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Sasha's KBIS Blog: The European Championships Part 5!

Sasha and the team
Sasha and Smarty
With the medals

It's the final instalment from our guest blogger Sasha, if you missed out on her previous blogs you can read them here.

Sunday

On Sunday I woke up full of stress but also excitement. I always find SJ the most nerve-wracking and it has always been my weakest phase, however, having worked very hard at it all winter, I felt quietly confident. After packing up and saying goodbye to the hunting lodge and all our favourite stuffed animals, we arrived at the site ready for trot up, we headed down with our beautifully turned out horses. This trot-up did not go quite to plan. Just as I was meant to be presenting to the ground jury, they had a prize giving in the next door ring, this involved very loud music, a lot of cheering and horses galloping around doing the lap of honour. This sent my horse slightly wild, and I was left holding on for dear life. Luckily the prize giving did stop and I managed to regain control of Smarty, who I think had shown the ground jury that he was feeling absolutely fine after XC! While this was happening, one of my other team mates had been sent to the holding box. With more problems unfolding there was very high tension as we waited for her to represent, knowing that the horse was completely sound but also very aware that it had a visible cut. After what felt like an eternal wait she re-presented and passed. We were all through to the trot up. After this slightly eventful start to the morning, emotions were running high and we all had to work very hard to pull us all, tired and emotional, back to the same level of positivity we knew we needed. After a small re-group, myself and Heidi took our horses for a SJ in the XC warm up because they were both quite full of energy. Smarty was very excitable and although he jumped very well, my nerves were worried about what might happen when people were cheering for the clear rounds.

As soon as we were off of the horses it was straight down to the SJ course walk. As we have all been trialling at a higher level, it did not seem too big, however it was very technically built and similar to the SJ at Jardy. We knew all our horses were very capable of this level but also that it would take some serious concentration to jump clear. With the scores so tight, a pole would have the ability to drop you multiple places. I was lying in 10th place and my big aim was to finish in the top 10, I knew that I could not afford a pole if I wanted to achieve that aim.

The SJ got started and poles were flying everywhere. This in some ways helped my nerves as I saw that if lots of people were having poles then a pole would not have such a big effect on position. I waited to watch Leilia jump a beautiful clear and then headed back to get myself ready. After realising that Leilia had my whip, gloves and spurs I began to panic, I knew I did not have time to run down, especially in the 30 degree heat, get my things and still get on with enough time. Thankfully my brother was not far away so he ran off to get them and got back with enough time for me to control my breathing before getting on. Whilst this was going on, I heard that Elicia had jumped a clear SJ, so started to feel a lot more positive for our team, we had two clear rounds on a course where almost everyone was having poles. Walking down to the SJ on Smarty I could feel how emotional I was. A week like that is so exhausting, and there is pressure like no-where else, even though the support crew are very careful about not putting pressure on us, the pressure of knowing you are representing your country and that you are part of a team who you really don’t want to let down, is very intense. I could feel my emotions rising, but knew that I needed to hold them together for just a little bit longer. Walking Smarty around, more and more people were having poles, I was starting to feel more confident, knowing how good of a jumper Smarty was and remembering that as a team we could afford 2 poles and still win a bronze medal. Georgia jumped clear. Another clear round, it was just me and Heidi to go. Smarty was a saint in the warm-up, he was feeling great. The person before me went in and I felt my heart rate rise significantly as I walked into the shoot. The only thing I had asked for off of my team was that no-one speak to me in that shoot. I took that time to steady and focus on my breathing, rationalise all my worries, and focus on my breathing again. I knew I needed to control that before I jumped. I walked into the ring entirely focussed. Helpfully the French girl sitting in 11th place went clear, so the biggest cheer erupted and I felt Smarty tense under me. After a few seconds of breathing to re-focus me, and a couple of flying changes to refocus Smarty, we were ready. I was completely in the zone, I could not even hear the commentary or the music, something I am normally aware of. In that moment it was just me, Smarty and the job in hand. He absolutely flew. It was not a perfect round, there is no such thing, but it was not far off. He jumped out of his skin for me not even coming near a single jump. I walked out the area with everyone still cheering and promptly burst into floods of tears (happy tears!). It didn't stop there though, it was off the horse and then to watch the final 9, whilst re-gaining my composure and feeding my horse multiple polos. Pole after pole went flying, I knew I was rising up the placings. Finally it came to Heidi’s round. The remaining 4 of us stood together, sharing our nerves, knowing that we could still win bronze now without her score, but also knowing that she massively deserved an individual medal. Rory, her horse, was not the most helpful that day, insisting that twisting his head sideways was the best way to jump. Heidi lead him beautifully around the track for a flying clear. She had won individual bronze, and we had won team bronze! It was all hugs when Heidi came out, and in the midst of the hugs the German rider in 2nd sent a pole to the floor. Heidi was now in silver position! It wasn't until after the last Rider jumped and they announced the team position that we realised we had won team silver! Screams from all 5 of us erupted as we came together for a massive team hug. We had actually done it, we had actually won medal’s. With such an inexperienced team, this was not necessarily expected. Everyone was completely over the moon, there were hugs and tears from most people there.

