Achievement Unlocked: Valerie Pride Reflects on Blenheim Palace

This has by far been the hardest memoir to write. I want to get it so right! Somehow it feels like everything happened so quickly forever ago and then other times I’m slowly daydreaming about my rides and it feels like it was just this morning.

Leading up to the event, my mental toughness was most certainly challenged. At first there were rumors that it would be canceled altogether for the Queen’s funeral. A compromise was made of continuing the competition as a mournful one. No parties, no palace receptions, everything shut down by 9 p.m. every evening. We wore armbands when we rode to honor HM and every day at noon there was a two minute silence. On Sunday, they asked all riders to enter the main arena dressed and the silence was broken by this completely bedazzled angel singing God Save the King. It has taken a little getting used to!

Blenheim is close enough from the yard that I did a jump and sprint on Tuesday, finished packing the lorry with Georgia, and off we went. But first not without one small grooming hiccup: no one at Wood Lane knew how to clip a tail! I haven’t done it in years and it had gone au natural over the past six weeks. I was brave and cracked on, as they say, and I admit it turned out nicely! Trying to make my girls at home so proud!

It’s been a very long time since I’ve gone to a 4* for the first time — again, a mental mind game.

No idea about the lay of the land, where you want to do anything from pick up your numbers to how exactly does one live out of a lorry? Caravans? What are those, sounds like gypsies not something that would be at Blenheim Palace! Luckily Favian felt right at home in the same FEI stables that we have at U.S. competitions and he immediately velcroed himself to his neighbor, Noodle. James was in attendance racing (and doing an epic cross country course walk — see here!); but alas they weren’t able to stay together. We were in a very quiet corner of stabling, however the flip side to that was I couldn’t conveniently overhear anyone talking about anything through the competition. The stabling buzz is priceless!

Wednesday morning felt like the event was full on and finally here. Weeks of preparation and now it’s go time. But where exactly do I even go?? In a tremendous effort, Willian met me for a dressage lesson that morning. We worked hard, William Favian and Valerie! A solid plan on finishing touches for the ring and what exactly to focus on in my next several rides. And how to even get to the arenas — Favers was feisty. He knew something was up! From there Georgia got him plaited and primped for the inspection.

And learned how to walk the nearly half hour up to the palace! Meanwhile, William, Kevin and I walked for the next two hours the cross country track. It was so insightful, William having been successful here on so many horses over the years. There were also some surprises — like a brand new water complex after the first lake crossing! As though galloping through 100 meters of lake wasn’t enough splishing and splashing! Having seen pictures and videos and had numourous friends compete here over the years, nothing does justice to seeing it in person. Walking across the palace lawn knowing that soon we would be ripping across it at 650 meters per minute! The questions kept coming, the second to last fence was even a combination. William did a great job of preparing me without overwhelming me, as he had to hop a place to Patroni for the World Championships and I had to present at the horse inspection!

I am so grateful for all of the Blue Clover Eventing supporters. They came from everywhere: the States, the UK, Ireland. I had friends, clients, physios, vets, even Favian’s farrier from his baby horse days was here in person to cheer him along! Dear Toots once again saved me in the clothing department, giving me a tremendous jacket to wear from her own sponsors, Guinea London. Carolyn and Tess packed their own suitcases full of outfits as well and met us at the end of the inspection with Prosecco and bags of carrots. We parties at the lorry and then walked to town for dinner. Couldn’t figure out how to get out of the palace gates until literally you buzzed the main gate box and like magic they let us on and off the palace grounds. What a way to end the first day! The whole thing really was like magic!

Thursday was a day of recon. I stalked dressage. I stalked cross country. I sorted out the jump warm-ups in the morning and we did arena familiarization that night. Favian spotted several Jumbotrons along the horse path up to the main arena, much to his horror. I talked him off the ledge and we had a respectable school. In fact, it worked perhaps to our advantage, making the main arena the happy place where he couldn’t see any Jumbotrons! Funny to have to talk about studs for dressage but indeed we left no detail unturned the night before our biggest British debut to date!

William had pointed out a good gallop for Friday morning that they had spiked. I tricked Faves into a little dressage amongst his gallop at the crack of dawn and then let everyone do their thing to get him in the zone. Got on for real and trotted him past the Jumbotrons like I was on a mission! I was ready for them this time!

He looked and felt like a million bucks going into the main arena that afternoon. Certainly like he was worthy of performing in front of the palace! He did everything I asked in there, had a ton of presence. We went for it in every mark, and I was rewarded with some beautiful extensions and flying changes. While I Felt like it was a PB, the scores were very close and rather average. One judge marked me lower than the others and it was costly. These things happen. Just wish it hadn’t happened here! I would say it was a personal victory because I was riding in the arena with all of my newfound inspiration and I was riding for everyone supporting us and this journey. Indeed, that was the theme of the weekend: to do so well and prove to the international stage what I horse and team I have!

Saturday I tried to sleep, but let’s face it that was never going to happen. The universe tried by canceling all of my cell phone service at the lorry and the stables. I could bike up to the main arena and hope for a bar or two before the crowds gathered each day. God bless Lauren and Connor for handling everything at home! Cross country started at 11 and I was out of the box at 3:46. Makes for a very long day! Had to pace myself and time it right. There were six screens in the riders’ lounge, five of them were playing WEG! Eek! I was really missing William when problems started happening all over the course. I was rewalking my lines and wondering if they were best. I watched others go but I didn’t know them — is their horse like mine? Do they ride fast? What distance are they walking — meters, yards, feet? How do I even count their strides to see what they are thinking now?

