Wednesday, 23 September 2020
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The Girl with the Jumping Arabs – Learning to Learn

In the month where Avonbrook Stud’s resident Girl with the Jumping Arabs turned 21, Katherine also learned a lot about herself and the continuing confidence issues resulting from her fall last year.

Early in July, I reached a milestone age for young riders; 21. If I was further up the heights in eventing, I would be upset that my final year in youth teams was being spent in lockdown but, since I am still very much a grassroots rider, there’s no pressure to perform at a certain level at a young age. I am very grateful for this because I am clearly still experiencing some confidence issues after breaking my collarbone just before 2020 began. Although I felt ready to go for my first training event at Aston-Le-Walls, the 100cm cross-country fences looked bigger than normal and I started riding in an uncharacteristic and backwards way. My wonderfully honest Odin – Avonbrook Odin (Marcus Aurelius x April) – tried his heart out for me but there were some places that he just couldn’t take off from so we picked up a couple of stops on the course. Halfway around, I felt myself spiralling and hyperventilating which upset me because I’m usually a level-headed and calm rider on the most exhilarating of the eventing phases. Despite the tears streaming down my face and my heart pounding in my head, I took some deep breaths, gave myself a kick, and rode forward enough to help Odin to the finish. After putting my problems down to some residual fear over bigger fences and a lack of fitness, I was determined to put my panic episode firmly behind me and move on to the next event. 

This strategy turned out to be a mistake. After lulling myself into a false sense of security by undertaking vigorous exercise, going cross country schooling and attending a showjumping clinic, I turned up to my first ever affiliated event at Dauntsey Park in the BE90, once again with Odin. Despite having a couple of major spooks at the judge’s car for dramatic effect, Odin went to the showjumping with a 35.5 dressage penalty in a tough section that put us in a useful 11th place. Tension began to appear in the warm up arena but I took a couple of breaths and we jumped a stylish clear round over a course that was causing a lot of problems.

Showjumping has always been our strongest phase and Odin skipped around the 90cm course despite it being significantly smaller than he’s used to. After a kiss and a cuddle with the cross country starting steward we were off and away for my first ever affiliated track, my first opportunity to make my mark on the eventing world, and it was a testing course to get me going. The first two fences went smoothly and we raced up to the third, a hedge with a large clump in the middle, giving riders a choice of which side to jump. We bounded towards the left hand side and I lined up for my shot, legs firmly on. Then I saw my stride was wrong. My legs came off and my hands made an unwelcome appearance. Odin tried to save us by drifting right to the other side of the clump that towered over us and I sat, frozen in fear and apprehension of what might happen next. The sensation of seeing your horse’s ears plummet to the floor, the feeling of shoulder-charging the ground and the memory of helplessly watching your horse’s hind end speed towards you until all you are is darkness and tumbling and suffocation. Back to the present and Odin had slid to a halt in front of the middle of the hedge. I was clearly not OK. All I could muster was an “oh my goodness” as the fence judge called my first refusal and I circled around and held my spiralling focus We sailed over the hedge and I had to retake my position as leader over the next two fences, both coming up in quick succession. My stopwatch took me out of the moment when it went off. “Too early,” I thought to myself. “I’m already 20 seconds slower than I should be.” Usually, this wouldn’t even cross my mind. Of course I was behind the clock, we had a refusal, but Odin is fast, he can make it up without breaking sweat.

That day, it was enough to pull my focus which I fought to retain coming to the next fence, an unassuming ditch. I knew I had to call it a day when Odin hesitated cantering up to the ditch – immediately followed by a dark wood – and I sat there and did nothing. Odin stopped again, his ears flicking backwards and turning his head to try and look at me. Was I hurt? Did I need an ambulance? Who was on him and why was she acting so strangely? As the fence judge called my second refusal, I quickly asked to retire and tried to ask for the easiest way back to the start. Except that I could barely talk for my shaky breaths and I felt like if I opened my mouth I would be sick. I did manage to choke the words out and my whole body shook when she looked me up and down and asked if I was okay. I heard myself say “I’m so scared” without any input from my brain and tried to fight back tears when she gently pointed me towards the way home.

