Getting to a CCI5* is always an enormous undertaking — but never more so than in a pandemic year. Our own Tilly Berendt is on the road to Luhmühlen with Great Britain’s Mollie Summerland and her horse Charly van ter Heiden – and she’s documenting the whole journey as it happens. Welcome to part eight: you already know how this one ends.
As in the last blog, I feel I need to start this one with an apology for keeping you all waiting. As it turns out, the relentless madness of multitasking at a five-star doesn’t stop once the competition wraps; there’s a lorry to pack, final articles to file, a horse to feed a million Polo mints to, celebrations to be had, and then a long, tough journey back to England to be undertaken. After that, there are final logistical loose ends to tie up, suitcases to unpack (barely – I’m still living off the top layer of my luggage), heartfelt goodbyes to be said, and then so, so much sleep to catch up on. Beyond that, there’s the realisation that somehow, you have to put into words the full scope of what’s happened, and that comes with a fear that’s unfamiliar to me: a fear of getting it wrong, of running out of those words, and of pressing ‘publish’ for the final time and really, truly having to put the whole experience to bed. Since we finally made it back to England at 4 a.m. on Tuesday morning, it’s all been a bit too much to face – but now I’m here, and nearly human again, and I hope I can try to do the whole thing some sort of justice.
When I left you last, we’d made it through to Saturday night in a hot, sweaty whirlwind: between Mollie, myself, and Jillian Giessen, head groom to Tim Lips, our little team had stayed atop the leaderboard and put a healthy, happy horse to bed for the evening. Not only had Mollie and Charly dug deep and produced that impressive, gutsy round across the country, they’d also come in with the fastest time of the day – not too shabby, when you consider that darling Chazzle is only 24% blood. A busy afternoon followed for me, as I covered the CCI4*-S cross-country, and Mollie worked on recuperating and recharging her own batteries after an incredibly intense morning battling the heat and that achingly difficult cross-country course. As we reconvened that evening – each having made it to the showers too late to enjoy any warm water – it was in a haze of delirious happiness, tinged with sadness for our friends who hadn’t had the same great day that we’d enjoyed.
That’s the thing about eventing: we’re all one big family, connected in strange but solid ways, and we ride out those ups and downs together. It’s been the thing that’s saved our bacon a number of times throughout this trip – from German journalist Juliane Barthes locating some stirrup leathers for Mollie for cross-country day to Jillian stepping in to help us before and after Mollie’s round – but it also means that no matter how well your day has gone, part of your head and your heart are always with those who are feeling the burn a few lorries away.
But that night, we had to keep our heads firmly screwed on. Before I made the long trek up to the showers of doom, I ran through the to-do list with Mollie, who was wading through the messages of congratulations and good luck wishes pouring in.
“Right,” I said. “Shower – write a blog post – sort through some photos – set an alarm – win a five-star. Not a bad to-do list, really.”
Mollie laughed, and I was struck once again by her relaxation – a seriously good omen, if the previous few days were anything to go by. Before each of the prior two phases, she’d mentioned how uncharacteristically calm she felt, and in each of those phases, she’d outperformed everyone to hold the lead. Now, we’d be heading into the most pressurised situation yet – and the phase that Mollie considered her and Charly’s weak point – and that calm remained in place. I mentally filed it away with all those 11:11s, and the magpies we’d manically saluted every day, and the stars I’d wished on while waiting in shower queues. (Some of those had turned out to be planes, admittedly, but perhaps there’s a patron saint of air travel who was feeling particularly generous. I had to hope.)
What do you reckon would be the perfect scenario for the night before the most important showjumping round of a rider’s life, to that point anyway? Probably a quiet night in the lorry, with little ambient noise and a mild temperature, so that any possible sleep could come easily, right?
Alas. There’s nary a Luhmühlen that goes by without some kind of biblical storm, and we’d been coasting through all week in seriously scorching temperatures. We were overdue a big one, and it rolled in at around 5 a.m., lighting the lorry park up and shaking the ground as it raged overhead. Within minutes, my tent (with its uncloseable door) had flooded, and I was wrapped in a damp duvet attempting to shield myself from the worst of the deluge. Inside the metal lorry, it must have sounded even more horrifying, and Mollie was jolted awake into the worst possible conditions to face the day ahead. For my part, I could think of nothing other than 2019’s event, at which a similar storm overnight on Friday caused such significant flooding that bales of shavings were swept away in the current and the local fire department had to come and siphon water off the grounds. It felt like the first dodgy omen we’d had in weeks.
