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Burghley 19th September 2016

Well, we’ve made it to our first ever 4*.  Amongst the build up of training, getting the horses fit and competing all of the other horses of the yard, it hadn’t really sunk in where we were going.  It’s been a very long journey having started with these horses right from the beginning as 5 year olds through to now.  The ups and downs, the successes and the disappointments and all of the time spent riding these two guys in all weathers has brought us to this stage.  We are finally dawning upon one of the most prestigious competitions in our sport.

The most common question was ‘are you nervous?’.  My reply was ‘not at all’.  Whether it was naivety, but I was more excited.  Competitive people will be able to empathise.  You always want to excel within your chosen discipline, that is what keeps us driven, ambition keeps you striving to improve and succeed.  To actually get to this stage was a huge goal in my career and I was relishing the challenge.  I was going to make the most of it, I had nothing to prove, nothing to loose just lots to gain and plenty to enjoy so Bring It On!

Redpath Ransom and Zagreb were in the best shape of their lives and their preparation had gone really well.  I have an amazing partnership with both horses and they were coming here full of confidence so it was all to play for.

Once we were settled in we took the horses for a gentle hack and this was the first time we had chance to take in the size of the showground.  The park was stunning and as we were hacking passed the house I really felt that it was a privilege just to be here let alone be part of the main attraction.

Day one of dressage started with Zagreb.  He was drawn number 3 so we had a pretty early start.  As much as trying to put all of your schooling in to practice you are trying to make sure the horse is relaxed in this buzzing environment.  I had ridden him several times the previous day and I’d given him a light stretch and hack first thing.  Now it was game time!

My aim was to ride a mistake free test.  I wasn’t going to go all out and risk blowing his mind as this was his and my first time at such a high profile event and this was my opportunity to give him a great first experience at 4* of which we hope will be many more.  He coped brilliantly with the crowd and the cameras and gave me a fantastic ride.  He remained focussed and relaxed producing a fluent and pleasing test.  I know there is more expression in there and I could have ridden for a bit more but I was thrilled with his performance and we put a competitive mark on the board.  We were off to a good start.

Redpath Ransom was drawn on Friday afternoon which is probably when the show is at its busiest on the dressage days.  He has a history of getting flustered in an atmospheric environment so I knew I was going to have to work hard to keep him relaxed, this is a bit of a contradiction in itself but we were going to try.  He had put a great dressage performance in at Hartpury during his build up to this and he warmed up really well so we were hoping for the best.

To paint a picture for you as you enter the main arena and you get passed all of the officials and cameras to get to the dressage arena you have a huge smack in the face by hundreds of faces with their full attention on you.  It’s quite daunting as a rider and you know what’s coming so you can imagine what it must be like for the horses.   Redpath Ransom did unfortunately pick up on this and became a little anxious.  I started the test and tried to ride as normal as if there was nothing different and hoped he would settle but he made an early mistake where he broke in his extended trot into canter.  This was hard to recover from and I was riding a bit for damage limitation.  It was such a shame but I’m sure he would have learnt from this experience for the future.

With all of the boring stuff done we could now turn our attention to the cross country.  I walked the course 5 times in total, and I needed every one of them.  I’m not going to lie to you, the first time I walked it I thought it was HUGE!!  You get 2 fences to warm up then the fences are just massive from there on.  There were two water crossings very early on in the track which I knew would slow me down so I was going to have to be aware of this when I was thinking of how I was going to pace my way around the course.  After the crossings the next 2 minutes were all up hill, and when I say up hill I mean UP hill.  This was my first visit to Burghley and I would say that the TV cameras never do the hills and undulations of the park justice.  The climb through winners avenue up to the infamous Cottosmore Leap is relentless and gruelling.  We are not even 4 minutes into the course and the horses will have worked really hard already just to get to this point, oh, and then you have to jump the Cottosmore Leap, the biggest fence in our sport, in the world!

Next was the Dairy mound where you had to rise up the mound and jump a big corner set at a steep angle with no ground line.  The ‘B’ element was on a long 2 strides on top of the mound, you jumped a roll top table which landed you on to the slope down the mound and you had a curving 4 strides to a massive corner to finish.  There was a nice ground line on this one which I think would help the horses a lot.  Although the final corner was very big, I think the key to jumping this combination well relied on getting a good jump over the first corner.  You couldn’t afford to be tentative otherwise you wouldn’t make the 2 strides to the next element which would consequently give you a bad jump over element B and leave you running down the slope beyond out of control.  This was one of the toughest fences on the course.

If we skip passed some humungous jumps at about minute 7 you were at the trout hatchery.  There were so many options to jump through this water complex but my choice was to go the straight route.  You had a big log with a drop in to the first pond, a curving line to a brush corner and a continued curving line to a skinny brush in the second pond.  This was going to need balance and bravery from your horse to make this look good.

Nearing the end of the course was the Leaf Pit.  This is a massive drop and the ground runs steeply away on landing.  As you approach this it really looks as if you are asking your horse to jump off the edge of a cliff.  It is a very impressive looking fence and you should get some great photo’s here but I think it’s more of a rider frightener and most horses will probably make this look quite text book.  Its then onto the main arena for a straight forward combination, I know if I’m going through here I’ll be punching the air to get the crowd going and then it’s your run in to the finish.

So it’s as easy as that!!

Being 3rd to go didn’t give me any chance to watch any other riders go before it was my turn.  Sometimes this is a good thing as you have a plan and you have no reason to be distracted from it by seeing other people rounds.  As I left the stables the butterflies were whizzing around my stomach and I could feel my adrenalin pumping.  It’s really important to keep the horse calm so he can conserve his energy and to do this I have a very structured warm up.  As soon as I got into the routine I felt settled and calm and the excitement was building.