All I can hear in the back of my head is William’s infamous “What ARE you thinking?” In some ways I’ve never felt so alone. I almost walked up to Pippa Funnell and asked what she was going to do at 18 ABCDE but then that seemed to absurd. I considered texting William to text her. Even more absurd!!

As soon as I started warming up, Favian gave me the confidence that I needed to stick to my plan. He was dialed in from the start. What a view, living life through his big (genuine) ears as they prick and lock on to every obstacle! Out of the box, we went on a mission to get back to those finish flags as soon as we could. The much-debated first combination we breezed through in the direct four strides — what a start, but no time to celebrate! I had 10 minutes and 37 seconds of serious work to do.

Favian was definitely affected by the crowds galloping up to and then into the main arena. But once he saw an angled two strides of brushes, he totally kicked it back into cross country gear. From there, you did the loop in front of the palace. For one fleeting moment, I thought I should look up towards the palace; but I didn’t dare do it and kept staring at my roping and blades of grass instead! Around the lakes was intense, but by then Favian had figured out the crowds were there admiring him! Lots of horses were choosing not to jump the angled brush into the first lake and my brave boy dove right in. That was the most tiring part of the course and he did need a breath climbing the hill out of the new water.

He caught a second wind and soared through the coffin, which is notoriously difficult here. I think after Kentucky this spring, I will never consider any coffin difficult ever again. Through the lake again and to a significant turning table skinny question. I was chasing the clock at that point with my horse full of running. We rode bold lines and he was just running and jumping his heart out. There was a flat section with just one combination and the final fence to go and Faves found a new gear and finished like a cross country champion through the flags. I had an incredible team of vets and physios that adopted this American and they really rose to the occasion — these are the moments that they train for! Luckily the conditions could not have been more perfect between temperatures, footing, shade, and Kevin is getting really quick at filling up water buckets in the box!

It’s so hard. You want to celebrate. You want to relive every moment. I wanted to find ways to have saved more time. I wanted to watch every video and wait for all of the Instagram tags to start coming your way. But you have a groom who hasn’t eaten all day because she’s been devoted to your horse, and you worry about her and you have sponsors who want to take you to dinner and want to share the excitement of years of work paying off. And you worry about them. And you have your vet team who are going to entirely miss dinner because they are selflessly devoted to a horse they just met three days ago. We do this all for the love of these horses of who this so much!

Somewhere on course, Favian pulled his right front shoe. I don’t even want to know where! I didn’t feel a thing and he didn’t miss a beat. Even though everything seemed spot on, we were set to jog as soon as the stables opened at 6:30 just to make sure there were no Sunday morning surprises. He looked perfect. Georgia proceeded to plait and I proceeded to practice running next to the lorry with a poncho on, making sure in the reflection it didn’t look like I was getting swallowed alive by it! Somewhere in there Alice, William’s wife, came in and like the complete ray of sunshine she is is made me feel confident and excited to finish strong.

I ran around the course after the jog — ok, I was in very high heeled boots, so I walked with a purpose — made it back to the stables to do a pre-warmup, a new strategy that William encouraged me to try. One of my biggest takeaways is that this man, as extremely accomplished as he is, has absolutely no fear about doing new things! And so I tried it and felt like I had Favian in a great place mentally and physically to jump in the afternoon. The course was very technical but the time was doable, I thought, with some smart rollbacks and an inside turn. The line to the triple was a bit steady and it was an extreme question of scope. It came early, a bending line off of fence 3 to a vertical at 4A, one stride oxer 4B, one stride oxer 4C. At least it didn’t look huge, but they were very square and very wide. I had my work cut out for me!

Two embarrassing moments. As I went into the arena on a mission, I was told to remember to salute the Duke’s flag. Egads. Which one was it?? I looked desperately around for any flag that didn’t look like a nation. But my horse was ready to jump. I saluted the air from the middle of the arena and cantered off like I knew exactly what I was doing. Fake it ’til you make it! It did take the judges a bit to sound the tone, and I feared that they were going to make me stop and wait and find the right freakin’ flag!

Other embarrassing moment was that I couldn’t have given Favian a more terrible ride to the triple! He felt so good and so strong, still I bombed down the line in 6 instead of 7 strides. The last two strides I made a pathetic adjustment and my poor horse had to fight his way in and out over the triple. In literally 1.5 seconds, I had added 8 penalty points to my score. I wanted to crawl into a very small ball, but alas there was no time for that as we were only at fence 4! I kept my pace, kept making my aggressive turns and Favian kept jumping higher and higher. What a brilliant feeling he gave me! He wanted to jump clean! I wanted this so badly for Richard Sheane as well. But we made the time.

That’s, I think, more rare for Favian than a clean round. I knew Richard would have been proud.

I wanted to make everyone proud. I was rather dumbfounded and wanted a redo. I wanted a Top 10 finish. I wanted to do so much for everyone who has done so much for Favian and I. I wanted him to have this on his record. To see 31st place as a final finish doesn’t seem like a six-week lifetime journey accomplishment. But out of 112 starters and barely 70-some finishers, I needed a few hours and a glass of Pol-Roger rose champagne to find some positi and perspective. I watched the second and third-placed horse and riders completely biff the same combination. Maybe misery loves company, or maybe what we do is really, really hard. My horse thinks he’s a champion. And he is! And I’ve made so much out of an opportunity that few in the world have a chance of making. I’ve managed to enjoy the highlights of an incredible competition and use it to inspire me to take more opportunities for the future. Walking out of the Palace pavilion, I was surrounded by these young Pony Club girls asking me to sign their books and bags from the weekend. What a feeling. What an Eventing family. What a bright future.