The agony and the ecstasy – well, more of the former than the latter!
QUALIFYING for a competition like the Melbourne Three-Day-Event is 90 per cent of the challenge.
Not dissimilar to any major event, including something as exalted as the Olympic Games, it’s always possible that athletes and sports people can train for years, win numerous qualifying competitions, come into the “finals” in tip-top form only to fall at the final hurdle through injury or illness. This year’s “M3DE” was to be no different.
As riders, their horses and their teams of helpers began to arrive at the National Equestrian Centre in Werribee last Wednesday the anticipation and excitement began to build. Nobody was competing until Friday, at the earliest, and many not until Saturday, but horses needed to settle in and get used to unfamiliar surroundings, not least those who’d arrived from WA, SA, QLD, NSW and even a New Zealand team from across the pond. Moreover, once in the competitor “village” horses are effectively “quarantined” and restricted to only approved treatments and medications where even massages and chiropracty can only be carried out by FEI registered practitioners. Just as at the Olympics, horses are “swabbed” to test for the presence of illegal or disallowed substances and treatments and basic remedial medicines used throughout the year, such as anti-inflammatories, are banned if considered performance-enhancing.
Whilst riders and grooms buzz around, treating their beloved horses as the superstars they are in their riders’ eyes, there is an air of nervous anticipation. Before they can go any further, they must get through the first of two “trot ups”. The rider leads their horse (in a trot) past and away from the ground jury on a prepared track for about 30 metres, before turning and trotting back to receive a simply announced “accepted” if all is well. It’s a soft introduction to the competitive nature of the event: riders dress up in formal wear, noting that shoes need to be suitable for running alongside your horse and, with crowds in attendance and cameras rolling, nobody risks an embarrassing fall whilst wearing high heels – not even the guys! The purpose is to allow judges to check that the horse is not lame and otherwise sound. Nearly all horses are “accepted” but some don’t get through and, within an hour of the first horse being presented, we saw our first casualty. For the first rider to be pulled aside and asked to go again, ultimately unsuccessfully, the long road and anticipated excitement ended there.
Magical Mystical Merlin, number 254, stepped up for his turn. It’s a nervous moment. Merlin, with only one eye, can be spooked by things going on around him on his blind side. Owner Lisa North nervously set off and Merlin duly followed suit, showing his best trot and perhaps, just a little bit, enjoying the attention. Lisa was only interested in passing the test and not competing in the “best dressed” competition that had clearly motivated several riders to don impressive outfits in which to run alongside their horse. The first hurdle successfully overcome, it was back to the stable.
ABOVE: First test passed - Lisa and Merlin successfully get through the first trot up.
Keeping a horse stabled 24/7 is not easy.
Horses are grazers and they are herd animals, wandering around the paddock with other horses and consuming a continuous pipeline of fibre to keep their intestines working and healthy. They also need sleep for about three hours per day minimum and are reluctant to make themselves vulnerable to predatory attack by lying down without at least one other horse on look-out duty. Putting your horse in a 4m by 4m box for six days brings its own set of issues: horses can stress and go off their food, they might not drink enough, they can get swollen lower legs – the “frog” part of their hoof acts as a pump and walking, trotting, cantering, pushes the blood back up the long limbs to the heart – and they can fret and, through kicking out or bucking, injure themselves. So, it’s a constant chore taking your horse out for a walk, or even a gallop, feeding them little and often, making sure they’re drinking and wrapping their legs to help prevent blood “pooling” in the fetlock joints and causing lameness. The issues are exacerbated for horses that have endured two or three days of travel from other parts of Australia or even a flight from New Zealand. Given all this, Merlin adapted really well, seemingly preferring the fully enclosed indoor stable box to his normal open-air yard: he was out of the wind, warm, surrounded by other horses but with walls between him and them to keep those irritating “bum-biters” away. Nevertheless, Lisa walked him frequently, rode him as much as she could and nervously looked out for any signs of swollen legs or, worse still, colic.
Before the first horse had entered the arena for the dressage, several horses had already been withdrawn from the competition. They weren’t “falling like flies” but any idea that once you got to the event it would all be plain sailing was soon dissipated.
Merlin’s turn for misfortune was yet to come.
The days passed by quickly. Between induction meetings for first timers and the all-riders’ briefing there are cross-country course walks to be undertaken, familiarisation rides in the competition arena to be conducted and lessons given by accompanying coaches and instructors. Being at a venue like the National Equestrian Centre can be very intimidating for a horse unfamiliar with the razzamatazz. Dressage arenas suddenly have large judges’ boxes placed around the outside, jumps have cars and trucks placed alongside, piped music beats from every loudspeaker, sponsors banners flutter endlessly in the wind and tractors grunt energetically, moving equipment and making final adjustments to the course.
