Thursday, 26 November 2020
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Home Performance The Girl with the Jumping Arabs – A Competitor

The Girl with the Jumping Arabs – A Competitor

In a month where the entirety of Avonbrook Stud’s horses came home for winter, that was the least of it for resident rider and The Girl with the Jumping Arabs, Katherine Bertram. As she finishes her eventing season and begins a winter of training, Katherine sees out the final few competitions with a returning confidence.

First of all, I won’t talk about bringing the babies home until another day – preferably one where I’ve had a couple of gins first. It all went well, everyone came home in one piece, and I managed not to actually throw up. The stress of leading youngsters right next to a busy main road is not something I ever wish to repeat, and I’m still recovering a full month later! Everyone has settled back home really well and Maddie – Avonbrook Winter Queen (Marcus Aurelius x Avonbrook Summer Breeze) – is already desperate to be ridden despite only being two. It’s going to be a long winter.

Starting the month off was Marcus Aurelius (Aurelian x Fiesta Magica), who we took showjumping for the first time in 10 months. He hadn’t competed since jumping the 100/110cm class at Allens Hill in December, so we dropped him down to the 90-100cm and 100-105cm classes at Moores Farm – a venue that he had never been to before. After having to find an alternative route due to flooding, we arrived with plenty of time to spare so I scuttled off to fetch coffees before our first class. Marcus, ever the comedian, loved every moment of spooking at people wearing masks, at the sanitising stations, even at the Covid posters plastered around the venue. I couldn’t work out whether it was a comment on how long it had been since I last let him go to a party, or whether he was trying to make the other horses think he’s funny. At 19-years old, Marcus shows no signs of slowing down, which he displayed with a very fast clear round in his first class to win from a large field of starters! The prize was a carrot-flavoured likit that he won’t touch, but I was delighted that he could dive right back into open competition and win like he hasn’t been away from it all year. He wasn’t impressed that I was focusing on his progeny when the ‘real superstar’ was in front of me all along, but I reminded him that he had been a bit busy with his girlfriends this summer to notice. We were early to go in his second class so there wasn’t much time for a rest, and we were soon trotting back into the arena and waiting for the bell. The jumps, although not quite reaching the 110cm mark which we know he’s still capable of jumping, were still plenty big enough and he was giving them all ample room. Well, all except one that was deemed boring and kicked out so I didn’t get used to a winning lifestyle. I suppose he keeps me humble. Even with a pole down, he jumped into the top 10 with another naturally and deceptively fast round and we came home delighted with his performance. 

 Marcus Aurelius jumping at Rectory Farm (c) JHemming Photography
Marcus Aurelius jumping at Rectory Farm (c) JHemming Photography

My 4.15am alarm a week later for the BE90 at Calmsden was a solemn reminder that eventing isn’t always about galloping around cross-country courses and eating celebratory bacon rolls at the burger van. My mum really is so incredibly supportive of my goals, as evidenced by arriving so early at the venue that we were guided into our parking spot by volunteers with torches! As I bleakly thanked her for her sacrifice while disappearing to walk the showjumping course, I made a mental note to keep buying her cups of tea and obligatory cappuccinos throughout the day. Early starts are painful enough when you’re the one riding – I’d certainly go crazy if I was driving, helping, and watching instead! The sun had just about risen when I got on to warm up for my dressage test, which was unusually obedient and even a little bit lazy. Avonbrook Odin (Marcus Aurelius x April) was clearly still half asleep, and this continued into the showjumping where I had to keep his focus and keep him awake! Fortunately, he sleep-walked his way around for a tidy clear round to stay on his 31.8 dressage penalty going into cross-country. There was an unfortunate gap before my round, which meant a lot of time sat on the steps of the lorry trying not to cry or throw up with nerves. I never used to be like this and I know it will take some time and considerable effort to channel it into excitement again, but I was glad for mum’s unrelenting positive attitude that was definitely a facade to make me get on and get going without any excuse not to. Once on, I felt much better. Odin had finally woken up and was getting quite excited by the whistles and commentary coming from the cross-country course. I found forward strides to all the warm up fences, and the steward in charge of the startbox made me laugh so I couldn’t overthink any parts of the course. “It’s a BE90, not Badminton,” I repeated to myself as we were set off for our round. 