Nevertheless, we headed into the hustle and bustle of the stables to prepare for the final horse inspection, which felt extra pressurised after the tough conditions of the previous day.
“Don’t cover yourself in hoof polish this time,” laughed Mollie, as I worked my way carefully around a very fresh Charly’s white socks, which I’d just scrubbed and chalked to perfection. Almost on cue, the hoof polish slipped out of my hand, and in my haste to divert it from those pearly whites, I absolutely drenched myself like a sad, soggy dalmation. Still, I thought, we’ve got through every other day with me covered in hoof polish. Maybe it’s a necessary part of the equation.
All fifteen remaining horses passed the final inspection in record time, and there was no time for any faffing about: the showjumping course had been opened for walking, and without any trainers in situ, Mollie needed all the time she could get to formulate her plan of action. For a rider who doubts her prowess in this phase — “I’d rather have done dressage or cross-country again,” she later told the press — this was a challenge that went beyond the norm: Luhmühlen makes best use of its surfaced arena and presents the toughest, biggest, and most technical five-star showjumping courses you’re ever likely to see. Because all of her trainers were stuck at home in England, Mollie had to be creative in her walking: she videoed each line as she walked it, counting her paces out loud, and sent the videos to her showjumping coach Jay Halim, who gave her feedback on how to ride each fence and promised to supply further intel after he’d watched the first few riders on the livestream. With only fourteen riders to jump ahead of her, Mollie would have time to watch just a couple of rounds herself before we headed into the warm-up. We had to make every second, every step, and every fence count, or risk dropping the ball.
Once you spend the amount of time together that Mollie and I did over the past few weeks, it’s almost like you start to share a brain – and I knew, when I saw Mollie ride down to the gate to watch the first few rounds, that this wasn’t the time to chat through ideas and options or offer any platitudes. It was simply time to grit our teeth, trust the process, and do the work. And that’s what we did.
I was still on journalist and photographer duties, and so I’d scoped out the best — and closest — fences to be able to photograph each rider on course. Both the first and final fences were square oxers, which were ideal in terms of catching horses in a nice shape over the fence, and both made good use of the light – and so I made a plan to alternate which one I used in each round once Mollie began warming up. If I photographed one rider over the first fence, I’d photograph the next over the last, giving me the maximum possible time in the collecting ring to set fences. After I’d photographed a rider over the last, I’d grab the next over the first — and so on, and so forth. In between, I carved out a speedy route that allowed me to sprint via the Longines hospitality tent, fling myself over the little boundary fence, and dash back into the arena to set the next warm-up fence for Mollie, using a system we’d practiced and perfected while jumping at Peelbergen in the Netherlands the week before. This time, I had fewer terrifying showjumping grooms to contend with – instead, I found myself sharing an oxer with a particularly dishy German coach.
“One hole or two?” he purred, as I flung myself at the back rail to set the next fence. Oo–er, good sir, I thought to myself – but for once, even I didn’t have the bandwidth to make any fundamentally immature jokes. (Is this adulthood? Had I finally reached it? Inconclusive.)
It felt like no time at all had elapsed before it was time for us to head back over to the in-gate. There, we were able to watch Germany’s Christoph Wahler — jumping in second place in his five-star debut — produce what had to have been the round of the day. Flawless, smooth, and textbook perfect, it was every inch a winning round – and as the celebratory music rang out for him, accompanied by a roar of cheers, I think both Mollie and I must have had the same thought: “right, well, Christoph is the winner. Let’s see if we can nab second.”
For Charly, it must have come as something of a shock to enter the cavernous main arena to a thunder of applause after a week of tackling a spectator-free five-star, especially as he’s been shy of crowds in the past. But Mollie had her game face on and Charly was fit, fresh, and jumping on springs after Jay’s strategic warm-up regime. The crowd fell silent as she popped over one, two, three… and then, halfway around the course, he stumbled. Time felt as though it had stopped; my malfunctioning heart leapt into my throat; I saw, almost in slow motion, Mollie’s balance getting tipped out of the saddle. And then, just as quickly as it had happened, he righted himself, tossed Mollie back into the plate, and she sat deep in the back of the saddle and found the next line. Charly tap, tap, tapped his way through – but they were clear. It felt like every fence threatened to tumble, and no one dared breathe, but then there was just the last to go – and they were over it safely with just a smattering of time penalties. We all froze for a moment, checked the scoreboard, and then…well, then it’s all a blur, really. A glorious, baffling, ecstatic blur, and all I could do was throw myself back over that little boundary fence as Mollie and Charly came out – victorious! Can you believe it?! – and we hugged and sobbed and tried to process what had happened.
