Tuesday 17th of September 2019
Interviews

Willberry Exclusive: My Badminton Debut

In his second exclusive for The Gaitpost, Willberry Wonder Pony shares the ups and downs, literally, from his exhilarating 4* debut XC ride at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials with Ben Hobday.

 

 

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Credit: Benjamin Clark Photography

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“5…4…3…2…1… GOOD LUCK!”

And we were off. The sound of Mulrys extra large but perfectly strong Clydesdale hooves thundered loudly across the beautifully managed Badminton grounds grass and his perfect rhythm only paused for a split second to jump the gorgeously dressed first fence before continuing to gallop on powerfully out of the main arena, closely followed by a huge echoing cheer from the crowds in the stands surrounding us.

There was nothing I could do, nothing I could say to stop what was happening. One because I couldn’t let all the thousands of people that were supporting me in completing the absolute round of my life down; I’d be seen as a quitter, to be giving up the fight. What would that say about me when Hannah has to endure so much more? Secondly, and the most obvious reason as for why I couldn’t just abandon ship, was that I was stitched onto Ben’s number bib, so leaping off before that huge and extremely uninviting Vicarage Vee just wasn’t an option either.

Pinch me

Soon it was just little old me, Ben and the V8 Super Cob himself, Mr Mulry, galloping at speed across the beautiful parkland. Each time we passed a crowd they cheered with huge excitement and great support. You could feel just how special an event we were at. Badminton Horse Trials. THE Badminton Horse Trials. And THE Willberry Wonder Pony was achieving his dream of jumping round the world famous 4* cross country course with the utterly inspirational, cancers butt kicking legend that is Ben Hobday.

I hadn’t really had much time to prepare myself for this magical day, as it was less than a week before the event that we had found out that I would be riding around it. Hannah had been fortunate enough to have been invited by Ben to ride Mr Mulry the Tuesday before Badminton just as he had promised her when she first met him a couple of months before and being the wonderful person he is, he stayed true to that promise.

At this point the combination were second on the wait list and we really did still think it would be unlikely that the pair to get in. So why not let a 17 year old get on board your possible Badminton 4* ride and have a go on flat and over some fair sized jumps? Seems reasonable! Anyway, Hannah had asked her hero if it would be at all possible for me to join him round the cross country course if he was lucky enough to gain entry and, of course, as Patron of our brand new charity “Hannah’s Willberry Wonder Pony” he said it would be his honour.

She had the most incredible day riding the wonder cob both on the flat and over fences. She was in absolute awe of Ben for allowing her to ride his top horse, especially to jump him (that in itself was an extremely exciting experience on Mr Mulry), but most of all, so grateful to him for trusting her and giving her a chance to do something so special and it will definitely be something she will remember forever and ever and never forget.

 

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Credit: Boo Photographic

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Call Up

It was especially thrilling when the next day she received the call that the awesome combination and got in… What a mega thing to have achieved just a year after #kickingcancersbutt for Ben, I can only imagine just how elated this made him but probably also extremely, extremely nervous… Oh and yes that reminded me of how I felt too when I found out. Yikes. It really did shut me up for an hour or two. I was lost for words.

Willberry Wonder Pony to ride round Badminton? Well I didn’t have much choice did I. I couldn’t let my thousands of fans down. The person I was most desperate not to let down though was my special friend. I had to be brave like Hannah was being brave every single second of her life battling her awful cancer. She is my hero. Just as Ben is one of hers.

I was thinking of Hannah on the edge of her seat at home watching me flopping around precariously on the back of Ben’s number bib, probably very nervous for me, not quite as nervous as I was though, but still nervous and desperate for us to get round this meaty course. I thought to myself, don’t worry Hannah, we’re doing this for you and all the other people fighting cancer, we are going to raise awareness and we are going to make a difference. And so we did.

We were fast approaching, hang on let me rephrase that, far too rapidly approaching Huntsmans Close which was the first really big scary frightening ahh (little bit of wee came out) question on the course. 

 

Stitched up

The double of corners. Now Hannah had told me they were on an easier line than the previous year when we’d walked the course on Thursday, so this made me a feel a little better, however, I soon reminded her that they were still incredibly large and wide and also she wasn’t the one that had to ride them.

