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 six: the one where they go eventing.
We all know the score: once you’ve quadruple-checked Google Maps and ascertained that your journey will take five-and-a-half hours maximum, even if the world ends en route, you might as well add on three hours if you’re heading to an event. The laws of time and distance simply stop functioning by any normal parameters. That’s exactly what happened on Tuesday morning when we loaded up bright and early and hit the road at 6 a.m., bleary-eyed because we’d both been too excited to sleep. Charly, for his part, was much brighter: he’d enjoyed a luxurious snooze after the third and final of his sessions on the EquusIR machine, an extraordinarily high-tech trailer that scans the entirety of a horse’s body, locates any areas of stress, discomfort, or injury, and then runs an electromagnetic therapy programme. He was feeling great; we, on the other hand, felt about 400 years old. But no matter – we were finally on our way to a five-star.
I can’t really explain to you how we ended up in that autobahn time loop, but somehow – between crossing the Dutch-German border and overtaking showjumper Daniel Deusser at speed — we realised we were seriously down on our minute markers. Matters weren’t helped at all when we found ourselves stuck on the hard shoulder of the motorway due to congestion on the slip road just 30 minutes away from the event, and poor Charly finally showed an emotion other than pure, unadulterated joy as lorries sped by us and rocked us in their slipstream. After twenty minutes that felt like hours, two girls, one unicorn, and a seriously pissed off event horse were finally on the final leg of the Tour de Deutschland. And lord, did we need naps.
Still, the butterflies began in earnest as I started to recognise the landmarks leading us towards our final destination — and as we cruised along the final kilometre, we spotted a man on a bicycle waving at us with great enthusiasm.
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “What a weird guy. He must really like horses.”
As he zoomed by us, I realised it was our brother-from-another-mother, Tim Price. My private interpretation remained unchanged – but the good vibes ramped up to eleven. To paraphrase Almost Famous: it was all happening.
We pulled into the long, tree-lined driveway of the venue to find that the stables and lorry park had been moved right down by the show itself – a huge boon considered the long uphill trek to the usual stabling area. Everything felt as though it was slotting into place: grooming and covering the event would be no easy feat no matter the circumstances, but this seemed like a good enough omen to embrace.
Charly, for his part, settled in immediately to his new stable next to fellow Brit David Doel’s three horses and began demanding snacks – another good omen for a horse who ordinarily turns his nose up at food at events. Mollie and I got stuck into the big job of unpacking the lorry and setting up the stables, and then went in search of our parking spot. In a great show of team spirit, the Doel clan had reserved us a space right by their lorry and immediately welcomed us with open arms, as they had done a day or two prior when David’s mum and life manager, Maggie, called Mollie to offer her support and encouragement. I say it a lot, but it bears saying again: eventing folks truly are the best people in the world.
But with the highs of the sport come the lows, and we need to talk about event showers. They are, without being dramatic in any way, my worst nightmare. You’re constantly either being invited into them by some male event rider who’s barely out of Young Riders or you’re emerging from them, panda-eyed and clammy with no bra on to find yourself face to face with exactly the stern senior rider you’re most terrified of. The process of showering never actually feels particularly refreshing or cleansing because you’re forever standing in a centimetre of someone else’s dirty foot water, and any sudden movement or downing of tools makes it sound horribly like you’re up to something naughty. Sometimes you actually DO end up showering next to someone doing something naughty, and that’s even worse. Foot water is bad enough; you certainly don’t want to risk dipping your toes in anything else.
I thought I’d experienced the worst of event showers. Nothing could be worse than the one rogue shower at Pau that always runs red-hot, or the showers at Blenheim that are always too cold.
Look, I’d trade anything for those right now. Because at Luhmühlen, the showers are glass-fronted. Personally, I like to have a drink or two bought for me before I consider showing the goods to anyone, but here, it’s a free for all. I’ve started planning my showers in the middle of the night – partly because that’s what my schedule permits, and partly because the traffic tends to be lighter. Well, except for the shaggers. At least they’ve already got something to focus on.
At Tim’s, Mollie and I had shared a tiny bed in the lorry – but when we got to the event, we decided to set up the party tent outside in case I went off in search of beer with actual alcohol in it and came home in the wee hours. When it became obvious that it would be too impossibly hot to comprehend sharing a twin bed in an unairconditoned horse box, though, I opted to move out to the party tent full-time. All well and good, except that it’s about two and a half feet tall. Getting undressed involves some serious manoeuvring – again, it really looks and sounds like I’m doing something much more fun than attempting to peel myself out of sticky denim – and more than once, I’ve realised entirely too late that my entire lower half has escaped from the dignity zone and gone straight back into the pay-per-view zone. Oh, and with an air mattress inside, the door doesn’t actually shut. There’s no adrenaline rush quite like realising that next door’s Labrador, Roger, is on his way over for a good look just as you’re trying to stealthily change your knickers.
And then it was time for it all to begin. With Mollie on plaiting duties – a great time for some rider meditation – I took on the spit-and-polish of the rest of the beast. Perhaps more importantly, I had another job on my list: essential rider bronzing. I’m sure the Tims were getting the same treatment.
With Mollie due to trot up at the tail end of the line-up, I had to work fast to make sure Charly’s quarter marks were perfect, his socks chalked and spotless, and his face clean and oiled so I could leave him tied in his stable and ready to grab and go when Mollie was ready. Fortunately, while hoof-polishing at high speed I managed to keep the spillages on myself – and so Charly looked perfect, while I sprinted to the trot-up looking as though I’d just emerged from a coal mine.
What’s a bit of sweat and hoof polish between friends, anyway? All that matters is the end goal – and we’d ticked off a big one on our list for the week. Mollie and Charly flew through the first horse inspection looking fabulous, and it was time to head out for our first walk around Mike Etherington-Smith’s serious cross-country track.
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