I’ve been in so many collecting rings over the years as winners have been decided at five-stars, and it’s always an emotive whirlwind of hugs and tears and exclamations and stamping hooves, but this time it was my job to fasten the rosette onto the bridle of a cavorting Charly, to swing that winner’s rug over his back, to pass his boots to the stewards while he spun around me in circles and threatened to squash my long-suffering camera, while a sobbing Mollie was swept up in a crowd of congratulations. I felt almost numb as the hugs and back-slaps came my way, too – from Tim Lips and Jillian, who had become family, from Andrew Nicholson, who had laughed as he watched me sprinting from ring to ring just moments before, from endless smiling faces who became a joyous blur as it felt like the world was spinning in all sorts of funny directions. We’d done it. We’d really, truly done it — just two girls without any support crew, living in a tiny horsebox with no electricity, never managing to find dinner (nor lunch, in my case), just putting our heads together and figuring out a plan and being saved, over and over again, by the kindness and generosity of our fellow competitors and compatriots. It felt like ancient history that, just three weeks prior, I’d been having to argue my way through a tiny handful of people telling me it couldn’t be done, that we wouldn’t even be able to get to Luhmühlen. Even making it this far had felt like an extraordinary victory. And now? What now? We’d shown everyone who’d ever doubted us just what could be done with a bit of faith and a whole hell of a lot of hard work.
I’d love to say I spent the afternoon celebrating, but there was the small matter of that CCI4*-S left to cover – and I did so in a haze, vacillating between a sort of numb shock and a total outpouring of emotion, which meant that no one was safe from my sudden tears. Maybe it seems a little dramatic to have taken the win to heart as much as I did — after all, Mollie and I had only teamed up three weeks prior, and though we’d known each other considerably longer, and I’d always rooted for her in particular, it wasn’t as though this had been the culmination of many years of working together. But those three weeks had been extraordinarily hard-won and intense, with both of us focussed so wholly on the goal at hand, whether that was simply making it out of the UK, or getting to the five-star, or ultimately winning it. We’d fought for it every step of the way – and our shared similarities meant that in so many ways, we were jumping the same hurdles. Both of us come from unlikely backgrounds, without money behind us, and both of us have had to make the bare minimum work – for Mollie, that involved spending a winter living in her lorry after losing her yard and living situation just after returning from her first five-star; for me, there’d been years of penny-pinching and living on porridge just to lay some kind of a foundation after moving to the UK with £50 in my pocket a decade ago. Both of us have had to accept and overcome mental health wobbles, and both of us have been dismissed by people who simply didn’t believe in what we were capable of. Though we’ve lived very different lives, we’d become connected by the rough stuff; the stuff we didn’t have to work to explain to one another, because each of us just knew. That we could team up to take on the world, even in the strangest of circumstances, felt like a victory for the underdog: you can do it. Things do get better. Keep fighting, even when there’s no one there to fight with you. Your army will come.
Somehow, though, I made it through the rest of the day, tried to screw my head back on firmly enough to write a bumper report covering both classes and interview the top trio in the four-star.
Andrew Hoy, who’d finished third in the class with Vassily de Lassos, caught my eye at the end of his press conference interview, in which he’d spoken emphatically about the importance of surrounding yourself with a good team — and learning from them, too.
“And you and Mollie,” he said with a broad grin. “I never would have guessed, when we were all at customs together in Calais, with you guys in a two-horse lorry, that I was looking at the winner of the five-star!”
“We were saying as we drove away in our little box that you probably thought we were the local Pony Club, out looking for autographs,” I laughed – but as Mollie had said earlier, it’s not about the lorry you drive in on. It’s about what you pull off the back. And by god, did we have the horse of a lifetime on the back of our little box.
But what a week for horses of a lifetime, overall. Each of the final top three had that extraordinary partnership – their heart horses, who they’d each had since they were five-year-olds, and who had given them all those big firsts. First five-stars, first team call-ups, first big wins, first tastes of how extraordinary the sport can be, but also how much it can break your heart. Each of them had forged the kind of partnership that pulled them out of bed the next day after a setback, and each of them were getting to see the fruits of their labours — and their love — writ large. I could have — and honestly, did — cried for each of them.
By half-past eight that evening, it was time to pack up one last time and go in search of a proper celebration before our departure the next day.
