Trial by tiger traps, stone walls and water jumps

Dressage contests are nerve-racking. Especially if you are a novice. Anna Dedhar, rider No 13, steels herself for the Porlock Vale hunter trials.

Sitting on a wobbly wooden bench, gazing at a field that contained one woman holding a clipboard and another riding a horse round in circles, I tried to remember when I had last felt so nervous that my stomach was in my throat and my nails were digging into my palms.

I was waiting for my turn to ride in the hunter trial at Porlock Vale House, and I was No 13, second to last, so there was too much suspense for my liking. The intermediate class was first, but I had decided that since I had never entered a competition like this before I was a novice - and anyway, there was a very scary 3ft 6in drop fence for the intermediates which I did not much care for.

It was a small event, only 14 riders, all staying at the hotel for the weekend and using the stable horses. But it was real enough for me. As well as straightforward fences and drops there were tiger traps, ditches, coffins, banks, steps, stone walls and a water jump, spread over six fields.

The scene was beautiful: the Edwardian hunting-lodge that Helen and Kim Youd took over two years ago has 25 acres running right down the pebbly beach, and you can see from the Somerset coast across to Wales. Behind the house the woods rise almost vertically up to Exmoor - where a fast ride is guaranteed to blow the cobwebs away. Even the weather had turned in our favour; storms earlier in the week had threatened to make the ground too dangerous for cross-country riding, but two dry days and a bit of sun had sorted that out.

The competitors were a mixed bunch - Sainsbury's buyers, a tour guide, a film designer, a dietician - but we all had two things in common: a love of riding and a determination to get round the course. Throughout the Friday and the Saturday morning we were taken over the jumps again and again until we had a little more confidence - and perhaps style - than we started with.

There had been a few falls - including mine, on about my second jump on Friday morning riding Reg (nine years old, 16 hands and a tendency to get faster and faster and faster) over the tiger trap, which turned out to be an Anna trap as well. But so far there had been no injuries more serious than bruises - and lighter wallets, since there is a tradition that any guest who falls off has to buy cream cakes for the seven stable staff.

On Saturday, those experienced enough not to be too troubled by nerves had eaten a quick lunch and then we had walked the course. Our chief instructor, Shaun Rigby, had devised the novice and intermediate courses - and rectified his design, after it was pointed out by a sharp-eyed guest that there was no No 17 jump. Shaun took the intermediates and his assistant Rachel took the three novices, showing us the best line to take for each jump and pointing out potential problems such as long stretches between jumps where the horses might pick up speed, and would have to be checked before launching over a drop.

One field - known as the farmyard - was to be ridden against the clock, timed from the moment our hand touched the gate which we had to open and close, till we jumped out into the next field. The gate's tricky metal catch had been worrying quite a few people, but one of these took action and bribed Shaun with a large bar of chocolate to let us use a rope loop dropped over the gatepost instead of the catch.

And then suddenly it was 2pm, and Victoria, the first rider, due at 2.15pm, hurried back to the house to have a stiff brandy before putting on her boots, hat, body protector and number bib.

Each rider had to wait for the previous one to complete the course, so there would be one person riding, one warming up in the first field and one getting their horse from the stables. The timetable allowed seven minutes for each round.

Finally it was time for me to go and get Yogi (16 years, 16 hands). We warmed up with a trot, a canter and a couple of jumps, and then it was time to begin.

Although it was a competition, everyone really urged each rider to succeed at each jump. There had been applause for everyone so far and I knew it would be no different for me, but I was so blinkered and deafened by concentration that I was oblivious to everything except my horse and the jumps. I had one nasty moment after the water jump when I could not remember where to go next, but I had no refusals and didn't lose too much time over the gate. I finished, after a clear round - and could breathe again.

I felt enormous satisfaction, and was very proud of the first prize rosette I was given in the evening. Yet the sense of achievement came from having competed, despite a real attack of nerves, and completed the course. Thank you, Yogi.

Anna Dedhar took part in a hunter trial organised by Porlock Vale House, Porlock Weir, Somerset TA24 8NY (01643 862338). Events in 1998 include a one-day event and midsummer party in June, and hunter trials in September. Porlock Vale House was the birthplace of Olympic dressage riding.

For details of other hunter trials, see the 'Horse & Hound' fixtures lists.

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