Tuesday 21 January 2020

'I have to trust my instinct when it matters, when I need it most'

Aoife Clark's bright demeanour masks
 a competitive core, writes Aisling Crowe

"I'm hugely competitive but I try not to worry about what other people are doing." Irish eventer Aoife Clark at her stable yard in Middle Barton, Oxfordshire

Aisling Crowe

Aoife Clark is standing in the middle of the barn, beaming so much that later she will confess her cheeks and jaw ache but smiling comes naturally to the Kildare-born rider. Behind her, just out of the lens' focus, is Hollie Bradshaw, head girl at Clark's Oxfordshire yard, but for this moment horse wrangler to Jimmy, the gleaming black gelding in the stable behind Clark.

Jimmy, or Vaguely North to give him his official name, needs to be bribed into the right position for each shot, but the 14-year-old has quickly worked out that if he turns away, the bucket will be rattled and carrots, sweets and nuts offered to entice him back.

His intelligence razor-sharp, and his penchant for confectionery established, Jimmy is enjoying this game. Just a day earlier he won his first major competition since his comeback from injury, a success that thrilled Clark, Bradshaw and Flic Wright, the third woman on the team. Jimmy is on standby for the World Equestrian Games later this week but it is Ellie, the flame-coloured mare, which is on route to Normandy this morning along with Clark, her husband Simon and Hollie. Flic will remain in the Cotswolds tending to the other 11 horses, preparing Jimmy for the prestigious Burghley Horse Trials, a week after the World Equestrian Games, taking care of the dogs and Balloo, Simon's lurcher, which is due to whelp this week.

"I know, bad timing!" Clark exclaims with a smile as the mother-to-be languidly lies on the sofa, content with life. Clark has been wearing a warm smile for a long time now, and not just for the benefit of the camera.

The 33-year-old from Naas was an integral part of the Irish team that came fifth in the London Olympics, the best result for an Irish three-day event team. Clark herself finished seventh in the individual competition, her beloved Master Crusoe excelling himself and propelling the pair to new heights.

"It was brilliant to be going with a horse like him that you've brought on from the start. I really trusted him, I knew him inside out and I wanted to treat it as if it was just another competition. Riding into the main arena I could feel him puff his chest out and go this is it, he is such a showman and really rose to the big occasion and to jump two clear rounds on the last day was fantastic. He is a cracking jumper but to do it under that pressure . . ." Her voice trails off, still in wonderment at the magnitude of that performance.

Clark is not given to sentimentality about her horses but her affection for them is limitless and Paddy's (Master Crusoe) absence from her yard as he recovers from injury is a wrench.

"London felt like a home Games because there were so many Irish there. That was just the most amazing week. It was a childhood dream come true on a horse that I adore so much. There will never, ever be another one like him. You always have your horse of a lifetime and, no matter if there is a horse that completely eclipses anything he's ever done coming seventh in the Olympics, eight in Badminton, I know it might sound a bit cheesy, but he's like having a friend. We have come up through the grades together."

Eventing, with its three demanding and different challenges of dressage, cross-country and showjumping, places the bond between horse and rider under intense pressure. Trust between the pair is paramount in nurturing that relationship through the stages from young horse to championship contender

Clark's bright demeanour and friendly nature - her house is open, the way she and Simon like it and it's not unusual for her to walk into the kitchen and discover people gathered around the table - are the pretty exoskeleton on a steely determined inner core.

The dream that consumed her childhood was competing in the Olympics and once she tried eventing at 12 or 13, Clark could ally the dream with a discipline. Her parents insisted that she dedicate herself properly to earthly bonds of education, not the ephemeral ties of dream-chasing. With their wishes in mind, the teenage Aoife decided to become a vet. Applying herself with the same determination that she takes into training and competition, she got the necessary grades but was on the cusp of attending the course when an important realisation dawned. Veterinary medicine was meant to be her route to working with horses but it would never allow her the time she demanded to give the best of herself to both her career and her passion. Certain in her new-found knowledge, she switched to maths and classics before winning a scholarship for a post-graduate diploma at Smurfit.

