I begin this blog on rather a serious note. After four successful BE events, jockey Katie Ayres and I were looking forward to my former race horse Mister Tiger’s next competition, at Somerford Park on May 20th. Somerford Park in Cheshire is a brilliant event, efficiently run with well built, innovative X country fences.
However just a week before, Katie had a horrible fall at Chatsworth International, and was rushed to hospital with a broken back. This happened at the end of the course, the second/third to last fence. Katie was riding her own horse who is experienced. Thanks to the expertise of the surgeons, Katie had a successful nine hour operation, and is now recovering at the new Yorkshire branch of the Injured Jockey’s Fund rehabilitation centre - a fantastic place.
Equestrian accidents can happen catching a chunky cob in a field of loose horses, to competing on a fit horse at Badminton or the Cheltenham Festival. But it is that element of danger that is a major part of the attraction. It is the winning of trust with an animal of such superior strength and speed that is so challenging. We borrow that speed when we ride them, and in the days when ploughing was done with horses, we guided that strength to the way we wanted. Little girls love to groom their ponies, spending hours brushing tangled manes and tails, washing the white bits on legs, and oiling hooves. Boys may well disappear on their bikes, but quickly turn up again, when ready for the off on a hunting day. Risk or danger is far from their minds. Many of us have had our foot trodden on by half a ton of horse, or our nose bashed by a tossing head, or crashed jumping a big hedge out hunting, but do we give up that sense of adventure and the allure of our four legged friends? No - or rarely.
It is 28 years since I watched my daughter Polly Williamson nee Lyon complete one of the fastest rounds of the day at Badminton, earning her a place on the British squad, and 22 years since my elder daughter Tory Jowett also nee Lyon, win five Ladies’ open point-to-points. Watching is agonising but you never really thought about the danger, it was more the dread of things going wrong after perhaps months or years of striving and expectation. Disappointment can be a bitter experience, but it can also be turned into an opportunity and a lesson for the future. Perseverance and the willingness to learn from mistakes - and perhaps a little bit of luck, are the keys to success. This could be a win at the local riding club, passing the post first at a pony race, or the glittering experience of competing at Badminton or the Foxhunters at Aintree. The thrill of ones own personal achievement can take you soaring like a bird in the sky. It is addictive. No wonder we want the experience over and over again.
Below is my impressionistic painting of Bechers Brook at Aintree, demonstrating the thrill and risk of jumping at speed
Striving for safety by the governing bodies of equestrian sports is a continuing operation. There are frangible pins on fences at horse trials. Body protectors that automatically inflate during a horse fall. Crash hats are worn by the majority out hunting. Jockeys are banned from re-mounting and continuing a race after a fall. Paramedics as well as specialised life saving equipment, have been in attendance at race meetings and horse trials for many years now. But these and other safety measures have evolved over the years. There are pictures of Sheila Wilcox who won Badminton three times and died on June 9th aged 81, which show her flying round the X country with just a velvet peaked hat without even a chin strap.
On holiday in Southern Ireland in the 1960s I recall galloping full pelt through the surf, and across the sands of Glenbeigh on a hireling, without a care in the world or a hat on my head, and the following week hauling on the reins behind a bolting horse between the shafts of a travelling caravan - also hired, as it swayed alarmingly like something out of The Lone Ranger, along the Irish lanes, with my husband dashing along behind, trying to catch up. Fortunately in those days motorised traffic in that part of County Cork was nearly non-existent. It was only when we returned the horse and caravan, that we discovered we had given Bridie - as our chestnut friend was called, four times the amount of oats that we should have done!
Time and experience teach us knowledge and awareness which can help in avoiding horse accidents, many of which are not serious, and par for the course. And there is always tennis - although you might have got heat stroke if playing, or even watching at Wimbledon last week!
Badminton seems ages ago now, but I did record it, and had another quick look again, and was reminded what a spectacle it is. The television presentation has got better and better with the years, with magnificent views of the park, and the great yellow stoned pile that is Badminton House. After 35 attempts, Andrew Nicholson’s win was a perfect example of gritty perseverance, and many years of experience.
Note the tractors removing the gravel, and preparing the hard surface in front of Badminton House below, for the veterinary trot up of competing horses before the competition.
I photographed these swans flying serenely above the X country course at Badminton, unaware of the drama and excitement going on beneath them.
I am now looking for a replacement jockey for Mister Tiger for the remainder of the event season.
by Susie Lyon-Heap