Today’s the day that, all being well, we would have been travelling to Horse of the Year Show. Were it not for Covid 19, of course. You’ll notice that I’m careful to qualify the statement. I was not sufficiently confident of our presence on the starting line to unequivocally proclaim, ‘today is the day that we would have been travelling to HOYS’. Even now, in a hypothetical way, I will not – can not – take my place for granted.
If you’ve never been to Horse of the Year Show, bear with me. It may be difficult for you to comprehend, when given the facts, why we should be so melancholy about missing out, why my social media feeds should be flooded with shared memories and toasts to the 2021 show.
1. It is held in a shed in Birmingham. We trek up and down the country to beautiful, historic showgrounds and superb agricultural shows in glourious, summery weather. (Yes, we do have some glorious summer days in the UK). But what we really want is to spend a week on a carpark in the NEC…
2. In October. Granted, it is early October, but inevitably, the nights will have drawn in. Autumn will have made his mark. The trees will have lost some leaves. Clouds of steam form before chapped mouths and bitten cheeks. It is cold. If it is not cold at mid-day, it is without fail cold at midnight, when futile attempts are made to warm feet beneath insubstantial duvets. It is cold at 4 am when the alarm sounds and it’s time to awaken. And it’s cold at 4.05am when you hurriedly try to dress beneath the covers, desperate to keep limbs concealed and skin sheltered from a cold shock.
3. It is expensive. A trip to HOYS must appear in the annual budget. It possibly means no holiday. Therefore, it is possibly the closest thing you’ll get to a holiday until the following spring, because let’s face it, who can afford to holiday between the first fallen leaf and Auld Lang Syne sounding if you’ve a family who expect presents at Christmas?
4. You probably won’t win. I hate to say it, but the odds are stacked against us.
So why are we so caught up in angst now we’re faced with a year off?
True, the NEC lacks glamour. But what matters most is that we’re there. We made it. Riders and their trusty steeds will have had to fight off stiff competition to earn a place at the final. Some sections will see one in three combinations qualify, whereas in other sections, one in thirty-three will qualify. Less than 1% of the combinations who attempt qualification, actually make it. Therefore, being there, at the final, is itself the physical manifestation of a goal realised. Tick. It’s training all year and being picked for the squad.
Besides, think about it, if your friends were going to a party, wouldn’t you want to go too, even if it was in a shed? Even if it was cold outside? Wouldn’t FOMO creep up on you if you didn’t go? Wouldn’t a sense of inadequacy tug at you, even fleetingly, if you weren’t on the guest list?
The October date adds to the challenge. First there’s the cold. As the seasons turn, coats follow. Your horse’s sleek, summer, show-pony-show-ready coat is cast out and replaced by a thicker, fuzzier, winter one. Hairs and nights grow longer together.
To combat this, out come the horse-rugs, and by mid-September, you can never be sure if warm or cold prevails. At any given moment, the temperature could rise or drop sufficiently to warrant a change of outfit for your horse, so you’re caught doing the equine equivalent of the Wax-on Wax-off scene, blindfolded by mother nature.
Then there’s just the sheer length of the season. One friend thinks the added time with her trusty pony in the run up to HOYS adds to their bond. But even she can’t deny that it’s hard work. Imagine the horse is an athlete. The athlete must feel sufficiently peaked to make the qualifying time, a few months before they need to be at their absolute best. Now imagine the athlete has no idea it’s in such a training regime, has a mind of its own, is prone to injury and can have no way of telling you it’s feeling a bit off until it’s really off and is hopping round on three legs. By the way, that’s not desirable. The urge to wrap said athlete in cotton wool and lock it up in a padded cell is overwhelming. However, the certainty that no athlete ever peaked on the couch and the fact that locked up horses tend to perform with all the poise of six-year-olds on speed prevents you from doing this. Just. Sanity prevails. Just.
Imagine me sat still, now. Contemplating. Dredging the barrel upstairs. I am trying my best to think of the perks of spending your autumn holiday funds on a car park in the NEC instead of a luxury hotel in warmer climes. The first week in October is a Chinese public holiday, so as an expat working there, my fiancé, Rhys, used to take advantage of the office closing to explore far flung Asian destinations. I think the time he recounted his time in Bali, 12 months previously, as he negotiated his first HOYS, was the time he also first started to lament the day we met. What I do know is that HOYS is a phenomenally expensive operation. It costs approximately £200 for every minute that the arena is running. It runs for 5 days, with competition beginning at 7.30am and the evening’s displays ending at around 10pm. I’m no mathematician, but that’s a lot of minutes and a lot of cash. So I guess we just have to look at it this way: no event can sustain itself on a loss. If we want an event, we’d best suck it up and dig deep.
Now to the winning bit. This is the bit that really gets me. I don’t think that my friends or I go thinking we will win. We are happy to simply be there. In fact, one friend sheds a tear every year when she picks up her ‘competitor’s pack’. Therefore, we can celebrate just that, celebrate harder if it goes well, and toast the successes of others. Still, someone has to win, and even if it’s an outside, wing-n-a-prayer, uphill-battle kind of chance, it’s a chance.
Wins are always best witnessed when they’re a total bolt from the blue. The ones where the shock is palpable; they’re the ones that bring a tear to the eye. They’re best felt that way too.
I distinctly recall a conversation with Carey Knox, who was commentating on the class and taking notes on competitors as she made her way down the line-up.
Carey: Now then, what has this one done before?
Me: He’s been second twice here but I don’t have a cat’s chance in hell of winning.
Maggie had won a few years previously with our Jimmy. We’d had one red one. She’d even stood champion, so I thought that was it. That was our quota.
Carey: You never know.
Me: Never in a month of Sundays.
Except it must have been a month of Sundays. Because I did win. Dreams do come true. Amateurs win. Outside chances romp on home to the post and underdogs have their day. Mine was October 4th, 2017.
And for every winner that comes home with a red rosette, there’s another that comes home with a PB. A personal win. A first attempt survived. A clear round nailed. That’s where the magic really lies. Never mind that it’s cold, you’re in a shed, and your pockets are empty. That’s why it’s missed.
Here’s to 2021.