The Luhmühlen Tour Diaries, Part One: The Long, Hard Road out of Plague Island

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 one: in which one frazzled journalist ages forty years in four days. 

Daydreaming about a Luhmühlen before social distancing. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It’s no secret that the road to Luhmühlen’s CCI5* and CCI4*-S has been a trickier one than normal for many riders this year. When the entry list was first released on the 19th of May, it was jam-packed with over 70 combinations coming forward for the five-star, which will be the first of the 2021 European season. Because of Luhmühlen’s early summer position in the calendar, we don’t tend to see fields of that size in this class; by this point, many prominent horses will have run at Badminton, or will be aiming for a summer championship, and so the prospect of a huge entry list created considerable buzz.

But shortly after those entries went live, Germany announced that it was tightening its restrictions on UK travellers, due to an outbreak of the Delta variant of the coronavirus in the north of England. This, in combination with an EU-wide ban on entry from countries outside the EU and Schengen Area, looked very much like a firmly-closed door indeed. For the 42 British entries on that hefty list – plus, of course, the smattering of British-based riders representing other nations – there was a very big question mark hovering over their June plans. Now, ultimately, we head into the CCI5* with just 28 entries.

My own journey to Luhmühlen as a journalist was always pretty well set in stone, even if the actual logistics were ever-changing. Last week, shortly after the travel ban was announced, I headed to Norfolk to cover the Houghton International CCIO4*-S, which incorporated the FEI Nations Cup and, most importantly, gave me ample opportunities to badger Team GB’s Performance Manager, Dickie Waygood, about his interpretation of the wildly confusing legalese surrounding the ban. Even more importantly than that, we were both in contact with the wonderful team at Luhmühlen, who worked around the clock to try to secure a ‘sport bubble’ on site, which would effectively mean that entrants would quarantine at the venue. Ultimately, though, we found out on Friday that no such bubble would be possible, and those hoping to travel to Germany from the UK had two options: arrive 14 days early and self-isolate before the competition began, or make a new plan for their season.

Well – not quite two options. Though that pesky EU ban was in effect across the continent, not every country had closed their doors quite so firmly to inbound travellers from the UK. All it took was approximately 487 hours of combing through the various government websites, liberally abusing Google Translate, parsing together plenty of international phone calls using a combination of pidgin languages, and a healthy dose of that unique kind of sweaty, stressy adrenaline to find a couple of countries that would both allow UK travellers to enter (if they had one of a few kinds of documented exemption) and, crucially, from which travellers into Germany were welcomed sans quarantine after a certain period of time.

This is an angle I like to call “I’m on the ground trying to read the German consulate’s website, and I’m going to make the very best of it.” Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Now, it’s important to note here that all of this frantic scrolling and research wasn’t just squeezed in alongside reporting on a four-star – it was also being undertaken while in the most comprehensive dead-zone in all of England. I’m not convinced that Norfolk has invented 4G yet – they’re still stuck somewhere around the 1G threshold, I reckon – and so I was most often found hunched over by one of the arenas, quietly swearing at my phone and occasionally waving it in the air like a drunk divorcee at an Adele concert. My grand plan at that point? Figure out a way to get to Ireland, stay there for ten days, and then somehow get to Germany. My great nemesis? The fact that many flight routes around Europe have been temporarily halted, which made finding a direct flight increasingly tricky – and I couldn’t risk even the shortest layover in another country, which would likely have ruined all my careful planning and plonked me straight back into quarantine. In short, life had become the most high-stakes, low-entertainment version of Snakes and Ladders that I’d ever played.

By the time Saturday evening rolled around, I’d decided to take a break from bashing my own brain into increasingly stupid smithereens, and instead headed over to chat to the lovely folks at the Event Horse Owners’ Syndicate, a super initiative that allows people to ‘buy in’ to an event horse with a high-profile rider for a tiny one-off payment with a tonne of excellent rewards. I had scheduled in an interview with the team – and with Emily King, one of their sponsored riders – and quickly discovered that I was walking into one of my favourite working environments. By that I mean they had wine, and plenty of it, and they really, really liked sharing.