Though I did feel a little mean after saying this, especially as I know how much of an absolute dream riding round Badminton (and Burghley) had and always would be for her and sadly cancer would stand in the way of this. But I was determined to achieve at least some of her dreams that just now weren’t possible. So here I was, stitched to a number bib, floundering around on the back of a top riders back, aboard a seriously powerful and talented horse called Mulry.

Well, never in a million years when I was sat on that shelf at this very event last year waiting for that lovely blonde girl and her mum Jayne Smart to buy me did I think I’d be doing this a year later! I’m sure Ben was thinking the same when he was sat in hospital a year ago too. As much as he wanted to, he never ever deemed to to be possible. Even so, Ben and Mulry tackled the double of corners effortlessly, and I felt like I really ought to have been doing a heck of a lot more to help than holding on tight but they were the experts so I left them to it.

Badminton House

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We thundered on down to my first fence where I would encounter some water and by golly do Mr Murly’s feet cause just a bit of a splash. If I was soaking and I was behind Ben, I hated to think how wet Ben now was.

I caught sight of the house as we took on the two ginormous white spreads that sat before them. I can remember visiting the house and the stables for the very first time on the Friday with Hannah and feeling like a kid in a sweet shop. Totally in awe. Both Hannah and I agreed about how utterly beautiful they both are. Especially the spine tingling feeling you get when walking through the archway into the yard, it’s so special. I can only imagine a smidge of how the other riders feel.

That’s when I’d met my ride Mulry for the second time and we’d spent the night sharing jokes and secrets about our owners. It’s funny how much you learn isn’t it! I know a thing or two about you now, Benjamin!

Now we were heading towards the ghastly 4 logs with the mound. The first seems easy but oh no, as Lucy Jackson had reminded us all too well during our course walk Thursday, be too relaxed and the next three would get you.

Crowd control

 As Ben and I had been watching how it had been riding all morning before we went out, we soon realised that this was the case as the fence had been catching out lots of combinations, especially over the D element that was on a surprisingly steep angle following the mound with the hanging log in the middle.

But Mulrys Error being the extremely genuine Super Cob he is and Ben riding like a true champ too and me… Umm… Hanging on for dear life (!!) meant that we cleared this combination with ease and yet again the crowd went wild.

The further we continued the more I was able to depict what the fans were saying as they screamed wildly for the three of us; “Ben, we love you!” “Hold on Willberry!” “Go Mulry!” “You’re our heroes” “Kick on!” “We love you!” “Don’t ever give up!”. Each kind word meant so much to both me and I’m sure Ben too and only made us ride harder to complete.

We were well on our way to the Dew Pond that Hannah and I had watched so many getting caught out at last year and Ben and I had watched the very same thing happening this morning too. The horses were just seeing the water at the very last second when they reached those upright skinny houses and then either stopping dead, clambering over one leg at a time and crawling into the water or cat leaping and completely unseating there rider into the murky water that sat on the other side.

Kick on

Or you could be Ben and Mr Mulry who seemed to just jump in effortlessly canter through the water (covering us both once again from head to toe thanks to Mulrys plate sized hooves) and jumping out over the skinny house that followed. Perfect. That’s all I could say, perfect. So we galloped on our way, crowds still going wild, growing in confidence more and more as we went, which we needed, as I was all too aware of what was fast approaching.. The Vicarage Vee. And I knew Ben would be thinking the same but we had to keep it out of or minds for the fences before needed riding with 150% focus and determination first before we even got to that one.

I could feel Mulry’s gallop was starting to slow, he was getting tired too by the time we reached the top of the long pull before the next water complex with that HUMUNGOUS spread say right in the centre of it. Ben could feel the same as he said “Come on Mulry, keep pushing, we’re not quite there yet! You can do it. Do it for me!”. His kind ears flickered as he listened to the man he trusted most and seemed to grow stronger in his canter as we approached the large rail that stood before hand.

It all seemed fine until we hit the water and Mr Mulry’s rather large hooves found their disadvantage as we tripped, falling face first right down into it. I screamed “S**ttttt” at the top of my voice… I was so so glad no one could hear me, especially Ben, but I really did nearly poop my pants, because we Wonder Ponies might be awesome, but we honestly cannot swim to save our lives! Sharp as ever Ben was quick to respond and heaved him up out of the water, kicking hard on to the extremely big spread that followed. You certainly couldn’t fault this mans bravery.

