The last few weeks have been eventful and just a touch emotional….
Regular readers will be familiar with the struggles Grace experienced out and about in the world. Everything held a different terror for her and I worked so hard to help her understand the world around her, even if sometimes I was floundering myself at the extent of the situation.
With Grace competing at a Freestyle/Heelwork to Music show back in March this year at 13 months old, she showed me that she was perhaps able to cope with such an environment – being placed second and first at her initial attempt at such an event.
I was incredibly surprised at how she coped, as I had feared the worst, despite witnessing significant and quite astounding improvements in her coping skills during the previous months.
Of course I feared the worst in the build up to the competition….despite the weeks and months of dedicated work – I always prepare myself to ‘hope for everything, but expect nothing.’ I reminded myself innumerable times that if I hadn’t have thought she could possibly cope, I wouldn’t have filled in the entry form and sent it on its way in the first place.
So with one competition under our belts, and a new Freestyle routine simmering away nicely, it felt like time to raise the stakes a little more, so I sent in a demo of our new routine to a competition called ‘Superdogs Live’ which was being held as part of the National Pet Show at the N.E.C. in Birmingham. I didn’t know whether we would be selected to compete at the show, but after an anxious wait, the email finally arrived telling us we had been successful!
Now the nerves kicked in for me; Grace on the other hand carried on as usual.
Would she freak out in front of an 800 strong audience? Would she be terrified of the crowds and weird and wonderful things she may encounter at a busy exhibition? Would she actually perform the routine we’d worked so hard on when we walked into the ring? Would she even walk into the ring….. or would the lights, music and atmosphere make her unable to focus?
So many questions for me, but I reminded myself of her progress and that if I didn’t believe that there was a strong possibility everything would be fine, then again, I wouldn’t have entered her in the first place. But even so, those doubts niggled away night and day ….
Saturday September 20 arrived and having been awake wince 4.30 AM and up since 5.30 in order to be at the N.E.C. at the required, incredibly early, time, Grace and I made our way into the exhibition. The last time I had been at the N.E.C. was Crufts, 2009.
This was the last time Chandi and I chose to compete, despite having qualified again in 2010 we withdrew as we were concentrating on our upcoming appearance on Britain’s Got Talent. We could have done both, but I decided many years before that we would only ever do a small handful of events each year. BGT, was more than enough for one year!
So with memories of being with Chandi at our last, but staggeringly superb Crufts where we set records by being the first team, and still the only team, to win all three Finals (HTM, Freestyle and International Freestyle) in the same year; first and only team to win both HTM and Freestyle; and first rescue dog to win any Final, I felt quite overwhelmed to be back without her, but with new kid, Grace by my side. Oh, and also accompanied by all my worries as to whether Grace would pull it off …..
After a brief look round the ring where we would compete later that morning in the semifinal of the competition, and handing over the show jump prop for our routine to the team organizing events, Grace and I made our way to the ‘green room’ a rather grandly named fenced off area where the competitors were supposed to wait until it was time to compete.
To make things as comfortable as possible for Grace, I had bought her a new crate which fitted onto a lug loader trolley onto which I piled the wooden show jump, my riding costume complete with boots and hat and a cold bag with Grace’s lunch. I had decided that I would transport Grace into the N.E.C. in total comfort (for her anyway) and ensure that she was safe and protected from anything that might frighten her. The crate would also double as a secure and private rest area for Grace while we waited for our turn to compete.
With the show now open to the public and filling up fast, it was almost time for the competition to start. Needing to take Grace outside to empty herself before we competed, I decided to see if she would walk through the crowds rather than pulling her in the crate on trolley arrangement. Full expecting to have an aborted attempt, I was delighted to see Grace walking confidently by my side as we weaved our way through the throngs. She didn’t bat an eyelid at anything – not a single pushchair, child waving large helium balloon, child carrying oversized stuffed pony, child that stupidly shot out a hand to touch Grace without first asking permission, people with carrier bags and all manner of other paraphernalia…. not for a second did Grace hesitate or come close to freaking out. She simply marched confidently by my side to the door and we went out into the fresh air.
Quite a result. I wasn’t counting my chickens yet, as I still didn’t know how she would cope in the actual competition with the music, potential applause from the audience and general atmosphere…. but there were definite signs of beaks pecking strongly from the inside of eggs …. and we didn’t have long to find out exactly how things were going to go…..
