EN Blogger Contest Finalist Diana Gilbertson: Risk Takers are History Makers

The 2022 EN Blogger Contest finalists were asked to write a piece telling the story of a local event as one option for their Round 2 submissions. The following piece is published unedited. Your feedback will help us select our final winner! Use the rating poll below to give this post a thumbs up. Votes will be factored into our final decision.

About Diana:

A 30 something English Literature graduate perpetually coated in horse poo and mud, Diana has a penchant for spicy food and an (un)healthy obsession with all things equine. Based in a particularly wild and remote part of England (imagine Outlander but with fewer kilts/flame haired Scotchmen), she spends most of her time trying to keep herself and various other four legged friends alive. The rest of her time is spent dreaming of riding for her country (sorry Team GB; standards might have to slip a tad before that happens), although a crack at a 5* on her beloved steed Zara will do …after all, what is life without dreams? Never one to shy away from adventure, Diana has driven the length and breadth of New Zealand, hiked through the Annapurna mountain range, and is currently considering a cycling tour of the Italian Lakes. Now she just needs to master riding a bike…

[Read Diana’s Round 2 entry here]
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Photo by Peter Gilbertson

As a child, if I were to think of what it was to ‘go eventing,’ it would be to watch the big names of the sport – think Pippa Funnell, William Fox Pitt et al – jump impossibly big fences, whilst stuffing my face with some sort of sickly-sweet crepe, not considering for one second that I might want to join them out on course one day. No thank you; I was quite happy to chase autographs and brush my pony, but the thought of jumping frighteningly huge obstacles never really crossed my simple little mind.

Well, until I was given a horse that ignited a fire inside my belly that changed my entire perspective on the sport, and what it is to ‘go eventing.’ I was no longer happy on the side lines watching, I wanted to take part, and thus I began to chase the dream.

For to go eventing is to follow a dream so big that it scares you. A dream that you believe in so much that you will risk everything you have to make it happen. One that will take you places – both good and bad – that you never thought possible before.

Let’s look at Jonelle Price for example. Back in 2003, she spent her entire life savings on a plane ticket, so that she and Mazetto – her top horse at the time – could fly to the other side of the world and contest their first Burghley together. It was a gamble that did not pay off; Mazetto got so travel sick that they couldn’t compete and they left with nothing – not even a photograph over the Cottesmore Leap. She did not let that put her off, however. Instead, she kept at it, moving to the UK permanently in 2005 alongside husband Tim, and continuing to believe in her dreams until the gamble did pay off – and there is no denying that it finally has. She and Tim were crowned the official King and Queen of eventing in the FEI world rankings earlier this month and on hearing the news, Jonelle perfectly articulated what had driven them to such success, and why, even why she continued to keep at it, even when things didn’t go to plan. She -and Tim – were following their dreams. ‘Once upon a time, two small town kids dreamt that they could take on the world. And they did. The end.’

Similar dreams undoubtedly inspired our current World Champion, Yasmin Ingham to make the move from her native Isle of Man (a minuscule island, just off the coast of the UK, for all you readers whose geography is as bad as mine) and base herself with Sue and Ed (RIP) Davies and Janette Chinn at their yard in Cheshire, England. Leaving her friends and family behind her whilst still in her teens, Yaz – like the Prices before her – believed unwaveringly that the sacrifices would eventually pay off, and that her dreams would come true. Let’s face it -to be World Champion at 25 – and at your first ever World Championship at that – is the very stuff that dreams are made of!

Yas and the Prices are not the only ones who dared to dream – one of the most wonderful things about what it means to ‘go eventing,’ is that it unites so many of us in the same vision, the same belief in our dreams coming true. This is perhaps best articulated by Eventing Nation’s very own Tilly Berendt, as she reflects on the spine tingling finale that saw Yasmin clinch the gold medal : ‘Yaz’s history-making victory doesn’t just fulfil her own wildest dreams — it’s also emblematic of a World Championships cycle that has seen young up-and-comers come to the fore. And for kids with ponies on the brain and posters on their walls? It’s a sure sign that no matter how lofty your ambitions, there’s a pathway to get there.’

Indeed, as Tilly also notes, to ‘go eventing’ is not just something done by the chosen few – it is for anyone who has hopes and aspirations to drive them, whether that is to ride around a 5* or to compete in your local unaffiliated/unrecognised event (delete as appropriate UK/US based readers)

In fact, I can personally empathise with Jonelle, for I too, spent my entire life savings on a horse, with the belief that we could take on the world and compete alongside the best of the best (testament to the talent of the horse, rather than my own abilities I might add). Unfortunately though, my dreams are currently in tatters, just like those of our Kiwi Queen were back in the early days. My beloved Zara is currently waiting to have an operation to remove a bone chip from her fetlock and her return to eventing is hanging in the balance. But have I given up on my dream for us to go eventing once more? Absolutely not, despite it seeming more impossible than ever. You see, Tim, Jonelle, Yaz et al. are not just chasing their own ambitions when they go eventing, they are living proof that no matter what happens, if you keep the faith, you will get there, someway, somehow. As such, their own stories, and the obstacles they have overcome inspire those of us at the other end of the sport to keep going when the chips (pun not intended) are down, to keep looking for rainbows despite the rain.

