You know you are heading into the deep dark countryside when all normal radio stations disappear and you are left with three stations, all playing obscure music and presenters that sound completely foreign to the southern ear.
Houghton Hall was built by Great Britain's first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, it was passed to the Cholmondeley family through marriage at the end of the eighteen century. Once a year it hosts British Eventing's largest International Horse Trials in Europe, with a huge 380 competitors from 18 nations running at 3 levels (CCI*, CCI** & CIC***).
Arriving on the Houghton estate was rather spectacular, it took us about twenty minutes to reach the center of the estate after driving through the gates. There were immaculate lawns, avenues of beech trees and fields full of the best looking live stock around.
My beautiful chestnut horse Louis, also known as Urbanus II, settled into his small temporary stable very quickly He had a short rest following his journey in the horse box before the first vet inspection. The trot up takes place in front of a panel of vets, who decide whether your horse is fit and sound to run. Louis was gleaming, his mane was plaited and his tack was especially clean. His hooves were painted so they were shining and my feet were just as shiny as I was wearing red diamante encrusted brogues, needless to say we passed!
Tuesday night was a rather chilly night's sleep in the horse box, and Wednesday presented no competitive activity, so Louis went on a hack in beautiful fields to chill him out. I was lucky enough to have a mentor walk the cross country course with me who trains GB young riders. This was very beneficial, as cross country courses are very long and there are many alternative routes, so walking it with an expert gives you much more confidence that you have walked the correct lines and know all the alternative routes in case your round doesn't go as well as expected.
The same day, in the afternoon my mum and I went to explore the house itself. There was an exhibition called "Houghton Revisited" which was host to a spectacular display of Old Master paintings from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, which were sold from the house in 1779 to Catherine the Great. They were hung in their original positions in the State Rooms, recreating how the house would have looked in Sir Robert's time. Unfortunately, I had to read this information from a leaflet in the grande hall, as security denied my entry as I hadn't bought tickets in advance . I would have loved to see the exhibition having studied History of Art at A-level, however, we went and did the next best thing, went to the tea room! There was a great array of cakes and all sorts of fancy teas and we enjoyed them overlooking the dressage displays. This was definitely the best bit of dining we experienced at the event, having inadequately loaded the fridge in the horse box with lettuce, bananas, jam and some bread rolls.
Thursday was the first phase of the competition, the dressage. I had learnt the test that Louis and I would perform in front of two judges and gave myself about forty minutes to warm up Louis before our allotted test time. Louis was a little tense to start with in the warm up, grinding his teeth and fretting, but he came loose and worked beautifully. He looked very smart, his chestnut colour made a bright contrast with the white boots and saddle cloth.The warm up was opposite the lawns of Houghton Hall, so a beautiful setting. The dressage arena felt like a cricket pitch, the ground was bouncy and had good grip, which allowed for more extravagant movement in the medium canter circles and trots. Louis scored 40.8 penalties, a score which put him in third on the overnight leader board. On Thursday evening we went to a drinks party, hosted by the Marquess of Cholmondeley , who lives at Houghton Hall with her husband David and two sons. She was very friendly and loved hearing all about my dressage test and what I thought about the cross country course. She also kindly put my name on the door of the exhibition so I could see the works, this was a very exciting prospect, however the competition had begun and there was no time to spare! Saturday morning scheduled another trot up, another outfit, and another pass, phew! The cross country can be quite a strain on the horses so the next day they are often sore and achy. Saturday morning scheduled another trot up, another outfit, and another pass, phew! The cross country can be quite a strain on the horses so the next day they are often sore and achy.
I felt quite nervous in the warm up for the cross country, I didn't have much experience riding in such bad terrain, but I had confidence in my partnership with Louis so hyped myself up and got ready to go! Riding around that course was amazing, the wind and rain whipped at us the whole way round but it didn't put us off, we went clear with a few time penalties! I felt sick after riding round the course because of the huge come down after such a massive adrenaline rush.
The show jumping was the last phase of the competition. The course was built of brightly coloured fences in the center of the shopping village. By the time I jumped there were crowds shopping and eating, so there was a huge buzz around the arena. Unfortunately Louis and I didn't jump the perfect clear round, we incurred 8 fault after knocking down two poles. But our result was good enough to put us into 15th place out of 103 competitors! We had a prize giving where beautiful rosettes were awarded and Louis cantered around with the other prize winners looking extremely pleased with himself.
Competing at the CCI* at Houghton International was a brilliant experience, I gained a lot of knowledge riding round such a tough cross country course (30% of starters were eliminated/retired on course) and look forward to attending the same event next year, perhaps we will even be entered in the CCI**!