Throughout her college years, she worked at bringing on young horses and once the educational requirement had been fulfilled, the dream of a career as a rider took hold.

Seven years ago, Clark took her horses to England to test herself against the best and see if she could compete. It was meant to be a brief examination, several months working, competing and training to discover whether she could become a professional eventer. A fateful meeting with Simon Clark, helicopter pilot and now honorary member of Team Ireland, has helped extend her stay further than she anticipated.

Another reason has been her success, with Fernhill Adventure winning a silver medal at the World Breeding Championships last year and Fenya's Elegance (Ellie) becoming the first mare to win both Blenheim and Bramham Horse Trials. The attention to detail required for such triumphs in a hard and demanding sport are in abundance in Clark. With a week to go before the World Equestrian Games, every precaution is taken to ensure the horses arrive in Normandy and Burghley in peak condition. "Going into this I prepare doing everything I can so that when I get there, it's basically like controlling the controllables and outside of that you have to trust your instinct. When it comes to the competition I have to trust that my instinct is right and there is nothing I can do about that right now so all the training will be done as best as I can and when I get there I just have to hope that I get a little bit of luck because you always need a bit of luck at these things."

Ten-year-old Ellie is taking a leap into the unknown this week, Normandy marking her graduation from the three-star ranks to the top level. A feisty mare with independent ideas about life, the World Equestrian Games will be her biggest challenge to date. It is also Clark's first time at WEG but the experience of London has given her the confidence to know that when the stakes are at their highest, she has the presence of mind required to win. "She is stepping up a level and as much as I would love to say we can reproduce that, it is a step up, it will be harder for her as she is still quite young at that level. If she wasn't going to Normandy her next step would be four-star so if she isn't ready now . . . "

There are no such questions over the rider and her temperament. Where Ellie is wayward, Clark is certain and knows how to coax the mare back to the right paths. "She has proven, time and time again, that she likes winning. I like winning, she likes winning so that makes two of us," she laughs. Jimmy is more straightforward but the sharp wit of both horses is what sparks the partnership she has with them and is matched by their drive and desire.

"I'm hugely competitive but if you start to worry about what other people are doing, you are not focusing on the horse you are riding and you might then start to try for unrealistic things. I'm pretty much tunnel vision, that is what I'm thinking on one horse and then I get off and I'm thinking about what's best for this horse, what can it do and how do I get it out of it. I'd like to try and keep it really level, not get awed by the situation or anything like that. Ultimately, I do my prep, then I have to trust my instinct when it matters, when I need it. I've done the training, the horses have the experience and we can only do our best and hopefully that will leave us in a medal position."

The steel and the smile could just lead to metal of a different hue for Aoife Clark in Normandy this week.

High hopes for travelling Irish

Ireland sends a strong team to this year's World Equestrian Games which begin tomorrow with the team dressage and para-dressage competitions. Helen Kearney and her horse Mister Cool won three medals at the 2012 Paralympics, including an individual silver, and the Wicklow woman will hope to add to her haul this week. Four riders will represent Ireland in the dressage with debutant Roland Tong the highest ranked of the team.

The thrilling eventing competition starts on Thursday and three of the team that achieved Ireland's best Olympic result represent the country again.

Aoife Clark, Joseph Murphy and Camilla Speirs were part of the side that finished fifth in London and Sam Watson, Sarah Ennis and Clare Abbott will be hoping to help Ireland achieve a similar level of performance in the competition which runs until Sunday.

Teenage sensation Bertram Allen leads the Irish showjumping team in the competition which dominates the second week of the games. The 19-year-old from Wexford won the Longines international Grand Prix at this year's Dublin Horse Show and chef d'equipe Robert Splaine will surround him with experience. Tom McGuinness and Helen McFarland compete in Thursday's Endurance race.

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