You don’t have to search very hard to find several other examples of the adversity that top riders have had to overcome to get to where they are. Laura Collett, winner of Olympic Gold and the reigning Badminton champion, suffered a life changing rotational fall back in 2013 that saw her in an induced coma for 2 weeks and has left her permanently blind in one eye. Yet she was back in the saddle on the very same day that she was discharged from hospital. As she said at the time ‘it’s part of our sport. As riders we are probably better at carrying on as normal, whereas other people not associated with it might find it a bit strange that you can get back on as though nothing has happened. You just have to take the good with the bad,’ To give up this crazy life of eventing never even crossed her mind – and aren’t we glad it didn’t? Laura’s experience serves as further testament to the power of dreams, something that she reaffirmed following her Olympic success last year: ‘Just to be here [was] more than a dream come true, and to be stood here, with a gold medal, I look back where I was eight years ago – I knew I was lucky to be alive, yet alone do the job I love.’ Laura points out another key factor in what it means to ‘go eventing;’ it is not just about following your dreams, but about falling in love with something to such an extent that it becomes your entire life and keeps you going when everything else seems to be going wrong – personally, professionally, or both.

Another Olympic gold medallist, Julia Krajewski is the perfect exemplar of this. Had she not continued to go eventing when times were tough, she may never have won that historical gold, becoming the first woman ever to do so in the process. But that’s not to say that the thought of giving up never crossed her mind. ‘A few times I thought about giving up because it was hard feeling the backlash – the positive medication or the Olympics – but when times were difficult, riding was something I chose to do to calm down and concentrate on something else. Being around horses is just what I love to do.’ She is of course referring to her disastrous Olympic debut in Rio aboard Samourai Du Thot (Sam), where three refusals saw her become the German discord score, and the mysterious incident involving the same horse a year later at the Europeans, where they were disqualified following a positive drugs test, despite Julia having no knowledge of the horse having been given the illegal substance. Even after bouncing back from such an annus horribilis, there was still more to come. 2021 began with the death of her father, and then, just months later, Julia was forced to retire Sam from the sport after an eye infection turned nasty and the vets had to remove his eye altogether. Having started the year as almost a dead cert for the Olympics, the rider was forced to question her chosen career once more. Yet if anything, the setbacks – and her love of her horses and the sport she enjoyed – just made her even more determined to keep going. Of course, that determination paid off, and once again we have proof of what it is to go eventing – to believe in the magic of happy endings, and to have that belief vindicated. For as Julia said of her win, ‘It’s the stuff that movies are made of… This is very much a fairy tale finish for me.’

Photo by Action Replay Photography

However, if you think that fairy tales are just for girls, then think again. We need look no further than the 2017 Badminton champ, Andrew Nicholson for evidence of this. Not only was this his 37th attempt at the title (reminiscent of my own attempts to pass my driving test), but it came just two years after breaking his neck in a fall at the 2015 Festival of British Eventing. Arguably it was his own belief in the dream that pervades the sport that meant he was not one of the 98% of cases that would have been left permanently paralysed from such an injury: ‘I knew I would win Badminton one day, I just didn’t know when!’

Andrew has since retired from top level competing, yet still he continues to go eventing, this time as cross-country coach to the Swiss eventing team, again inspiring others to go eventing. It’s not just the younger generation that he’s helping to achieve their wildest dreams either. Earlier this year, at the Pratoni test event, Beat Sax joined the Swiss team for the first time, after forty odd years in the sport, helping his team to victory aged a sprightly 62. Again, it is Tilly Berendt who observed at the time that ‘I don’t think I saw anyone happier to realise a dream this week than Beat.’ It might have taken him decades to get there, but Beat – like the other ladies and gentlemen highlighted throughout this article – had an unwavering belief in himself and his dreams, and he continued to chase them to fruition. He is also testament to the fact that age also doesn’t matter when you go eventing. Yasmin Ingham is a mere child at 25, making Beat almost old enough to be her grandfather, but still the two compete side by side, in pursuit of the same thing.

The great Sir Mark Todd is another who proves that age is but a number when it comes to eventing. He also adds provides further interpretation of the phrase ‘to go eventing’ when reflecting on his illustrious career in the sport – after his second (and final? Only time will tell!) retirement – ‘apart from the personal successes, just being involved in the sport, and the people, is what’s kept me there…the eventing world is one big family.’

His is a very valid point and one that perfectly encapsulates the final and perhaps most important thing about what it means to go eventing. Whether it be as a competitor, a spectator or an owner, to go eventing is to join a community that spans continents and time zones, unites young and old, male and female. Top riders continue to compete amongst us mere mortals at the lower levels and not only do their stories and successes drive and inspire our own hopes and aspirations, but they also remain humble enough to help us to achieve them. None of them are too grandiose to offer support when asked, or to stop and chat to starstruck fans even when in the middle of a competition. I remember seeing William Fox-Pitt at Burgham earlier this year (another remote UK location – sorry US contingent!), desperately trying to get a coffee whilst taking selfie after selfie after selfie with a group of giddy women (not a teenager amongst them I might add – contain yourself girls!). His smile never wavered – and neither did that of Tim and Jonelle when I stopped to gush at them at Burghley in September. In fact, if I remember rightly, they even invited me to their yard – though that was of course before they rose to the lofty ranks of World Number 1 and Number 2, so I doubt that still stands! These guys understand what it is to go eventing, and how important it is to those who do – because they have been on that journey all their lives, too.

So, to go eventing is to become part of a family, one in which all the members are united by the same insanity, the same belief in impossible dreams, and the same determination to overcome the worst of times so that they can one day bask in the best of times. You don’t need to want to compete to join the family either – I have seen myself crying with joy countless times on the final day of various 5* and championships as yet another rider beats the odds and captures their dreams, felt the same goosebumps whilst celebrating their own success as I do when jumping a double clear on my own horse. Even as spectators we share in the passion, the drive, the dreams.

To go eventing then, is to believe in a fairy tale, one in which there are no villains (dressage judges aside), and where anything is possible, as long as you keep the faith. and never give up.

As Oscar Wilde once said ‘Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars,’ and in eventing, those stars are the riders that inspired us to go eventing in the first place, the members of a family you didn’t know you had, until you made that leap of faith to Go Eventing!