Competing in France
By Victoria Scott
I am writing to you from Ecuries Scherer, Haras des Presnes, Saint Gervais, France. If you look that up, you will find 2 Saint Gervais's in France. I'm not in the pretty alpine village of Saint Gervais; no I'm in the "middle of nowhere" village of Saint Gervais in the north-west of France. I am a South African eventer, living and competing in France for the past 2 years, and based with my coach Rodolphe Scherer.
Why France? The answer is simple, my coach is amazing, and I couldn't imagine doing this without him. Now before you start getting all excited and imagining the gorgeous, romantic French scenery we all dream about, let me break it to you, that I, in no means, live in such scenery. I live in a tiny village, next door to another tiny village, famous for its fishing industry and salt farming. On the plus side, we are close to the beach and get excellent weather. Well I say this but just last week we were riding over frozen puddles, and waiting for the roads to de-frost so we could truck to a competition. It has become normal to me to ride and compete in 0 degree temperatures. I had to learn how to dress for such occasions. I remember strolling into the stables one freezing winter morning to be told we will be taking 8 horses to the beach for a canter, and I will be riding the 17hh, 4 year old, for his first ever outing!!!! A quick wardrobe change saw me wearing- stockings, jods, 2 pairs of socks, a vest, a long sleeved shirt, a polar fleece, a thermal jacket, my boots and chaps, a waterproof pair of long chaps, thermal gloves, scarf, ear muffs and my hat…..yes I looked like the Oros man! Lucky it was a beautiful sunny day but the water is basically arctic to a South African east coaster. But nothing motivates a strong seat more than a spooky 4 year old warmblood and arctic waters below you. But apart from certain chilly adventures, we are very lucky to have the beach so close to us. We have 20km undisturbed beach front to do fitness interval training along. And then use those arctic waters to cool down the horses legs after our training. This is an essential experience for any top eventer as our horse's fitness crucial.
Another drawback to living in the middle of nowhere is our proximity to competitions and training venues. We are 3 hours from Saumur, which is where the National Equestrian School and high performance training centre is in France. This is a regular training spot for us, whether it is to spend a week there for clinics with the French national coach or to just truck there for the day to train around the cross country course. The travelling distance does not seem to bother the French as this is also our closest international completion venue for us, with a beautiful big CCI3* completion there each May (our furthest being a 2 day journey to Portugal). We are lucky enough to be able to use some of the jumps and facilities from this competition because of my coach's position in the French national team. This venue has amazing facilities and amazing sandy ground, that allows us to not need studs, even in the rain.
Between training and competing we spend a lot of time on the road and away from home. At home I live in a small "gite" (cottage), just 30m from the stables. On the road I sadly do not have my own truck so I live either on a stretcher bed in the back of the lorry or in a tent. This is not very comfortable accommodation but we work so hard during the day that by night time you can sleep anywhere. Ordinarily we take between 3-6 horses to a completion or clinic. These will be a selection of some of my string of 3 horses and some of Rodolphe's 6 competition horses, depending on their level. While away, I am the groom for myself and Rodolphe. I feed, muck out, bandage, groom, plait, tack up, lunge, ride, set up jumps, etc. This gets tricky at competitions where my obsession with turning out to a high standard sees me plating by cell phone light way into the night, or running through the mud in the trot up couture, late for the vet check. But I have an excellent relationship with my horses because of it, and know their physiques and behaviours perfectly.
Now I am somewhat useless when it comes to languages and have yet to learn the lovely French language, making me the centre of many a joke. This has made my life very difficult as generally the French are not so well versed in English, and so going to competitions or even the supermarket can leave me rather confused and dazed. I was lucky enough to get a lift with my 3 horses to a large show jumping completion in Le Mans, with a very sweet French man, whom I had never met and whom spoke not a single word of English. Well this poor man put up with me though our 3 hour journey and 3 days of competition. This competition proved particularly difficult as I learnt just how difficult it is to compete without a support team. I had to learn the layout of the land of this huge equestrian centre, working out where and when I'd be riding each day. With horses of various levels, this resulted in riding in many arenas at similar times. I had to prepare a horse in the stables, run down to the one arena to walk my first course, walk course number two in another arena on the way back, sprint back to the stables to get on the first horse who was number 5 to go in their class, gallop back to the stables after that to prepare horse number two and gallop down to jump him, looking at course number three while going past, etc., etc. Needless to say, I slept well in my tent that weekend.
The biggest adjustment however has been the sheer enormity and magnitude of the competitions. The grandeur of the venues and courses, and treatment of riders and owners is incredible. Though here I am very much a small fish in the sea. With 80-100 competitors in each class, and where 1 dressage penalty from 1 judge can cost you 10 places. Everyone is at the top of their game, and so to do well takes an enormous amount of careful work and dedication. Mistakes are not an option. Eventing can be particularly cruel, as we only have 1 chance for the whole weekend, we don't have another class where we can try again, we need each discipline to go perfectly. This puts a lot of pressure on the horse and rider, but it is this pressure that pushes us to become better. Being able to compete internationally is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I am so grateful I have. Not everyone is able to do this and so I am embracing every moment. It's definitely not easy, but the knowledge and experience that I gain each day is priceless.