Super powers

I could definitely see why Hannah never shut up about him. Just as wonderful as his rider though, Mulry shook the water from his ears revved up his engines and fired himself at the oxer, honest like an angel and flew out over it making nothing of its size. What a cool pair. I felt so privileged to have been there to witness it, let alone be on board too. As if that wasn’t enough stress for my heart.

What followed was a stonking great right angled open corner, up a fairly steep slope, but yet again the trio tackled it head on and succeeded. Phew, we were half way home! A little breather to recover from what we’d just encountered as we galloped away from the pond and over a large roll top and brush and we were soon facing our worst fears. Our absolute nightmare. The demon of all demons. The Vicarage Vee.

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Now one would have thought having gone so well so far that perhaps Ben would take the long route, which when ridden well didn’t actually waste all that much time, however, Ben being the dare devil he is of course, slapped Mulry down the shoulder, shoved his heels well down into his stirrups and had his shoulders square back in case of an emergency and he rode like he’s never ridden before in his life toward this almighty nightmare.

The rails stood tall and uninviting before us as you approached them on a steep rotten 45 degree angle with the bottomless ditch of smelly water gaping beneath it. A couple of degrees out and you’d end up in it, and by golly, I definitely did not want that to happen.

Why an earth would a Wonder Pony want to end up in a place like that? I have a reputation to uphold you know, whereby I look sleek, I look stylish, I look like an idol.

Not. I repeat not. Like a bedraggled mankey soft toy who had been stitched to his owner’s hero’s number bib without having been asked if it was okay in the very first place. No, that hadn’t happened at all…

Ben the Brave

Fortunately, the V8 Super Cob being the absolute legend he is, and Ben being the ultimate master of the find-a-line, kick hard and wave your whip in the air look, flew over this ginormous great ghastly jump with ease and all three of us, bar my stomach, which was still taking off, landed safely. Phew, the relief was indescribable.

However, I knew it most definitely wasn’t over yet. We still had a long way to go to make it home and there was still plenty of fearsome jumping efforts that the Mulry machine had to tackle. But ever the fighter, one of the main reasons Hannah admired him so much, Ben kicked away from the lethal rails with even more fire in his belly to succeed. He was going to make it round this course, he knew it, I knew it, we all knew it. Just a year after #kickingcancersbutt he would make it round Badminton.

The big bank and roll top. Check! Angled hedges. Check! Upright gates. Check! We were nearly there, but first the almighty lake that was surrounded by vast excitable crowds, totally elated to see this wonderful pair nearly home and fighting hard to get round. My favourite fence on the course had to be the Mitsubishi pickups and I just wanted to scream “heeehaaaa” as we flew over them but I knew I mustn’t in order not to distract Ben. Hannah had given me strict orders on this before I was allowed to come.

I knew it was fair and he would seem rather shocked if I just came out with some random comment seeing as I’m ”meant to” be a soft toy, not a real talking Wonder Pony, but sshhhh, not many people know that – it really would sound just a little silly if when asked by the press “Why an earth, Ben, did you just tumble off Mr Mulry when approaching the lake looking frightened and confused?” And he were to answer “It was Willberry, he asked me if we were nearly there yet”. I’m sure many would just deem him as insane as no pony can talk can they?! Now that really would be crazy…

Cheering for home

The crowds went wild as we cleared the pickups and Ben artfully brought Mulry back to a bouncing powerful canter ready for the great big hedge with a huge drop into the lake on the far side. With a perfect stride we launched ourselves into the depths of the water, Hobday now sat well back in the saddle with my arms flying high above my head like I’m on a rollercoaster ride (some kind of rollercoaster this is!) Even with his long reins, we steer the Super Cob through the left handed right angled turn to the step up out of the water, neatly then ride a bold and forward two strides out over the skinny brush box that followed.

The cheers were then deafening; “We love you!” “Just keep kicking!” “We’re all behind you!” It was incredible to hear such amazing support from so many. To be honest I had a little tear in my eye; I was that touched to know that people knew little old me and Hannah, I really didn’t expect it. And for those who didn’t know, they wanted to, they wanted to know why there was this silly looking little pony teddy strapped to Ben’s back and the reason was because we are #kickingcancersbutt once and for all by raising money not only for research but to #wishwithwillberry too so that people can be happy and make the most of their last days as they so deserve to and with a horse too – as they really are the best animals on the planet.