As we packed up the lorry, we were one of just three left on site: one lorry was in the process of heading out the gate too, while the Hoys had set up shop for one final night in situ. We packed the last of our things – some heavy trunks, a flooded tent, and a thoroughly depressed looking airbed – into the back, locked up, and then loaded up Charly, who drank in his last glimpse of the place with wide eyes and pricked ears.
“Say goodbye to Luhmühlen, buddy,” I said. “It’s all yours.”
An evening in our little lorry with no dinner and no alcohol would have made for a pretty lacklustre celebration, but fortunately, we’d been invited to Klosterhof Medingen, the stunning base of second-placed Christoph Wahler, to raise a glass to the weekend and let Charly enjoy a night in a real stable with a thick straw bed. As Christoph laid the straw and Mollie tackled Charly’s boots and rug, I nipped around the back of the lorry to do the really important stuff: fetch the booze from our prize stash (which included a cheeky something-something for us having won the groom’s prize, too – though how could they not give it to our little ragtag team?). I put the key in the lock, brimming with pre-sesh bravado – and nothing happened. I tried again. And again. And again. The lock was stuck tight.
After abortive attempts by both Mollie and Christoph, we decided to leave it and tackle it later on, when Mollie and I would need to get back in to go to bed. After all, there were far more important things to do – like drinking peppermint schnapps and listening to Germany’s finest club classics. (Helpfully, each song was explained to us in detail: “this one is about the joys of agriculture,” someone told me sombrely during one particularly unlistenable bop. As it turns out, Germans like highly specific and very literal subjects for their tunes.)
You can see where this is going, can’t you? We never did get back into the lorry – not that night, wherein Mollie slept on the front seat, wrapped in her winner’s rug, and I found whichever bed was going spare – nor the next day, as we embarked on the long trip to the ferry in France. No big deal, right? Except it kind of was a big deal: everything we owned was in the back, including bank cards, clean clothes, contact lenses, jackets, my laptop… in short, we were a bit screwed. Mollie had had to sleep in her daily contacts so she could see while doing the day-long drive, and the weather had taken a real turn for the worse, but we were spectacularly underdressed — and freezing cold — in our summery garb. And then, everything started to go pear-shaped: a nine-hour trip turned into a fourteen-hour one before we’d even got on the ferry, and rather than celebrating on the way home, we could be found hunched over in service stations, filling up a feed bucket from bottles of water because we couldn’t get to the canister in the back to offer Charly a drink. (Buying those bottles was hard enough: after too much travelling and too little sleep, I wandered into the the shop and had to actually ask myself what language they speak in France. And then I spoke bad Dutch to the poor cashier anyway.)
As we finally pulled into the ferry port in Calais — after getting completely and utterly lost in town, and asking for directions from a man who just kept telling us that he’d recently got out of prison — we realised we could be about to hit some serious trouble.
Anyone who’s done the Dover to Calais crossing and back again knows that getting back into the UK is the tougher bit of the journey. Because Calais has long been the site of refugee camps, there are stringent security checks in place to ensure that no one has stowed away on board, in desperate search for a better life — or just some kind of a life at all. There was every likelihood that the border police would want to search our lorry, and they weren’t likely to take it well if we told them we simply couldn’t get into it.
“Oh god, they’re going to rip the door off,” wailed Mollie, and I agreed with her. It wasn’t looking great for the final legs of our trip home.
Somehow — and truly, I don’t know how — luck was on our side. We were waved through the police checks, and through customs (once we’d presented our exemption letters from the British Equestrian Federation, after which they were considerably gentler with us), and then sent to park up and wait for our midnight ferry. But that changing of the weather had followed us through the day.
“Are you empty?” shouted a high-vis-clad man, bellowing over the high winds.
“No, we have a horse on board,” I shouted back.
“‘Av you got lashing points?”
“No, we don’t.”
“You are joking?!” He dashed away, speaking furiously in French into his radio.
“Yes, because not having lashing points in a storm is exactly the sort of great joke we like to make,” Mollie said, rolling her eyes. But neither of us were finding the situation particularly funny – if we couldn’t travel on the ferry, we’d need to find somewhere to take Charly for the night. Oh, and have I mentioned that both of our phones had run out of international data? And it was already past midnight? Cool, just making sure you’re up to speed.
Thank god for Charly, who is the happiest horse in the world and took each hurdle we faced with aplomb and another snatch of his haynet. We did, eventually, get let onto that ferry, where the staff managed to wedge us between a wall and some much bigger lorries to keep our little box in place if the crossing got rough. And so we made it back to the UK, through yet another round of customs paperwork checks, and on the road to my place, where we could unload Charly at 4 a.m. and try to get some sleep – in the back of a different lorry, mind you, because my house key was locked in the back of ours.