Riding into the main arena with a flag around my horse's neck, alongside the best team-mates, was such an exciting feeling, I was so full of pride for my horse, myself but also everyone who was there that weekend. We had worked together so well and given it our all, I was so happy we were getting the medal that I believed we deserved! Standing on the podium, with a medal around my neck, I could not stop grinning. When I dreamed years ago of one day representing my country I never dreamt it could ever be possible. When that dream came true I thought I was the luckiest person in the world. Never once did I ever think I would be able to win a European Championship medal. Dreams I hadn't even dared to dream came true at that moment, I don’t think it had sunk in for any of us. Smarty was not quite going to make it too easy though, the lap of honour was far too exciting, and Smarty definitely thought he should have been in front, luckily we did manage to avoid any crashes and came out the arena in a bit of a haze, walked back to the stables with my team, all of us repeating; “we did it, we actually did it”, over and over. We were in shock, and disbelief.

After lots of praise for the horses, I finally found out I had finished 5th individually, I was so excited to have moved up from 16th after dressage to 5th. A short Horse and Hound interview where I think I managed to  compose myself and then there was time for a short lunch before packing up the tent and heading into Paris to catch the Eurostar back home. Each of us with a medal around our neck we headed into Paris, buzzing from the excitement. With the World Cup match on in which France were in the final, driving through Paris was very exciting, and it was nice to be able to share our happiness with all the French people! We had time for a short celebratory dinner where we all reflected on the week and discussed how proud we were that we had managed to pull it out the bag. I know that for many squads, the aim is always a gold medal, but for us, our small and inexperienced squad, just getting a medal was beyond any of our wildest dreams. With the French all screaming and shouting after winning the World Cup, we were not taking our time to get through security! The train was a great time to celebrate, all of us together and playing cards. After the French victory, the train played “we are the champions” over the loud speaker, which we all enjoyed singing along to very loudly.

After arriving in London, we got the taxi back to Canterbury where we would wait until midday Monday for our horses to arrive. When back at the horsebox, although exhausted, I was met by my Dad. The excitement and shock and all the emotions were still so locked up, I sat with him and a cup of tea in the horse box just chatting about the whole week and the whole experience. It was one I could never forget.

Monday

Finally, no alarm! Gradually we all woke up and enjoyed some nice English bacon for breakfast before continuing with our games of cards. We remembered that we all had bikes in the lorry which we didn’t have space to take to Fontainbleau so we mounted the bikes and went on an adventure around the small village. It is always hard coming back from a championships like that. The friendships and memories made will be cherished forever. It is something we had all dreamt of for years and years. It is something that we had trained hard for every day for the last few months. We had put our everything into getting to that one week of competition. Coming down from a high like that when it has been your focus is always going to be hard, but that morning, being able to spend time with the other girls made it all a bit easier. Finally, the horses arrived back, all feeling very well. After unpacking and checking Smarty was all good, it was time to say goodbyes. Emotional hugs for everyone then began, with myself not being able to thank everyone enough for everything they had done.

Driving home, despite the excitement of what I had just achieved I did have a big sinking feeling in my stomach. That was it, I was out of Juniors. When I had dreamt of trying for Juniors as a 13 year old I had never imagined I would make it. There I was sat in the lorry having returned from my second European Championship and with a medal around my neck. I knew that I was going to miss everyone in Juniors, the memories I had made and the experiences I was fortunate enough to gain. I felt like the luckiest person around to have been able to have the most incredible 2 years. Instead of dwelling on what I would miss, I reminded myself of what was to come. Now I was a Young Rider, more challenges, more new experiences, more new people. Smarty will have a small holiday before going to Pony Club areas for Dressage and SJ and he will be off to Millstreet for the CCI2*, my first event at this level and at a venue where so many memories have already been made at my first Europeans. If my time as a Young Rider is half as amazing as my years as a Junior, I will count myself the luckiest person in the world. As we drove back home, there was still excitement and pride still buzzing inside me, but now a new feeling of anticipation of what the next chapter of my riding career would be. For anyone considering trying for Ponies, Juniors, Young Riders, or any other team, I can only recommend that you completely go for it. I never thought I was good enough but still decided to give it my all. It is an experience like no other so all I can advise is that you give it your best shot, pick yourself up when things don't go to plan, and ride those high moments like they're the only ones you'll ever have.

I hope you enjoyed reading my KBIS blog, Sasha xxx

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