Shopping and a show

For the first time in a very long time (so long that I can’t bear to work it out), I went to the Royal International Horse Show at Hickstead.  When I was little and we first moved to Sussex, our parents took their horse-mad girls for the day out a few years in a row – we had moved to an area which involved an international showjumping venue being on our doorstep, and I’m very lucky that our parents took advantage and, in addition to ferrying us to and from the stables year-round so that we could ride, they also endured blazing sun and sideways summer rain so that we could fill our boots with live, professional action once a year.  If medals were handed out for parenting…

Hickstead has hosted two international showjumping meetings since the dawn of time: the Royal International Horse Show (RIHS) and the Derby.  Traditionally, the Derby was held in August, and RIHS in July, until about 15 years ago when the Derby got unceremoniously shunted to August thanks to broadcasting conflicts.  The Hickstead Derby is infamous – to me, it’s the summer version of Olympia’s Puissance.  As a child, I dreamed of sliding down the Derby bank atop a powerful horse, landing perfectly, seeing the ideal stride and sailing over the impossibly-close fence at the bottom, then completing a dream-like run through the venue’s other permanent bogey fence, Devil’s Dyke.  Of course, the reality is that I have neither the guts nor talent, but I did walk the course as a child, completely in awe of the fences.

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The Derby Bank – this is the “easy” side. It’s enormous. Perhaps one day I’ll do a post telling the full story!

So the Derby is The One.  It is on my doorstep.  And I was working on the day it was held this year.  So I settled for using one of my days off to attend the RIHS instead.  I missed my favourite day of this show, the one which hosts what used to be called the Eventing Grand Prix (a class which was invented during my childhood and had its glory days then).  Instead, I attended on a day when the Nations Cup class was being held.

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we were treated to this band too! Believe it or not, they played Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”

My sister and I went together, both armed with shopping lists (hers in preparation for her upcoming year-long trip to New Zealand; mine in anticipation of a British winter spent facilitating equine learning sessions and running my seasonal version of Prince’s Boot Camp), food and a thirst for horse power.  The event manager in me is proud of the changes which have occurred at Hickstead since I last attended (it WAS this century, but only just!): a new grandstand has gone up this year (but, in kind of a cute way, the old covered one still stands… with rows and rows of plastic chairs painstakingly lined up and cable-tied together for the occasion) – there are lots of fancy bars now, plus another entrance has been created to ease queuing congestion.  The catering offerings have also joined the 21st Century, with options far beyond the standard horse show burger bar – there are fashionable food trucks offering cuisines from far-flung places such as Thailand, Mexico… and Greece and Italy (wood-fired pizzas they are, though).

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Hickstead’s quaint seating

Hickstead’s enormous shopping village defies the recession, and I certainly contributed to the economic upswing – I have prepared myself for our infamous weather by purchasing not one but two coats!  One of them makes me feel like a proper horse person – it’s a long windbreaker-style, and has more leg straps than horses’ rugs do.  Hopefully it’ll do the trick!  I also gained some much-needed new breeches, and a book I’ve been after for a while (no spoilers in case I decide to do a review).  Oh and I replaced Prince’s feed bowl, because he stood in his and destroyed it.  If that horse wore shoes he’d be truly dangerous.

It sadly wasn’t Team GB’s day at the Nation’s Cup (proving my theory that, unless the Olympics are on, we can only be good at one sport on any given day, and Friday 31 July belonged to the England cricket team) – they came sixth out of eight teams.  Ben Maher’s round was superb, the Italians had an even worse day than we did, and Switzerland only sent three riders in for the first round because they were all Just That Good.

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Ben Maher jumping for Team GB

It was great to be back among my people, it’s a very long time since I’ve been at a competitive horsey event (er, that’d be the Paralympics!), and the weather was kind.  Fingers crossed I can make a return to the Derby next year.  May be time to start looking at booking a day off work…

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apologies if you bought this saddle – I may have drooled on it


Sunny Sussex

It’s been three years since I’ve seen a British summer, and I’ve noticed myself lately driving around as I go about my business, as if seeing the countryside and weather for the first time.  A change really is as good as a rest, apparently.

