Earlier this month I took Scarlet to Firle for a cross country clinic with Francis Whittington. The course was open for schooling for a few days after the BE event, so it seemed like a great opportunity to school over some BE90 fences. I signed up and asked to be put in the group people doing 80/90, and emphasised that we were green and wanted to build confidence as a partnership after a year and a half out of action.
We rocked up at Firle, with me shaking like a jelly as usual, made worse by the fact that half the county appeared to have had the same idea. It then got much MUCH worse when we let the ramp down and saw the fire-breathing lunatic in the back, with sweat pouring off her and nostrils the size of frying pans.
Me: I’m not getting on that.
Mum: Don’t be ridiculous, she’ll be fine.
We, hopeless optimists that we are, unloaded her before tacking her up. THIS WAS AN ERROR. Scarlet immediately broke all the baler twine when we tied her up to the box, so tacking her up involved throwing the saddle in her general direction and diving under her legs to get the girth done up. Then the bridle… Ah, the bridle. Many swear words were uttered, many toes were trampled, and eventually all the straps were more or less in the right place, cinched as tight as they could be. I immediately regretted the decision to keep her in a snaffle. Then we had the fun job of studding her up. We had 8 studs to put in. We gave up after 3.
By this point, Scarlet had pretty much lost the plot. The final straw was when she reared up, nearly knocking Mum’s head off.
Me: I’m absolutely not getting on that.
Mum: You have to! You’ve paid £60! She’ll be fine! (Terrible liar, my mother.)
Me: No. You’ll have to lunge her.
So after I crammed my hat on to Mum’s head in case Scarlet had another go, the pair of them jig jogged off for a quick lunge while I prayed to all the gods that I wouldn’t die a horrible, gruesome, public death. People on Facebook had assured me that Francis was lovely and kind, and great at building confidence, so that helped, and after about ten minutes of hiding in the lorry, I wobbled over to the mad beast and croaked at Mum for a leg up. Luckily we had got there with plenty of time in hand, so we walked around for a bit, and I tried to get her attention by doing lots of bending and small circles and changes of rein, but I may as well have been on a runaway train, only with fewer brain cells. Scarlet was more manic than I’ve ever known her, and that’s really saying something. All I wanted to do at this point was get off and go home, but that was really not an option. She was going backwards, sideways and up and down, and doing her very best to frighten the life out of me. Well, bravo, Scarlet, bravo.
Eventually we crept off to join the group and meet Francis. Scarlet immediately shot sideways, and he asked me to go and give her a trot and a canter. I’d rather he’d asked me to cut off my arms and legs to be honest. Off we went, with me hanging on to my RS-tor and squeaking lots of “good girl”s and “woah, steeeeaaaadddyyyyyy”s at her. We managed to trot and canter, although Scarlet’s ears were firmly jammed up my nose. He then told me to pop her over one of the 3 warm up fences. I looked at the row of fences, the smallest of which was a 3ft house, and piped up, “is there something smaller we could start with?”, thinking, gosh, that’s rather large for a group of people doing 80 and 90. He said no, so off we went, cantering towards it and sailing past it, with a huge jink sideways for good measure. We did this a few more times before I headed back over to a very unimpressed Francis. I asked him again if there was something smaller I could jump, and he, to my utter horror and humiliation, remarked that if we couldn’t even jump that, then there was very little point us being in the lesson, and he would give me my money back. I squeaked that if we could just go and jump a plain log to warm up that we’d be absolutely fine after that. He asked me if I was scared of her, and I said, when she’s like this? Yes. He sighed and said that I could tag along with the group and if we jumped, great. So the 4 other horses and riders cantered off one at a time across the field, and Francis hopped in his car and drove off. Mum gave me a sympathetic look and headed off on foot with the other spectators, and I kept Scarlet trotting in circles, waiting for the other horses to head off and hoping Scarlet wouldn’t p*ss off after them!
Thankfully we had a fairly civilised canter off after them, heading for a log with some wooden mushrooms as fence dressing. Someone shouted an offer of a lead to me, which I gratefully accepted, and, praise the lord, Scarlet jumped. Francis roared at me to go and jump it again another 5 times, which we did, and just like that I knew we’d be OK. He told me to keep her moving and not let up on her until she learnt to behave herself. We jumped another log and then as a group we cantered through the water splash and headed up on to the course. As we went, I casually asked the other riders what level they were at. “BE 100 and Be Novice”, they chirped.