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Credit: E-Venting

We are soaring home now. A little over the time but that doesn’t matter we were here to make it round. To complete. A clear round – that’s all we wanted. We battled the following double clear and the lovely log too before we headed out over that ginormous wide spread on the hill looking up at the huge stadium that we were so desperately heading for and then sorted ourselves rapidly for the two skinnies on the curving line afterwards.

Just a double and a fence to go. Phew. I was out of puff and I’d just come along for the ride. Who knew quite how tired Ben must have felt. I know from Hannah’s experience just how much chemotherapy affects your strength and even though Ben hadn’t had any for a little while, it still knocks you for definite.

We flew through the last double which had unfortunately caught a few tired horses beforehand, however Mulry was still trying his absolute heart out like the Wonder Cob he is and tried his all for Ben and I. I was so proud of him. I knew from our chat the night before just how much he really loved Ben and is so unimaginably proud of all that he’s achieved in the last year.

 

Of course he can’t tell him that because he’s a horse but at least I can (kind of) and make sure everyone – including Ben – knows that that horse thinks the absolute world of him and also Sally his owner who he is so grateful to for allowing him to stay with Ben despite what happened last year. She has remained by his side like the truly wonderful woman she is and neither Ben nor Mulry can thank her enough. They were going round Badminton together. They had made it. He was so chuffed.

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Credit: Boo Photographic

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Credit: British Eventing

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The crowd absolutely roared as the sound of Mulrys’ extra large but perfectly strong Clydesdale hooves thundered loudly across the beautifully managed Badminton grounds grass and his perfect rhythm only paused for a split second to jump the gorgeously dressed last fence before continuing to gallop on powerfully through the finish line, closely followed by a huge echoing cheer from the crowds in the stands surrounding us.

Ben forced his fist into the air and shouted “Yes! We’ve done it! Thank you Mulry! Thank you!”. I wanted to wave my hooves in the air too but my stitches were just a tad too tight to be honest. It didn’t matter though because my grin said it all. I was so proud to have been a part of it. It was magical. Everyone was cheering.

Ben dismounted hugged Mulry gratefully and then continued onto his team mates surrounding, they were all so chuffed. They’d all achieved something because they were all part of his dream. Mulry was taken to be washed down and Ben gave him one final hug and the biggest of pats. I could see a little tear in his eye. This really did mean the world. I couldn’t imagine just how incredible he must have felt at that moment, considering just how elated I felt, he must have been out in some distant galaxy somewhere!

Our interviews that followed were pretty cool too. Especially the one with Clare Balding where Ben kindly mentioned Hannah and I in such a passionate way I nearly choked up. It meant the world to me and I knew it would Hannah too when she heard it at home. Ben being a patron of our charity – we appreciated it more than words can say – the fact too that he mentioned how honoured he was to be it as well was even greater. Thank you Ben. Thank you for everything. For my awesome ride. For supporting Hannah. For making sure her dreams came true and now making sure that others can as well with Willberry’s wishes. You are an absolute inspiration.

So my Badminton round was complete. Over in a flash. Well not literally. It actually seemed a pretty long way and my legs are going to be achey tomorrow (that’s not from galloping that’s because of the damn stitches that have been so brutally forced through me)! Oh well I think we can say it was well worth it don’t you?

It was magic. I loved every second and I’ll most definitely never ever forget it. I’m going to tell my story forever. Because Willberry Wonder Pony has made it round Badminton.

Hmmm where next?….Burghley maybe…? Ben…?!”

Editor’s Note:

Hannah’s Willberry Wonder Pony charity has been set up to raise funds for bone cancer research and ‘Willberry’s Wishes’, which will allow seriously ill people to have a horsey wish granted. If you would like to make a donation, here are the details:

To donate to Willberry’s account, please put your name followed by ‘Donation’ for reference.
Account No. 59445149
Sort Code 60-02-05

Read Hannah’s story at www.willberrywonderpony.com

 

Photos kindly supplied by Hannah Francis

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