anyone would be proud of, own our own farm, have a bank account that is not padded by parents, pay taxes like champions, a nice small string of horses, some really amazing owners, great students and one incredible son. That said, in a life like ours, the theme here continues – there is little room for dreams or flights of fancy. We are working riders, not celebrity riders. So, Leslie believed he would never again ride for his flag in any way. But I never once believed that. So here we are, 14 years later and he got the call up to ride on the Nations Cup team.
2. The Horse. ‘Splash,’ owned by Tre and Janet Book, came to us 3 short years ago as a 6-year-old having done maybe one training along with one other horse Tre owned. He is 17 odd hands high, painted like a Barbie horse and was obnoxious as hell, very big, very lumpy and very awkward. After Leslie jumped him the first time he turned to me and said, “What do you think?” And I remember clearly saying that he looked like a goldfish that had fallen into the Turtles’ Mutagen (remember I do have an 8-year-old son) and he jumped like a hunter (and I didn’t mean show hunter). Leslie said, “Ya. What do we do?” Well having not even met Tre in person yet, having only received these horses over a phone call, I didn’t really feel good about calling him up and saying “Well, the one horse is fried in the brain and the other is a fat useless goldfish,” so I thought we had just best give it a few more weeks or so. The thing is, we really couldn’t have sold Splash at that point anyways! But slowly, month by month, that Splash seemed to change just a bit. He got a bit less lumpy, a bit more athletic, a bit less lunatic, and after 2 years we thought huh! Maybe this goldfish does have something about him, maybe this goldfish wants to be more than just that. Maybe he’s some exotic Koi, lol. This January he really came on and Leslie entered him in the Red Hill’s CIC*** where he outperformed our greatest expectations, then went on to place 4th at the Jersey Fresh CCI*** and boom. He got the call up for the team. Who would of thunk it?
We couldn’t ship into Great Meadows until Thursday so we spent Tuesday and Wednesday at Darrin Mollet’s beautiful farm in The Plains and when we arrived it was a shockingly 20 degrees hotter than in Florida; just roasting. Finally we got to meet the rest of the team, who, naturally, were all fairly naked when we got there, as you do, when you are English, and the temperature jumps above 68.
Rider 1 was Georgie Spence. Like a very pretty Jack Russell, Georgie is sharp, opinionated, not afraid to speak her mind, very witty, very clever, very competitive, and by the end of the trip had grown very much on me. I think if we lived closer she and I would be quite good friends.
Rider 2 was Sophie Brown. Sophie was the babe of the team. And if Georgie was the Russell, Sophie was our Lab. Sweet, honest, sincere, clearly a bit nervous being the youngest of the group, joined by her family, who were all salt of the earth type people.
Rider 3 was Ben Hobday. I suppose since I am going with a dog theme here, Ben would be my whippet. Joined by his exceedingly pretty and charming wife Emma, Ben was full of positive energy all the time. Confident, but not cocky, Ben was there always with something good to say about you or your horse, a real team player and lots of fun.
Rider 4 was Leslie. He is definitely a lurcher. Some kind of deerhound cross. Mostly quiet and serious the kind that will just lay about your house and take things in, but then when out and a rabbit to chase will be off and grab it by its neck, bringing it back to you, getting the job done.
They were spearheaded by Phillip Surl their Chef who was a total delight, both professional to the nth degree, however charming, friendly and very supportive, and head groom Alex whose professionalism shone through at all times and is clearly the best of the best when it comes to the job. We took our own groom with us, Audrie Stanka, who is one of our working students. Audrie’s ability far outweighs her years and her commitment to us and the horses is second to none and something that comes born out of a special personality; she is a real asset to our team and family.
What was clear about all of these riders was how much they loved their horses. Georgie couldn’t shut up about how much she loved her horse and how she would have him in the house with her if she could. Ben and Emma fawned over their horse and who wouldn’t? With a personality to match his unbelievable talent, Ben’s horse is one you will definitely see a lot of in the future. Sophie’s family had had their horse since a baby and now he’s 15. That Disney story of the young rider coming up with that one special horse? That is Sophie and her Will. And Leslie, who in the quiet moments would take Splash out for a graze and you could see him looking at him and thinking, “Huh. Well here we are mate. Thank you.”
And there’s another myth in the horse world, much like the owner one aforementioned. The belief that upper level riders just use their horses like bikes and a means to an ends. These riders love their horses and respect their horses to the maximum. As much as any one horse amateur out there and possibly even more as they ensure that these horses get only the very very best in care and good riding.
Day 1 went off roses, as all four horses and riders performed to the very best of their ability in the dressage ring and all but Leslie had clear show jumping rounds while Splash had one unfortunate rail down. Team GB was in the lead and we were in great shape to go forward to xc day. The only thing I found confusing on this day was that apparently the British female riders were alien to the concept of wearing a belt. I spent the day taking my belt off and passing it around to them as I just couldn’t fathom having them go down center line with no belt. I mean it was Christian Landolt and Jo Young for the love of God! I mean have you seen the way Christian dresses? Clearly whether you like his style or not, he is fashion conscious and I didn’t want to damage his sight with the view of bellies sans belts coming cantering his way.