After a couple of hours of kip, I got up to feed Charly – still bright-eyed and bossy, wondering where on earth his breakfast was — and attempted to unlock the lorry again. I rarely feel helpless about much of anything, but exhaustion had caught up in a big way, and I stood in the rain wailing like a lunatic until a much more sane collective of folks from around the yard came to try to help me. A mounting block, a broom handle, one incredibly long pair of arms, and a lot of jimmying later, and we were in. I wailed a bit more, for good measure.
“D-d-do you guys want to s-s-see the trophy?” I blubbed. They looked a bit alarmed but took pity on me while I unboxed it like I was at a preschool show-and-tell session.
Parting is such sweet sorrow, and all that – and saying goodbye to Mollie and Charly as they headed for home was just the latest in a long string of teary goodbyes over the past week or so. Though the press accounts of the win will focus on the fact that Mollie and I did it alone, the truth of the matter is that so many people contributed in so many ways, and without them, none of this could have happened – and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as fun. There’s all her home team, for example: trainers Carl Hester, Olivia Oakeley, Jay Halim, and Robin Dumas, who coached from afar using videos and, in Robin’s case, went above and beyond to offer advice and support when we hit logistical issues on our trip home. Then, of course, there’s fellow 5* rider Julia Norman and her team, with whom Mollie is based in Wiltshire, who supported so wholeheartedly from afar, as did Paula Cloke, her husband Adrian, and daughter Georgie, who own one of Mollie’s young horses and lent us our little lorry. Paula didn’t just give us the vehicle that became our home; she also FaceTimed us regularly, always with joy and love and enthusiasm, and lifted our spirits every time. Kate Tarrant and Charley Bloodworth at Littleton Manor, where I live, provided stables and support before and after our journey — and made sure my own beloved horse was happy and healthy on her holiday. The British World Class team, helmed by Chris Bartle and Dickie Waygood, supported our plan from the get go, and team vet Liz Brown went above and beyond to offer advice as I sorted logistics before and through the trip. Tim Lips took superhost to a whole new level: his yard provided the most exceptional facilities, but he also went above and beyond to share advice, wisdom, great stories and laughs, dinners in the sunshine, and so much more. He and his team – head girl Jillian Giessen, who was an utter legend throughout Luhmühlen, and the wonderful Gino Cassano and Gosia Niczyporuk – became more than colleagues, or even friends: they became our family, and we miss them dearly. Tim and Jonelle Price and their team were a wonderful addition in the latter part of our Dutch residence, and they continued to be positive and supportive through the competition – even when their own week didn’t go quite to plan. German media superstar Juliane Barthes (the German Tilly, and I am the English Juliane, we’ve decided) was a wonderful friend and comrade in the media centre, but also saved the day when we needed to source new stirrup leathers and couldn’t buy any short enough on site. She appeared, miraculously, with a borrowed pair the next day and almost certainly saved Mollie and Charly from a catastrophic accident on course. The Doel family were so warm and welcoming to us, saving us a parking space by their lorry when we arrived and letting us charge phones, sit outside with them in the evenings, and so, so kindly taking Charly back to the stables and getting him comfortable after the prize giving, when both Mollie and I had to rush into media duties. Luhmühlen’s own team were vocally supportive of us before we even arrived (though I did worry that they might not let us in, after reading the blogs) and so welcoming through the week; it feels odd not to drink plastic cups of champagne and smoke furtive cigarettes with them while debriefing after a long day. And we’re grateful beyond words to all of you who followed along and sent messages of support: we might have been just two gals and a horse, but really, our worldwide team was the biggest and best one we could ever have asked for. There are so, so many more people who deserve a mention, but only so many words and very few functioning brain cells left: just know, if you’re reading this and have had any involvement at all, that we are so grateful and I’ve probably cried about you at some point.
So now, we let the dust settle and try to comprehend the adventure of a lifetime, alone for the first time in weeks and missing all of it as though we’ve lost a limb. There are further journeys to go on, and goals to try to hit, my rent to attempt to pay, and continents for Mollie to learn about – but for now, we’ll just try to stay tread water in those memories of a lifetime, and the extraordinary people who came into our lives. Call me a soppy git all you want, but Carrie Bradshaw-esque, I couldn’t help but wonder: perhaps the real five-star win really was the friends we made along the way.
(Or, you know, maybe it was the five-star win. Who knows.)
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