It Only Happens in Stories first started life as a very much shorter story, published in Horse & Pony magazine. When I re-read it with a view to re-publishing it, I realised that not only would it need a lot of updating first, but that the plot - set in the world of eventing - was no longer realistic these days. The writing wasn't very good either, and definitely needed a major overhaul!
But I liked the central idea of the story and didn't want to abandon it entirely, so thought about what areas of competition it would be possible for it to happen in, and came up with showing and showjumping. Now although I've done a bit of showing in the past, I don't know a great deal about it: but when I originally trained at a large riding school, I worked on the show jumper's yard there, and later on even jumped in BSJA Newcomers and Pathfinders classes myself. And when covering the major horse shows, my Press pass allowed me to see some of what went on behind the scenes. So naturally, show jumping seemed the obvious choice.
As I started re-writing, although there are some similarities, the rewritten and updated version which eventually appeared as an extended short story in December 2012 started taking a slightly different path. Apart from moving from the world of eventing to show jumping, I decided that the rather downbeat ending needed a bit of tweaking too ... and I think it ended up being a much better written and more readable story as well as being far more believable.
But just in case you are interested, this is how the story originally appeared:
It had come like a bolt out of the blue.
"Me? Ride at Burghley? You must be joking!"
The very enormity of the idea had taken my breath away when Gill suggested it.
It sounded like the sort of thing that only happens to people in kids' horsey books. I giggled at the thought of me, a mere girl groom, competing at Burghley with Rebel. I didn't think for one minute that Gill wasn't joking, and was taken aback when she insisted she was serious about it.
"Why not? You probably know the horse better than anybody else except me."
I looked at her, feeling a little stunned, to say the least, by this unexpected turn of events.
"He can be a moody horse and hates too many drastic changes. At least he knows and accepts you; it would take him ages to settle down and go half decently for a totally strange rider."
I opened my mouth to protest, to tell her that I simply wasn't capable of competing at that sort of level, that I wasn't fit enough, and a thousand other reasons besides, but she brushed all opposition away.
"That's settled then. It would be a shame to have to scratch him now, after all the preparation we've done on him, and if anyone is going to ride him, I'd rather it was you."
"But surely it would be far better if an experienced rider -" I made one last futile attempt at convincing Gill that she was making a mistake, but as usual, it was like trying to argue with a brick wall. Once she had made up her mind about anything, there wasn't a great deal you could do to make her change it.
"You've had plenty of experience, don't be silly," she said firmly, which was flattering if not exactly true. We had been close friends for almost as long as I could remember. We'd gone to school together, played together, learned to ride together. We had shared her trailer taking our ponies, and later horses, to shows, but never allowed our competitiveness to come between our friendship.
Almost the only thing we hadn't done together was leaving school; I'd left at sixteen, opting out of further exams as soon as possible, whilst she had stayed on into the sixth form. A year later however, she had come to the same conclusion as I had earlier - that she'd much rather be riding than reading.
Here the differences between us became more obvious. Whereas my parents took rather a dim view of my desire to be a groom, Gill's had positively encouraged her to branch out into the world of horses and more particularly, into the sphere of eventing.
Doubtless they'd have been none too pleased if she had expressed the desire to become a groom, like me; but I had to earn a living as best I could whereas her parents were rich enough to indulge her interests. I suspected that they were just killing time for her until the almost inevitable day when she would probably end up married to a suitably wealthy husband who would probably continue to finance her interest in horses if she had her own way - and knowing Gill, she would.
I didn't grudge her the advantages she had financially though. She was good. Being well off, or with a generous sponsor helps tremendously, but is still useless without some talent and dedication to accompany it. When we were both fifteen, we'd bought our first horses. I had to sell mine a year later when I left school; despite a promising early start in junior events he had quickly faded into obscurity, and I didn't hear of him very often once he had been sold. On the other hand, Gill's horse Rebel had gone from strength to strength with her, and now five years later he was entered for Burghley itself - all credit to Gill for her hard work on him.
Despite her success, I never really felt jealous, or conscious of having missed out on anything. It had seemed the natural thing to become her groom when she acquired three more young horses and needed some help with them. I found a great deal of satisfaction in strapping and exercising my charges. Gill was the talented one after all, and I suppose my competitive instincts just weren't as keenly developed after all, as Gill's still were.
She had insisted that I remain registered with the Horse Trials Group, and that I occasionally competed with one of the less talented of her novices, but although I appreciated the opportinity, it seemed like an unnecessary 'perk' - and one which in the ordinary way of things I wouldn't have been given, if it weren't for our friendship.
That was Gill - always generous, and not wanting me to miss out on the fun.