Odin keeps his ears on me during a happier time (c) JHemming Photography
Odin keeps his ears on me during a happier time (c) JHemming Photography

My confidence in tatters, Odie carried me back to the lorry and regarded me pensively when I climbed off and cried into his neck. I think my tears must have tasted good because Odin started licking my face like a big ginger dog – I may have been a useless rider but I was a decent salt-lick! Having been sent off a minute early, the commentator never reported my retirement so mum was waiting by the final water until a few horses came through and she realised what had happened and met me back at the lorry. I felt an overwhelming sense of shame. Who was this girl who couldn’t stagger around a BE90 and who dragged her mum and horse all the way here for that? Mum knew straight away that I was still struggling with something I had worked so hard to move on from and after she and the kind rider from the lorry next to us convinced me I had done the right thing, I was able to pull myself together and we went home. On the journey back, we talked through my next steps and how I would successfully move on from what was honestly just an unfortunate event that could happen to anyone. I was prescribed a reading list and a series of tasks that are changing my mindset to a place I have never been before. I hope to be able to detail them in my next blog, but I am striving to build my confidence from a much bigger and more solid base to become a better rider than I was even at my highest points last year. 

Honestly, apart from realising how much more self-work I needed to do in a competition environment, I had a fantastic July! One of the main highlights was taking the main man himself Marcus Aurelius (Aurelian x Fiesta Magica) around his first endurance ride in a few years. We were acting as the grown ups for junior stallion Sammy – Audace Encore (Marcus Aurelius x Green Rose) – who was experiencing his first ever endurance ride, a 23km pleasure ride around Bibury with the Cotswold Endurance Group. My older sister Becky had reserved the ride on Sammy but I didn’t mind; I had my eyes on our endurance champion and all around superstar which meant I could have an easy ride and the honour of people coming up to me and asking “is that Marcus?” Sammy was exemplary, watching Marcus’ reactions to all that was going on and learning how a stallion should behave when out at a party. There was a lot to contend with, most notably a sports car that whizzed so close to Marcus that my toe almost caught on their wing mirror. What I called back to them is extremely unprintable but I am very glad I had thought to tell Becky to push Sammy into Marcus’ other side so he felt safe and not like he was about to get hit by a convertible sports car. Sometimes I wonder whether I ask too much of Marcus, to be a rock for his young son, to stand between a car and another stallion, but Marcus stood calmly and without reaction – only to breathe out again when the car was gone and his son, having gauged his father’s reaction, bravely stood still as well. Those stallions love each other and are stabled next to each other which is particularly impressive during stud season, but our clarity in who each mare is ‘here for’ means that there are practically no issues between them, even when one is on active stud duty. Sammy has grown up so much over the last year and I have fallen in love with him as a stallion prospect. He is a gentleman and extremely willing to learn and to please. Marcus has certainly taken the time to train his son up to follow in his footsteps and I can’t wait to see where Sam leads us in the coming years! 

Sam and Marcus returning home after 23km (c) Rowena Bertram
Sammy and Marcus returning home after 23km (c) Rowena Bertram

Of course, Sammy isn’t the only purebred Marcy-baby who is vying for my attention. Resident Princess, Penny – Annia Aurelia (Marcus Aurelius x Bint Zaehaebi) – returned home from babysitting during July and has recommenced lessons with her favourite mortal, Auntie Erica. She has come back better than ever and, although our accident had nothing to do with the jump itself, Penny has taken it upon herself to be even more careful when jumping which is leading to a wonderfully natural jump. With her ears pinned forward and cantering into fences without rushing or hesitating, Penny is a picture of elegant confidence and it is impossible to not feel confident when riding her – she simply won’t allow it. That is precisely why I am developing my confidence independently of Penny, she won’t allow ‘silly human emotion’ on her back and it would be a catastrophic mistake to offend her by retiring mid-competition. It could possibly mark the end of our alliance, so I am currently keeping both of our confidence sky-high in a relaxed environment until I can prove to myself I am ready to do her proud. We also have a custom jumping saddle being made for her which I am incredibly excited about – I am very hard to fit a saddle to because of my short upper leg which requires a long thigh block to catch my leg wherever it’s needed. It was pointed out to me that jumping above a certain height in a showing saddle is asking for trouble, especially cross-country when sometimes you just need a helping hand to keep your leg steady in case of a trip or a big jump. Until then, we won’t let her jump quite the heights she has in mind, but she has since taken to whispering words of encouragement in my ear rather than the insults that she used to hurl before Odin told the barn about my wobble. She may be a chestnut mare and a fierce Princess, but at her heart she is also one of my closest confidants. 

