Never be afraid to fail. If you are you’ll never succeed. Emma Golding’s wrap up of a mixed autumn campaign
So this has turned out to be a rather long blog as it covers the World Championships for Disabled Drivers in Beesd and the All-Ireland National Championships, and because things didn’t go exactly how I would have hoped.
The World Championships
The World Championships were in Beesd in the Netherlands, so Sarah, Lauren, Jasmine, Lilly and I all headed over, along with Tattsberry, one of the Willberry Wonder Pony mascots. The event was located in a lovely estate (albeit with lots of pedestrians and cyclists to try to avoid running over!) and as always with the size of events in the Netherlands, it was huge in terms of competitors and spectators.
Lilly travelled really well and in typical pony style, took her first mouthful of grass while her back feet were still on the ramp! In the first couple of days Jasmine took Lilly out for a canter and I drove her and we attended the opening ceremony, which had some wonderful displays including a Shetland pony musical ride with some of the riders long-reining one while riding another, and the nations evening – the Americans made genuine S’mores!
Dressage was on the Thursday and that was a very tough day. I was drawn last (having been drawn first at two previous world championships – of those two options, I definitely prefer going first) so had to wait until 5pm. Although I had said beforehand that nice wasn’t going to be enough, I defaulted to playing it safe, mostly out of fear of doing a dreadful test or ending up having an argument with Lilly mid-test by pushing too hard. Unfortunately, we still had an argument mid-test, centred around the halt and rein-back. In the rest of the test I hadn’t driven any worse than in our previous couple of events but I hadn’t driven any better either and unfortunately, what is a 55 at home translates to a 75 at that level. To say I was devastated is an understatement – I felt ashamed, embarrassed, that I had let absolutely everybody down. In reality, although it was bad, there were only 10 penalties covering myself and the 5 above so I told myself I could make up for it on the marathon.
The cross country marathon consisted of some lovely obstacles and a very nice route on Section A. Section A was shorter than we are used to and Lilly wasn’t even breathing hard when we finished; in fact, we were ahead of time so had to walk the last half kilometre. Unfortunately, despite wanting to push as hard as I could, my fears – of losing control, of getting hooked up on a post, of taking a wrong course and getting 20 penalties or worse, eliminated – got the better of me and I didn’t drive Lilly anywhere near as well as she can go. We made up two places but it could have been more.
The cones course was tough and caused a bit of controversy! One of the Dutch drivers almost took a wrong course which would have resulted in elimination, but the crowd’s reaction gave him an opportunity to realise and correct it. The British team (who would have moved from bronze to silver) appealed the team placings on the basis that it constituted outside assistance, but the appeal wasn’t successful. Despite the controversy, I tried my absolute hardest to drive as though I had nothing to lose! I managed that (to an extent – quelling my distinctly conservative nature is proving to be quite a tough mental exercise!) and was very happy with how I drove the cones so it was good to end on a positive and in 10th place.
Although it wasn’t the easiest of world championships, I expect looking back that it may be one of the most important for me. I learned some very valuable lessons the most important of which is that you can’t do well if you’re constantly afraid of failing. It also became clear that I need to compete abroad much more often; not only would this raise the level of my driving and enable me to compete against other para drivers but it would also hopefully quell the part of my subconscious that says, “This is your only trip abroad this year so you can’t take any risks in case you mess it up!”
As always, it was wonderful to get to see the other para drivers and their teams (it’s just a shame it’s only every two years! Edit: turns out it’s not!), meet some great new people and to be inspired to try some new things and get ideas for how to help work around my disability while in the carriage.
Back home and in action again at the National Championships
The National Championships were two weeks after the worlds so we figured if I was going to change my mental attitude to how I drive, why not start there?
After a few days to recover from Holland and the journey back (more for me than for Lilly, as Sarah keeps her in much better condition than I keep myself!), we had a few intensive dressage sessions where I pushed myself and Lilly much harder than previously.
For the nationals, I had one goal for each phase: in dressage, to drive her the way I had been since Holland (knowing we wouldn’t come anywhere but having to start somewhere); in cones, to drive how I usually do; and on marathon, to try going as quickly as possible in the obstacles without worrying about making a mistake. And mission was accomplished for all three…almost!
