Still on a massive high from her Badminton Grassroots Championships experience, Laura Barber continues to pinch herself that it did all really happen. Here she relives her incredible adventure with her lovely horse, Tally, and is still smiling.
“I’m probably not alone in the fact that I never like to plan too far ahead with horses – you can guarantee (especially where mine is concerned) that they will do something to interfere with your plans, and I just don’t like to tempt fate. However when you qualify for a national championship that’s 9 months in the future, you’re kind of forced to do the complete opposite!
As every month passed and it got a little bit closer I started to think we might actually make it there – Tally survived 2 periods of me being on the other side of the world, and I kept pushing hard on the fitness despite being terrified of breaking him every day! Everybody thinks qualifying for Grassroots is the hard bit – it’s not. Getting yourselves there in one piece as prepared as you can be requires far more effort, care, planning, commitment, durability and good fortune than ever imagined.
I’m still not sure I genuinely believed it was going to happen until the weekend before when I had to start packing (you’d think we were going for the entire week let alone 2 nights!). Needless to say Tally was completely oblivious and was regularly seen doing his favourite thing – snoozing in his field in the sunshine! Our final dressage lesson was a complete disaster as he was feeling so fit and well he spent half an hour spooking at everything just for an excuse to shoot around, and I ended up on board for twice as long as planned – I was not feeling confident but at least he was fit!!
We arrived at Badminton around midday on the Tuesday after a long but straightforward journey, and Tally travelled brilliantly considering he only ever goes in my trailer. We knew it was windy as we’d felt it battering the lorry on the way down, but on getting out at the other end we were nearly blown away. The roofs of the temporary stables sounded like they could take off at any minute! I got Tally settled and then we headed off round the course with my instructor, in the pouring rain. I was pleased to see a technical course, and felt well prepared after our runs at BE100. Although no particular fence really worried me, everything was dressed very brightly, and I knew the spectators and atmosphere would be a bigger factor for Tally than the jumps themselves.
I worked Tally that afternoon – I tried to wait for a break in the weather but soon decided there was no point as the forecast was even worse for the following day – good practice! He actually worked brilliantly, as I think he was just pleased not to have to think for himself for a while bless him. I got back to the lorry to find my amazing Team Tally support crew had decorated the living and there was cake a plenty!!
My birthday fell on the Thursday but it would’ve been rude not to start the celebrations a bit early. Sadly the wind put paid to our BBQ plans, but luckily mum packed us some emergency nibbles!!
With 4 humans and 2 dogs it was a bit of a squeeze in the lorry living and listening to the weather battering it through the night did not lend itself to a peaceful sleep. I didn’t feel like I slept a wink and wasn’t 100% convinced about going out into the weather the next morning!! But soon enough it was time to get ready – tail was re-washed, plaits were put in and for the first time in my life I even used chalk & boot polish to bring out Tally’s hooves!
The rain had held for most of the morning, but then the heavens well and truly opened just as we left the stables – it was nothing short of biblical. I could barely hear a word my instructor was trying to say to me warming up through the driving wind and rain, and I was wet through to my knickers within 5 minutes – just what you want for the biggest test of your life!! I was thrilled with the test itself. Tally tried seriously hard for me in horrendous conditions – not spooking or dropping behind my leg at all – when he had every right to tell me to get lost!! I felt it could’ve scored better than 35, but the standard was seriously high and the judges weren’t being overly generous.
We had a 4 hour gap until show jumping so walked the course again, and it was safe to say it was causing its fair share of problems! The rain had eased by the time I went over to show jumping; however I think the gales had intensified! The warm up really wasn’t that big – it all felt very stressful and there was a massive crowd around the arena. We jumped a good round but I was disappointed to roll two poles, especially as he barely touched the second one. Our SJ has come on so much recently, he very rarely knocks anything down, and I so wanted a clear at Badminton. But on refection, only 26 out of the 94 starters went clear in my class, which says something as these combinations are all used to jumping clear!
Tally didn’t spook at all and stayed forward, which are both major plus points as he simply couldn’t have coped with that environment even a year ago. I struggled to get our rhythm where I wanted it to and the strides I usually see weren’t there – they’d built the course very well as the related distances were quite punishing. You can see from the video how weather battered we were being, so it must’ve made a difference to our rhythm – the jump wings had to be nailed into the floor! Anyway, I’ve never ridden in that kind of situation before and neither has Tally – we may have rolled a couple of poles but still lots of positives to take away.
The main positive it gave me was the determination to finish on a clear!! Instead of going out trying to protect a double clear, I now simply had to finish on a successful phase, and the only way to do that was by kicking on and getting on with it! It was a seriously long walk over to the XC start and they were running behind which was less than ideal – I was frozen waiting around! Did some warm up fences then made our way over to the start box, saying out loud to myself – ‘there is nothing here we can’t do!!’ I had to pinch myself at this point too – actual Badminton!
Tally was purposeful over the first three, and then we were suddenly into this massive field with Badminton House on our right, and the lake and tradestands on our left, with about 200 people watching!! I could feel him drying up underneath me, although he kept jumping and popped over the fish into water sweetly enough considering the problems it caused. The fences themselves weren’t the problem (as predicted), but I could feel the occasion blowing his brain, and at fence 10 I was genuinely wondering how I was going to carry this horse round the rest of the course! We’d worked so hard on our fitness and speed but I reckon we were heading for more than a few time penalties at this point!!
When riding a horse that doesn’t pull, it seems a bit counter intuitive to pick up a stronger contact, but that’s just what I did, and gave Tally a bit of a reminder behind the saddle that I couldn’t carry him the rest of the way. We had 2 difficult combinations comprising of a corner and a coffin, which seemed to help Tally focus and his legs started to power underneath him as his confidence grew. He was never going to fly round as he just doesn’t have the breeding or the determination, but he finished strongly around the longest course he’s ever done, into a serious head wind for just 4 seconds over time. Oh…and we also went CLEAR!!!
He was such a superstar and answered every question, even when he was facing sensory overload he just kept going for me, and I literally couldn’t have been more proud. There was a time when this horse wouldn’t go over a pole on the floor, and my round was for that girl 5 years ago who wouldn’t give up on her dream.
We had so many family and friends come to support us, as well as loads of people following our progress and sending well wishes from home (and online – thank you!!!) I was totally overwhelmed by everybody’s kindness and will never stop being grateful for the experience we had. I did some birthday shopping the following morning (I really needed that new Ariat jacket!), before saying goodbye to Badminton and heading home. Tally was very pleased to get back to his grass, and there was a massive flat patch in his stable the next morning!
So what next?! I feel like we’ve come to the successful end of a chapter, which involved so much planning and preparation – it was actually quite nice the other night not to ride after work, free of any guilt! I’m now set on improving our performance in all 3 phases, whilst having some fun around BE100. I’m not going to put any pressure on ourselves to qualify again (although it’d be lovely!!!) or move up to Novice; I want to enjoy riding in some nicer weather (!) and make the most of my lovely horse.
I’ll keep you posted!”
Watch a few of Laura’s XC fences in very windy conditions!