Avonbrook Odin posting another showjumping clear round, here at Calmsden (c) Spidge Photography
Avonbrook Odin posting another showjumping clear round, here at Calmsden (c) Spidge Photography

I knew my best chance for finding the right rhythm was to get forward strides to the first few fences, to let Odin fly, and to tell him very firmly that we are doing this and we might as well enjoy it. Odin was delighted at my determination and obligingly stood off a mile to the first two fences, settling quickly into a strong rhythm. Other than a small test at a skinny where he asked me how much I wanted it and I said ‘lots’, there were no hesitations from him in the first part of the course and we ran up and down the rolling hill – my only job was to point him at the correct fence and ride like he might stop. When walking the course, I identified a problem area which I knew I would have to be on top form to ride. After a short section of the ground dropping away, there was a drop with a log on top, then three uphill strides to a brush fence. The problem? Odin much prefers to slither down drop fences, and this one required quite a big jump into, from the perspective of a horse, the base of the brush fence. My decision was to trot him in, give him a smack with the whip, and trust his honesty to the brush after slipping my reins. What actually happened was I spent the approach hauling him off his shoulders and took my hands off the reins a moment too soon, which allowed him to pause at the top of the step. I gave him a slap down the shoulder and he slithered down the drop, but sadly not before he had placed a single foot backwards – 20 penalties. As frustrating as it was, I knew the fault was mine for bungling the approach, so I put it behind me and cracked on with the rest of the course. Odin was completely unaware that his hesitation had cost us a double clear and stormed around the rest of the course without so much as a thought of having a ‘real’ refusal. I had to ride properly and mean it the whole way round. There were some fences with great long skid marks in front of them – indicating someone else had a problem – but we weren’t ‘someone else’ and he soared over everything. By the time we approached the last few fences, I checked my watch and found we were noticeably faster than we should have been. While trying to avoid penalties for slowing down too much, I let Odin cruise into the last to finish 17 seconds under the optimum time. Under BE rules, we can finish 15 seconds under the optimum time without penalty and everything else is penalised. I, therefore, also got 0.8 naughty time faults for finishing two seconds too fast! I really didn’t mind though and, as soon as I let mum know that it wasn’t a proper stop that gave us 20 penalties, we celebrated like we had just won the whole thing! While we ate celebratory bacon rolls, Odin gazed at the showjumping with an expression of a horse that had a dream about going around that track. Despite feeling so happy with how he went, I knew there was still more to do, and I would just have to give it my all at our final event of the year the following weekend – Broadway BE90. 

Avonbrook Odin jumping a corner at Calmsden (c) Spidge Photography
Avonbrook Odin jumping a corner at Calmsden (c) Spidge Photography

Broadway is the closest venue to us on the British Eventing calendar, which is possibly why my dressage time was 8.18am. Another early alarm and another round of being parked by torchlight later, I was on and warming up for the dressage. Odin felt great and really danced around the arena, with only a couple of errors on my part where I just didn’t quite ride him like I wanted to. Nevertheless, we scored an amazing 27.3 penalties, smashing Odin’s personal best and chalking up our first ever sub-30 dressage mark! I knew a mark like that would put us among the top few, so I was keen to jump a double clear to keep us on that competitive score. Having only knocked one rail this year, I dared to hope that we might go clear in the showjumping, which we so almost did. The jumps were the same as Calmsden the weekend before and were therefore deemed ‘boring’, so one flimsy upright was kicked out as a sign of rebellion from the know-it-all ginger beast. Never mind, no-one was making the cross-country time so that became my new goal; jump clear inside the optimum time. 

Avonbrook Odin on the XC at Broadway (c) Matt Nuttall
Avonbrook Odin on the XC at Broadway (c) Matt Nuttall

The course walked long and there was a gigantic pull uphill right at the start, so the time was proving to be very tight. Before I could worry about the time, I had to remember to jump the fences, that turned out to be a breeze. In true Odin fashion, we stormed up the hill and got to our first minute marker perfectly on time, and every fence came and went without so much as a flick of an ear. We were both completely in the zone and that gave me a chance to steal glances at my watch – time can be as easily lost going downhill as up. We arrived at our second minute marker early, as we jumped a downhill combination that curved around a tree on two forward strides. We then kept turning to press on up the hill again and gallop for long stretches up and down the profile of the hill. When our third minute marker came far too quickly, I eased off the accelerator for the last half of the course, which I balanced as well as I could with riding forwards to my fences. There was no stopping Odin that day and he sailed over every fence that was put in front of him which must have been a good sign that he deemed me confident enough again. I certainly felt it. I took the widest lines I could for the last few fences and we still finished well inside the time, escaping naughty penalties by a couple of seconds! When the results were posted online, I was delighted to find that we had come 4th. My first British Eventing placing, my first British Eventing prize money, and my first British Eventing sub-30 dressage! Without the pole down, we would have won and qualified for regional finals – where the top few qualify for Badminton Grassroots – and I would have had my first British Eventing sub-30 finish, a goal of mine. It is still all to play for next season! 

