“I didn’t have a horse to ride. I knew I would lose my nerve and my ‘jumping eye’ if I didn’t keep eventing”, expressed Bunnie Sexton, of Shepherd Ranch Eventing our neighbor in Santa Ynez, describing how she came across “Rise Against” or, “Ecko”, an OTTB her current Four Star Three-Day Event mount.
“Ecko was twelve years old when I got him. The current owner had done a great job with him, along with managing his temperament. In the beginning of our partnership he was very theatrical – running sideways to fences; needing a double bridle in Dressage just to keep him in the arena – yet he could really jump. I’m an emotional person and knew I could get along with him. It was the best decision, and he’s changed my life. He’s my pride and joy.” Indeed, Bunnie has figured out how to partner with Ecko. At times she feels he can even read her mind.
Bunnie and Ecko Take on Burghley Horse Trials
Bunnie and “Rise Against” recently returned from a whirlwind trip to England, where she competed at one of the world’s top Three Day Eventing venues: Burghley, the home of a grand sixteenth-century country house near Stamford in Lincolnshire.
The setting contains the elements of a Jane Austin novel – green, rolling terrain, dark green trees topped by fluffy white clouds, scenic water crossings, creative and themed cross-country jump combinations with a stunning and impressive sixteenth century country house (Burghley House) as the backdrop. Add to that the world’s top riders and horses competing together for four brilliant days, and you get the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials.
Why Burghley, Bunnie?
Burghley is known throughout the world of Eventing as having one of the most difficult courses of the six leading world-class Three-Day Events. The terrain provides for technical approaches, landings, and lines between fences that other venues can’t offer. “If I was going to spend the money to go, I wanted the course with the toughest puzzles,” explained Bunnie, regarding her choice to enter the competition.
However, Bunnie didn’t find out that she and Ecko would actually be going until three weeks before the event. Burghley is an International Four Star Event only for experienced International horses. “We expected seasoned international riders with their second string Olympic horses would be the primary entrants, however they ended up taking the top 85 horse and rider combinations based on horse points earned by competing in other events world-wide,” explained Bunnie. “The point system is complicated and I didn’t even know where we stood, but we were accepted!”
The “Bunnie and Ecko” duo completed the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event (another of the six world-class three-day events) twice (2015, 2016). Upon returning from the Rebecca Farms CCI *** Three Day Event in Montana late July, Bunnie found a Burghley Acceptance Letter waiting for her.
“I had just three weeks to plan a trip to Burghley! It all came so quickly – the conditioning, planning and everything. It was a chance of a life-time and I didn’t want to pass it up,” Bunnie explains in regards to her reaction to the news.
First Phase Dressage at Burghley
Dressage was ridden in a beautiful setting on spongy grass with spectator risers all-around. Bunnie had been working Ecko out of the double bridle, and at Burghley she rode in a plain snaffle. The atmosphere was more electric than she and Ecko are accustomed to, but Bunnie was really pleased with her ride. Early in the test she realized she had under studded Ecko’s shoes, and he slipped a bit on the unfamiliar grassy surface. Bunnie was approached by BBC television for a brief interview following Dressage. Bunnie was all smiles and said,
“I’m just over the moon to be here. I’m really here to have a good time.”
Bunnie agrees with the commentators’ critique of her ride, even though it was her personal best on Ecko at a four-star event. “The commentators were right. Ecko needs more bend and more relaxation. He actually tends to think he’s in trouble when he’s in the Dressage arena. I have to be so careful with everything, especially how I apply my aids and prepare for each movement. He has not had a clean walk before. Now, putting him in the snaffle, he didn’t jig or even break at the walk. Ecko often starts running sideways before the flying changes, because he knows they are coming. Not this time though. He has come so far; at seventeen years old he has some arthritis issues, but he shows me everyday that he can still improve. He dropped 10 points from his last test!”
You can watch Bunnie and Ecko ride Dressage at Burghley here: http://vod2016.burghley.tv/ .
On the Formidable Burghley Cross-Country Course
Saturday was cross-country day and here, again, was an atmosphere Bunnie and Ecko are not used to. Lines hold back the thrilled crowd as horse and rider pairs gallop over hill and dale jumping massive cross-country jumps. Bunnie watched many riders go ahead of her, some of which had big troubles. The conditions went from damp to sloshy by the time she was galloping the course.