Act Two: in which Mollie Summerland enters the story. Pictured here at Pau in her first CCI5*, in which she finished tenth. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Anyone who knows me, even just in passing, knows that I am desperately, appallingly, embarrassingly bad at remembering to use suncream. Every year, without fail, I burn myself to a crisp at an event, shed all my skin like a sad little lizard woman, and emerge anew, no wiser for my experiences but always in possession of the kind of farmer’s tan that renders me fundamentally unshaggable for the rest of the year. This year, Houghton was that event. Have you ever tried quaffing a crisp glass of white wine after ten hours of sizzling yourself? How about three glasses? My well-intentioned interview process had veered off into wholly uncharted territories when Mollie Summerland – 23-year-old British superstar-in-the-making and all-around good egg – appeared at the trade stand.

“I heard you’re going to Luhmühlen,” she said.

“Yeeeeshhh I am,” I replied, laboriously uncrossing my eyes.

“I really want to try to go,” she told me. “But I don’t want to do it alone. Do you think you could help me with the border crossings and come in the lorry with me?”

“Absholutely, count me in,” I slurred, feeling as though I could probably take on any challenge in the world and succeed with minimal bruising.

* * *

Sunday morning rolled around in the manner that all Sunday mornings should: groggy, crispy, and with only the faintest recollection of the prior evening. Pretty sharpish, I remembered – I was now spearheading Mission (Hopefully Not So) Impossible. All my prior research gave me a pretty firm starting point, but there was one crucial difference: where I’m lucky enough to have a German passport, which allows me unfettered access to the country, Mollie’s British citizenship presented a rather bigger hurdle that would need to be overcome with some serious paperwork. I even considered offering to marry her for a couple of weeks, a plan that would need to be backed up by ‘reasonable social media evidence’ of a pre-existing and legitimate relationship. I knew there was a photo of us hugging post-cross country at Boekelo, and figured I could make a gals-who-are-pals narrative out of that if it came to it.

See? It’s convincing, if you squint.

I’m used to coming up with bonkers plans to make difficult things happen, but this was next level – and so it was enormously encouraging to see how enthusiastic and supportive both Dickie Waygood and Chris Bartle, the British team coach, were about me taking the reins, figuratively. But though I left Houghton pretty confident that I could get the job done (and slightly less confident about making it home with approximately £8 in my bank account), even I wasn’t fully prepared for the utter madness the next few days would hold.

First, there was the stopping point. We needed to find a place to stay in Belgium or the Netherlands for ten days, where Mollie and her horse, Charly van ter Heiden, would be able to train and prepare for a CCI5*. Our original plan to stay with some friends of Mollie’s in Belgium had fallen through and, conscious that people would be justifiably concerned about both COVID and equine herpesvirus, I wanted to approach people sensitively. A few of my ideas failed to turn up anything conclusive and it was looking increasingly likely that we’d end up stopping over at a dealer’s yard, until I popped onto Google Maps to double-check our route to Luhmühlen and realised that we’d be driving just past a Dutch town called Breda. I had only ever heard of Breda in one context: it’s where Tim Lips, Dutch eventing superstar (and another all-around good egg) is based.

Tim Lips: our new favourite human being in the whole wide world. Photo by Anja Veurink.

I often wax lyrical about how great our eventing community is – we all look out for another, regardless of our roles within the sport, and though it’s a fiercely competitive discipline, it also often feels like one big family with none of the cutthroat rivalry that I suspect can permeate other sports. Mollie had never met Tim, and I only knew him in passing from having interviewed him in a couple of mixed zones, so I had no expectation that he had much of a clue who he was, but he replied to my plea almost instantly and was immediately incredibly welcoming and accommodating of two slightly panicked girls and one spectacularly un-panicked horse. The great news? It meant that we’d spend ten days in one of the top yards in the Netherlands, with access to all the facilities anyone could possibly need to prepare for a five-star, and someone with a huge amount of experience to ask for help and advice should we need it. And obviously, even better than THAT was the fact that I was now preparing to spent ten days in close proximity to Herby, a horse I’ve loved from afar (and with much vocal enthusiasm) since watching him compete with Tim at the 2019 Young Horse World Championships at Le Lion d’Angers. We were heading straight to pony nirvana.