I grew up in a small village, and as a child I found it boring.  As a horsey kid, it shouldn’t have been that way, it should’ve been wonderful.  But my loan pony didn’t live within walking or cycling distance (if he had, I suspect I’d very rarely have been at home), and none of my school friends lived in our village.  The day I passed my driving test was when I won my freedom, and from that point I stopped caring so much about being cut off from other people.

That cut off feeling has returned somewhat during recent years: I sold my car when I moved to London just over four years ago, and promptly used the takings to pay my rent when I quit my job a couple of weeks later.  Some very big mistakes were made that year, ones which I’m still feeling the repercussions of!  So two years ago, when I dropped everything, moved my belongings home and ran away to join the circus, there was no money to have my own car and certainly no money for one.

Upon my return in autumn, I was able to borrow my Mum’s car occasionally, but it was just a means of getting around – my surroundings don’t look very inspiring in winter, unless it snows or there’s a heavy frost.  I spent two winters surrounded by brown and grey, with the odd hint of blue, and two summers in a completely different world, creating a new temporary home for the bulk of my trips, then taking in a huge variety of places on my travels.  I’ve seen red cliffs and black sand, several different types of turtle, a gorgeous pink sunset and some concrete jungles.  But none of it looks like home.

The countryside has bloomed from grey to green, driving along the roads feels like a sweeping rollercoaster of leaves and grasses, with trees reaching out across the lanes, rather than just nakedly poking out of the ground.  The countryside really is rolling around here, and I often feel myself sitting taller in a vain attempt to see over the hedges into fields beyond.  This technique works when you’re on a horse, not so much in a car.

I’ve been to some stunning cities, and there are some great ones near me.  But nothing compares to the emergence of my local summer from the curtain of rain, wind and grey skies of winter.  I swam through our clay-based soil throughout the winter, it’s fantastic to be able to drive with the windows down, sunglasses on and fully-bloomed countryside around me, the comforting hug of home re-born, both in real life and my memories.

The little things

When you work at a summer camp, the everyday can be extraordinary and the ordinary can be something to look forward to. The Directors at my camp describe our jobs repeatedly as the hardest ones we’ll ever love: these are long hours, carrying a huge responsibility and undertaken in an environment from which there is no escape. I take huge pride on the days when my students or colleagues take a leap forward, but it can take a phenomenal effort to get there.

By the time you reach a day off – on your hands and knees, crawling through the treacle that is exhaustion – sometimes you want nothing more than to stay in bed and let the hours slip by. Mostly, that feels like a waste, especially when the majority of the staff will pile onto a bus and follow their dreams to the nearest big city or amusement park.

Our first day off is a strange one: this time, we hadn’t even been in the US for a week when it fell. No campers had arrived, we weren’t flopped out in a tired heap, but we were armed with enormous shopping lists. As many camps do, ours takes us to the nearest retail park and abandons us for the day, which we then spend destroying the annual sales trends for Walmart and TGI Friday’s. It’s very much like Fresher’s Week when students first arrive at university, except perhaps a little more on the primary school end of the spectrum – many staff purchase items to jazz up their bunks, such as bunting, posters or brightly coloured gaffer tape. As a horseback instructor who lives in staff accommodation, my list included items such as a travel mug, water bottle, wellies and a torch.

We’re pretty lucky: as well as Walmart (which is an experience in itself: I come from a country where supermarkets position bug spray in just one location – Walmart gives you three options – and don’t stock guns – yes, you can buy weapons and ammunition at your local supermarket), there are a variety of other shops, plus the World’s Best Cinema. For the princely sum of $6, you can see a movie and fully recline in a leather chair which puts first class aeroplane seats to shame.

This year, two of my closest friends and I – being returnees and, therefore, professionals – divided and conquered: one bought movie tickets whilst two of us headed to Starbucks for coffees. We then went straight to the cinema to see Maleficent (spoiler alert: I liked that it turns the fairytale concept of a girl needing a man to save her around; I didn’t like the clear implication that women are only satisfied with their lives when they become a mother or mother-figure, though this is perhaps unsurprising from Angelina “feed the world” Jolie).

