Apr 23, 2018

A Leg Up and A Leg On!

Left: Vinnie and Ari enjoying the green green grass of England. Right: Hacking on the country lanes. Photos courtesy of Madeline Backus.

Madeline Backus, the inaugural recipient of the Wilton Fair Grant, has arrived in England and will spend the 2018 season working with Irish international rider Austin O’Connor at Attington Stud in Thame, Oxfordshire. Madeline traveled with her horses, P.S. Arianna and P.S. On Top of the World, and all arrived safely. Madeline will be sharing her experiences with us over the coming months and has sent us her first report from across the pond. Click here to read her first installment.

It’s been just over a month since I arrived in the UK and this trip has already been so huge for my development as an equestrian and eventer. It is such a great team here at Attington Stud with Austin and Amy O’Connor, as well as the girls with whom I live and work all making me so welcome.

We work from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with a couple of nice breaks for tea. The hard work involved in running a yard is worth it when you are lucky enough to be at a top facility like this and get to work with and ride very well trained and talented horses. It’s amazing how much you can take away from being on high performance horses and use the experience to create that feeling with the less experienced horses, or even my horses! I feel inspired to improve every day to become a better and stronger rider.

I’ve been able to take lessons with Austin, as well as Gill Watson who visits the yard often. Gill trained the British Junior and Young Rider Three-Day Event teams for 30 years during which time the teams won NINETY SIX medals! One of the biggest things I have been working on is keeping my leg on. Ari has trained me that when she gets excited, I react by taking my leg off, even when I know that is wrong. So I have been striving to improve that, encouraging her to accept my leg and really work over her back. She is an amazing horse to have dealt with me and all my learning over all the years we have been together. I will be so lucky if I ever have another one like her—she is very special.

Fence 4 at Burnham Market - a sizable table followed by two open corners. Amy O’Connor Photo.

I was so happy with her at Burnham Market, our first competition in the UK. Like in the US, I had to be sure to register myself and my horse with British Eventing, and purchase a season ticket for Ari to allow her to be entered in competitions. The system is a little different, but with help and some time spent online, I was able to enter the events I needed to. I was very lucky to run the Advanced at Burnham before the organizers had to cancel the rest of the event due to all the rain and mud. Unfortunately, the bad weather has caused the cancellation of many events already this year. I was unsure of how Ari would handle it because she has never run in mud before, but she exceeded my expectations. After having the first rail in show jumping because we were both still getting accustomed to the mud, she adjusted very quickly and casually sprung even higher over all the fences. I didn’t push for time on the cross-country because the going was quite slick and heavy, but she came off the course well and recovered very nicely. It was a great track to run with some good questions. The event is so well run and overall was a cool experience.

Although there are many similarities to Eventing at the Advanced level in the US, there are also a lot of differences. First of all, it was so neat that everyone arrives in their lorries, and they all stay on site. I normally camp at all the events, but it was so fun to know that there were dozens of other lorries all parked in a field, and everyone was there to stay for the weekend. Everyone was willing to help one another out if generators went off, or you needed an extra phone charger or wanted to meet for dinner. Even though it was cold and rainy, you could feel that everyone was in it together. Also, it was so muddy by the final day that all the lorries had to be pulled out by big tractors—definitely a new experience for me.

Mud tracks on the final day at Burnham Market. Izzy Riley Photo.

Another thing I learned was that all helmets must be tagged so that the officials know you have an approved and safe helmet. It was simple enough; I just had to take my helmets to the show office when picking up my number, where they quickly check them and put a little colored band around one of the straps. The number I received is just like what we are used to for cross-country - pieces of paper that you slide into the pinney holder, except you wear this during all phases here. I must admit, it felt a little weird placing it over my shadbelly and show jumping jacket. 

Dressage was in a grass arena, as well as show jumping. I did my dressage on Thursday afternoon, followed by show jumping and cross-country on Friday. Even though the time between the two phases was close, we didn’t ride show jumping in our cross-country gear like you see a lot of riders do in America. Instead, you wear all the traditional show jumping gear and then change to cross-country gear right afterward.

Warming up for dressage.

However, you don’t change out studs. I had a pair of massive grass studs in my stud kit that I purchased years ago when I visited England on holiday. They have been sitting in my stud kit getting rusty, but finally, they got to do their job. And let me tell you, I was very happy to have them. Studs were another learning experience. I typically don’t like to go too uneven because I am used to more solid ground, especially in Colorado, but Austin assured me that the ground was so soft that any studs she had in would sink into the turf and that I needed to have a bigger pointed stud on the outside for both front and hind. I’ve included a picture of the studs I used, and they were great. 

Ari did end up losing a shoe to the mud, but luckily it didn’t seem to affect her very much as she powered around and hunted the flags. We have been so fortunate to be at Attington with the all-weather footing in the outdoor arena, on the gallop track, and the cross-country, so even with all the mud this year, I could make sure we were prepared.

The studs I used at Burnham Market. I had never used the big pointy ones before.

I also let Ari get a feel of the natural footing when the weather permitted because I think it’s important to practice on the surface you will perform on, and I didn’t want her getting too used to the beautiful and perfect footing all the time. Another way they prepare their horses here is road work. It seemed a bit odd at first to take horses out and walk and trot on the local roads and through little villages, but I quickly got used to it. I don’t get off the property much, so I love hacking through the local villages and down lanes between fields of sheep and cute little houses and cottages. 

It really is beautiful here, and sometimes I feel the need to pinch myself to make sure I am not just imagining it all. This is truly a leg up in my career, and I am keeping my leg on and my eyes set on my goals, and have been loving every minute (even in the rain - I really can’t complain.) I am looking forward to competing Advanced at Belton Park this weekend, and following that, Ari and I will be taking on our second CCI4* at Badminton! I am forever grateful to the Lenaburgs and the Broussards, without whom this would have never been a possibility and to Team Attington for letting me be here with two horses. And thank you too to all the friends, family, and supporters who have helped get me get settled and ready to take on this opportunity of a lifetime. Stay tuned for more, and please don’t hesitate to reach out to me with any questions.

Administered by USEA Foundation, the Wilton Fair Grant has been made possible through the generosity of David and Cheryl Lenaburg. The Rebecca Broussard National Developing Rider Grant has been in place since 2011 through the kindness of the family of the late Rebecca Broussard. 

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