ARE YOU KIDDING ME??! I was meant to be in the 80/90 group! No wonder Francis had been so disgusted!
When we got up to his car, I immediately explained that there had been a mix up, and his whole attitude changed. No longer was I the idiot who thought we were capable of jumping round the Novice, I was just the idiot who had been put in the wrong group by mistake! Hurray! He said not to worry, I could do the 90 and maybe some of the 100 fences while the others did the Novice jumps, and that he would have a word with the organiser to find out what had gone awry. Scarlet was still delirious with excitement, so we swiftly moved on, and I kept her trotting round and round and round while Francis explained to the rest of the group the sequence he wanted them to jump. He then yelled instructions atme - we cantered down the hill, back through the water splash and down to the first two logs, to then canter back up, and over the two angled houses. Sure, I said. No problem!
Scarlet, bless her bad, naughty heart, did it. She cantered down the hill, past a pony whose rider shouted what a lovely horse she was (I yelled back that I was giving her away), through the water, circled round and jumped the two logs, leapt back through the water splash and back up the hill (with a huge spook at the water trough at the side, natch), and she flew the two skinny, angled 90cm houses. We then cantered on to a steeplechase fence, where I got hopelessly left behind and hailed a fleet of cabs, and then trotted back to the group, both of us with big beams on our faces. “Keep moving!” was our praise, and I took it gladly. We did that a couple of more times, and then he told us to do the slightly more technical and bigger 100 houses. We had a couple of run outs at the second house, owing to my bad riding, and then we did it and I was so thrilled. Mum looked how I felt - astonished - and we had a moment.
Then we headed down the hill to the water jump. We paddled through and jumped the step out, before I realised that the only way back was to jump back down the step… Last time we did this, Scarlet dithered and dallied and then fell in, so I was a bit anxious about doing it again, but she had decided this was a great lark and leapt in, all 4 feet off the ground, and I lost my reins, control and any remaining dignity. Francis yelled at me, and we did it again, slightly more graciously. Then the proper horses jumped the Novice section, which was a skinny brush and a stride to the water, jump out to a corner. We jumped the 100 section, which was a smaller brush, two strides to the water and then a jump up the step out. Scarlet went straight through like a pro, and we were rewarded with a “well done” from Francis.
By this point I was a) knackered (especially as I had to keep trotting the mad beast round and therefore had no opportunity to ever catch my breath, and b) overcome with pride, that we had overcome her wild silliness and my crippling nerves at the start, and we were now jumping 90/100 fences with confidence and ease. Unfortunately Francis then came over and said how well we were doing, and what a nice horse she was and that I was obviously a very capable rider, so I did what I always do when I’m feeling emosh and someone is nice to me - I cried. Not big, huge sobs, but definite eye leakage. He was very nice and changed the subject, and told me to go back to the first two logs, the water splash, the brush to the water, the step up, and then canter up to the huge oxer that I’d eyeballed the previous weekend and said, yikes, that looks big for a 100 fence!, and onto the sunken road and the final fence. I asked Francis if he thought we were up to it, and he said he very much thought we were. So off we went, and she was an angel. Flew everything - at the oxer I gave her a tap behind my leg because I felt her backing off it, and she leapt over it (thank God, because I really didn’t want to have to re-present to it), and then the sunken road, where she was much braver than me and popped the rail and step down beautifully. We fluffed the last fence because I hadn’t appreciated how spooky it was and didn’t ride her as strongly as I should (too busy congratulating myself on the sunken road), so second time round I walloped her and she popped it.
And that was that! We had finished a cross country clinic with one of the country’s best event riders and survived! We’d jumped fences that were way beyond anything we’d done before, and she’d made it feel so deliciously easy - once she stopped being a prat. I was so proud of her, and by then, she’d stopped being an arse, and stood quietly with the other horses while Francis gave us all feedback. Everyone had similar problems, the classic amateur rider issue - the horse was behind the leg. He said Scarlet was a lovely horse with a good jump, and I was so thrilled I forgot to ask for a photo. Just as well really, as my face was the colour of a plum tomato. He also told me to get a jumping saddle, so I can get my stirrups shorter and not get left behind over the bigger fences. Luckily I know exactly where to go…
Written by Laura Paine of Dragonfly Saddlery