With me dressed in my riding costume complete with my Mum’s black velvet riding hat that she had bought when she was fifteen and her gold stock pin, Grace and I were waiting backstage, going through a few moves, before we were announced and had to enter the ring to perform our routine. Did I feel nervous? Despite my weeks of worry over how things would go, no I wasn’t. I felt calm, and focused just as I used to before performing with Chandi. One benefit from performing on live television in front of 14 million people that stayed with me, was that I totally lost any nerves that used to plague me so badly that I used to be close to being sick in the ring mid performance.
In the relative darkness of the backstage area, Grace looked up at me as I told her it was time. Getting into position, she was ready….and on we went.
Everything was going like clockwork…. I was even remembering to act my part and Grace totally nailed all the moves. But then came the risky part …. Grace had to move a distance away from me and knock down the show jump stands. She ran towards them and I threw my hands up in mock despair in anticipation of what she was about to do in our comedy routine – everything was going just as we had practised…..
But then Grace stopped dead in front of the stand, gingerly reached out her paw and prodded the stand with her toe nails, turned and shot me a look over her right shoulder which I clearly understood to say ‘I’ve never seen this before in my life and you want me to do WHAT???’ At that point the story of the routine was somewhat spoiled as I then had to stand and encourage Grace to knock them over rather it looking as though she was being naughty and doing it of her own accord …..but that was just too bad. Finally she knocked them over and we carried on with me praising her as we flowed through the next sequence of moves without a care.
Because we had wasted time getting Grace to floor the stands, there was suddenly silence in the arena as our music finished. We still had the final move to complete which brought the routine to a close and made sense of the whole story behind it. Undeterred, I carried on and sent Grace towards the jump. She flew over it and she cleared it I turned to the audience, looked them straight in the eye and punched the air with a grin on my face as I had finally succeeded in getting my ‘naughty pony’ to jump the damn jump. Suddenly the audience was back on my side and a roar erupted from them as Grace jumped!
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Grace jumping back over the jump towards me – something she had never done, or been asked to do in our rehearsals – but she looked delighted with herself as her mouth was hanging open in a huge grin with her tongue lolling to the side. She rushed to my side and we took three bows one to each side of the arena – on the third bow she sweetly crossed her paws – her choice – just as she did when we practised.
Both breathless, I asked Grace if she wanted me to pick her up and she jumped up to put her front paws on my arm. I scooped her up into my arms and whispered how clever she was. I didn’t know, or care at that point how the judges would mark our routine, given that we had slightly malfunctioned half way through – it didn’t matter to me. all that mattered was that Grace had focused and thoroughly enjoyed performing!
I knew why she had been uncertain about knocking the jump stands over….. and this was something I could easily overcome for future performances, by taking them to different locations and showing her that wherever they cropped up, she always had to do the same thing when asked: knock them down as hard and fast as she could. All the other moves we had practised in various locations from car parks to Church Stretton town centre, before choir practise in church, on the beach, but the jumps we had only ever used where we trained the whole routine, on the top of the Long Mynd. It’s not so easy to lug jump stands around and set them up, but this is what we shall be doing …..
Finally the judges scores were in and we had won the semifinal! Apparently our mistake hadn’t been seen as a huge problem…I was so glad I hadn’t given up but had just carried on and finished the routine. So we were through to the Final later on that day….and with a few hours to think about what had just happened…
Backstage once more Grace and I were warming up waiting to trot out into the arena. I was worried about the routine. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen this time when I sent grace to knock the stands down. There was nothing I could do now though. Before coming backstage we had found a piece of white plastic picket fencing and I had asked Grace to ‘go push’. She did. But would she in the ring?
On we went….the routine flowing seemingly effortlessly for Grace. We reached ‘that point’ in the routine I had been dreading. Grace ran at the stand. Would she or wouldn’t she? I trusted that she would and acted my part…..she did! Down went the one stand and then the other! I was so delighted! On we went to the big finale….. Grace flew over the jump and then it was all over and we were taking our bows, side by side.
We won the Final, but that, for me just meant my cake was well and truly iced. The day had been all about finding out if Grace, aged 18 months, would truly cope in such an environment. I had my answer. And I had it with a cherry on top.