Lisa and Merlin grabbed an opportunity on the Friday for a last-minute lesson with one of the Victoria Senior Eventing Squad coaches. It was a miserable day. Cold and windy and the rain began to fall. Undeterred, Lisa warmed Merlin up in one of the practice arenas: the sand was deep, wet and heavy. Trotting down the long side of the arena, Merlin stumbled in the deep sand. A simple trip ended up with Merlin on all four knees, straddling the 50cm-high, white, plastic arena boundary. Lisa managed to stay in the saddle and Merlin scrambled to his feet but, in doing so, stepped on the boundary fence, shattering the brittle plastic rail. In a split second, the sharp-edged shard had sliced open the front of his lower leg. Considering the shock, Merlin was as calm as could be hoped for – many a horse would have reared or bolted or kicked out at the invisible attacker. He moved away, trotting with no sign of lameness or injury. But there was blood! Blood! The dreaded enemy of many a horse and rider: fresh blood means retirement from the competition if the wound hasn’t healed in time.
The competition vet was called, the wound dressed, the assessment made that it was likely superficial but it needed to improve over the next 24 hours if Merlin was to compete. Whilst hearts sank, hopes were kept alive for at least another day.
Saturday arrived slowly but the 9am inspection was promising and the vet gave Lisa and Merlin the go-ahead to compete in the dressage, acknowledging that the judges had the final say.
Pre-competition rituals quickly took over: Merlin needed to have his mane plaited; he needed to be cleaned and brushed; he needed to be tacked up; and his rider needed to get dressed in her competition gear. They had less than an hour but at 10.30am Lisa rode Merlin from the stables, his wound still bandaged to keep it dry, and began her warm-up routine.
Against all the odds, there was suddenly room for optimism as he moved unhindered and seemingly unconcerned by the injury. At the allotted time, 11.12am, he entered the arena and his test began. All was going well, he moved through the trot elements without difficulty, his transitions were good, his “leg yields” clear and precise, and the first half of the canter work (on the right leg lead) produced some nice movement. There was just the left lead canter work to do and a walk and a halt.
Suddenly, Merlin wouldn’t put his right hoof down – either the sand had stung his wound or he’d caught his leg with his other hoof – and he rather cleverly cantered a circle in front of the judges on only three legs. It was an impressive feat but there are no prizes for circus tricks and the inevitable tinkle of the judge’s bell spelled the end of the test and the end of Merlin’s first appearance at M3DE.
He retired, perhaps not gracefully.
Lisa held back the tears – at least for the time being – and was soon back in the stable block surrounded by friends and helpers and countless other empathetic competitors recounting their own stories of last-minute injuries and retirements. Merlin seemed completely unfazed by the whole thing. He wasn’t lame and the injury hadn’t worsened. No doubt the last minute removal of the bandages and the sharp sand stinging the raw wound irritated him. There would be no lasting damage.
Fate can deliver the cruelest of blows but Merlin was not alone and heartbreak was not limited to eager amateurs like Lisa: it upsets seasoned professionals too. Many suffered their own disappointments: numerous horses withdrew after the dressage but before the cross-country, a rider fell at the very first fence, another had a bad fall halfway round causing a delay whilst the medics were called, yet another took a swim at the first water jump in front of a large but very sympathetic crowd of spectators. One young woman, whose mother had driven her and her horse all the way from the Gold Coast got through the cross-country with zero penalties only to find that a sharp twig from one of the brush-top fences had pierced her horse’s knee, become infected and made him too lame to continue with the show jumping. Pre-competition favourites had unanticipated issues and challenging fences threw up unexpected stoppages and refusals. All in all, there were many that fell by the wayside and many, like Lisa, who would be walking away pondering what might have been.
ABOVE: The heart-breaking moment Lisa and Merlin's Melbourne 3DE for 2022 comes to an end.
It's true that 90 per cent of the work goes in qualifying but that doesn’t mean the remaining 10 per cent is less of a challenge.
Lisa’s first trip to M3DE, after a three-year wait, didn’t go quite to plan. But disappointments are always lurking round the corner and Lisa has had enough of those in recent years to know that time heals and there’s always tomorrow. One thing that the week at Werribee confirmed is what a tremendous shared spirit of stoicism and understanding exists in the Australian horse-riding community who love and suffer their animals in equal measure. It’s easy to think, “what if” but, as Rudyard Kipling famously wrote,
“If you can dream – and not let dreams be your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same”
In Lisa’s eyes, Merlin is still magical and mystical. He’s home safe and sound in his paddock and there are other races to run and hopes to cling on to. It’s the good thing about dreams: they don’t have to end.
ABOVE: A snapshot of Lisa and Merlin's 2022 Melbourne 3DE journey, finishing with a few "commiseration drinks" in the rider’s bar with some friends.
* Simon Eassom is the proud husband of Lisa North and horse dad to Merlin.