The European Championships for Juniors (14yrs to 17yrs) and Young Riders (18yrs to 20yrs) is held once every year in different locations around Europe. Each year a squad of up to 6 members are selected for each age group to go and represent GB at these championships. I have been extremely lucky to have been given the chance to compete at this prestigious event both in 2017 at Millstreet in Ireland, and again this year at Fontainbleau in France. This is aboard my 15 year old New Zealand Thoroughbred gelding, Playtime, known as Smarty at home, who we purchased in 2016. In order to be considered for selection you must be competing in some of the OIu21 trials as well as completing a CCI* trial as this is the same level as the Championships. This year the trials were more limited due to several event abandonments but the selectors asked if we could go to Jardy, in France, to complete a CCI* as this had the same course builder as there would be in Fontainbleau, Pierre Michelet, known for building courses that only 25% of riders are expected to complete without penalties! This is due to his very skinny skinnies and tight lines. At Jardy I finished 5th and Best Brit which earned me a place on the long-list, along-side 8 other riders. The final trial was at Nunney, again an event with a very tough and influential XC course. With only 5 riders completing the final trial, it was a case of ‘last man standing’ and so the selectors decided to only take 5 riders; myself, Heidi Coy, Georgia Bartlett, Elicia Miller and Leilia Paske.
On Sunday morning we finished polishing everything and packing it all in our lorry. After Smarty had spent a few hours in the field we booted him up, put him in the lorry, and headed down to Canterbury, where Parkers, the horse transport company, was based. Parkers would then take all the horses and all our kit in one lorry together to the championships. Once the long and hot process of packing the transport lorry was over, we had a chance to meet our groom for the week. There is one groom per two riders and I had the same groom as I had last year, Shelly Gilbert. Having a groom is an incredible experience and very unusual for someone who normally does everything, I knew Smarty would be in good hands and luckily Shelly knew about his addiction to ginger biscuits! We received all our lovely kit from Musto and Racesafe, who so brilliantly sponsor the Junior program and the BEF. Then we took all the horses for a quick trot up with the team physio and vet so that they could have a last minute check for any potential areas of weakness and assess if there was anything else they could be doing that might enhance performance. Despite having a very sound horse, I always find trot-ups very nerve-wracking so I was happy to have got that done and out of the way. After a long day we were all ready for some dinner which was a lovely BBQ cooked by the parents. This allowed us to sit down alongside the Young Rider team and start to get to know each other which was really nice and a good opportunity for some team bonding. We did night checks on our horses and at the same time the team physio gave all the horses a pre-travel therapy session so that they were not standing on the horse box for hours with anything at all sore. One of the best things about competing at a championships has to be the incredible care that each horse receives, whatever they need to help them be more comfortable and compete at their best they get, it is truly amazing. With all the horses settled in the stables for the night, we all rushed off to try and find lorries which had satellite signal so we could watch Love Island (!!!), unfortunately only one of the lorries had strong enough signal in, so the 5 Juniors climbed into this lorry with the 6 Young Riders along with various family members. With 14 people crammed into a lorry it was not the most relaxing viewing of a TV show but it was great to get to know each other even more and to really get the conversations flowing. As soon as Love Island was over we all headed to our own lorries to get an early night before a very early alarm.