In our test, I did drive her the way I wanted to. It felt scrappy and bits were very scrappy, especially the first extended trot which was downhill and made me lose my balance and steering, but we kept inside the arena and because I was wearing a coat due to the rain, I asked my groom to grab the back of it to give me some support. We again had an issue with the rein back and, given that we can do them beautifully at home, I can only surmise that I’m not dropping her enough in the halt beforehand and she’s getting tense – something else to work on!
The cones course was definitely a championship level course and changed the placings in most classes after the dressage. I was happy enough with 3 down to move from 5th after dressage to 2nd overnight, but the weekend was not about placings.
Section A on the marathon is somewhere we have never got penalties so I didn’t expect that that’s where we would have issues, but it was! There was a stretch of about 2km of brand new tarmac and Lilly, although she has back studs (which have always been enough on all the road surfaces we’ve driven on), was skating at the front like Bambi on ice.
There was unfortunately no verge to use and we tried using the brake, trotting collected, everything but there was no other option than to walk. I was so frustrated, especially when we were passed by two other competitors, and each time we were overtaken we tried trotting again but it was no good. It was either accept we were going to be over time or risk Lilly falling or pulling something so there was no choice. To say I was angry was an understatement!
Section A ended where it started and another driver who was waiting to go told me afterwards that he said to his backstepper that something must have gone very wrong because he’d never heard me curse! (Not at anybody, I hasten to add, but I still shouldn’t have cursed regardless.) I was all ready to make a formal complaint afterwards, but after talking to some other drivers who had had issues but managed to deal with them enough that they could make up time, I decided not to. Some people suggested that perhaps the fact that my brake is a hand brake rather than a foot brake meant it didn’t have quite the same effect and others said that I should be more cautious because I’m in no position to be of any help if Lilly did hurt herself. Whatever the reason, I know we made the right decision – however angry I was coming in, I would have felt infinitely worse if I was coming in with a lame pony.
At that point, I knew we had absolutely nothing to lose (which it turns out was perhaps a good thing) and everything to prove. The aim for the obstacles was to go as fast as possible without worrying about making any mistakes. And I didn’t make any mistakes – no wrong courses, no loss of control, no getting caught on posts! Lilly was much happier in the obstacles being allowed to go forward the way she likes; there was no head tossing or resistance. And Lauren and I had a brilliant time – they were the most fun obstacles I have ever driven.
Don’t let pride get in the way of doing what it takes to perform to your best
I also tried out a prototype-of-a-prototype (the actual prototype is now being made) harness, made by Lauren out of breeching straps and stirrup leathers. This was attached to the bar behind my seat and went over my shoulders to be held in place by my lap belt and gave me a huge boost in stability as it meant I didn’t need to use my hands to stop myself from falling forwards so I could just use them for steering the pony. In reality, I should have started using something like this years ago but foolishly didn’t – partly because I could manage with just the lap belt and partly, if I’m honest, because I wanted to look, for want of a better word, normal. A bit ridiculous, I know, seeing as it’s not as if people don’t know I’m a disabled driver, but I guess misplaced pride is a funny thing! But now I am willing to do whatever it takes, even it means not trying to look like everybody else.
All-in-all, the Worlds were a hugely important lesson in what I need to do differently. I made a significant start on the mental side of those things at the nationals and got a huge bit of news not long after that will help enormously with the “need to compete abroad more often” part. Irish Ferries, very kindly and very enthusiastically, have offered to sponsor our ferry travel in order for us to compete regularly in the UK. It’s an absolutely fantastic development although it does mean that I am now wishing away the winter in order to get competing again! And, in a last minute addition to this entry, it was announced there will actually be a Para World Championships in 2017! They will be in Izsák in Hungary at the end of September. It’s a bit of a surprise (and will take a bit more organising than usual given the distance) but I’m determined to get there and to apply all the lessons I learned this year.
Lilly has had about 6 weeks relaxing in the field with Popeye (the pony I used to drive) and is looking like a classic Connemara. I was driving past a couple of weeks ago and stopped and called her and she came trotting over to the fence which was very sweet. Popeye raised his head and looked at me, but for Popeye that’s as much as a declaration of love! Lilly’s due her shoes back on soon and we’ll start working towards next season which will hopefully be successful and culminate in a trip to Hungary.
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