I’ll introduce myself first, although, in terms of our ‘team’, I consider myself to be at the bottom of the pecking order! My name is Natalie – although I answer to Nat at home and ‘Miss’ in the day job – and I’m 32-years old.
As well as being an equine mum (or is it slave..?) to two rather interesting horses, I’m also a part-time secondary school teacher and a BHS qualified freelance instructor.
I’m the proud owner of an extremely opinionated 14hh coloured cob-cross mare called Florence, known to everyone as ‘The Diva’ – the reasons of which I’m sure you ‘ll come to understand in time – and Tobi, a mentally unhinged 16hh registered Irish Sports Horse who, no doubt, will have a medical text book written in his honour at some point.
Horses have been a huge part of my life for 28 years now and I’ve enjoyed success in both showjumping and showing, with some fantastic previous ponies that I’ve been fortunate to own.
My passion had always been jumping and I did attempt to secure myself a talented jumping horse in my late twenties, but that went disastrously wrong in the form of Tobi and a badly torn tendon, so my dreams of getting back into the ring had somewhat fluttered away from me and I was tired of the multiple disasters that I seemed to face.
My competition jacket was put away and I enjoyed several years hacking and generally enjoying a pressure-free type of horse ownership (if there is such a thing?).
However, as I crept to the wrong side of 30, and experienced what can only be described as some sort of premature mid-life crisis (plus the realization that falling off at speed hurts, and discovering that my little hacking pony had some cracking paces) I decided to rid my competition jacket of dust and moth balls, and head back out into the arena. This time, one with white boards and letters.
It was a sunny morning in early August that Florence made her ‘dressage debut’. She'd looked faintly suspicious the evening before, when I'd dragged her to the hose and proceeded to wash various parts of her, while she did everything in her power to slow the proceedings, from standing on the hose pipe to knocking the shampoo bottle over.
So when I stood in front of her stable the next morning, clutching a set of travel boots, having dragged her and Tobi in from the field a good three hours earlier than normal, she looked suitably alarmed and took herself to the corner of the stable in a pathetic attempt to blend in with the brickwork.
I thoroughly expected a loading commotion, but she begrudgingly followed me up the ramp and it wasn’t long before we were on the road.
She did, however, make her opinion of the whole situation known to every road user within a five-mile radius by shouting at the top of her voice and kicking ten bells out of Professor Plum, my shiny new van conversion.
Still, we arrived relatively unscathed, despite my eardrums feeling perforated. I'd prepared myself for a small amount of lunacy on arrival, as despite being quite a confident little madam in many respects, this was going to be her first experience at a competition.
I’d managed to drag my long-suffering father along for the journey, a man who spent the majority of my teenage years, and those of my early twenties, trudging to every venue in the North West with my various ponies.
I promised him that a dressage outing would be a much less stressful event; we would simply turn up, do our bit, and leave. So he looked less than thrilled when the diva came off the wagon like a screaming stallion and he was ordered to “get a bridle before I lose this thing across the showground!”.
He looked even less impressed when it became apparent that tying the pony to the wagon was only going to end one way and that he’d have to hold her while I got changed, which involved me re-appearing in various states of undress (and not even caring that the other competitors were becoming increasingly familiar with my underwear) to check that he hadn’t been carted across the field by 14hh of cob.
There was brief moment as I got onboard that I felt Florence’s back rise and wondered if I was going to be treating the other competitors to a rodeo act, but I managed to get moving towards the warm up before anything too spectacular happened.
It was at this point that I noticed my mother heading towards us. She’s completely un-horsey but does like to show her support, which is very much appreciated, but she always follows along behind in her own car, as she has some sort of bizarre phobia of being in a vehicle with a horse that I’ve never quite got to the bottom of.
Anyway, I might as well have been on a city sight-seeing tour bus because I was getting very little in the way of work out of Florence. She was still shouting at anyone who would listen and gawping at anyone and anything, human or otherwise, that passed her.
Even my non-horsey mother, who is largely impressed at anyone brave enough to sit on a horse, regardless of whether said animal is going round like a dromedary camel, was in quite obvious confusion that she didn’t seem to be witnessing the ‘spectacular paces’ that I’d been raving about for the last few weeks.
Still, I did my best to plaster a smile on my face and remind myself that we were here completely for the experience and that rarely do any magical moments happen on a horse’s first venture into the world of competition.
I was still trying desperately to keep that attitude as I struggled to get the diva into the arena. She had taken complete exception to the fact that she was going to have to step over a small piece of wood on the way in and, in full view of the waiting judge, leapt rather spectacularly into the ring before carting me off at trot down the long side, in a somewhat bizarre lateral movement, as she refused to go within two meters of the fence.
The judge seemed to take pity me here and let me trot round a few times before beeping the horn, which caused yet another impressive spook that involved Florence tucking her rather matronly quarters underneath her and shooting off at speed.
I’m pretty sure I could’ve done the test sat on a wooden spoon and not felt much difference. Everything we had worked on over the previous weeks had clearly been completely forgotten and the only part of her that seemed to be working to any great effect were her vocal chords.
She accompanied every movement with her own shrill narration and she went round like a giraffe wearing a neck brace. About half way through the test, I decided that my best chance at success was to widen my smile further and look like I was at least trying to enjoy myself, or perhaps hadn’t noticed what was going on underneath me.
We had a major spook during the last transition to walk and our square halt involved some impressive bum swinging in both directions. Still, we were done. I looked up to some whooping and laughing, wondering who on earth could be so cruel towards our debut, only to realize the din was coming from my own parents.
A mental note was made that perhaps I ought to come alone next time, so that the only witness to the dire proceedings would be myself and a bunch of people that I hoped I’d never see again.
After cooling a still screaming diva off and untacking her at the wagon, about half an hour had passed and the next class had started, so I did the walk of shame back up the showground to the secretary’s tent to collect the sheet that I envisaged would be littered with 3’s and 4’s (if we were lucky).
I had spotted a few people leaving with rosettes and was fairly certain that I was well out of the placings. So I was somewhat in a state of shock to see that we had come a very respectable 3rd out of 7, with 65%.
The comments were all very fair (if a little generous!) and I was delighted to see that the overall judges comment was very positive towards us and that Florence, despite being a rather unconventional little dressage pony, had gone down very well indeed.
In a state of bewilderment, I returned to the wagon and received another round of applause from the parental unit (and yet more laughter). They insisted on taking some photographs of the diva and me, probably so they could remember the hilarity of the day and draw on it at various family occasions, no doubt.
But the seeds had been sown! I decided that with some more competition experience and a bit more relaxation in the ring, this chunky little coloured of mine might actually make a decent dressage pony. I’ve just got to try and convince her of that…
‘Til next time!