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 four:
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TMX Herby, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
But mostly, I just love your cute little ginger schnozz
And that whopping great gallop
You do not love me in return.
That is okay.
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning, maybe
When I first had the idea to contact Dutch Olympian and, let’s be real, total legend Tim Lips, I promise I did it wholly and completely because it was the perfect functional option: his yard in Breda, the Netherlands, is en route to Luhmühlen, his facilities are top-notch for preparing for a CCI5*, and we’d have access to his endless knowledge and experience if we needed it. (We have needed it.) He’s also heading to Luhmühlen, albeit for the CCI4*-S, and so it seemed like the ideal environment to ensconce ourselves in. It was only when the deal was done and dusted that I could indulge the feral little pony-mad girl I am deep down inside: because Tim’s top horse, TMX Herby, is my ultimate horse crush.
Let’s rewind a bit — to the Young Horse World Championships at Le Lion d’Angers in 2019, to be exact. I was huddled under a million layers photographing the first horse inspection in torrential rain, spinning around to alternate between shooting the action on the trot strip and the quiet moments under the large concrete roof, where waiting horses and handlers were sheltering from the worst of the weather. I turned in time to catch Tim as he stepped out from under the roof, directly into a torrent of water streaming from the building itself. I was so busy laughing myself senseless at the photo I took of him that I almost didn’t notice his horse. Almost.
Tall, slender, with legs up to his eyeballs, the seven-year-old chestnut gelding peered politely and curiously at the spectacle around him, with a slightly sleepy-looking countenance but an obvious sparkling intelligence. I don’t usually go in for a chestnut with lots of white, but something about the horse struck me, and I looked forward to his dressage test with about as much anticipation as I ever muster for watching dressage in the rain. There, he sweetly got on with the job in spite of the fetlock-deep, holding mud, and when I cornered Tim for an interview afterwards, he sealed the deal for me. As it turned out, Herby’s owner Max, a chap in at least his seventies, shared the ride with Tim – and his final ‘prep run’ for the Young Horse World Championships had been a pop around a 90cm course with the enthusiastic amateur.
On cross-country day, I delegated the photography to Pam and Charles Cunningham of Irish Eventing Times so that I could watch the action in full from the riders’ tent and make notes through the day. Partway through the afternoon, an older man sat down next to me, asked me about my work, and then queried whether there was any horse in particular I was excited to see, a leading smile on his face.
“I have to follow all of them,” I told him, “but I can’t wait to see Tim Lips and Herby go.”
He beamed. “That’s my horse,” he said, and we happily chatted away about Herby as we watched the action unfold. When I watched that gorgeous, rangy ginger eat up the track with his extraordinary gallop and gutsy, easy jump, I knew my heart had been stolen forever. Broken a little bit, mind you, when he was withdrawn from the holding box in the final inspection, but stolen nonetheless.
Since then, I’ve followed his career with rapt attention, and poor Tim has probably largely known me as “that one English girl who like, really loves my horse, probably a bit too much.” When he won a CCI3*-S at Barroca d’Alva at the beginning of last year, I lost part of my mind. When he took the win in his CCI4*-L debut at Sopot later in the year, I felt great chunks of my sanity gleefully depart from my head. And when he won another CCI3*-S, this time at Oudskarpel, I knew my last remaining brain cells had left the country. His was the name I was most excited to see on this year’s Luhmühlen entries — even though he’s not in the five-star. And now, I was going to spend ten whole days with him. Ten whole blissful, glorious days, in which I could feed him polos and pat his little nose and tell him he’s pretty and plan a foolproof heist.
Unfortunately, it turns out he doesn’t like me very much. It’s probably not helped by the fact that I lurk around outside his stable, waiting for him to acknowledge my existence, kind of like one of those sweaty drunk guys you always see hanging around near the women’s loos in nightclubs. He vacillates between total indifference and quiet annoyance, and his absolute determination to play hard to get only makes me try even harder. I am a woman possessed. The fact that he apparently doesn’t like a fuss from anyone does nothing to deter me. He WILL love me. Maybe.
Unfortunately, in this situation, I am absolutely Matt Hancock.
The day after our arrival was all about getting to know the lay of the land, stocking up on food (“why don’t they have cheddar here? I HATE STUPID GOUDA,” wailed Mollie, on multiple occasions), and, of course, waiting for our benevolent host to return from his busy weekend of training and competing. When he did finally come home that evening, it was to be greeted with the sight of two slightly dishevelled English girls, sprawled across his armchairs like discarded laundry. Mollie, who was on a FaceTime call, didn’t react as I nearly fell out of my chair in a swift attempt to look like a real grown-up and someone you might want to allow on your property. There was time for a quick hello and a short chat before Tim had to dash off again to take some horses to the gallops, and then he was gone as stealthily as he’d appeared.