 Avonbrook Odin jumping into 4th place at Broadway (c) Matt Nuttall
Avonbrook Odin jumping into 4th place at Broadway (c) Matt Nuttall

As Odin’s eventing season wrapped up for the year, Penny’s – Annia Aurelia (Marcus Aurelius x Bint Zaehaebi) – was just getting started. As soon as we were home from our victorious day at Broadway, I set off to walk the unaffiliated 80cm course at Solihull for Penny to jump the next day. By the time I had walked it twice, driven home, and repacked the lorry, I was more than ready for bed – and thankful for the mercifully later alarm set for my last event of the season! Despite feeling a little wild in the dressage warm up, Penny knew exactly when to turn it on and delivered a pleasant, if a little tense, test for 30.3 penalties. It was a test of small compromises – she still has so much more to give, and I am excited to see how her marks improve as she gains more experience. The biggest problem I found eventing Penny at 80cm was that the fences in the showjumping simply weren’t big enough for her to pay attention to. Although she kept her princess tiara wedged firmly between her pricked ears with a clear round, there were some very big efforts over some not very big jumps that lead to an untidy and rather rushed round. It was enough, however, to ensure that we ran her cross-country to give her the experience of jumping a full course of solid fences. The problem with the hunter trial we did was that the fences were all clustered together and there was never more than about 15 seconds between fences, meaning she just galloped round on adrenaline instead of understanding what was being asked of her. This is why I entered the 80cm, so there wouldn’t be any fences she couldn’t jump from a trot if she had to. I needn’t have worried. Despite being held for several minutes in the start box when the rider before us required an ambulance at fence 4, Penny cantered out onto the course like she had been doing it all her life. There was a lot to process for our resident princess and we had a couple of sticky moments where silly things such as fence judges sat in running cars distracted her completely from the task in hand. In her defence, they did have their wipers on that were squeaking well! I wasn’t bothered by our couple of stops – it’s all good experience for her and I need her to trust my judgement, not jump out of fear that I’m going to lose my rag with her. I forget how novice she still is in this particular discipline, but I let her look at what she needed to look at, and she jumped confidently and finished brilliantly which made me very happy. Watch out for her next season! 

Annia Aurelia trotting through the water at Solihull (c) TopShots Photography
Annia Aurelia trotting through the water at Solihull (c) TopShots Photography

To finish the month, we took Odin to Banfield Equestrian for a two-day eventing camp with British Youth Eventing Coach, Caroline Moore. After an interesting drive over that consisted of me and my car leading mum and the lorry to the venue – I don’t think I have ever checked my mirrors so much in my life – mum helped me and Odin settle in before disappearing back home in my car to sleep in a real bed. Luckily, we’re only a 45-minute drive from this world-class training venue so mum came up both days to watch and help out. I had put myself in the 90/100cm group and I’m glad I did because Caroline does like to keep putting the fences up! In our final session, we ended up jumping shoulder brushes that rested at around 1.30 that Odin cruised over as part of a technical curving line. I got some incredible feedback from Caroline and lots of exercises to introduce to the rest of the unsuspecting barn this winter. Not only were the four ridden sessions amazing, we were so well fed across the weekend that I’m sure I ate my money’s worth in cottage pie, bacon baguettes, and baked potatoes alone! The whole experience was magical and I made some wonderful friends who I really hope I get to see on the circuit next year. Needless to say, Odin received a lot of praise from riders, parents, spouses, and even from Caroline herself. Personally, there’s one soundbite that meant a lot to me. When I was riding around a course of showjumps, Caroline told the members of my group and the audience: “I want you to work out what makes this girl a competitor”. It may have only been in reference to how I looked at my next fence and kept my eyes up, but I’m still thinking about my longer, deeper answer. 

Avonbrook Odin making nothing of a shoulder brush on the final day of camp (c) Equipassion Photography
Avonbrook Odin making nothing of a shoulder brush on the final day of camp (c) Equipassion Photography

Lead photo: Avonbrook Odin flying around the course at Calmsden (c) Spidge Photography
Avonbrook Odin flying around the course at Calmsden (c) Spidge 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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