Another of the exciting young horses who reminds me how much I love this family of Arabians is Ellie – Avonbrook Midsummer Dream (Marcus Aurelius x Avonbrook Summer Breeze). Owned by family friend Karen Grant, Ellie has been with us for a few weeks to be introduced to the idea of being ridden. First in the stable, then around the arena, and then hacking out, Ellie marched towards the next challenge without hesitation, rolling her eyes at her minions trying to match her stride. Ellie is an extremely impressive young mare and I can’t wait to continue her education, even now that she has returned home to her owner. I have been very lucky to help educate some young Marcy-babies owned by family friends. It certainly removes the pressure of owners while still giving me the experience and opportunity to show my potential in that area. Our huge bay two-year old sport horse type filly, Maddie – Avonbrook Winter Queen – is Ellie’s full sister and there are ways in which they are mentally very similar, which makes me hopeful that Maddie will be just as keen for me to get on and get going as her older sister. Ellie, however, is a stunning buckskin with lovely long black points, a pony-like face, and should measure under 15.2hh so we are hopeful for a stint in intermediate showing classes as well as everything else she is signing herself up for! 

Ellie leaving her mother far behind on her first hack (c) Lisa LaPorta
Ellie leaving her mother far behind on her first hack (c) Lisa LaPorta

After reporting that I had completed 17 years in full time education, I am delighted to have the opportunity to correct that to 18 years. After submitting my application, which was helped in no small part by The Arabian Magazine’s own Samantha Mattocks, I was accepted into Coventry University to study an MSc in Business and Organisational Psychology. Unlike when I originally applied for the University of Birmingham some three years ago, I was filled with excitement and I cannot wait to get back into university – even though I accept it will likely be another exceptional academic year because of coronavirus. I felt as though my third and final year at Birmingham was snatched away from me, initially because I was in a sling and unable to look after myself properly, and then because everyone left for home until “this flu blows over, but we’ll be back for exams!” Our final exams were cancelled and the university gave us coursework to enable us to graduate, which we officially did via Zoom near the end of July. My time at UoB was incredible and unforgettable, as are the friends I made there, but I feel like I still have work to do and more to give so a Masters felt like the right decision. Coventry is just a short train journey away from Birmingham if I ever feel homesick, and I can still come back to my actual home on weekends to ride and continue to be the girl with the jumping Arabs.

An unusual graduation but a graduation none-the-less (c) Katherine Bertram
An unusual graduation but a graduation nonetheless 

Although I am 21 and probably reaching ‘actual adult’ age, I am in a period of learning to learn how to regain my confidence and build it in a way that is less fragile. It’s a mindset that you need to be a good professional rider and it does at least save me from having to learn when I am older and more stuck in my habits. The next few months of rebuilding and growing as a rider should prove interesting to map out and reflect on, and I hope you join me on my journey to get back to where I was this time last year, and then build myself into a better and more confident young rider.

Lead photo: Marcus Aurelius completing the endurance ride at Bibury (c) True to You PhotographyMarcus Aurelius completing the endurance ride at Bibury (c) True to You Photography

Katherine Bertram
Katherine Bertram is an English young rider who competes in a variety of different disciplines on her mother's homebred pure and part-bred Arabians. Having achieved advanced rider status in Endurance after her first season at age 14 on Marcus Aurelius (Aurelian x Fiesta Magica), Katherine turned her attention to showjumping with his progeny, at which she currently competes at Senior Newcomers (1.10). As well as also delving into showing, eventing and, occasionally, dressage, Katherine juggles her studies while attending the University of Birmingham.

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