The youngest rider in this year’s field is celebrating a first Defender Burghley completion.
Tom Bird, 21, who is based near Chipping Norton, has been a full-time rider since leaving school after completing his A-levels.
Rebel Rhyme, his Burghley entry, is a 13-year-old Irish-bred gelding by Yeats out of Fidachta Rebel. He is owned by David Kerry and Tom and was bought as a failed hunt horse when Tom was coming off ponies.
“He was taken to a hunt meet and was so excited he went over backwards, injuring his rider,” said Tom. “We bought him in 2018 with the plan of doing a few novices so I could gain some experience, but the horse has surprised everyone and here we are at Burghley.”
The pair has had a solid build-up to Burghley, with good finishes in three long format four-stars —18th at Kronenberg CCI4*-L in March, seventh at Ballindenisk CCI4*-L in April and second in Bramham's Under 25 Championship in June.
Defender Burghley’s dressage phase left Tom with a smile on his face and a score of 41.1 on the leaderboard.
“I wasn't sure how he’d cope in the arena, but he was great,” said Tom straight after his test. “I made a couple of mistakes in there, but I’m pleased with how it went generally.”
Across country the pair visibly gained in confidence after a mini miscommunication at the Holland Cooper Leaf Pit.
“I was held at the start, which wasn't ideal,” Tom explained after galloping through the finish. “Jumping down into the Leaf Pit, 'Hughey' landed from the B element [a brush spread] and was so with me he turned straight off my aids and ended up jumping the big bit of the angled brush [element C] to the left of the shoulder. He was very confused when I had to ask him to jump it again and I was a bit disappointed for him about that.
“He made fences like the Cottesmore Leap and the Dairy Mound feel well within his comfort zone. He was epic and just got better and better. I was literally on cruise control the whole way round. I'm ecstatic.”
Having sailed through this morning's horse inspection, Tom was still on a high.
“I did have a few tears last night after a good friend of ours rang and said, ‘The journey you have been on inspires normal people to get into eventing’. I’m so proud of Hughey and thankful to everyone who has helped me along the way.”
Asked about the horse’s showjumping prowess the rider was sanguine.
“He’s feeling great, like he could go cross-country again, but our showjumping has been a bit hit and miss in the past,” continued Tom. “I've done a lot of work with Chris Bartle and Andrew Thompson and think we have found a system that works for him.
“He struggles to connect and I have to let him go in a slightly longer frame. I can't go to my hand to shorten him because he hollows and can't make the shape over a fence, but as long as I trust the system, use my body to balance him and trust him to be sharp with his shoulders then he can jump well.”
It wasn’t to be a dream ending and Tom added 27.6 penalties to his final score over the coloured poles.
“It's just great to finish,” he said. “Hughey was jumping really well in the warm up and I think, to be honest, I went in a little bit nervous, a little bit quiet, and had the first three fences down which was my fault. I've never jumped in an atmosphere like that. It's disappointing, but Hughey picked it back up. Then I hit a really bad distance to a big oxer... but he actually made a good shape on the last day and it's a real achievement to complete. I'm very proud of him.”