It is one thing dealing with disappointment and delay as an adult sportswoman, but quite another if you are a painstakingly prepared equine athlete teed-up to produce your very best over two specific weeks once in four years.
“They are not machines, it’s not like a tennis racket you put away and pick up,” British eventing star Piggy March said with a laugh, as she reflected on the unique challenge of putting her best two horses, 2019 Badminton Horse Trials winner Vanir Kamira and 2019 Blenheim Palace Horse Trials victor Brookfield Inocent (sic), “on ice”.
“Vanir Kamira is 15 years old, so she is getting towards the latter part of her career. Some horses are a bit like diesel engines: they are best to be used, to keep going. It’s the same as with older athletes: it’s best to keep moving, keep oiled.
“To suddenly stop doing and take a lot of time off is a worry – to then be able to get back to the peak without doing any damage or things starting to seize up or any aches and pains. A lot of thought and attention has to go into these older ones. You don’t want to do too little with them, but at the same time you don’t want to put unnecessary wear and tear on them.”
Working out the right physical equations for each horse is hard enough, but then as March, who was ranked the world’s number two eventing rider by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) at the end of 2019, goes on to explain, you need to consider their characters too.
“They have all got personalities,” she smiled. “They can be highly strung or more sensitive or a bit nuts, like we all can. You have to keep their brains occupied.
“You are in more danger to let them off and just put them in a field or cooped up in stables – that would lead to more damage. They have to keep in work, to keep mentally strong.”
March knows she is fortunate to live and work on a 24-acre, purpose-built site in England’s Northamptonshire countryside. It means that while the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have naturally worried March and her team of grooms and young riders, day-to-day life at the farm has not changed too much.
“We haven’t got neighbours, we haven’t got people near us at all. It’s literally just our team that live here on site,” March explained. “We are lucky to have our health and be outside with horses. The horses are a nice tonic right now, being out in the fresh air and still having a purpose.”
As a young rider, March’s purpose for many years was to compete at the Olympic Games. She was duly selected for London 2012 having won the Olympic test event and reached number 12 in the world rankings. But weeks out from competing on the biggest stage of all in front of her home fans disaster struck, and March’s premier horse, DHI Topper W, was ruled out with injury. With her other ride also injured, March had to step down from the British team. She subsequently lost a chunk of her self-belief, as well as her sponsors and even her lottery funding.
To some, the postponement of Tokyo 2020 at a time when she had again clawed her way back to the very top of her sport might suggest her Olympic dream is jinxed. But the 39-year-old is far too wise to let herself fall into that trap.
“You go through quite a lot when it’s a really bad time, so when you get to the other side you are stronger and see it through a different light,” she said. “I do realise with horses that what will be will be. All you can do is put your head down and work bloody hard, give it your best shot.
“I will get there or I won’t.”
Such admirable pragmatism does occasionally give way to bouts of annoyance – hardly surprising for a rider who recorded 15 international wins last season.
“It’s very exciting as a rider to have horses at that level and age and stage of their careers, because you are as good as the horses you have, and they both realistically have the chance of going places and doing well; so that is frustrating to have very fit and well and healthy horses at the top of their game without being able to go somewhere with them,” she said of Vanir Kamira and Brookfield Inocent.
“But it is what it is. When it is life versus sport, sport can wait.”
So, instead of gearing up for the biggest event of her career, March is using her time to do something she never does: take a breath.
“It has been nice to sort out the house, order a wedding photo or two which I thought was never going to happen for 20 years,” she laughed. “You know what,” she added. “I had a great year last year and it was amazing; but you just go from one thing to the other, never sitting back and reflecting because you never have time. So, it’s been good to go through some boxes, flick through results or pictures or letters and put tabs on people you’ve not been in touch with for a long time.”
Consistent time with her three-year-old son and her husband – both crucial factors in her return to the top of the eventing world – has also been a real bonus. Not that people should imagine the famously hard-working March is taking it easy. Most daylight hours are still devoted to the 26 horses in her yard and the other seven members of her team. Together, they plan to be in the best state possible when competition does resume. After all, there is an Olympic medal to be won.