Herby: the champion of one journalist’s heart. Photo by EquusPix.

Well, if we could get there, that is. First, there was the small matter of, well, everything to sort out, and without much time to get it done before we left on Friday. We’re in that tricky time of year in which the UK has a bank holiday approximately every other week, and so although Charly’s bloods had been taken on the Monday, there was no way they’d go into overnight testing before Wednesday. Then, it was a matter of hoping that the lab didn’t have a backlog, but even a Thursday morning result would be too late for the vet appointment scheduled for us by John Parker International, the shipping agents who looked after us so well. And so I began a quest for a vet in the Wiltshire area who was a) signed off to do health papers, b) available on Thursday afternoon, c) would be able to accommodate our incredibly vague timing, and d) would be happy to prioritise a horse who wasn’t ordinarily registered with their practice. A few frantic phone calls led me to the fantastic Valley Equine Vets, who treated us as though we’d been loyal clients for years, and my high-octane stress was eased for a moment – now, all we could do was pray that the bloodwork results actually did come in on Thursday.

There wasn’t a lot of time to worry, though: in the meantime, I needed to organise PCR tests for Mollie and I in two different parts of the country, with next-day results guaranteed, I had to keep Mollie herself calm and sane and mostly in the dark about how tricky it was all looking, and there was a feed delivery that needed to be changed, potentially necessitating a four-hour round trip for me to go collect it, and I needed to gather a serious amount of paperwork – hay receipts, elite athlete exemptions from the British Equestrian Federation, letters of invitation from Luhmühlen, and, crucially, letters of invitation from the Dutch Olympic Committee, securing our entry to the country for elite training.

I like to imagine that this is what was happening on the other end of the phone while I was on hold.

There’s hold music, and then there’s Dutch hold music – jaunty, shrill, and frequently punctuated with a serious-sounding message that I hoped said “look, just stop panicking and wait a sec, you’re third in the queue” and not “please hang up your phone, you numpty, because you haven’t even dialled the country code correctly.” Fortunately, I only had to wait what felt like an hour, cobble together some spectacularly shoddy Dutch, and then I was at least at the entryway to the great maze of navigating the Dutch federation’s many offices.

And there was more – oh, god, there was so much more, but nobody wants to read thousands of words on logistics. On Tuesday alone I made 40 phone calls across four different countries, all of which had to be made in the phone signal hotspot on our farm, which I paced around so aggressively that I hit my daily step count on phone calls alone. Basically, if anyone wants to know how I prepared for Luhmühlen, I basically lunged myself for a whole day. Does this mean I’m ready for a hunter round?

Me after successfully managing “spreek je Engels?” and “dankjewel!” on the phone to the Dutch federation.

After the frenetic pace of Tuesday, in which I felt like I uncovered another insurmountable hurdle every five minutes, Wednesday was no less fast-paced but considerably better for my blood pressure. Every call I made felt like it yielded a solution, not another addition to the to-do list, we received confirmation that the bloodwork would come back in the morning, and I cried my way through a COVID test that came back negative. (Look, I’m pretty tough, but even I can’t cope with what looked like a mascara wand being forcibly shoved into the base of my brain.)

Thursday was another perfect day: the bloodwork came back and I danced like a lunatic on top of our muckheap ramp; Mollie’s own brain swab came back negative; the phone calls were slightly fewer and all overwhelmingly positive. All we had left to do was finalise the health papers for Charly, get all our stuff packed, get Charly from Mollie’s Wiltshire base to the yard I live on in Surrey, and then complete a two-hour round trip to swap Mollie’s big lorry for a smaller one lent to us by her wonderful owner, Paula Cloke. Teamwork truly does make the dream work, and between us all, we managed to fit the entire contents of her 7.5 tonne lorry into our new 3.9 tonne home. The moving parts of all our plans had been well and truly bolted into place. We were going to Luhmühlen – as long as I hadn’t messed anything up along the way, which we’d only discover definitively once we got to the port.

Charly gets a good night’s sleep ahead of his big adventure. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

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