“He’s My Old Pair of Slippers”: Emma Thomas Takes Bramham’s Under-25 Title

Emma Thomas and The Buzz Factor. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

After a short but sweet morning session of showjumping here at the Defender Bramham International Horse Trials, we’ve crowned our third winner of the week: overnight leader Emma Thomas become the British Under-25 National Champion after jumping one of just two clears inside the time in today’s showjumping finale. She adds her name to a weeklong roll of honour that includes Kitty King and Vendredi Biats, winners of the CCI4*-S yesterday, and Rachel Littlewood and Fiancee, who took the win in the BE80 National Championship earlier in the week. And beyond that? Emma’s name goes onto a prestigious list of under-25 winners that includes Zara Tindall, Will Coleman, Piggy March, Astier Nicholas, Tom McEwen – and current CCI4*-L leader Tom Jackson, among others.

Emma’s win came after a first-phase score of 37.2 put her into fifth out of an original nine starters, while her other ride, Icarus, was seventh on a 41.9. But Ian Stark’s top-of-the-level tracks did just what they were meant to and exerted no shortage of influence on the leaderboard yesterday; at the end of the day, Emma would find herself down to one horse after retiring Icarus mid-round, but her first ride, The Buzz Factor, stepped into the lead after adding just 3.2 time penalties in the quickest round of the class.

Today, the 13-year-old Irish-bred gelding, who previously competed here in 2022 but picked up 20 penalties on cross-country, came out looking wholly unaffected by his exertions yesterday and jumped a classy clear – and one that came with no shortage of pressure, thanks to second-placed Cassie Sanger’s faultless round with Fernhill Zoro, which meant that Emma didn’t have a rail to spare.

But from the moment Emma jumped her first warm-up fence with him, she was filled with confidence.

“He felt so good and so sharp – even in the warm up, he was really quick off the floor, and then the atmosphere [in the ring] just lifted him again,” says Emma, who turns 25 next month. “He’s just amazing. We know each other so well – actually, he’s like my old pair of slippers! – and I just love jumping him.”

Emma Thomas and The Buzz Factor. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Emma, who stepped up to five-star last year with a successful run at Burghley with Icarus, has long held Bramham in high regard, but her luck here hasn’t always matched her regard for the event – in her two previous attempts at this class, she’s picked up cross-country jumping penalties, and in her CCI4*-S entry two years ago, she fell in the showjumping. To vanquish those demons, she explains, is a huge boost.

“It means a hell of a lot. I love Bramham, but I haven’t always been sure if Bramham loves me quite so much,” she laughs. “I remember watching Badminton as a kid on TV, and they’d always go on about this class in particular — if somebody won it and was going on to Badminton, they said they were going to be a star. So it really means quite a lot, actually.”

That certainly will have added to the tension as Emma rode up from the collecting ring – but she was determined not to let nerves become the architect of her day.

“All day I was saying to everyone, ‘please don’t tell them what I have or have not got in hand’,” she says. “I was obviously looking at the scores, but when I went in, I just wanted to get into a forward rhythm. And of course, when I heard everyone cheer that loudly [after Cassie’s round] it was like, ‘oh, god!’ Once I jumped the first fence, it was fine, but on the way into the chute, I was fairly nervous!”

Emma celebrates her winning round with The Buzz Factor. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Emma has a degree in Biology and had planned to become a Forensic Anthropologist, but has ‘accidentally’ become a full-time rider instead – and now, in her third season doing it professionally, she reckons she’s finding her groove.

“I never planned to do it full time,” she says with a grin. “It took me until this year to find my way with it a bit, because there’s obviously a lot more pressure on it when you do it full time. The first season, I  just put so much pressure on myself to do everything perfectly, and actually, that never pans out. I just let myself enjoy it a bit more this time, and I think that’s coming through in the results as well.”

Emma’s had Buzz since she was sixteen and he was five years old, and so their partnership runs remarkably deep – but even now, she says, she’s finding new ways to work with him and develop their joint education.

“He’s just kept going and he’s forged this whole career for me, and I’ve been lucky to be on some amazing programmes as well,” says the former Wesko Equestrian Foundation participant. “I’m in the Performance Mentoring Programme with Caroline Moore at the moment, and she gave me so much of her time last week to really make sure I nailed it this week – it was amazing.”

That help – and those all-important marginal gains – came, she explains, from a laser-focus on the finer details.