Having revelled in the ultimate comfort of the cinema, we made our way to Walmart – most staff had been and gone already, panic-purchasing all manner of rubbish they may not use. We made the most of our experience to find the most amusing items (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cycling helmets, which we of course tried on and wore posing for a selfie) and spend our dollars wisely (I ticked off almost every item on my list, from emergency breakfast foods to coffee machine filters).

With a trolley full of purchases, we trundled to a restaurant to enjoy the simplest of pleasures for the final time in almost two weeks: eating off re-usable plates and using metal cutlery (all of our tableware at camp is disposable). We were heavily indulged by a lovely server (my American friends will be proud to know I tipped him and the barman generously) before shoehorning ourselves and our bags onto the bus to head home.

We had a final day of semi-frantic preparations the following day, prior to the arrival of the first group of campers. This year, my department has an additional member of non-bunk staff (someone who lives in staff accommodation, rather than looking after campers 24/7), who happens to be one of my best friends. We’re roommates too, and have already gained a slight reputation for co-dependence (when a mutual friend spots one of us, we are no longer asked how we are, but where the other person is) and as well as sprucing up our department, we spent our final child-free day fluffing our nest at the bunk, ensuring that we’re as comfortable as possible once we get busy.

We’ll have seven days off throughout the next 12 weeks. Some will involve brilliant adventures, others will be about nothing more than making our own choice from a menu and consuming it with “proper” cutlery and a drink which isn’t water. Happiness is being an adult with the opportunity to choose whatever will make your day.

Dear summer, come back – all is forgiven

I’ve always been a fan of winter – being a fair-skinned Brit who doesn’t tolerate heat sees to that.  Most horse riders dislike the cold months, particularly adults who work owning a horse around a full-time non-horse job.  Winter for riders means more work (many are reluctant for their horses to be turned out in the field, even during the day) – if your horse goes out, he gets muddy and you spend ages grooming him; if he lives in, life is a constant round of cleaning his stable.  Winter means breaking the ice in water troughs and buckets, cold fingers and toes and noses, limited hacking opportunities and getting dressed becomes a similar routine to preparing for a day on the ski slopes.  Short days mean dark mornings and evenings.  Our pleasant pastime is a chore.

Riding in winter can be magical – I love seeing the world from horseback, glimpsing over barren hedge rows into frosted blankets of fields and beyond, rather than whizzing past in a car and trying to squint through the branches.  But these days are rare, and most of us trudge around the yard, full water buckets periodically sloshing cold water down our gaping wellies and muttering to ourselves, “Days get longer at the end of December.  Summer is coming.  Summer is coming” in an attempt to motivate ourselves through the dark and painful days.

But winter to me is also the approach of Christmas – excitement, anticipation, goodwill.  It’s a break from summer, a chastening reminder from Mother Nature to cherish the good times.  A wondrous change to live in jeans (no shaving legs every other day!) and layer up in chunky, glittery jumpers (no bikini to look good in!), an altogether relaxing time.  The air feels fresh and crisp in your lungs, rather than humid and dirty on your brow.

However, summer was different this year.  I didn’t spend it shuttling between home, office and events I worked at, failing to pause and enjoy the warmth on my skin.  I spent it largely outside, covered in insect bites and generally sweating profusely along with the animals I cared for (the upside: a very easy 30lb weight loss!).  My job was stressful at times.  The hours were long and hard.  But they were enjoyable.  I spent up to three hours per day being paid to be in the saddle.  I made some friends for life.  I took a step in the right direction.

My Facebook feed serves up occasional reminders of the summer that was: some friends are still wandering the world and enjoying themselves, others are home for the first time in years and pining.  We miss each other, our jobs, the highs and lows.  Whatever we gained or lost during the summer months, we are feeling a gap in our lives now.

I’m not sure what I expected of my homecoming when I left the UK at the end of May, but I don’t think I anticipated my return to earth feeling so abrupt or endless.  The next holiday, trip and summer experience feels a long way off.

The countdown to summer is on – I am wishing the winter away, for a change.  Perhaps one day I’ll find the endless summer, rather than the perpetual countdown.