“Ecko did all the fences I was terrified of! I was so amazed,” exclaimed Bunnie, as she shared her Burghley cross country experience. She did have a great ride out there and treasures many moments.
“He was true to every line I set him on. That’s what he is really good at. He wants the job.”
Bunnie remembers many details about her ride. “The Trout Hatchery was probably my favorite because I had seen some difficult rides through the four-part water obstacle. I didn’t go the straight route. I galloped on and took the far brush option. He was perfect and has the speed to make up the time.”
Even though they tackled the many puzzles of Burghley, their cross-country ride ended just short of the finish line. “He (Ecko) stopped just five fences from home. It was a big drop, which I know he can do, but he just knew what was best at that moment.”
Bunnie knows why, and is thankful she still has a horse ready to take on another course. “Earlier on course Ecko had put in three strides out of a water crossing where he couldn’t see the last fence out. He overreached and pulled his left front shoe off. Almost from the start, I could feel his hind end slipping in the corners on course so with a front shoe off he became even more unstable. That’s why I took some of the longer options. I rode conservatively.
This is a four-star event and you can’t make a mistake. However, I definitely realized out there that THIS horse is a World-Class Horse!”
You can watch Bunnie and Ecko ride Cross-Country at Burghley here: http://vod2016.burghley.tv/ .
Lessons from the Past and Looking to the Future
Competing at Three-Day Events has been part of Bunnie’s life since her Pony Club days. I had the pleasure of riding at events with her in Pony Club and at local events in California through my college years. She continued to event even after marriage and kids.
“My comfort level was at Intermediate and two-star international events. When my youngest child, Maddie, went off to college, I liberated myself and moved up to Advanced/ three-star level,” explained Bunnie, as she talked about her progression as a rider.
A wife, mother of four, Pony Club DC and instructor, Bunnie realizes her responsibility to those around her. “I have ‘Mommy Brain’ which kicks in when I feel things like my horse slipping behind. I realize I want to still be riding when I’m 90; that I have four kids who need me around. It means I will never be as much of a go-for-it-rider.
Yet after Burghley, I realized I can do even more. It’s been an interesting growth experience.”
Traveling Overseas With Your Horse
So how do you make arrangements to get you, your horse, tack, feed and other equipment to another continent to compete in an international event? Well let’s just say, it ain’t easy!
“It was crazy to figure out everything in just three weeks. I ended up using Mersant an East Coast based company that really held my hand throughout the process. It was not cheap, but traveling that far never is, and they were so helpful,” explained Bunnie. “FEI (Federation Equestre International) and the USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) helped me find places to stay. People helped me along the way. You can’t just fly into England with a horse. We arrived in Amsterdam, traveled through France, then took a ferry to England. On the way back to Amsterdam, largely due to a demonstration regarding Refugees who hide under horse lorries to get into England, my daughter took a rail car under the English Channel with the horses.”
Packing was a challenge as travelers are charged by weight. “I had to consider what I could reasonably purchase there if needed, while realizing that everything is different,” explained Bunnie.
Traveling with a horse on an overseas flight is quite different from the open cargo planes used for flying horses in the States from one coast to another. “Ecko first went into a horse-trailer-like box which is then loaded onto cargo section of the airplane. Maddie got to ride with him while the other two grooms and I sat with the people. The passengers have no idea there is a horse or an elephant in the cargo! We were able to go to the rear of the plane and have a stewardess take us down to the cargo and see Ecko.”
Ecko traveled well, but did pick up an infection going into England. He finished his round of antibiotics the day before the Burghley event opened. Bunnie has her own set of limitations. She’s had double knee surgery and is fighting Lyme disease. Maddie, Bunnie’s 22 year-old daughter, trots Ecko in-hand for the soundness exams.
Bunnie Inspires Many Riders of all Ages
The responses to the posts on the Bunnie Sexton Shepherd Ranch Eventing Facebook page show quite clearly that Bunnie inspires all who come in contact with her. Her easy, bright smile and humble ways are formed from her hands-on approach to her horse and her riding. She truly enjoys what she is doing and in true Bunnie style she is pressing on for more. “I need to ride with conviction; because I am convinced we can do this. I’m going to go for it!”
Cover Photo: Chris Weigl – Chris took the time to meet Bunnie. her Santa Ynez neighbor, to capture the bond Bunnie has with her special horse Ecko. You can find more photos at Chris Weigl Photography.