“We did a lot of test riding. I couldn’t do a shoulder-in on a straight line, apparently – it’s my least favourite movement,” she laughs. “But we really nailed my accuracy, and just in between the movements exactly what to do with him, because he can do a lovely test, and he did. Actually having a system to work with takes the nerves away from me, because I’m like, ‘I just do this here, this here, and this here’, while still being a little bit reactive.”

Cassie Sanger and Fernhill Zoro. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Nineteen-year-old Cassie Sanger finished her day with a faultless clear about Fernhill Zoro, earning herself the runner-up position in this class, and a clear with 1.6 time penalties aboard her first ride, Redfield Fyre, who took fourth place. With just six horses to jump in this class, it was no small feat to get two horses warmed up and ready to compete – even with some creative spacing left between rounds by the organising team – but even trickier, Cassie says, is the fact that her two horses couldn’t be more different from one another.

“It’s definitely been a juggling act, because especially they’re so different — they’re polar opposites,” she says. “I’m pretty used to it now, because they’ve pretty much been going at the same level since I’ve had them —  but actually, I found it pretty difficult today, because it goes so quick. It was like, a fifteen minute turnaround, and to go from the 17.3hh horse to my 15.2hh little guy… it’s so different! So I did find my eye a little bit funky today on Zoro, but he just jumped out of his skin.”

The height difference isn’t the only thing that makes the duo of geldings such opposites, she continues.

“Redfield Fyre is really funny — he likes to make the meanest faces to anyone. No matter if he loves you or not, he’ll try and bite you! He’s never really acted on that, but he’s just a grumpy guy until you ride him. And then the other one is so sweet in the barn. But riding-wise, they’re the same personality: they’re all heart and they just want to do their best.”

That heart helped both horses to climb after tricky first phases, making up ground as other riders in the class picked up faults over yesterday’s course.

“It was definitely a crazy ride. I came out there and I knew I was the last one to go [with Zoro], and I didn’t have the dressage I wanted at all, so that was a bit disappointing, and I had to get my head back in the game,” she says. “By the time I left the startbox I knew I had a chance to really make up for my mistakes, so I just went for it. It was a really hard course, and really big for him, but he’s just so gritty and he just does it for me. I’m really, really proud of how they both finished yesterday; definitely, they were tired but then they just came out so well and happy in their bodies today. So I’m really excited about that.”

Cassie Sanger and Redfield Fyre. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Bramham represents the culmination of Cassie’s sojourn overseas as part of the European Development Tour, which saw her cross the pond just before Badminton and base with Brazil’s Ruy Fonseca.

“I’m going back this coming week to America with the horses, and they’re going to have a vacation,” she says. “This was always my end goal; we were going to go to Chatsworth, too, but that got cancelled.”

Her month in the UK is the second trip she’s taken to Europe; she also enjoyed a stint on the continent last year, which finished with a successful trip to the Nations Cup finale at Military Boekelo.

“I’ve loved it. Every time I come over I feel like I’ve learned so much, because you’re at the biggest world stages with the best riders in the world,” she says. “You just watch and learn and I think that has been really important part for me.”

Isabel White and Icarus. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The entirety of the top three in this class actually remains unchanged from last night, and while Isabel White and Icarus didn’t manage a wholly fault-free round – they picked up 1.6 time penalties in their showjumping – they did leave all the poles in the cups, securing a podium finish on the gelding’s CCI4*-L debut and Isabel’s return to the level for the first time since making her debut four years ago.

“I’m absolutely thrilled with them,” beams the 25-year-old. “It’s such a big atmosphere, and for him to come out and jump like that – I’m over the moon. It’s definitely the biggest atmosphere he’s been in, but I think he loved it, and he loved the crowd watching him – he really rose to the occasion. He’s quite a timid character in the stable, but when you get on him, he comes to life.”

Isabel’s long-awaited return to the level is a welcome confidence boost as she continues to produce her string of horses as a young professional.

“I did a CCI4*-L a few years ago, but the horse had an injury — and obviously it takes so much time to get them back to this level. So I had to start again with young horses, and it’s really lovely to be back here and hopefully, come back again,” she says.

Tom Bird and Cowling Hot Gossip tipped two rails and added 2.8 time penalties to finish in fifth place, while first-phase leaders Molly Evans and Wellan Graffiti, the sole Irish competitors in the class, knocked four and added 2.4 time penalties to close the weekend out in sixth place.

The final leaderboard in the 2024 under-25 CCI4*-L.

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