They called me quite late to the start box which gave me little time to take in everything and as I approached I was already on my 10 second countdown.  The buzzer went and we were off!  I jumped the first fence and as I turned the corner and jumped fence 2 all I could see as I galloped down our alley were hundreds of people ranking the edges.  They were all cheering and screaming good luck and It’s safe to it was one of the best feelings in the world.  I couldn’t help but smile as I was trying to take it all in.  It’s a memory that will stick with me forever, I was loving this show sooo much.  Zagreb did get a bit starey eyed going under the lions bridge when he seen all the people on the exit but once we were passed this he was off and it was game on.

At the next water crossing I was given advice to get in and kick on so to get ahead of the splash.  As I jumped in I was getting ready to kick and didn’t quite judge how steep the landing was and got thrown a little forward.  It was a bit of a rooky error but we were fine and the horse galloped through the water and jumped out like a pro.

We were into the course and Zagreb was travelling well.  We got over the Cottosmore Leap and this was the first time I’d ever felt Zagreb feel his legs a bit as we started our decent towards the Dairy Mound.  I think this is when you really know you are at Burghley and both you and the horse are going to have to work hard and dig deep to get around.  We had an amazing jump into the Dairy Mound and even if I do say so myself we had a great ride through and Zagreb showed his athleticism for such a tall horse.  We were growing in confidence and all was going to plan and the straight routes were all riding well.  We were straight through the trout hatchery and galloping well, all was going great and the horse felt fab.

We made our approach to trout hatchery and jumped in well, I made the six strides to the middle element well and had a super jump, I’d decided to ride for the acute line on 4 strides to the final skinny and this was our undoing.  Zagreb shortened his stride to balance up the slope and we didn’t quite get to our point of take off and he chipped in a small stride which caused him to hit his leg on the fence.  This sudden impact shot me out of the saddle and unfortunately that was the end of what was a super round up til that point.  Several emotions are running through you at that moment but the main thing was both him and me were fine.  It was more of a trip than anything else which shouldn’t affect his confidence in the future, it was just a frustrating incident that will take me a little while to deal with.

It was important for me to get passed my ride on Zagreb and concentrate on Redpath Ransom and get ready for his round in the afternoon.  I took myself off with my daughter and watched a few other peoples rounds to kill a bit of time in between.  The weather took a turn and the rain started to fall which was making the ground a lot softer to ride on.  This was important to take notice of as it would tire the horses out more.

The plan from the camp was to get a score on the board with Redpath Ransom, not to worry about the clock and to focus entirely on getting a clear round and getting home.  I set off in a sensible rhythm so to pace ourselves and we were soon settled and travelling well around the course.

I would describe this horse as ‘solid’.  He knows exactly where his legs are, he’s sharp and makes quick adjustments and always seems to rebalance himself immediately if something goes wrong.  This was evident when we came to capabilities crossing.  This is a deep round crossing where the banks of the road are exceptionally steep.  As you rise up the slope after crossing the road there was a double of rails.  He left a ley at the first but he righted himself in the middle and jumped out over the second as if nothing had happened, it’s like he’s got a built in spirit level and just stays so composed.  What a talent.

He jumped his way around all the straight routes with his ears pricked always looking for the next fence.  We approached the Trout Hatchery well and as he jumped in he had a small stumble.  I’d seen a lot of riders fall here, and it seemed as if there was a hole that the horses were catching, so as soon as I felt this happen I cancelled going straight and wiggled my way through the complex via the alternative fences.  This cost me a lot of time but we were all importantly still clear.  I planned to go the alternative at the Discovery Valley after having my little mishap earlier here and we were through this and galloping towards the end the course.  He jumped into the leaf pit and again show cased his adjustability on the approach to the skinny after the drop.  As we jumped through the main arena I punched the air as promised and the crowd responded which gave us a huge lift as we commenced are homeward gallop.  All I was thinking here was, don’t make a silly mistake and make sure you get over the finish line and there it was, the Landrover Burghley fence, the last fence on the course.  Wow I love that fence!!  I jumped that to cheers from all of our team, what a feeling to complete our first 4* at arguably the toughest event in the world.  It was safe to say we were all over the moon and immensely proud of Redpath Ransom.

Dealing with the press is fairly new to me and I’m not one to be able to keep my emotions locked in.  It’s very exciting especially when you’re still pumped full of adrenalin, but apparently that’s all good for TV.

Time a few drinks to celebrate!!

Trot up at a 4* is as much about checking the horses as it is a fashion show.  Redpath Ransom trotted up well and apparently so did I.  I’ve received a bit of ribbing about my tightish pair of jeans that got plenty of attention on Horse and Country TV.  Very funny but also a bit cringe worthy.

The show jumping was what you’d expect but it was noticeable how gruelling the cross country had been as there were plenty of tired horses.  We didn’t jump too much in the warm up as the ground was deep and heavy and I wanted to keep as much petrol in the tank for the main event.

Redpath Ransom tried his heart out and was leaving the ground well but was clearly tired in his lower back.  He tapped a few fences with his hind legs where he was slow to throw his back end away.  Although on paper we would have hoped for better we were all so pleased to complete and thrilled with the horses effort.  He’s proved he’s capable and I’m sure he will grow from this experience and come back next season stronger and wiser.  He has now earned a nice break to recover and chill out.

Zagreb will probably re-route to Pau 4*, and we will be hoping for a super performance there so we can enter both of these horses for Badminton next spring.

I’d like to thank all of my owners, my super groom Chloe Howson and my wonderful wife Simmone.  With out them this really wouldn’t happen and it really is a dream come true for me.  I can’t wait for the next one!