The next morning Leslie and I stood out watching and as Sophie went out first and had one heck of a perfect round I could see Leslie wringing his hands and thinking ‘Super! These guys are going to fly around, secure first place, and I can take Splash out for a Sunday stroll not worry about time and give him an educational round.’ Then sadly, disrupting an otherwise very good round, Sophie and Will had a run out at the very influential double of corners in the main arena and Leslie’s disappointment was palpable. It was like a chain had just appeared around his neck as he realized that his performance was going to have to count. Then Ben went out and his young horse too took a dislike to the corners in what was otherwise a foot perfect round and Leslie sunk even further into the ground. With each British 20 Leslie shrank about 2 inches and looked visibly greener. It was a bit like hoping you were going to get to stay home and make sweaters for the troops and then being shoved a gun and a helmet at the last moment and having your ass kicked out to the front line in the eleventh hour.
I will give a shout out here to our Canadians Waylon and Jessie, whom I got to watch ride on their team horses and let me tell you, those two were class. Pure class. Sadly I didn’t get to see Lisa-Marie, as she went just before Les, but I know her enough to know she will put those sunglasses on, leave that box and go balls to the wall and either come home in the time or go down with the ship trying and from what I saw in results that is just what she did; clear and in the time. But it wasn’t like others weren’t having their share of drama and misfortune so it was all going to come down to Leslie who had to come home clear and within 10 time faults to potentially secure the first place for the Team. I have to say I felt sick to death for him as we watched him warm up for cross. It’s bad enough just to have a young green horse at a three star, but to have that mixed with the pressure of having to save one for your team?
As he went out of the box, Phillip started stall walking, I sat quiet on a fence line and had Ben and Georgie beside me thankfully keeping me sane and giving me a laugh as by the time we knew Leslie had gotten through the hardest parts of the course and came back into view, the dialogue went a bit like this:
Georgie: He’s good but he needs to go faster! Put your bloody foot down! He’s at that blue jump but he needs to be at this fucking brown jump! He’s got 5 seconds to get to that brown jump!
Ben: Well he’s not at that fucking brown jump is he now? So shut up already! Come on boy you can do it!
And he did it. Clear with 8 time which in the end, was good enough to win the day. When he crossed that finish line, the initial look of sweat running down his face, blood dripping out of the corners of his mouth, rabbit in jaw, dissipated and got taken over by a slow moving grin that spread quietly from ear to ear. When we first got the email that they wanted him for the team my response was to go buy him champagne and cook him his favourite meal to celebrate, his male programed response was to say, “Thank you but its JUST a Nations Cup. It’s nothing really. Just another event. Nothing in the scheme of things.” I, of course, told him he could take that male bravado and shove it up his *ss and wanted to know if he wanted a straw or a glass for his champagne. But look, in that slow moving grin, I knew I was right. That was more than just another horse show. He helped win it in the eleventh hour for his country; it was something.
As we all slowly came to realize that GB had taken first place everyone started to come alive. Phillip stopped stall walking and doubled over hardly believing things, Alex was ecstatic as this was her third year coming to Great Meadows and let’s just say the first two years held no joy for her, Georgie, although pissed that she lost first individual place by .1, finally came to realize that a team first and an individual second was pretty cool after all, Sophie and Ben, despite their natural disappointments at their one blips, were all joy and made quite the team as they went up to accept their accolades wrapped in their Union Jacks. And thanks be to God I told the girls, now with the money they won they could go home and buy themselves some belts!
Tre, after years of owning horses, paying bills, believing in dreams that didn’t come true with one rider (because Tre didn’t know the secret back then, you know, that you shouldn’t say horse dreams out loud…I think I have him trained now), and having us tell him his first hopeful horse had to go off to show jumper land as it had a massive distaste for circles in the sand, he finally got a taste of the kind of thing he’s been waiting for. A taste of success with horses. A goldfish that has grown into a magic Koi. Apparently he passed a very large and painful kidney stone the day before the event started so he has decided it must be good luck and he tells me he will have it put on a chain and that Leslie must wear it from now on as a good luck charm on his horse. I suppose if some believe in rabbits’ feet, who knows? There could be something about Tre’s kidney stone?
At 2:00 cross country day, Leslie left to the airport to fly directly to a four day clinic and Audrie, Liam, Splash and I got into the trailer to start the 12 hour drive home. I would have loved to say we all got together for an amazing dinner, had loads of champagne and a fun time was had by all, but no. Back to what I said earlier about the worker vs celebrity rider thing…lol. But, we didn’t need the dinner or the champagne or the bravado. The moment and magic of it was in our brains and in our hearts. As Tre and Janet left for Texas, Leslie to Indiana, Audrie and I to Florida and all the Brits back to the UK, I guarantee all of us took a bit of that one weekend home with us; a bit we will never forget.