Although eventing is the thing that can get me up and out of bed very early, the 3:30am alarm on Monday morning was definitely met begrudgingly. Having crawled out of the horse box half asleep I headed to the stables to get Smarty ready for travelling and to see him off on his way. Despite everyone being very much still sleepy, there was an undeniable sense of excitement and anticipation in the stables that morning. With fuzzy eyes and worried mums, we loaded our horses onto the Parkers lorries and waved goodbye. The feeling of handing your horse over completely into someone else’s care is a very odd one and one I am sure that I will never get used to, but knowing the brilliance of the people travelling with them and the care that they would be receiving, the nerves were calmed. Luckily for us, we then could get some extra sleep before we left for the Eurostar at 5:30am. I am sure that the parents were much more emotional when handing over their horses to travel than they were handing us over to Tessa, the travelling selector, there were certainly no tears shed for the kids. With a near miss of Elicia initially forgetting her passport, we finally got underway with our journey to Ebbsfleet in the taxi. With the excitement building, the “it’s coming home” chants, inspired by the World Cup, did not last too long before we all dozed off for a little bit more sleep. Finally, when waiting for the train we were able to buy coffee and wake up properly, something definitely needed at this point. To add more drama to the journey we then got an announcement that our train was delayed. At last on the train, we met with Darrell, the Chef D’Equipe, Caroline, the trainer, and Venisha who had come in order to cook us dinner for the week. Here we got an hour and a half to chat and get to know each other. This year the 5 of us in the squad were really close-knit and worked as such an amazing team, all so supportive and so invested in each others performance. I think this came from both the very tough selection process, the fact that between us we only had 1 championship experience, and that we all went with no expectation on our shoulders. On arriving at the Gare De Nord we then began the long process of trying to get two hire cars. We, alongside Venisha and Tessa, were left in one place so that no-one got lost. Luckily we had bought sandwiches from the train so while waiting we were able to have our lunch, in a very glamorous place- the car park! Finally, we headed out of Paris and through the French countryside to our accommodation. Our accommodation had been described as a beautiful French chateau with a swimming pool and lots of luxurious beds… what we found on arrival was a little bit different and certainly added to the experience. This beautiful chateau turned out to be an old-fashioned hunting lodge with stuffed animal heads everywhere you turned. Although not quite what was expected, it was great to all be able to eat together and hang out in each other’s rooms. We were left there in order to unpack and relax for a while and some of the adults went to the showground to get their bearings, put up the marquee that would be our base for the week and figure out where everything was. This year they had decided to run not only the Junior and Young Rider Eventing Championships, but also the Dressage and Show Jumping, Junior, Young Rider and Children on Horses Championships. Although this lead to an amazing atmosphere, it did mean that the showground was completely packed with over 600 horses and horseboxes all crammed in. With the opening ceremony looming that evening and with our clothes all in the horsebox, we started to get a little concerned about how we would be getting to the event, although our small game of tennis was a good distraction. Luckily everything was very under control and the convoy parents arrived in Fontainbleau just in time to swoop in and come and pick us up as the adults had, unfortunately, got caught up at the event. The only problem with this being that we still did not have all our things and it would have taken us too long to walk to the horse box and back to the opening ceremony. So with limited signal, we then had the challenge of contacting our siblings to try and fish out our opening ceremony outfits and meet us at the drop off area. They were all brilliant and successfully found everything that we needed. However, we were then faced with another problem, having not been to the showground, we did not know where any loos were and could not go around looking for them, so in order to get changed and hold some dignity, we had to find a nice spot behind some bins! So our GB experience started with us hiding behind bins in our underwear!
After running down to the main arena we were there in time for the start of the opening ceremony which was so exciting and really got everyone in the spirit. Surrounded by flags and feeling very patriotic, team GB marched into the main arena and paraded around it very proudly. The sensation of knowing that you are there representing your whole country is really one of a kind and something that I do not know how to describe. Although this first day did not run completely smoothly, the excitement and anticipation overcame any problems that were thrown at us and really helped us grow as a team. Once the opening ceremony was over, we were all really keen to go and see the horses after their travels. All 5 had travelled really well and were being looked after like Kings. We all took the horses for a hand walk and a graze before handing them back over to the grooms and heading back to our accommodation. Spirits were very high that night with “It’s coming home” being sung very loudly, and very badly, by the five of us as we got ourselves ready for bed. After an early morning and an exciting day, we gave ourselves a lovely early night to ensure we were feeling on top form for the rest of the week.
You can find Part 2 of Sasha’s blog here!
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