Pau 4* (France) 25th October 2016
Pau was to be our second 4* experience and our first trip across into France to go eventing. We were only taking Zagreb so we thought it best to travel with another rider to share the travel costs and the driving. Kate Honey was very generous and offered us a spot on her lorry for the trip, and even better, her mother (Ruth Honey) had packed the food and happened to be a dab hand at the cooking. I think we landed on our feet here!
Pau is situated in the south of France, it’s a lovely town with a beautiful back drop of the Pyrenees mountains and we were hoping for a bit of Autumn sunshine.
We arrived at the showground late afternoon on the Tuesday. Zagreb travelled really well but I think he felt very happy to have a little hack and have a proper leg stretch and look around the event site. We unpacked the lorry and got ourselves organised at the stables before settling down with a well earned glass of wine and dinner before an early night.
I was doing my dressage late Friday morning so I used the next couple of days to settle Zagreb and get his body really well stretched off so he would feel in the best condition possible for the competition. He trotted up well and was feeling great, it was soon time for business!!
The judges weren’t throwing marks away, and all of the combinations were having to earn every point. For most people, the trot work at the beginning of the test went well, but the last canter serpentine that included a couple of flying changes was dropping their mark down considerably. It seemed the accurate mistake free tests were achieving solid scores.
I entered the main arena feeling very calm and Zagreb felt relaxed, it was up to me to remain composed and ride the test as if we were running through it at home. It felt like it was going well and as I was riding through my right shoulder in I looked up to across the arena and caught sight that my score was trending in 1st place. It was quite strange that this didn’t make me nervous but it filled me with more confidence, it was my time to show everyone what we were capable of. The test continued well and we completed on a score of 43 that put us into 1st place! All I remember is standing at the edge of the arena and seeing my wife jump on Yogi and give him the biggest hug ever. I think she was definitely as excited as me!, and Yogi wasn’t complaining either!
Michael Jung did perform a few horses after me and put his European winning horse into 1st leaving me in 2nd going into the cross country. A little annoying, but hey, I was lying in 2nd place in a strong field of horses and riders in only my 2nd ever 4*.
The cross country was very twisty, the fences weren’t as big as Burghley and maybe the course wasn’t as intimidating, but the turns and the technicality of the combinations were going to test the best. The resounding feel as you walked the course was that you were being asked to commit to a combination over a big wide fence or large drop then be able to have total control to turn and jump an steeply angled or skinny fence. This is where you need your horses to stay focussed and really want to get between those flags for you as there were so many opportunities to have a glance off.
In all honesty, being sat on a horse who is nearly 18hh, this wasn’t a course that was going to suit us. Zagreb has a huge stride and is full of scope so he would prefer to have rolling terrain to gallop over. This course was going to feel like you were on a scarelectric’s track and I wasn’t expecting it to feel nice to ride with all of the kicking and pulling that was going to be needed to negotiate it. I was certainly grateful for all of the training exercises we do in the arena to get the horse supple and athletic.
Off we set, Zagreb settled well into a rhythm and he was jumping for fun. He flew through the first water on a forward 3 strides and 3 strides. Many people had a run out here at the skinny fish place on an angle in the water after a big drop in but Zagreb locked on and skipped over it like it was a cavaletti. It was a relief to enter the race course on the far side of the track as there were a few opportunities to open the horses up. Zagreb was not liking me slowing him down all of the time for the turns, he is usually a very polite horse to ride across the country but he did feel as if he was getting a little frustrated at times. He continued to jump really well and didn’t give me any concerns at all. As we entered the main show ground area again Zagreb managed to catch the back of his front shoes while taking off over a fence and pull both of them off. This was going to make it very difficult while galloping around the final twisty part of the course as he no longer had any grip in front. I could feel his front feet slipping every time he landed from a fence and I knew I was going to have to step off of the gas so we could get home safely. This again made it very frustrating for Zagreb as he is a bold and enthusiastic horse who always wants to get on with the job and there was me nagging him to be cautious and slow down before the turns. He jumped home superbly but I could see my final timing markers slipping away from me which I knew could be quite costly to my final score.
We came home having incurred 12.4 time penalties which was a bit frustrating but importantly we were clear, the horse hadn’t had any awkward moments and he seemed well in himself. We stayed inside the top 10, which was my aim for this weekend so over all we were very pleased.
After cooling Zagreb off we took him back to the stables for a well earned rest. I replaced his front shoes and he received a soothing message and stretch before having some quiet time. It’s really important to not let the horse stiffen up, so we returned later in the evening to walk and hand graze him and give him a short trot up to check he was comfortable and sound. He seemed great so we rugged him up nice and warm and let him get some shut eye.
With Pau being so near the end of the season there was a really relaxed feel in the lorry park and everyone was in good spirits. It’s such a lovely sport when you see all of the competitors, from several different nations all enjoying a drink and a dance together. Some were celebrating a clear round and some commiserating a stop or a fall, but everyone was smiling!
It’s a hive of activity at the stables on a Sunday morning, the grooms are up at the crack of dawn feeding then walking the horses, vets are checking and trotting horse up and riders are working the horses. I always give my horses a little hack and stretch off before the trot up so their muscles are warmed up and they can shake off any stiffness from the previous day. Zagreb felt very perky and in super condition and seemed to have recovered really well over night. It was safe to say he sailed through the trot up and we turned our thoughts to the show jumping.
The show jumping track was very big. The distances were forward, the oxers were wide and the time was tight. The first few riders struggled to make the time and there were plenty of rails falling. This was a track that would suit Zagreb as he has scope to burn, and in general he’s very careful and wants to leave poles up.
Zagreb is a very big horse and I pay a lot of attention to warm up body as much as warm up him up just for the jumping. By the time we actually start preparing for his competition round he is already worked in and I only jump about 8-10 fences. If you can warm up well and save their energy for the arena I think you give yourself the best chance of jumping a clear round.
The main arena was jam packed with spectators and there was a super atmosphere. This works in my favour with Zagreb as it lifts him and he is definitely one who likes to show off. He felt great from the moment he left the ground over the first fence. He popped around the course giving every fence plenty of air and jumped a fantastic clear. I have to say I was ‘over the moon’ and a commenced a lap of appreciating punching the air as I went. One of only 7 double clears and better still with all of the rails dropping we moved in to 5th position.
Overall I am very pleased with how the show went. Of course I’m thinking that if Zagreb’s shoes had stayed on and we could have gone just a fraction quicker we could have been at the top of the leader board but he performed faultlessly in each discipline and I couldn’t be more proud of him.
What a way to close the season out. I’m already looking forward to the 2017 season!
Again, a huge thank you to everyone involved in Team Bragg, our owners, staff, the horses and of course my family. Without each and every one of you this wouldn’t be possible. It’s now time to celebrate and enjoy all of our success in 2016 Bring on the party!!