When Gill and Rebel finally made it for Burghley, we were all over the moon about it. They looked like being the most promising combination anyone had seen for ages. I strapped Rebel for ages each day, until his coat shone like polished mahogany, telling him all the while how clever he was. He would prick his ears intelligently, and his bright eyes seemed to say that he quite understood and would try his hardest.
All was going well until a month before the big day. It was a blustery Monday morning and since it was my day off, Gill was exercising all four horses herself. To save time, she decided to hack out leading two of the youngsters. A strong wind was blowing and a paper bag rustled across the road and spooked Quiz, who had pulled backwards and dragged Gill from the saddle. She tried to hang on grimly to the two of them rather than let go and risk them getting loose and being injured on the roads. Consequently, when I returned from my day off it was to find Gill in the grip of depression, with her left wrist encased in plaster and a raging headache.
"I've broken my wrist and fractured three fingers," she announced irritably. "It looks like Burghley is off now. I can't ride with my hand like this." She indicated the pink and swollen digits on the end of her hand.
"I can't even bend my fingers at the moment, and my wrist wouldn't be up to holding a fit horse around a cross-country course in a month's time."
I sympathised. It was a bitter blow for her and one she was finding hard to come to terms with.
Then she hatched her plan that I should ride in her place.
"I'm sure it'll be possible to change the entry. At least you are still registered with the Horse Trials Group ... " And so after a brief argument, she rushed off to telephone before any more could be said. I still wasn't too sure - Burghley was a very different kettle of fish from the Novice classes I was used to ...
Several weeks of intensive fittening and toughening up followed - for me. My respect for Gill increased with every day that passed; not only for her generosity in giving me the ride, which must have been a difficult decision to make, but also for her toughness. I hadn't realised just how fit I needed to be. I skipped and jogged, and rode, and cycled, and then started all over again until I was grateful to sink into a hot bath at the end of the day. Gill became an exacting and relentless teacher, drilling me until I began to acquire a new self-discipline and determination that I hadn't known existed.
Since she was unable to do a great deal one-handed on the yard, and I found the day just wasn't long enough to fit everything into, she decided to take on a temporary groom as well. Liz instantly attached herself with great affection and loyalty to Rebel, and became a pillar of support whenever I returned exhausted from a lesson with Gill, convinced that I would never be able to cope.
Gradually though, I found myself feeling fitter, and my confidence increasing progressively with it. Jumping Rebel finally became an exhilarating experience, rather than an ordeal; the dressage test didn't seem quite so long or difficult to remember.
And so time passed in a blur of work and final preparations, the pieces beginning to fit in place, until at last, almost unbelievably, we arrived at Bughley Park on a crisp September afternoon. The air was rich with atmosphere, and Rebel seemed to know instinctively that that this was a special place, a special occasion. You could see that he knew, in his very bearing. That evening, and the next morning too, anything and everything seemed possible.
The early morning air was cool and fresh, touched with a light mist that held the promise of later sunshine, and creating an aura of magic. Gill helped me saddle up Rebel, so that I could give him a long canter across the park to help get rid of some of his excess energy before working him in for the dressage. As I mounted, we couldn't help grinning like idiots at rach other. Despite the fact that she should have been riding, Gill could still smile and wish me good luck.
Rebel moved forward gaily underneath me, responding to the lightest touch of hand and leg. He stretched out into a long, ground-covering canter, enjoying his strength and fitness. Then he suddenly broke his stride and faltered, and I quickly slowed him back to a walk, noticing with dismay that he was quite pronouncedly lame. I dismounted, and checking his feet, quickly found the cause, a stone wedged tightly between his shoe and the frog. A bruised sole ... not enough to prevent him from competing again, but he wouldn't be sound for a couple of days. Burghley was off for us this year.
A tap on my shoulder made me jump as I leaned over the stable door later, watching Rebel piuck at a haynet.
"I'm sorry," said Gill, breaking into my thoughts, and I heard the sincerity in her voice, and believed it. Next year, I thought, Gill will be fit enough to ride Rebel here, and I will be the groom again. Strange, I'd never minded much before ... I shrugged.
"These things hapen," I said, trying to keep the disappointment from my voice and not doing very well. I shook myself mentally, telling myself to be realistic, that I probably wouldn't have done him justice. I'd never know now anyway. To have reached Burghley itself was nothing short of miraculous, and I realised how lucky I was to have at least had the opportunity. I could at least cherish the memory of that.
I found myself beginning to smile a little, despite everything. For me to actually have ridden successfully around that imposing and demanding cross country course - that, I told mysef very firmly, is definitely the sort of thing that only happens in stories.
My first One Day Event, held over a local 3' Novice course and riding my special horse of a lifetime, although I didn't know it then. By the time we'd got to this point I'd fallen off once and lost my hat silk somewhere ...
And here we are again a year later: I'd stopped falling or getting bucked off and we now knew each other pretty well and were having a lot more fun together!