“Who was that?” asked Mollie, glancing up from her phone.
“That was Tim,” I said.
“Tim who?” she asked.
“Tim…Lips. The guy whose place we’re at.”
“Oh. I saw China on his jacket and thought it was some Chinese guy we didn’t know,” she said.
“Tim is visibly not Chinese,” I pointed out.
This is one of the (many, many) interesting things about being here: not only is Tim a world-class rider in his own right, with Olympics, World Equestrian Games, European Championships and plenty of five-stars under his belt, he’s also a busy and accomplished coach. Chief among his duties is his work with China’s eventing programme, which has qualified a team for the Olympics for the first time ever. Two riders – Yingfeng Bao and Huadong Sun (or Alex, as we know him) — are based here at Lips Stables, each with an exciting string of horses that includes the former Andrew Nicholson mount Teseo and Tim’s own former ride Brent. Tim’s involvement, and that of his father Martin, goes further than simply training Bao and Alex, though — they’re also heavy involved in building China’s equestrian industry, and source horses of all breeds and types to send abroad. I’m also going to need you all to take a second to look at this place.
It didn’t take long for us to force everyone on site to become our new best friends, which was helped, I’m sure, by the fact that they all probably looked at us bumbling around the place and thought, ‘look at these sad, strange little English girls. We should be kind to them.’ The first time I met Bao, for example, I was out hand-grazing Charly, whose grazing style is that of a very hungry high-speed train: nose out and go. I attempted to carry on a civilised and sensible conversation while Charly produced some aggressive crop circles and then, with absolutely no warning whatsoever, dropped to the ground as though he’d been shot. That’s a pretty quick conversation killer, frankly — but it turns out he just wanted a roll and is a drama queen who simply cannot be tamed.
One of the best things about being on a yard like this is the incredible opportunities to watch horses and riders in training, which is always an enormously educational prospect. The other best thing? Chilled out evenings on the terrace, chatting away to Tim and his team, swapping stories and hearing about some of his incredible experiences.
Several days into spending quality time with us, it became obvious that Mollie’s influence was rubbing off on him.
“You know, I didn’t realise for a long time that Piggy had got married,” he mused, referring to the Badminton winner’s surname change. “I thought that maybe it was a reference to the fact that she’d won a lot of things in March.”
By our fifth day in Breda, we were able to head out of ‘quarantine’, and so we embarked upon a series of adventures: long walks in the hot sun to the nearest bus stop so we could go into town and buy more socks, because ours kept wandering away in the night, attempt to cobble together a trot-up outfit on our teeny-tiny budget, and drink Kriek on cafe terraces. Ten long, luxurious days in Breda was feeling more like a holiday than the precursor to a five-star – but even this rare spate of relaxation and excellent company brings its perils.
Accompanying a rider to a top-level competition isn’t just about being on hand to help with the chores – it’s also often about managing rider psychology. Any professional rider, used to filling their days with multiple horses to school, finds having one horse to focus on a uniquely tricky situation. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of overdoing the work, of spending hours fretting about the marginal gains and worrying when a movement hasn’t felt perfect in that morning’s session. Really, the only time a rider ever usually has to deal with this is at an Olympics, where they have to arrive early and spend the lead-up with just their ride for the Games. Luckily, we had a seasoned Olympian on hand to help Mollie make sense of the conundrum and to join me in reassuring her that less is, in fact, more.
We did have one major training goal we wanted to tick off the list, though. Mollie has been working hard on showjumping, aided at home by her new trainer Jay Halim – and it was time to put her practice to the test in a real-world scenario. And so — after some sweet-talking to secure late entries — we got up at the crack of dawn to head to Peelbergen for some showjumping.
Peelbergen, like many European competition centres, is equestrianism on an industrial scale, complete with sprawling arenas, grandstands, marquees, flags…and frightening showjumping grooms. Mollie and Charly were due to jump two rounds in the 1.30m, the biggest class of the day, and after letting Charly use me as a pillow for a little while in the collecting ring, I wiped the horse dribble out of my cleavage and went into the fray to try to claim a jump.
“I bought myself the biggest backpack I could find to make myself more intimidating when I was a showjumping groom,” my friend Charley texted me sagely later on. I could see why. There’s a serious backpack hierarchy in showjumping warm-ups, and there I was, backpackless and covered in slobber, forced to beg and borrow jumps while some chap in a bright yellow, unbuttoned show jacket careered around the place on his enormous horse and nearly wiped us all out.
It all paid off, though. Armed with a new showjumping warm-up routine, Mollie and Charly did their thing, headed into the competition arena, and produced two professional, educational rounds that stood them in great stead for the following week’s event. We headed home — only finding ourselves heading to the wrong side of the road once — and prepared ourselves to meet the lorryload of Luhmühlen-bound competitors who had arrived in our absence.